Vike-Freiberga initiates further language changes

  • 2001-12-13
  • Jorgen Johansson, RIGA
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has proposed the abolition of requirements that those standing for election to public office hold top-level certificates in spoken and written Latvian.

The president said she believed the requirements were undemocratic and gave people of Latvian origin an unfair advantage over members of the country's minorities. Her proposal follows a similar move approved by Estonia in October. Her statement came on Dec. 6 after she met judicial and human rights experts at Riga Castle, where her office is located.

This panel of experts has now been asked by Vike-Freiberga to evaluate and assess existing legislation and offer amendments by mid-January.

The move comes after neighboring Estonia amended its own election laws to halt the barring of candidates on linguistic grounds, a move intended to ensure closure of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Estonia office at the end of this year. Estonia and Latvia both view the presence of OSCE missions in their countries as symbolizing unwarranted doubts about their democratic credentials on the part of the international community.

Both countries have now won the OSCE's broad approval for their treatment of national minorities, whose numbers grew as a result of Soviet-era settlement.

Nils Muiznieks, director of the Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, said he applauded the president's political courage and said the step could enhance Latvia's reputation abroad.

"I don't think the president's firm stance on this point was expected by the political parties. Some politicians have already painted themselves into a corner with negative statements. I think this issue will be exploited by the right-wing parties in the pre-election campaign."

So far reaction has been sparse. But unsurprisingly, the president's initiative is not going down well with the right-wing parties in the Parliament.

The People's Party and For Fatherland and Freedom both said they were critical of the president's views, while the liberal Latvia's Way said it would wait for a more concrete proposition from the president before issuing any statements.But Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins of Latvia's Way said he approved of the president's views and supported her.

"Latvian will remain the only working language in the Parliament, and there is no reason to fear for the status of the Latvian language," the minister said.

Internationally, Vike-Freiberga's move has won positive responses. The U.S. Embassy in Riga reported that the United States Committee on NATO was thrilled by the president's initiative.

"Passage of this important reform by the Latvian Parliament will be the last major step in confirming Latvia's impeccable democratic credentials and should lock in an invitation to join NATO at the historic Prague Summit," the committee's president Bruce P. Jackson said in a statement.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also reacted positively. Peter Semneby, head of the OSCE's Riga mission, said the president's initiative was brave, forward-looking and positive, something that would be reflected in the report he will hand to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna, Austria, on Dec. 20, where the future of the OSCE missions will be discussed.

"I don't think changing the law will bring any big practical changes for Latvia," Semneby said. "Latvian will still be the language used in the Parliament, so I don't see any problems."

Semneby declined to comment on whether Vike-Freiberga's initiative might be enough to clinch closure of the OSCE mission in Latvia. "This is up to the Permanent Council to decide," he said.

The only harsh criticism so far has come from the nationalist publishing company Vieda, which has become notorious for its extreme right-wing statements and essay competitions on the decolonization of Latvia by what it calls "civil occupants."

In an open letter to Latvia's Human Rights Office, Vieda director Aivars Garda recounted an incident in which he was unable to communicate with a Russian-speaking technician working for cable TV company Baltkom TV. Garda was told his order could not be met until a Latvian-speaking technician became available after several days.

"This is how far we have gone thanks to Vaira Vike-Freiberga and other servants of civilian invaders who are possessing Latvians from all sides," Garda wrote.

It is doubtful, however, that Garda will be taken seriously in the debate that is sure to follow.

"This is a matter that doesn't concern the people so much but more regards democratic issues," Semneby said.