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Sparse use of Latvian sparks protest in Daugavpils

Feb 28, 2002
Jorgen Johansson

RIGA - Complaints over the lack of Latvian used in Daugavpils have prompted President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to order an inquiry into language use in the mostly Russian-speaking city.

Aiva Rozenberga, the president's spokeswoman, said Vike-Freiberga received a letter from Latvians in Daugavpils who complained that too little Latvian is used in the city, which is Latvia's second largest with a population of about 140,000 people.

"In the letter they mentioned public events where only Russian was spoken," Rozenberga said. "One of the events was the New Year's speech by city Mayor Rihards Egils, which was in Russian without a Latvian translation."

Latvian novelist Anita Liepa, the author of 12 books, signed the letter.

"My biggest concern is that Latvian is not even a working language in everyday situations," she said. "No matter where you go, people speak only Russian."

Vike-Freiberga has responded with a letter to Egils asking for an explanation, as well as with letters to Prime Minister Andris Berzins, the Parliament and the State Language Center.

She has also asked the Presidential Language Commission to evaluate the situation in Daugavpils and come up with suggestions on how to improve the status of the state language there.

Agris Dimoska, the deputy director of the State Language Center, said the center will have a reply prepared within two weeks.

"The situation is not the best down there," she said. "A majority of officials in the City Council refuse to speak Latvian."

The center has strict penalties for violating the language law. Dimoska said penalties begin with a warning. Repeated violations could be punished with a fine from 50 lats ($78) to 100 lats.

"But it's not common with fines in Daugavpils because we don't have that many language inspectors there," said Dimoska, adding that the center does not have the administrative capacity to review all language law violations.

Daugavpils Deputy Mayor Livija Jemovskaja said she believed the language situation in Daugavpils was not much different than in the rest of the country.

"All City Council meetings and discussions are in Latvian and a majority of the council deputies are Latvian," she said. "This issue has been addressed as part of the upcoming (Parliament) election campaign. Our mayor is very popular and he is aiming for a seat in the Parliament. I think there are political forces fighting against him."

Peteris Cedrins, an author and translator living in Daugavpils, said there were very few efforts made to address the language situation.

"It's pretty awful, and in some areas I would say that it (the use of Latvian) is declining," he said. "The mayor, who is Latvian, doesn't even speak it."

Cedrins said that Latvian was also not being used by police in Daugavpils and that it had led to some tragic incidents because of communication problems.

"Police officers stormed into an apartment one time, but it turned out to be the wrong one, and because they could not speak Latvian with the people who lived there, they beat them all up," the author said. "When (Deputy Mayor) Jemovskaja says the situation is similar to the rest of the country here, she is lying."

Some people are trying to address language-use issues in the city. For several years Daugavpils has had a Latvian Language Center office where residents can study Latvian.

Silva Kucina, the director of the Daugavpils office, said the Latvian language study program was very popular.

"More and more people keep coming every year," Kucina said.

According to statistics from the center, there were 154 students last year. Sixty-six of them were teachers and school employees, 18 were police officers, fire fighters or customs officers, 35 were city employees, 29 were doctors or nurses, five were from NGOs and one was a journalist.

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