Language rules provoke protests

  • 2000-07-20
  • Anna Pridanova
RIGA - Approximately 500 people assembled in Esplanade Park around the monument of Rainis, the first Latvian national poet, to demonstrate against proposed regulations stemming from Latvia's language law. The state Language Center wrote the rules which are currently under review of the Cabinet of Ministers. The discussion of these rules started by Latvia's Russian press generated huge public interest.

The keynote of the rules' interpretation by Russians is discrimination against native Russian speakers in the labor market when the rules are approved.

But the tone of the rally differed from the main concerns of critics of the rules. Anna Stroy, reporter for the Russian daily Chas, , who first wrote on the state Language Center's work on the rules, said she did not like what was going on at the rally. This was not what they wanted to happen, but in the current situation, there is no other forum on what essentially concerns native Russian speakers.

"But this is better that spontaneous revolts, which could start on Sept. 1, when the rules are to be enforced," she said.

Time bomb

Tatjana Zhdanok, the leader of the political movement "Equality" and former deputy of the Riga City Council, who organized and led the event, started her speech with an appeal to journalists, both Latvian and Russian, whose work produces a "feeling that there are two different worlds in Latvia."

Next to the podium, near a mock mine with the inscription "the state language law," a dozen volunteers held posters condemning the rules. One said "The linguistic dictatorship leads to Kosovo." A preschool-age boy was holding a poster saying "I want to learn in Russian."

"We have only one concern - that our children not lose their native language. We want to preserve our Russian, being loyal to the Latvian state," Zhdanok said from the podium.

Several volunteers of different ages cleaved the crowd, collecting signatures in support of an appeal to international institutions to resume pressure on Latvia, because of its assimilative policy.

Some people jammed next to the podium, where the signature collection was ongoing. One woman filled several rows in the list, signing for her family. Some people asked what the letter said. From March 3 to July 1, about 57,000 signatures were gathered in support of the appeal. This time middle-aged people were relatively better represented than usual at such occasions, organized by left-wing forces. Some newcomers still asked what the rally was about.

Asking for dialogue

At a subsequent protest gathering on July 18, in front of the Cabinet of Ministers, Zhdanok said she did not understand why Latvia's highest officials did not talk to the rally organizers, but only interpreted their words.

The cost of the state officials' carelessness was their public condemnation, the photos of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Prime Minister Andris Berzins and Justice Minister Ingrida Labucka stuck to the mock mine, she said.

"What we have is a communication of a blind person and a deaf person," Zhdanok said.

"We do not protest about the state language, we do not require Russian to be the second state language. We protest against the rules, that sort out the youth," Zhdanok said.

According to Zhdanok, young people would feel separated, because the rules require graduates schools with instruction in a foreign language, including Russian, to pass a state language test if they want to apply for a job.

"We protest violent assimilation of our youth, against making them Latvians. They cannot discriminate against non-Latvians with the citizenship law, since [under liberalized law] all children born in Latvia will become Latvian citizens, so they use language," she said.

Forty people attended the July 18 protest. While Zhdanok was speaking to the journalists, the issue of Latvia's land belonging in ancient times to Russia was discussed among some supporters.

The general context of the marches organized by the human rights defenders was the eventual status of Russian non Latvians.

Still, the regulations spell the fate of all foreign languages in Latvia.