Riga law school opens with royal pomp

  • 2001-03-15
  • Ilze Arklina
RIGA - Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Swedish Crown Princess Victoria graced the opening of the Swedish-financed Riga Graduate School of Law on March 7, which will give Baltic students an opportunity to study European law to European standards.

The school, which enrolled its first 20 students in 1999, "has already managed to put itself on the map of legal education in Europe," the school's board chairman, Erland Ringborg, said at the opening ceremony.

The law school, along with its neighbor, the Stockholm School of Economics, is financed by the Swedish government.

"The two schools in Riga are one of our most significant projects in the Baltic sea region," Sven-Eric Soder, the state secretary of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, told the audience.

Riga Graduate School of Law was founded in 1997, with the Swedish government owning 51 percent, the Latvian government 25 percent and the Soros Foundation Latvia 24 percent. The Swedish government will finance the school until 2008, and the parties intend to transfer ownership to the Baltic state's public or private entities after that date.

The Swedish government is granting the school 4 million Swedish kronor ($400,000) per year and the Soros-funded Open Society Institute in New York is providing $500,000 per year.

An annual allowance from the Latvian state budget is limited to the salary costs of local administrative staff and professors, as well as utility and building maintenance expenses - about 15,000 lats ($9,300) last year.

Last year, the Latvian government allocated 523,000 lats to compensate for value added tax paid during the school building's reconstruction.

"It was a challenge for us to undertake studies in a completely new school. We are happy that we took this opportunity," said one of the first 20 graduates of the school, Brigita Zvejsalniece.

This year, 39 students are enrolled. Seven come from Lithuania and only one from Estonia.

"The school is less known in Lithuania and Estonia, but I am convinced that the number of Estonian and Lithuanian students will increase," Ivo Alehno, a lecturer at Riga Graduate School of Law, told The Baltic Times.

Studies at the school are free of charge. However, the study program is so demanding that students do not have the chance to work during the year of study, administrators said.

Part of the opening ceremony was devoted to a one-day moot court competition between eight teams from five Baltic law schools - Riga Graduate School of Law, the University of Latvia, Business Institute Rimpak Livonija in Riga, Vilnius University and Concordia International University in Estonia.

The teams, which had only one month to prepare themselves, were to focus on a fictitious problem involving human rights issues in the context of European Community law.

"The case was very complicated," said Valdis Birkavs, a Latvian MP and former minister of justice, who followed the day-long debate. "I'm convinced that the majority of Latvia's lawyers would have lost to these students."

In a tough competition, beating the Vilnius University team in the finals, the team from Riga Graduate School of Law won the main prize - a study trip to the Stockholm office of the Swedish law firm Lagerlof and Leman.

Aleksandra Melesko from the Riga Graduate School of Law team was also nominated as the best advocate, and won an internship at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

"It was a tough case, because it was a combination of European law and human rights issues," Melesko, who first graduated from the Latvia University law faculty, told The Baltic Times.

She said her Master's degree studies at Riga Graduate School of Law were much tougher than those at the University of Latvia, where the approach to studies is completely different.

"Students are actively involved in the study process, so we have to read and prepare ourselves," she said.

The first runner-ups at the moot competition, Vilnius University's fourth-year students, said that the studies at their school are not too difficult. "We would like to be challenged more," said Ina Jakubenaite, a team member.

Alehno said that his school offers a Western-level education. "Demands at this school are really high," he stressed.

"The school tries to offer a European-level legal education so its graduates can be active in the European legal space," said Egils Levits, a judge from Latvia who sits on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. "I graduated from the University of Hamburg myself, so I can say that levels of education at the two schools are compatible."

The Riga Graduate School of Law building at 13 Alberta Street is one of the finest examples of Riga's famous Art Nouveau buildings. The residential building was designed by Mikhail Eisenstein (father of film director Sergei) and built in 1904.

The building was notorious for housing the oppressive institutions of various regimes, including the political department of the Latvian Interior Ministry in the 1920s and 1940s, and featured cameras on the top floor to monitor those arrested.

After World War II it became the headquarters of the Soviet border guard. In 1995, the building was purchased by the Soros Foundation Latvia and donated to Riga Graduate School of Law.