Latvia's sword of Damocles?

  • 2000-09-14

Ten years on, Latvia's ethnic Russians have come to terms with the country's independence, but the sticking point, they say, is the language law, if you get a little too uppity. Nick Coleman reports.

In February 1997 Antonina Ignatane's name was struck from a list of candidates to stand for election to Riga City Council. Her Latvian language skills did not meet the required standard, according to the State Language Center, even though as head teacher of a secondary school, she had a top-level Latvian language certificate.

The problem was, she was a troublemaker, says Ignatane. She had led a campaign against the closure of her school, public school No. 9, where Russian was the medium of instruction.

"The electoral commission remembered my resistance. So I had to sit a language exam," she said. "They knew the mark they were going to give me beforehand."

Ignatane now awaits a judgment from the United Nations' Human Rights Committee in Geneva, with whom she has registered a complaint.

"I don't speak Latvian fluently, and of course a councilor needs to speak Latvian well," she said. "But I read Latvian newspapers. I'm a skilled person."

Her indignation is one example of the tension surrounding the establishment of Latvian as the state language in a country where, according to the Central Statistical Office, ethnic Latvians made up 55.6 percent of the population at the beginning of 1999 and where they are a minority in the capital city.

The focus of some ethnic Russians' protests is now the state's revamped language law which came into force Sept. 1. The law stipulates the level of Latvian language ability required different types for state and some private-sector jobs. Provision of translation at non-governmental public events is also regulated.

The state is using "threats and fines" to motivate people to learn Latvian, said Ignatane.

"But as long as there are people who think and speak in Russian there should be a bilingual society," she said.

An example of state repression is the 100 lat ($161) fine imposed on the Latvian Youth Club this summer for language mistakes in its publicity material, said Alexey Dmitrov, a 19-year-old law student who advises the club.

"I don't think our mistake justified such a large fine," he said.

"The Latvian leaflets were translated from the Russian ones because most of our members are Russian. Some of the translation was overly literal. Because the leaflets were up all over town, the club chairman told the language inspectors they couldn't be withdrawn. But we were trying to provide information in Latvian. Professionally produced translations are expensive."

Having unsuccessfully appealed against the fine to Riga District Court, the next step might be the European Court of Human Rights, said Dmitrov.

Without sufficient provision of language learning opportunities people cannot be expected to speak Latvian, said Tatyana Favorskaya, head of the Russian Community of Latvia.

"These laws hurt ordinary people," she said. "For example, the employment service where I work doesn't send the unemployed on language courses. Without knowing the language you can't get a job. Russians want to learn Latvian but they lack the opportunity."

But the task of teaching everyone Latvian is enormous, says Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

"In 1989, at the time of the last Soviet census, a million of the country's 2.6 million population did not speak Latvian," Muiznieks said.

In 1995, when the Adult National Program for Latvian Language Training was launched, "there were few decent textbooks, few trainers and no methodology," he said.

The cost of providing training free on demand would be prohibitive, Muiznieks says, so the program has focused on those whose jobs were endangered by poor Latvian knowledge, such as teachers, police, prison guards and border guards.

State funding of language training stopped in 1992 and since then has been funded with international donations through the United Nations Development Project.

The sections of the law regulating language ability in different jobs should be challenged, Muiznieks says.

"I still foresee a lot of litigation. Why a roofer in a state company needs level two Latvian I don't know," he said.

But not all ethnic Russians oppose the language law.

"Russians who have citizenship don't care. I have everything already. Having citizenship is a matter of principle," said Olga Rubenchik, a teacher of Latvian at a Russian school.

Pupils are keen to learn Latvian when they enter her classes, she says.

"First grade pupils don't resent having to learn Latvian. They're enthusiastic. But resentment appears when their Latvian ability affects the career choices they start making in the ninth or 10th grade."

Rubenchik's seeming indifference to the language law is probably typical of attitudes in the Old Believer community, established by those who left Russia in the 17th century to avoid changes to the Russian Orthodox Church made by Peter the Great.

"People should learn Latvian if they want to achieve anything," said Veronika Kulneva, an accountant and Old Believer who highlights differences among ethnic Russians.

"This is my homeland, its lakes, rivers and fields," she said. "Russians who came here after 1940 don't consider Latvia to be their motherland."

But Kulneva sympathizes with older people for whom the law may create difficulties, particularly due to the state no longer being obliged to accept documents written in other languages.

"It's harder for pensioners to learn the language," she said.

"The state should provide them with help filling in forms."

But the state seems convinced of the fairness of the new law.

"Only an integrated society ensures civic peace and mutual understanding. This will follow closely from the Law on Official Language," read a statement from the Cabinet of Ministers issued Sept. 5.

Latvia's many ethnic groups will continue to have access to schools where their own language is the medium of instruction, says Peteris Elferts, spokesman for the Cabinet of Ministers.

"Education in Latvia is provided in eight different languages including Roma," he said. "Not too many countries provide that."

But the state's integration program actually suppresses Latvia's multicultural reality, says Boriss Cilevics, MP in the For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition. The language law will not generally be applied in places like Daugavpils, where ethnic Russians are a large majority of the population, he says. But it will be used by those with influence who want to harm people for other purposes, he says.

"The language law is a sword of Damocles for punishing people when you want to. If you're a good guy they won't use it," Cilevics said.

But a strong language law is essential if the linguistic and cultural colonization of Latvia by the Soviet Union is to be reversed, said Juris Sinka, Fatherland and Freedom MP, one of those for whom the law is too liberal.

"Latvia seems unable to tell those who entered the country illegally under Soviet occupation that they have to learn our language and meet other requirements before they can get citizenship," he said.

"Families of Latvian deportees living in terrible conditions in Siberia get no Latvian education. Here we expect respect for our culture and language. Some used to call Latvian the doggy language. Now Russians have to make an effort to learn the language."