Minority issues in Latvia, No. 20

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Subject: Minority issues in Latvia, No. 20

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Minority issues in Latvia, No. 20

Minority issues in Latvia, No. 20
Prepared by the Latvian Human Rights Committee (F.I.D.H.)
September 8, 2000

Pro-minority coalition declares civil disobedience

On September 4, the pro-minority coalition "For Human Rights in United
Latvia" held a conference devoted to evaluation of the new Regulations
on implementation of the State Language Law and elaboration of further
strategy to protect the linguistic rights of national minorities in
Latvia. The conference participants - activists of the political
parties forming the coalition, as well as invited representatives of
several minority and human rights NGOs - discussed the draft
resolution. The final editorial work is to be finished within the next
week, however, it is unlikely that the main points of the resolution
will be changed.  

The conference notes that certain progress which marked the adoption
of the governmental regulations on implementing the State Language law
has not fully resolved the problem of incompatibility of Latvia's
language legislation with international standards of minority rights;
that the the process of elimination of state-supported education in
minority languages continues; and that Latvian authorities
consistently refuse from dialogue with political parties and NGOs
representing national minorities. 

Under these circumstances, the coalition declares beginning of the
campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. 

The coalition confirms that its strategic goals are the following: the
state must recognise a multicultural nature of the society in Latvia,
and dignity, rights and interests of everyone must be respected
regardless of his/her ethnic origin and mother tongue. The most
important purposes to be achieved with the declared campaign:
ratification and fair implementation of the Framework Convention for
the Protection of National Minorities, and state guarantees for
preservation and development of state-supported education system in
minority languages.  

Within the framework of the campaign, the following measures are

- to establish the Information Centre on linguistic legislation which
will collect data on practical implementation of the new State
Language Law and the governmental regulations, will offer
consultations about the content of the corresponding normative acts
and the linguistic rights of Latvia's residents, and will defend
victims of the language repressions in national courts and using
international procedures; 
- to continue collecting signatures for the ratification of the
Framework Convention;
- not to obey to those provisions of the language legislation which do
not comply with the international instruments on minority rights; 
- to establish the Solidarity Fund for assistance to the victims of
the language repressions and popularisation of public usage of the
Russian language; 
- to inform the society, especially its ethnic Latvian majority, about
the modern standards in the field of minority rights and the role of
the state language in a multicultural society; 
- to use Russian and other minority languages as widely as possible
where it is not directly prohibited by law;
- to use historical names of streets, towns, and other sites which
were originally created in minority languages;
- to refrain from using services of those private enterprises where
the personnel refuses to provide information in Russian, and from
participating in those public events where usage of minority languages
is ignored;
- as far as possible, to choose those schools where instruction in
minority language is available; within the framework of bilingual
education, to demand that instruction in mothertongue should dominate; 
- to try to persuade the EU to make ratification of the Framework
Convention by Latvia a necessary precondition for the accession;   
- to inform international organizations, foreign embassies, and
mass-media about the goals of the campaign. 

The event was extensively and not fully adequately covered in
Latvian-language media. The leading news agency LETA circulated
information under the headline saying that the coalition "begins
campaign for official bilingualism" and recognition of Russian as the
second state language. In the text of the release, the author of the
piece explains that, in her view, the coalition's demands "in fact
mean introduction of the second state language". However, Latvia's
officials and media, with few exceptions, reacted mostly to the
"headline version". 

The Cabinet of Ministers issued a statement asking people "not to
follow provocative and irresponsible calls to participate in actions
of civil disobedience", because "their aim is to split the society of
Latvia and to evoke distrust and enmity between residents of different
ethnic origin". The government states that the European Union, as well
as the OSCE, welcomes the new Regulations on implementation of the
State Language Law, and that the new Regulations completely correspond
to the international obligations of Latvia. It should be mentioned,
however, that none of Latvian mass-media published the full
translation of the OSCE HCNM statement regarding the adoption of the
new Regulations, and quoted only its two first sentences, without
mentioning any reservations or critical remarks (see Minority issues
in Latvia, No. 19,

Janis Urbanovichs, vice-chairman of the pro-minority faction "For
Human Rights in United Latvia", commenting the government's statement
in Russian-language daily "Vesti Segodnja", said that the cleavage in
Latvia's society exists for years, and the government simply pretends
that it does not see it. "It is a merit of minorities, not the state,
that there were no ethnic conflicts in Latvia", says Urbanovichs.
"People hoped that some day they will be heard by the government, but
now they see it is not the case".

Dzintars Abikis, chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on
Education, Science and Culture said on TV that since he "had a chance
to get acquainted with the semi-confidential documents from Russia",
he was sure that the conference fulfilled the "Moscow's order" aiming
at holding Latvia back from the integration into the European Union.
Mr Abikis expressed his intention to request the Prosecutor's Office
to begin investigation of the case.   

Latvian media blamed the organisers for "secrecy" of the conference,
which was announced closed for press, while some journalists from
Russian newspapers who actively covered the discussions and
controversies over the new language legislation, were invited to take

One of the most popular Latvian-language newspapers, "Lauku Avize"
("The Rural Newspaper") published extensive comments. In its editorial
comment, "Lauku Avize" quoted local Russian journalist Vladimir
Chepurov who, speaking on Latvian TV, mentioned several coalition's
activists of Jewish origin and said that "those were not Russians who
expressed these claims". On the same page, a comment of Eduards
Berklavs, leader of Latvian "national communists" suppressed by
Khrushchev in late 50s, and founding father of the Latvian National
Independence Movement in late 80s, was published. Mr Berklavs appeals
to the Latvian law enforcement bodies: "What for do we pay salaries to
the staff of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice, state
Security services, the Prosecutors Office"? "If it goes on this way,
they will drive away the parliament and will shoot", warns Mr

Brief comments under the common headlines "Society evaluates "the
jurkanists"' secret meeting" occupy the whole page (Janis Jurkans,
foreign minister of Latvia in 1990-1992, is a chairman of the
parliamentary faction "For Human Rights in United Latvia"). For
example, Uldis Ivans, mayor of Yelgava town, says: "In our
municipality we demand everybody to speak to us in the state language,
and no one feels offended. If "jurkanists" wish to speak Russian, they
should get out to Russia" (people of non-Latvian ethnic origin make up
about 50% of the Yelgava town's population). Roberts Berzinsh, a
farmer, says: "I believe it is not yet too late to declare rebels
against the Latvian state persona non grata and to expell them. By the
way, also van der Stoel should be declared persona non grata. All his
recommendations were aimed against the Latvian  eople". Only one of
the respondents, architect Vaidelotis Apsitis, considers it reasonable
that "the both parties should sit at the table and talk".

Miroslav Mitrofanov, member of Parliament from the faction "For Human
Rights in United Latvia" and one of the organisers of the conference,
believes that the reaction of the government and Latvian mass-media is
not surprising. Adoption of the OSCE High Commissioner on National
Minorities' recommendations is considered by a big fraction of Latvian
political elite as a humiliating concession. These people hoped that
after this concession has been made, they will be able to report that
everybody is now happy, national minorities are satisfied, and the
"minority question" in Latvia is closed. However, in the discussion on
the language law and regulations, the government consistently avoided
dialogue with the parties representing national minorities - i.e those
people who were directly affected by the new legislation were not even
asked what their views were.  The conference's resolution broke the
"no problems any longer" illusion. Minority parties clearly revealed
they are going to struggle for the rights of their constituencies,
recognised in other European countries which ratified the Framework
Convention. It is difficult to imagine how ratification of this
European Convention could "evoke distrust and enmity between
inhabitants of different ethnic origin" or "hold Latvia back from the
integration into the European Union", Mitrofanov says.
Alexei Dimitrov
Latvian Human Rights Committee (F.I.D.H.)

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