Moscow needn't fret

  • 2000-10-26
  • Howard Jarvis
Throughout the summer many people in Latvia were anticipating Sept. 1 as a threshold as significant as the new millennium. Would life be fundamentally different somehow? Would such an event bring forth volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, a nationwide catastrophe? Would life ever be the same again?

But the much-anticipated 11 resolutions of the Latvian State Language Law took effect on that day with much the same anti-climax as Y2K. Seven weeks on, it is obvious that no great calamity has befallen Latvia's 700,000 Russian speakers, who have little or no knowledge of Latvian (about 30 per cent of the population).

No mass abuse of human rights has occurred, no "discrimination of ethnic minorities," as Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said it feared in dozens of statements and press releases on the subject.

Any visit to Latvia's capital Riga - where Latvians are a minority - will confirm that Moscow's generally hysterical claims that Russians are being cruelly repressed are deep within the realms of fantasy. Since Sept. 1, there have been no riots, no angry demonstrations, not a placard in sight.

A "hotline" set up by the left-wing parliamentary coalition For Equal Rights in a United Latvia to receive complaints at a "coordination center" has so far received minimal response.

Either Moscow misunderstands the meaning of human rights - while failing to inform its own citizens about the importance and application of human rights - or its statements, which grow increasingly desperate as they fall on deaf ears, are part of a premeditated propaganda campaign to discredit the Baltic states.

The Latvian language law governs the use of language in the workplace, at events and public meetings, the spelling of names and surnames in Latvian, documents, and so on. In the law, every type of public sector job has its own required level of proficiency in Latvian.

The rapidly growing private sector is only affected in cases where there is legitimate public interest involved in the job (for instance, so that a pharmacist does not sell laxatives instead of sleeping pills because he/she does not understand what has been asked for), or where the individual performs a public function delegated by the state by law (for instance, sworn notaries have their private business but they perform certain functions for the state).

Both Latvia and Estonia have introduced language regulations for the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speakers who arrived from all corners of the Soviet Union as industrial labor while the Baltic states were under Soviet occupation. Russian-speakers are now being told to pass language tests if they want citizenship.

In Lithuania, where they make up a far smaller percentage of the population, Russian (and Polish) speakers were granted automatic citizenship with independence in 1991.

Latvians and Estonians know that between the invasion of the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union in 1940, and again in 1944, and their declarations of independence ten years ago, it was their own languages that were being repressed. During the Stalinist period, most of those who did not speak Russian found themselves among the hundreds of thousands of Balts sent to Siberia.

The new language laws, they say, promote their languages, the position of which had weakened during Soviet occupation. None of the languages of the Baltic republics come from the Slavic language family.

The language law in Latvia has received the support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It replaces a Soviet-era law passed in 1989, now very much outdated. "I view the regulations implementing the state language law as being essentially in conformity with both the law and Latvia's international obligations," said the OSCE High Commissioner on Minorities Max van der Stoel on August 31.

The OSCE worked closely with Latvia to make sure that the law would not create discrimination. These are regulations, not restrictions. Employers are able to use their own judgment to decide on the standard of Latvian needed by their employees.

Before the law was passed, the OSCE made recommendations about the wording of some of the regulations, almost all of which were incorporated. Requirements were made less demanding.

For example, top government officials, university lecturers and doctors needed a "near-native language" level in the original draft of the law. They now have to have only something approaching an intermediate level. Many Latvian politicians now feel that the watered-down law is now not far-reaching enough.

The lack of any objection to the new language law seems to imply that ordinary people do not feel that it interferes with their lives. Prime Minister Andris Berzins has said that the regulations "protect the Latvian language and do not discriminate against others in any way."

A compromise has been reached between international standards and Latvia's unique situation - a "golden mean", according to Justice Minister Ingrida Labucka. The regulations may be viewed at the Latvian Justice Ministry's web site, at (Howard Jarvis is a freelance journalist based in Vilnius.)