Latvia finally passes minority convention

  • 2005-06-01
  • by Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Intense pressure from the executive branch and a 13-hour session were needed to convince Latvian lawmakers to ratify the Framework Convention on National Minorities.

Deliberations dragged on after repeated attempts by the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom party to obstruct a vote. Party representatives left the foreign affairs committee meeting and paralyzed passage of the convention for lack of quorum. Finally, however, the legislation moved forward after two other members of the ruling coalition were added to the committee.

The convention was ratified after 64 MPs voted in favor. For Fatherland and Freedom voted against, as did Leopolds Ozolins of the Greens and Farmers Union and Paulis Klavins from New Era. Minority-orientated parties chose to abstain from voting, as did one member of Latvia's First Party.

Latvia was the last post-communist EU member state to pass the international agreement.

Parliament also made the rare move of passing the legislation in a single day, with two readings. Some speculated that the haste was due to an upcoming visit by Rolf Ekeus, the high commissioner for minorities at the OSCE.

The convention was ratified with two reservations concerning language, and a declaration was attached stating that only citizens would be regarded as national minorities, creating confusion as to exactly how the convention would affect noncitizens' rights.

The first reservation states that national street signs will not be written in Russian, even in areas with a high concentration of ethnic Russians, as this would remind people of the Soviet period. The second reservation stipulates that only Latvian can be used in local government meetings.

These reservations predictably drew fire from the local Russian community and from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which has long stated that Latvia's failure to ratify the treaty was evidence that it did not respect the rights of its minorities. Lately Latvia and Russia have engaged in a propaganda battle that has raised many domestic issues to the international arena, including the Soviet occupation and the existence of Latvia's minorities as noncitizens.

"Latvia is among a small number of countries that did not ratify the convention on the protection of ethnic minorities until recently, and the only European country where the violation of ethnic minorities' rights is common practice," Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of Russia's State Duma international affairs committee, was reported as saying.

The nationalist party was similarly unimpressed with the acceptance of the international agreement.

"For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK sticks to its position that applying the convention too broadly to various groups of residents, without a clear understanding of minorities, in not in the interests of the Latvian people," the nationalist political party said in a press release.

But despite the raucous debate and the emotions on both sides of the political spectrum, experts said that many involved overstated the document's importance.

"Nothing will change with the ratification of the convention," said former Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks, a long-time advocate of ratification. He added that the weakly worded document left much room for interpretation, but it was still legally binding.

The Framework Convention is a binding agreement with the Council of Europe and will include regular monitoring and reports on the state's minorities. Ratification with reservations will likely be followed by a yearlong dialogue with the Council of Europe, a 46-member human rights body, and could result in the issuing of some non-binding suggestions.

Latvia was one of 10 member states that had not ratified the treaty, and only France, Andorra, Turkey, and Monaco have yet to sign.

The legislation will likely be passed to President Vaira Vike-Freiberga for her signaturesometime in early June.