Law change clears path to NATO

  • 2002-05-16
  • Jorgen Johansson

After several hours of heated debate Latvia's Parliament voted on May 10 to drop language requirements for election candidates which threatened to endanger the country's NATO bid.

Language requirements for candidates in national elections were abolished by 67 votes in favor, 13 against and four abstentions in the final reading, while 71 MPs voted to abolish such requirements for municipal election candidates, 13 voted against and three abstained.

NATO chief George Robertson clearly linked the issue to Latvia's bid to join the military alliance in a speech to the Latvian Parliament in February. U.S officials had also demanded that the requirements be scrapped.

"If we do not do what is required from us, we will never be members of NATO," Linards Mucins, chairman of the Parlia-ment's legal commission, told MPs ahead of the vote.

The Parliament earlier ap-proved amendments to the constitution intended to offset what for some was a difficult concession to Latvia's Russian minority, who number around one-third of the population.

The constitutional amendments enshrine the use of Latvian in both state and municipal elections and require MPs to swear an oath in Latvian in which they promise to uphold the constitution, according to Parliament Speaker Janis Straume.

Under the amended election law MPs will have to declare how good their Latvian is when registering their candidacy, along with other information on their income, money held in off-shore bank accounts, education, business interests and membership of non-government organizations and political parties.

Although candidates who declared they spoke no Latvian could not be excluded from elections, there is, however, discussion of what might happen if an MP's language proved so poor as to interfere with his or her work, or ability to swear the oath.

"We are planning to pass procedures in case a candidate cannot give this oath," said Straume.

Further constitutional amendments will be necessary before this October's national election, he added.The head of Parliament's legal bureau, Gunars Kusins, said he was uncertain of what could happen to an elected MP whose language skills proved inadequate.

"We need regulations, rules and procedures about this," he said.

All these changes are likely to affect voters' choices at the October election, Straume predicted.

"We know that these amendments were strongly linked with NATO membership, and many people reacted negatively to this. Therefore, I think the outcome of the next election could be affected," said Straume.

Straume believes the likelihood of anyone being elected whose Latvian is inadequate is minimal.

But such a scenario was among the main concerns of those opposing the election law changes in the Parliament.

"And how are we supposed to make them speak Latvian?" Peteris Tabuns, of the right wing For Fatherland and Freedom party, demanded to know.

"They will collectively go to human rights courts and say that they are being suppressed."

Fatherland colleagues such as Juris Dobelis and Juris Vidins were equally vehement.

"We have been melted in the cultural melting pot so far that we are losing our identity," complained Vidins.

Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. government greeted the abolition of language requirements for election candidates, which was originally prompted by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

"I welcome the adoption of bills by which requirement of Latvian language proficiency has been abolished for persons standing for elections at the national and municipal levels," Rolf Ekeus, OSCE's high commissioner on national minorities, told the Baltic News Service.

In a written statement the U.S. Embassy in Riga said the U.S. government applauded the Latvian Parliament's vote to remove what it called "undemocratic requirements."

"This important decision shows that a majority of the people's representatives share a vision - a Latvia with equal rights for all citizens. We are encouraged by Latvia's continuing efforts to achieve a society that is unified, tolerant, generous and open to all who believe in and share the nation's future," the statement read.

During a visit to Riga NATO Assistant Secretary General Robert Bell also expressed satisfaction at the Latvian Parliament's vote.

In accordance with Latvia's NATO Membership Action Plan, the Parliament later in the day approved the final reading of amendments to the country's defense funding law, which will ensure that spending on defense and security will equal at least 2 percent of gross domestic product until 2008.