What the amendments mean for Latvia

  • 2002-05-16
  • Steven C. Johnson

The Saeima (Latvia's parliament) removed an obstacle to NATO membership by amending the election law, but it has done little to reassure Latvians who fear the changes are part of a campaign to weaken the national language.

The law, which required citizens whose native language is not Latvian to prove their Latvian proficiency before being cleared to run for office, was assailed by the West as undemocratic and discriminatory.

When NATO Secretary General George Robertson warned during his last visit that it could hurt Latvia's chances of winning an invitation to the alliance, the government, most of the Saeima and the mainstream newspapers called for changes for fear of being left behind by NATO.

The result is that many ordinary Latvians are angry at what they perceive as just the latest humiliation suffered at the hands of politicians who are too willing to accede to outside pressure.

Furthermore, government officials have done little to counter charges by nationalist parties that the law means those who cannot speak a word of Latvian will now start flooding the national and municipal legislatures.

In fact, the amendments change very little on the ground. In the Saeima, the sole working language will remain Latvian.

As Boris Cilevics, a lawmaker with the opposition For Equal Rights party dominated by native-Russian speakers, puts it: "It would be simply stupid for us to send someone not fluent in Latvian to the Saeima. What use would he be to anyone if he couldn't understand what was going on."

That message doesn't appear to be getting through to people on the street. One day after the vote in the Saeima, spot interviews with random Latvians revealed not one in support of the amendments.

"It's ridiculous that by law, we have to let people who can't speak a word of Latvian into our Parliament, and I think all Latvians would agree with me," said Mira, 60, on her lunch break in a downtown park.

Added Liga, a 54-year-old teacher, "Everyone tells us that our laws are no good, but they don't understand our situation. There are still a lot of Russians here who don't want to learn Latvian."

Ever since Latvia set its sights on joining NATO and the European Union, voters have feared that the price they would be required to pay - watering down laws designed to protect and promote Latvian - would prove too high.

Earlier this year, when a visiting official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe let slip that he thought Latvia should consider establishing Russian as a second official language, many felt their fears had been confirmed and the West's real agenda laid bare.

Despite the agreement of the government and the mainstream political parties and media, Dzintars Kudums, a lawmaker from the nationalist Fatherland and Freedom party - the only party in the Parliament to oppose the changes - spoke for many ordinary Latvians during heated debates in the Saeima last week.

"In the beginning, we amended the citizenship law, then the language law, and now the election law. All we have left is to make Russian a state language. Will this be the next step," the newspaper Rigas Balss quoted him as saying.

"The issue did catch people off guard because it had not been raised publicly until the end of 2001, but the fact is that anything related to language remains very sensitive," said Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

"But the political elite treated this pretty irresponsibly. Many were in a massive state of denial until a month ago and were claiming that nobody was asking Latvia to make these changes. That they were so myopic was unfortunate."

Guntars Krasts, a former prime minister, said he fears a backlash will be directed at the EU. "The public already has a negative opinion of all the outside pressure on us, and it could prove disastrous when we stage a referendum to join the EU," Krasts said. "I'm really afraid of that."

Anti-EU sentiment does seem to be growing. According to recent polls, support for joining has dipped below 40 percent.

Says Vineta, a 35-year-old employee at an Old Town coffee shop, "It just isn't right. Things should be decided here, not by NATO or the EU in Brussels."

But Toomas Ilves, who as Estonian foreign minister had to sell voters earlier this year on similar changes to Estonia's election law, said, it comes with the territory of joining international organizations.

"In dealing with laws that are the norm of the organization you want to join, your choice is to abide by them or decide not to join. If you don't want to join, fine, do it your way. But you can't say, "'We'll take the EU subsidies, but we won't meet them on standards.'"

Ilves said the government also worked hard to explain why the law was undemocratic and had to go. "You simply cannot put restrictions on exercising fundamental citizen rights," he said.

Russians in Riga say the Latvian government has not made a similar argument, choosing instead to ignore the democratic implications and blame their unpopular decision on NATO and the EU.

Muiznieks agreed. "Unfortunately, that's the way all reforms related to the status of Russian-speakers have come about here - through outside pressure."