Private sector language regulations adopted

  • 2000-11-30
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - The Latvian government has approved new regulations stipulating the level of Latvian language ability required of people in certain private-sector jobs.

Although the regulations are not yet published in their final form, a probable requirement that taxi drivers be able to use Latvian moderately well was described as "ridiculous" by the leader of an opposition parliamentary faction. A prominent human rights campaigner gave the regulations a positive appraisal. But other parts of Latvia's revamped language law still fall short of human rights standards, he said, suggesting that Latvia has not heard the last from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been closely involved in the framing of the new law.

The private-sector job regulations are considered the final element in the language law, which came into effect on Sept. 1, 2000. Among other things six categories of language ability are established, as opposed to the previous three. Various medical professions are covered by the private-sector regulations, as well as lawyers, notaries public and chief accountants, at the top end of the scale, and public transport conductors and taxi drivers lower down.

The regulations are in line with international standards, said Nils Muiznieks, director of the Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in Riga.

"I congratulate the authorities on having made a short and reasonable list," he said. "There are individual small points in the regulations that will have to be revisited, some questions concerning how they are applied."

The government appears to have followed the principle that the regulations should only cover professions where a legitimate public interest is served by a person having a certain level of competence in the state language, a principle endorsed in August by Max van der Stoel, high commissioner on national minorities at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But echoing Muiznieks, Janis Jurkans, MP from the For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition, criticized the probable inclusion of taxi drivers in the law's 2A category (lower intermediate level) alongside such jobs as nurses and telephone operators.

"These regulations have my approval, but with a big but," said Jurkans.

"The professions have to be included, but I haven't seen a country where taxi drivers speak the local language decently - New York, Copenhagen - it's ridiculous."

While the potential for state language inspectors to abuse their powers has been reduced, there will still be problems, predicts Muiznieks.

"The law gives the inspectors less room to maneuver in interpretation," he said.

"But their record suggests there will be problems. They tend to be over zealous in enforcement."

In his August statement, van der Stoel wrote that "certain specific matters will have to be reviewed," in order for Latvia to meet its commitments to respect the rights of national minorities, commitments enshrined in the Council of Europe's Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, which Latvia signed in 1995, but has yet to ratify. Ratification of the treaty is likely to be a central consideration in any decision to close the OSCE's mission to Latvia.

Peteris Elferts, press secretary at the Cabinet of Ministers, declined to say when Latvia will ratify the treaty, claiming that Latvia's social integration program and ratification of the treaty "don't necessarily support each other." Creating new language and citizenship laws has been a top priority for the government, said Elferts. Winning support for the reforms from the coalition government's various members has required "the utmost care," he said.

Latvian law currently contravenes the spirit of the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities in a number of respects, said Muiznieks. The treaty states that members of minority groups should have the right to address municipal authorities in their native language in areas where their numbers are sig-nificantly high. Currently, residents of areas of Latvia predominantly inhabited by ethnic Russians don't have this right. Laws regulating language use by privately-owned radio and TV stations also contravene human rights standards held by European Union member countries, said Muiznieks. Van der Stoel's work in Estonia provides a good indicator of the issues he is likely to raise with the Latvian government in future. In Estonia he has criticized laws requiring candidates for public office to meet the top language ability standard, calling them "unreasonable." Latvia may be forced to change similar legislation if a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights by a former parliamentary candidate who was disqualified from standing is successful, said Muiznieks.

But Jurkans doesn't oppose language requirements for prospective holders of public office, despite some members of his coalition having been at the forefront of opposition to the language law.

"The language knowledge of some Latvian MPs leaves much to be desired," he said.

"Not all would pass the test if they had to sit it. It's stupid of political parties to select candidates for parliamentary or municipal elections who don't understand all the documents."