RIGA - The Framework Convention on National Minorities could be ratified by the end of the year, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said in a surprising announcement on Nov. 22, just shortly after the country's right-wing party leaders said they could politically support ratification.
The decision marks a drastic reversal in government policy - from continued ratification obstruction to its advocacy - since the state signed the agreement nearly 10 years ago. The announcement came after Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, visited Latvia on Nov. 15.
"The president does not see any obstacles to ratify as of now," press secretary Aiva Rozenberga said, adding that ratification may reduce the number of international announcements concerning Latvia's minorities, and that the state's laws already corresponded to the convention.
International organizations such as the Council of Europe have repeatedly called on the Baltic state to ratify the convention.
Yet the sudden change caught advocates off guard.
"I was pretty surprised by the announcement," said Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks, a long-time supporter of the agreement. "This was the president's own initiative, and it may be the only way to kick-start a debate on [the subject]," he added.
Refusal to adopt the agreement as legislation was a mainstream viewpoint that, until recently, was shared even by the president. This led many to speculate that the sea change in elite opinion was brought about from the outside.
"It shows a lack of strategic analysis and therefore professionalism in our politics. It's an illustration that we are just reacting to signals from the outside," said Ilze Brands Kehris, head of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. Brands Kehris, who also supports ratification, said that the Baltic state had the opportunity to do so long ago, but chose to put the decision off.
However, government officials said the decision was made with consideration to the state's long-term interests and not on external pressure.
"This is connected with the formation of the new government and part of our long-term development," Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said, adding that he would work hard to see the convention ratified shortly - although with a few reservations. The foreign minister has said he would like to remove minority problems from the country's international agenda.
Indeed, ratifying the convention would go a long way in quieting international criticism from Western organizations and removing a propaganda prop for Russia.
But other experts say that little will change. Muiznieks has repeatedly said that all sides are exaggerating the effects of ratification, adding that the state could ratify with reservation on a few issues, therefore not enacting the most contentious.
Current issues that remain particularly thorny are the classification of minorities, minority languages on street signs in areas with large minority populations and the language used by residents when officially dealing with the local government.
However, the most difficult to solve will be determining who is a minority, as many have argued that the term should apply to only historical minorities and not those that arrived during the Soviet period. Estonia, in comparison, classifies only minorities who are citizens.
Estonia accepted the agreement in 1997, and Lithuania in 2000.
When Parliament will consider ratifying the convention is unclear due to the current turmoil surrounding governmental negotiations, which have dragged on for nearly a month now.
Ina Druviete, head of Parliament's committee on human rights, had previously said that a quick decision could split society. However, since the president's announcement, she has tentatively supported the idea.
Several older member states have also refrained from ratification, including Greece, Luxembourg, Iceland, Andorra and Belgium. The Netherlands is expected to ratify the convention soon, while France has refused to sign the convention since it would violate its own constitution.