Who is the provocateur? 'Russian' daily newspaper or the 'Latvian' state?

  • 2000-06-29
  • By Anna Pridanova
RIGA - On June 21, the Latvian Russian language daily newspaper Chas posted on the top of the first page an article headed "Invitation to barricades: Who wrote the new rules of the Cabinet of Ministers - the sick or the provocateur?", accompanied with an editorial on language origins of the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia.

The story referred to unfinished regulations on the application of the state Language Law, which are now under design by the state Language Center. The regulations will dictate the level of proficiency in Latvian for certain jobs. The newspaper predicts legalized labor discrimination.

They foresee that "Russian newspapers, radio and TV stations will come under the threat of closing. The editors and copy editors must know the state language as a native, the journalists fall in the lower category. In other words, the publishers will be tortured by fines until they either curtail their business, or fill up staff vacancies with... Latvians."

Minister of Justice Ingrida Labucka, in a press conference the afternoon of the day the Chas article appeared, asserted it is too early to make any judgments about the content of the regulations, since they are still in review.

The newspaper published an imprecise interpretation of unfinished rules, without consulting their designers to clarify unclear points of the document, said Dzintra Hirsa, head of the state Language Center, designing the rules.

Rules contain six descriptions of levels of language proficiency and a list of jobs for which a certain level is required.

But the regulations the daily presented as binding to all who are not native Latvian speakers are compulsory only for those employed in the courts, state, local-government, education and other organizations providing public services.

These rules are only advisory to public companies, unless they concern "society interests." The press does not fall into this category and is therefore not "endangered", as the Chas presented it in its story.

"People usually think about public functions as connected with society. But from the legal point of view it is different. In the law, 'public functions' are state, or other governmental institutions' delegated functions, like health care or consumer rights protection," said Hirsa.

The law contains a number of contradictions, and the rules are to resolve them, she said. "The law our Parliament passed is so incomprehensible and awkward that you cannot understand it from the first reading," said Hirsa.

"When I first read it, I honestly fell asleep," said Vija Piese of the state Language Center, one of the designers of the rules.

The newspaper argues that the regulations are to fill the voids left in the state language law passed hastily by Parliament under international pressure and monitoring.

"The rules were designed with OSCE specialists' assistance. We have fulfilled 90 percent of their requirements. But OSCE specialists do not understand the real Latvian situation. Their experience does not fit Latvian, because no European language lost and then recovered its status, the way Latvian did," said Hirsa.

She said Russian cannot be given status equal to Latvian here, because of its historic past.

"The fact that Irish is now suppressed by English proves that the language of a small nation cannot be set on the same conditions with the language of the larger nation in a particular territory," said Hirsa.

The new rules contain six categories, instead of three as earlier. "There is no reason for anxiety. These categories totally fit the previous. If we introduced another, say, seventh category, it would bring huge changes. But people who already have certificates (444,000 since 1992) will not have to take new exams," said Piese.

The category statements, containing concise descriptions, include the size of vocabulary in numbers, 1,000-1,500 words for A category or 2,500-3,000 words for B category.

The highest category requires a person to be able "to converse in Latvian completely freely, equally to the native speaker."

Hirsa agreed that this statement may be interpreted in different ways. Asked about the criteria for language proficiency evaluation, Piese said "the criteria are not the same as requirements. You should not confuse what and how. It is accepted worldwide that you know what you are expected to do, but not how you will be evaluated. It is methodological secret information."

But the State Language Center officials repeatedly asserted that work on these regulations continues.

"We are debating the jobs attached to the categories. We are advised, and we will modify the list. We are not going to put each of the 8,000 positions the Latvian professional taxonomy contains into one of these categories. It is huge work, and things change all the time. But we are working not only for tomorrow," Hirsa said.

A more useful debate on these regulations is expected early in July, when the state Language Center plans to hand them to the Cabinet of Ministers.