Ruling muddies path to election law reform

  • 2002-04-18
  • Timothy Jacobs

A European Court of Human Rights ruling on Latvia's disqualification of an election candidate for her inadequate grasp of the state language could complicate efforts to meet NATO demands that the country abolish such requirements.

Europe's highest rights tribunal awarded Ingrida Podkolzina 9,000 euros ($7,900) in damages and costs over her disqualification as a candidate in 1998.

But analysts said the contradictory ruling would be used by both sides in the debate over whether to drop language requirements in the country's election law for the sake of the security NATO membership offers.

NATO member states are expected to start considering possible new candidates at a summit in Reykjavik in May, and to make decisions in Prague in November, which means Prime Minister Andris Berzins has little time to win support for the reform among reluctant parliamentarians, in what could be a knife-edge vote.

"It is a very ambiguous decision," said Peteris Elferts, adviser to Prime Minister Andris Berzins. "There was no clear-cut winner or loser in the case."

Reports in the local media revealed the gulf between Latvia's two communities. The largest Latvian language newspaper, Diena, ran a front-page story the day after the decision was announced, titled "European Court of Human Rights approves state language policy," while the Russian-language newspaper Telegraph, declared "Podkolzina wins" on its front page.

Under the current election law, a person wishing to run for public office who has graduated from a Latvian high school must take an exam to prove top-level Latvian language competence.

Podkolzina, a resident of the second city of Daugavpils, held a valid language certificate when her name was submitted as a candidate in the 1998 parliamentary elections.

The following week she was visited at her workplace by an official from the state language center, who questioned, among other things, why she was standing as candidate for the National Harmony Party, which campaigns for Russians' rights.

The official returned the following day accompanied by witnesses and asked Podkolzina to write an essay in Latvian.

The court heard that Podkolzina became extremely nervous because she had not expected such an examination and because of the constant presence of the witnesses. She stopped writing and tore up her work.

The official then drew up a report to the effect that the applicant did not have an adequate command of Latvian and the central electoral commission struck Podkolzina from the list of candidates.The court's decision upheld Latvia's right to determine its own state language to be used in the Parliament, but determined that Podkolzina's treatment "could not be considered proportionate to the legitimate goal."

Earlier this year NATO chief George Robertson set amending the language law as a precondition for Latvia joining the military alliance, after more veiled pronouncements by U.S. officials to the same effect. Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was the first mainstream leader to take up the challenge and Berzins' Latvia's Way party has come on board. But For Fatherland and Freedom, which holds several key government posts, is refusing to compromise.

Guntars Krasts, a former prime minister and Fatherland MP, said he believed the state lost the case because of the specific circumstances involved, but that the court had not criticized Latvia's language laws.

"The court's decision does not state that the law should be changed, but that there was a specific problem in this case. The court said that there was no chance for Podkolzina to appeal the examiner's decision, but since this case first surfaced, an appeals process has been put in place for situations like these."

The Parliament is currently debating an amendment to the constitution aimed at strengthening the status of Latvian as the language of the Parliament, ahead of dropping the language requirement in the election law.

"We're working to make some progress on amending the current election law by the time we go to Reykjavik," said Berzins' adviser Elferts.

Russian is the mother tongue of around 37 percent of Latvia's population.