MOSCOW OVERPLAYS ITS HAND ON LATVIAN LANGUAGE LAW.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 231

On December 9, the Latvian parliament adopted the final version of the law on the state language, incorporating changes which had been sought by the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and– pro forma at least–by Russia. Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga had supported most of those changes and vetoed an earlier version of the law, returning it to parliament for reconsideration last July amid intense political controversy. The final version passed 52-26, with the two main governing parties–People’s Party and Latvia’s Way–in favor, the rightist-conservative Fatherland and Freedom abstaining, and the leftist-nationalist Social Democrats and leftist-pro-Russian “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” voting against the law in its present form.

The main intent of the law is to address the effects of the forced linguistic russification of the Soviet era, to protect the Latvian language–which is still marginalized by Russians in Latvia’s cities–and to prevent the emergence of a binational Latvia. The law regulates the use of the state language–Latvian–in the public sphere and to some extent in the private sector in situations described as affecting the interests of society as a whole. Those situations include public gatherings, announcements and advertisements, official record-keeping and communications with government authorities, and the interactions of private firms with the general public. In these situations, the use of the Latvian language or at least the provision of translation into Latvian is required (BNS, December 9-10). The changes to the final version amount to concessions to the Russian language in the private sector, in situations deemed as a matter of principle immune to state interference in liberal democracies.

The European Union’s Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen, the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel and the Council of Europe’s Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer in separate statements described the revised law as conforming with their respective organizations’ standards and with Latvia’s own commitments under international human rights pacts. They took the view that the law in its final form strikes the right balance between protecting Latvia’s national identity and complying with European norms (BNS, LETA, December 10-11). The three organizations, with van der Stoel’s office in the lead, had gone a long way toward accommodating Russia’s position on Latvia’s citizenship and language legislation. United States ambassador James Holmes conveyed a congratulatory message from Washington.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry denounced the revised law and launched an attack on Latvia in a special statement which is unprecedented in three ways. First, for pronouncing inadequate and “unacceptable” the revisions it had professed to seek together with the European organizations. Second, for asking the European Union to “reconsider” a country’s quest for membership–Latvia’s–on the grounds that it “discriminates against” ethnic minorities. And, third, for linking the language issue with other sequels of the Soviet past, for which the Russian note appeared to take a stand. Thus the document condemned Latvia’s decision to stop recognizing as of January 1, 2000 the Soviet passports which many resident Russians still use; demanded a stop to investigations against former NKVD and KGB agents who, the Russian note said, are being “persecuted on the basis of fictitious accusations;” and–dragging in Estonia–warned that “one million” stateless Russians risk being driven out of the two Baltic states in a possible “humanitarian catastrophe” (Itar-Tass, December 10). This latter point would seem to reflect frustration over the failure to elicit from the recent OSCE summit an antistatelessness formula which would have enabled Moscow to press for blanket naturalization in Latvia and Estonia.

Vike-Freiberga termed the Russian statement “grossly uninformed” and “offensive to international organizations and officials, in view of the fact that these have rated the language law favorably.” Foreign Affairs Minister Indulis Berzins focused on the first overt attempt–contained in this Russian statement–to object to a country’s movement toward the European Union. This development, according to Berzins, reflect the overall deterioration in Russia’s relations with the West. He urged the European Union and NATO to speed up accession negotiations with Latvia and the other Baltic states, as a demonstration that these states are out of Moscow’s sphere of influence. The EU has just placed Latvia on the fast negotiating track, along with Lithuania and Estonia (see the Monitor, December 13).

Foreign Affairs State Secretary Maris Riekstins called in the Russian ambassador for remonstrations against Moscow’s attempt to hinder “the integration of Latvian society, Latvia’s candidacy to European Union membership and the enlargement of the European Union itself.” Russia’s appeal to the international community, moreover, “seems incomprehensible at a time when Russia itself ignores that very community’s position regarding gross human rights violations in Chechnya.” The ministry urged Moscow to find a political solution there and avoid further human casualties. The ambassador, Aleksandr Udaltsov, insisted to local media afterwards that the law did disregard van der Stoel’s original recommendations and “it is his business if he has welcomed it” (BNS, LETA, December 11, 13).

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