• 2001-12-13
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has come up with another initiative to make headlines, spark political rhetoric and dominate conversations for months.

The suggestion to abolish the Latvian language requirements for all citizens running in parliament elections is an extraordinarily hot political potato, especially because of the looming fall 2002 elections.

The president will discuss the issue again with her panel of experts in January. But now that the topic has been broached, a signal has been sent to the rest of the world that Latvia is ready to stop dividing its citizens by language proficiency.

Latvia has been upstaged by Baltic neighbor Estonia, who recently changed a similar, slightly stronger, provision in its election law in order to get the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission out of the country.

Latvia wants the organization out just as much as Estonia. Because OSCE missions - which monitor the democratic processes and assist in conflict solving - are only stationed in transitional countries with fragile democracies the office here reflects badly on Latvia's reputation.

Despite OSCE's high appraisal of treatment of minorities in Estonia and Latvia, and the fact that the organization is now mainly involved in fund rising activities to promote integration of non-citizens, the governments still want the missions to go. If the OSCE withdraws, local officials feel the move will shake the foundation of Russia's claims that ethnic Russian-speaking minorities are mistreated in the Baltics.

But it will be difficult for Latvian politicians to support the president's initiative in a heated pre-election atmosphere.

Language has been the most divisive topic in the integration debate. Latvians, whose language was out of official use for the 50 years of Soviet occupation, developed a bitterness at the general lack of knowledge and open disdain directed towards the Latvian language by Russians. Many Latvians may feel a relaxed language requirement for parliamentary politicians may lead to Russian becoming a second state language, a situation intolerable to many. Politicians can't afford to ignore the general public's opinion, or the brownie points a pro-Latvian language stance would earn in the upcoming elections.

Already Russian has become the unofficial working language in the Riga City Council, where 15 out of its 60 members are Russian-speakers with a limited command of Latvian.

But segregating Latvia's citizens by which language they speak is wrong.