A high-ranking official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has ignited a political maelstrom after suggesting that Russian should be Latvia's second official language.
During a conference March 20 devoted to cooperation between Latvia and the OSCE, Gerard Stoudmann, director of the OSCE office for democratic institutions and human rights, said it would be logical to legally make Russian an official language.
"Just look at the newsstands, at the names of shops on the streets and you see Cyrillic and Latin characters everywhere," Stoudmann told a handful of reporters during a break in the conference. "You look at the newspapers that are available, and you see what is the de facto situation. Why not confirm this de jure?"
The statements caused an uproar among top Latvian officials, including President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Prime Minister Andris Berzins, and drew condemnation from foreign diplomats and the OSCE itself.
Berzins called for his resignation.
OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus, who was also in Riga for the conference - organized by the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies - said Stoudmann's remarks didn't reflect OSCE policy.
"We don't support the idea of another official state language," Ekeus said. "But we also don't believe that Latvian's status as the official language should come at the cost of a minority language."
Politicians fear Stoudmann's comments will reinforce fears among many in Latvia that international organizations are pressuring the country's government to ease language and citizenship requirements.
Latvia is currently grappling with changes to the election law that would scrap language standards for candidates and require only citizenship.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson said in Riga last month that the change would help Latvia's chances to get in NATO.
Peteris Elferts, a top Berzins aide, said people should understand that Stoudmann was uninformed.
"He had never been here before," Elferts said. "He has little or no knowledge about Latvia."
Boris Cilevics, an MP in the left-wing party For Human Rights in a United Latvia who also attended the conference, said Stoudmann's reaction were typical of any European person walking the streets of Riga.
"The Russian language is widely used in Latvia and should be given some sort of official status," he said. "This is a hysterical reaction from Latvia's officials."
Cilevics said Berzins' reaction was "a pre-election outburst" to revive his party's poll ratings.
"Our language policy has become a sacred cow in Latvia," said Cilevics. "But our politicians will still make the amendments to the election law."
Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins said introducing bilingualism in Latvia would mean "the destruction of everything we have done in the past 10 years."
In the days following the statements, several foreign diplomats questioned Stoudmann's remarks."The issue about state language in Latvia is decided only by Latvia itself," the European Union presidency said in a statement.
Since the interview, which was taped by Radio Free Europe, Stoudmann issued a statement that he said would correct the "misinterpretations" of his comments.
"The remarks I made should not be interpreted as a recommendation or an official position of the OSCE, or me questioning the status of Latvian as the only state language," he said.
"Rather they should be seen as my personal reflection on the issue," the statement read. "I wish to stress that my intention was never to suggest that Russian be made the second state language in Latvia, or that this issue was on the agenda."
Russian officials seized the moment to criticize Latvia's language policy.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that while "insisting on the existence of only one state language, the Latvian authorities are unwilling to acknowledge the legal rights of the massive Russian-speaking minority to use its native tongue in line with European standards."
In a nationwide poll conducted by the research firm SKDS in February, 44 percent of respondents said they believed that the Latvian language is threatened.
The poll showed that respondents with a higher education were more concerned about the Latvian language.
Stoudmann's comments couldn't have come at a worse time for politicians in favor of amending Latvia's election law, which has met with resistance among senior MPs in the ruling coalition.
The prime minister has all but guaranteed visiting diplomats that the law will be passed by the end of the summer.
Guntars Krasts, chairman of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, has opposed drastic changes to the law and says Stoudmann's comments will be used as political fodder.
"I think the Latvian population will see amending the election law as a threat to the Latvian language," he said. "Along with pressure from NATO and the EU, Stoudmann's statements will have a large impact on the future.
"People here will believe that what he said is already planned for us in the future."