Leftists call for "non-violent" resistance

  • 2000-09-14
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Calls for "non-violent" resistance to new language law regulations put into place Sept. 1 have been labeled "stupid" by the chairman of the coalition from which they originated.

Speaking on state television on Sept. 10, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga voiced support for an examination of the protest resolution by the Constitution Protection Office. The Cabinet of Ministers earlier called on the Latvian population not to take up the protesters' tactics.

Janis Jurkans, chairman of the For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition, stressed that the resolution presented at a conference Sept. 4 calling for Russian speakers to resist the regulations, which govern language use in the workplace and elsewhere, was merely a draft and had not been adopted.

"This resolution plays into the hands of nationalist radicals. I personally consider it an act of stupidity," Jurkans said.

The target of the resolution was regulations by which the revamped language law is to be implemented. They stipulate six levels of Latvian language competence required for different jobs, rather than the previous three. Some private-sector workers will also be included in competence requirements, although the jobs involved have yet to be specified. Provision of Latvian language translation at public events is also covered.

Protest methods called for by members of the "Equality" wing of the coalition included boycotting companies which refuse to use Russian when serving customers, and boycotting television and radio channels which do not produce Russian-language programs.

"It's important to assess these resolutions," said Vike-Freiberga in a television interview broadcast Sept. 10. "If ethnic hatred is instigated or state stability threatened, then such appeals may well be crimes."

Her views echoed comments made by Peteris Elferts, spokesperson for the Cabinet of Ministers.

"Statements like this are detrimental to the integration process which has been occurring over the last ten years," said Elferts. "They build barriers and are themselves discriminatory."

The regulations were the result of a compromise between the part of the population whose mother tongue is Latvian and those who have another mother tongue, according to a statement issued Sept. 5 by the Cabinet of Ministers.

"They were worked out in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe," the statement read.

Dzintars Abikis, chairman of the parliamentary committee on education, culture and research on Sept. 8 asked Prosecutor General Janis Maizitis and the Constitution Protection Office to examine the activists' resolution.

Refuting the resolution, Jurkans insisted the coalition was pressing for compliance with OSCE's recommendations, rather than campaigning against the regulations per se.

OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel expressed broad support for the regulations in a statement issued on Aug. 31. But he cautioned that the list of private-sector professions to be included in language competence requirements should, in accordance with international standards , "be precise, justified, proportionate to the legitimate aim sought, and limited."

The government should also correct deficiencies in the regulations concerning translation at public events, the statement continued. Such regulations must serve "legitimate public interests," the statement read.

Jurkans' disavowal of the activists' tactics reflects the different political positions within For Human Rights in a United Latvia, said Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

"Calls to boycott stores are ridiculous, but challenging the regulations in court is fine," he said. "Their conference was designed to come to agreement on tactics. Boriss Cilevics, for example, was telling protesters to slow down. It's interesting that Jurkans has distanced himself from the radicals. For a while he seemed to be their captive."

Government delays in issuing the list of private- sector jobs which must meet language ability standards are unhelpful, Muiznieks added.

"Such delays give hope to the activists," he said.