RIGA - Parliamentarians on May 6 voted not to send the Framework Convention on National Minorities to committees for further work and eventual ratification, making Latvia the only EU accession country declining to ratify the document.
Fifty-nine MPs voted against the motion, while 20 from left wing parties supported it. Nine members of Latvia's First Party and Parliamentary Chairwoman Ingrida Udre abstained.
Despite the fact that Latvia signed the convention on minorities upon its 1995 creation in Strasbourg, little progress has been made on ratifying the document. However, many politicians, including the president, are quick to downplay the foot-dragging and point out that minority protection is already enshrined within existing legislation in full.
"We are going to ratify it but only after careful consideration," said Ina Druviete, head of the Parliament's societal integration subcommittee. "There are three points of the convention that are currently under consideration: Article 9, 10 [and] 11."
Articles 9 and 10 specifically deal with giving and receiving information from the government in a minority language. Currently, official correspondence between government officials and citizens takes place only in Latvian. Those who do not know the language use official translators.
The adoption of Article 11 would allow the use of minority languages on street signs in areas with a high density of that minority.
"We are proceeding with this, and we should," Artis Pabriks, head of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, told The Baltic Times. "We need to have a broad discussion of what this means and also to establish the areas that we will ratify with reservation."
"We want to unify society, not divide it," Druviete said.
Latvia certainly does not stand alone as the only country in Europe to have problems with minorities or to have failed to ratify the convention after nearly 10 years. France, Greece, Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Georgia, Turkey, Luxembourg and Andorra have also not ratified the agreement.
In fact, the intransigence of other West European countries makes it more difficult to convince Latvian lawmakers of the need for ratification, said Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks.
"I see no legal obstacles. The problem is political, not legal," Muiznieks said. After recently completing a study on the practical implications of the framework, Muznieks' ministry found that little would change if the agreement were ratified.
Two main points holding up ratification are a lack of consensus as to who qualifies as a minority and a fear that leftists will attempt to use the convention to challenge existing language laws, Muiznieks explained.
Still, the integration minister has supported approving the agreement provided that certain elements - such as the use of minority languages on street signs, which would work against the spirit of the agreement by reminding Latvians of the Soviet period - are not applied.
However, some left-wing MPs see prolonging debate and discussion as merely a way to avoid accepting the convention at all.
"In my view it's crystal clear. It's pure propaganda. Our right-wing parties believe that if the convention was ratified, it would be perceived as a concession to minorities," Boris Cilevics of the center left National Harmony Party said.
"Our party's position has not changed: We support ratification of the convention as soon as possible and with no reservation," he added.
Many of the stories currently appearing in the international media have focused on Latvia's upcoming education reform and on alleged violations of minority rights. Signing the agreement, even if it changes little in the way of legislation, would remove a propaganda tool for part of the vocal opposition, proponents of the convention say.