On May 26, the Latvian parliament ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The Russian government is denouncing Latvia’s move vociferously in the mass media and international organizations, on the grounds that the Latvian parliament has attached two reservations and added a definition of the concept of “national minority.” In so doing, however, Latvia followed the procedure used by many other European countries when ratifying the Convention. That document does not define the concept of national minority, and allows wide leeway for individual countries to take account of their specific circumstances by introducing reservations and a definition of national minorities when ratifying the Convention.
The Latvian parliament’s vote was 64 in favor and 9 opposed, with 19 deputies from leftist Russian parties not voting. The score reflected a broad consensus among Latvian parties as well as the split along “national” lines in the parliament.
The two reservations stipulate that only the Latvian language (i.e., not Russian) may be used for street signs and in the communications of local government authorities. This approach does not set any special arrangement for areas with a high proportion of non-Latvian residents.
The ratification law defines members of national minorities as “citizens of Latvia who differ from Latvians in terms of their culture, religion, or language, [whose families] have traditionally lived in Latvia for several generations, regard themselves as identifying with the state of Latvia and its society, and wish to maintain and develop their culture, religion or language.” This definition means that in Latvia — as in many European countries — non-citizens are not recognized as constituting separate national minorities. In Latvia, an estimated 70% of Russian/”Russian-speaking” residents have thus far declined to apply for the easy-to-get citizenship, despite the authorities’ active promotional campaigns encouraging non-citizens to apply for naturalization.
Among European Union and NATO member countries, France and Turkey never signed the Convention, as they do not recognize any national minorities; Belgium, Greece, Iceland, and the Netherlands signed but have not ratified it. Belgium signed with the reservation that the terms of the Convention shall not affect the existing legislation on use of languages; Latvia has handled this issue similarly in ratifying the Convention.
As a rule, ethnic and language communities that are historically settled in a country meet the criteria for recognition as national minorities. In most European countries, resident non-citizens and post-World War II immigrant groups are not recognized as national minorities. Latvia follows a similar approach. However, Latvia’s citizenship law is among the more liberal ones in Europe, requiring only an elementary language and civics exam for naturalization. The rate of success at that exam was approximately 85% overall in the last 10 years.
Senior Russian officials have attacked Latvia’s qualified ratification of the Convention as “sacrilegious” (Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov), “great stupidity (bolshaya glupost), anti-democratic, anti-European” (Ella Panfilova, head of Russia’s Presidential Commission for Human Rights), “proof that Latvia is not a European country” and is “moving toward Nazism” (Federation Council International Affairs Commission chairman Mikhail Margelov), a reflection on “uncivilized Latvia” (Federation Council Constitutional Law Commission chairman Yuri Sharandin). These and other Russian officials are now urging the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the UN, and the European Union to censure Latvia.
At present, Latvia has nearly 450,000 resident non-citizens, mostly Russians; some 34,000 resident citizens of other countries, mostly of Russia; and slightly less than 100,000 naturalized citizens, also mostly Russians, out of an estimated population of 2.3 million. The number of citizenship applicants was low year after year, but this has changed since 2004, thanks to Latvia’s accession to the European Union. That number almost doubled to 23,000 in 2004 over 2003, and the monthly rate in 2005 averages 2,000 thus far. At this rate, the Naturalization Board predicts, the number of non-citizens will drop to approximately 130,000, by 2012-2013. Moscow’s inflammatory rhetoric appears designed to frustrate this natural evolution.
(BNS, Interfax, May 26-31)