Human rights report draws Latvian ire

  • 2004-01-29
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - A report released earlier this month by Elisabeth Schroedter, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Latvia, drew the ire of nationalist politicians and political commentators but was largely praised by ethnic Russians living in Latvia.

Schroedter submitted her three-page human rights report, part of a larger analysis of all 10 EU accession countries, by way of assessing the Baltic country's preparedness to join the European Union. The report criticized Latvia for its high level of corruption, slow rate of naturalization among noncitizens and advised giving noncitizens voting rights in municipal elections.
Inese Vaidere of the For Fatherland and Freedom party, who is chairwoman of the Latvian Parliament's foreign relations committee, accused Schroedter of "spitting on the state language" in the Jan. 17 issue of Latvijas Avize.
Vaidere contended that "this woman [Schroedter] wanted to create a new process of confusion and tension in society, thus doing nothing other than hinder the implementation of integration policies."
In addition, the report called upon Latvia to ratify the Convention on Minority Rights and to consider removing the language component of the citizenship criteria for pension-age noncitizens.
However, Schroedter did support the government's upcoming educational reform program, which would divide classes taught for high-school age children to 60 percent in Latvian and 40 percent in the minority language, one of the most serious bones of contention in Latvian society (see story on Page 2).
Still, the Russian press lauded the report. The daily Telegraf wrote that as a result of Schroedter's recommendations Latvia "would not taste EU money," though the article did no describe what money or how much.
The report is currently under debate in the European Parliament and is subject to change before being accepted sometime in March.
Curiously, many of the report's recommendations mirror what Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe and the United Nations, said during his trip to Latvia last year, particularly about allowing noncitizens vote in municipal elections.
One thing in Schroedter's report that was new, however, was her stinging condemnation of the Olaine Illegal Immigrant Center. She wrote that inmates at the "prison-like" center "are held without any access to free legal aid."
Still, Latvian response to the report was vitriolic.
Atis Leijins, head of Latvia's Foreign Policy Institute, in Latvijas Avize attributed Schroedter's report to her political affiliation with the German Green Party and said that her Eastern German origin "already says a lot."
More moderate voice downplayed the report's ultimate impact.
"There is nothing particularly new or unexpected in this report, but it probably received so much attention because of the impending accession and Europarliament elections," Nils Muiznieks, special task minister for integration, told The Baltic Times.
"It is heartening to read that Mrs. Schroedter acknowledges that Latvia's laws on citizenship, language and education are in line with international standards," he added.
"The [Latvian] parliament will soon begin a debate on ratification of the Framework Convention [on minorities], but there will be no moves to grant non-citizens the right to vote in municipal elections, as there is concern that such moves could weaken the already weak motivation to naturalize," Muiznieks said.
Schroedter defended her report. "Latvia is a lovely country. When I first came as a rapporteur for the European Parliament to Latvia I thought it would be easy to get an overview of the society and structures," Schroedter wrote in an email to The Baltic Times.
"But after several fact finding missions I've realized that the actual problems are linked to the individual cases of people and to the situation in the regions and that they are often hidden to visitors," she added.
Because Latvia has been subjected to such intense scrutiny concerning minority issues since independence was regained in the early 1990s opposition to international recommendations has become the norm by many political figures.
"I think Latvia has been one of the most monitored countries in the world regarding minorities," Muiznieks said.
This report when finally adopted will be a key piece of information for the rest of the Europarliament if the human rights situation in Latvia is examined again in the future. MEPs who know little of the Baltic country will most likely at least initially turn to this report to learn about the situation.

Highlights of Schroedter's report on Latvia:
Expresses concern with the high level of corruption, but supports creation of the anti-corruption bureau
Supports current education reform (60 percent in Latvian - 40 percent in minority language), but asks for flexible implementation
Asks for ratification of Framework Convention regarding minorities
Expresses concern about slow rates of naturalization; recommends giving noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections
Articulates worries about center for illegal immigration at Olaine
Advises a possible removal of the language component for naturalization for elderly noncitizens
Confirms that the EU-Russia partnership agreement will apply to all member states