MINELRES: Minority issues in Latvia, No. 61

MINELRES moderator minelres@lists.delfi.lv
Sat Jan 18 10:19:34 2003

Original sender: Alexei Dimitrov <minissues@delfi.lv>

Minority issues in Latvia, No. 61
Prepared by the Latvian Human Rights Committee (F.I.D.H.)
January 16, 2003

- The President and the Minister for Foreign Affairs: the Framework
Convention is not to be ratified now
- Orthodox Christmas  to be or not to be the official holiday?
- "Language alert" in Rezekne
- Right-wing MP asks for comments on TV in Latvian only
- Latvia as a racist country
- Russia donates books to Russian-language schools in Latvia
- EU and minorities: divided they stand?

The President and the Minister for Foreign Affairs: the Framework
Convention is not to be ratified now

In late December and early January the Russian-language daily "Telegraf"
("The Telegraph") published interviews with the President of Latvia
Vaira Vike-Freiberga and newly appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs
Sandra Kalniete. In both interviews attention was paid to minority

Thus, the President mentioned that the education reform 2004
(elimination of the state-supported secondary education in minority
languages) is necessary for improving knowledge of Latvian among
non-Latvians, because the best way to enlarge lexicon is to use
language, inter alia, "during the lessons of maths or geography". The
President also stated that abolition of the 25% quota for broadcasting
in minority/foreign languages should be discussed by politicians. The
main obstacle for ratification of the Framework Convention for the
Protection of National Minorities, according to the President, is the
necessity to define "national minority". She personally likes the French
approach  "a person lives in France, he is the citizen and he is
French". If there is a will "to prescribe special rights for special
groups of residents", such groups should be those, which live in country
for a long time. Besides, speaking about the statistics, the President
stated that Russians in Daugavpils (the second biggest city in Latvia
inhabited predominantly by Russian-speakers  A.D.) cannot be called
"minority". As regards the problem of statelessness, the President
mentioned that non-citizens should get naturalised, because only the
citizens of Latvia will enjoy the rights of EU citizens after joining
the European Union ("Telegraf", December 20,

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Sandra Kalniete shares the President's
opinion about naturalisation of non-citizens. As regards the Framework
Convention, the Minister believes that is cannot be ratified now,
because "the discussion is necessary". She considers that, if the
Convention is ratified, "the frustrated population could initiate the
referendum concerning ratification" ("Telegraf", January 6,

Our commentary

The abovementioned interviews allow some conclusions about possible
further development of minority policy in Latvia. The education
reform-2004 is seen by high-rank state officials merely as a measure to
improve knowledge of Latvian among minority schoolchildren. However,
acquiring knowledge of languages is a very significant task of the
education system, but definitely not the only one. The country's top
officials do not even mention the impact of the planned reform on the
knowledge of other subjects, which will be taught in the language the
students do not perfectly know. Thus, the key goal of the education
system is seen as a protection of the Latvian language, not of
comprehencive interests of the schoolchildren - as declared by a number
of international instruments, as well as by Latvian legislation. It is
revealing that the views of the parents - who legitimately represent the
children's interests - are not mentioned at all. 

The political leadership is not going to take further steps in order to
reduce the number of non-citizens in the country, so, the conditions for
naturalisation will remain the same. Moreover, the Latvian authorities
are not interested in touching upon the issue of statelessness during
the EU accession process. In our opinion, the question about status of
Latvian non-citizens in the European Union will be one of the topical
ones in the nearest future; unfortunately, it seems, the European Union,
not Latvia itself, will schedule the issue for negotiations. It was
confirmed by Head of the Latvian negotiations mission Andris Kesteris in
his interview for "Telegraf" ("The Telegraph") on January 13 (see at

As to the Framework Convention, the discussion among specialists in the
field of ethnic policy and in media takes place indeed. Moreover, two
NGOs (Latvian Human Rights Committee and Latvian Centre for Human Rights
and Ethnic Studies) even have prepared so called shadow reports,
comparing provisions of national legislation with the norms of the
Framework Convention (see Minority issues in Latvia, No. 59,
http://lists.delfi.lv/pipermail/minelres/2002-November/002416.html). The
fact that the state does not do anything to promote the discussion
should not prevent Latvia from ratification. We welcome the initiative
of the recently appointed Minister for Special Task in the Field of
Integration Affairs Nils Muiznieks to start preparatory work for
ratification of the Convention immediately.

One more problem we should mention is the lack of information and
professional advise in the sphere of ethnic policy. The President should
be informed that the prevalence of ethnic Russians in the region of
Idu-Virumaa and prevalence of ethnic Poles in the district of Vilnius
have not prevented Estonia and Lithuania from ratification of the
Framework Convention and recognising Russians and Poles as persons
belonging to minorities  it is so-called minority-in-minority
situation, which exists in different countries. Besides, it seems that
the Minister for Foreign Affairs is not informed about constitutional
provisions of her own state. Article 73 of the Constitution provides
that international treaties cannot be submitted to a referendum. In
order to make the referendum about joining the European Union possible,
Article 73 will be amended in the nearest future, but the amendment will
concern only agreements between Latvia and the EU, not other treaties.

Orthodox Christmas  to be or not to be the official holiday?

This year, already traditionally, the issue of making Orthodox Christmas
(January 7) the official holiday becomes topical. Now the Law on
Holidays, Commemoration Days and Celebratory Days provides that only the
Lutheran and Catholic religious holidays (Christmas and Easter) are
celebrated as official holidays.

In December the ruling coalition member, christian Latvian First party
stated that January 7 should be established the official holiday, but
did not do anything to achieve it. On December 19, the pro-minority
oppositional parliamentary faction "For Human Rights in United Latvia"
(HRUL) submitted amendments to the Law on Holidays, Commemoration Days
and Celebratory Days in order to recognise the Orthodox and Old
believers' Christmas and Easter as official holidays. The Orthodox
community is the third biggest religious community in the country after
the Lutherans and Catholics; there are more than 350,000 Orthodox and
Old believers in Latvia. HRUL submitted amendments also to the Labour
Law, providing that believers belonging to other confessions are
entitled to have three days off per year to use on the days of religious
holidays of officially registered confessions or official commemoration
and celebratory days. Such approach would guarantee possibility to
celebrate religious holidays without any discrimination.

On the same day, the Latvian First party submitted their own amendments
to the Law on Holidays, Commemoration Days and Celebratory Days which
proposed to recognise the Orthodox Christmas as official holiday.
Unfortunately, the Saeima (Parliament) had its Christmas holidays till
January 14. On January 16, the Saeima rejected all proposals concerning
the Orthodox Christmas. Majority of MPs abstained, no one voted against. 

During the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on December 23, the
Minister for Special Task in the Field of Integration Affairs Nils
Muiznieks proposed to amend the Law on Holidays, Commemoration Days and
Celebratory Days in order to recognise the Orthodox Christmas as
official holiday. Such amendment is possible, using Article 81 of the
Constitution  the Cabinet has the right to issue regulations, which
have the force of law in cases of urgent necessity between the sessions
of the Saeima. However, the Prime Minister Einars Repse mentioned that a
broad discussion in the society is necessary, without it such amendment
could split the society (daily "Chas" ("The Hour"), December 24). The
amendment was not adopted, therefore, in 2003 the Orthodox Christmas was
a common working day.

On January 13, the Latvian-language daily "Diena" ("The Day") published
its comment on the Orthodox Christmas issue. Journalist Askolds Rodins
mentions that in the states belonging to the Western world, where the
majority of population are the Orthodox (Greece, Bulgaria and Romania),
they celebrate the Christmas day in December. "Latvia is and will be a
part of the Western world, therefore our Orthodox should do the same, as
their religion brothers in other European countries  live according to
the Gregorian calendar", Mr Rodins states.

Our commentary

Apart from the Orthodox belonging to the Greek, Bulgarian or Romanian
Orthodox Church having their own Patriarchies, the majority of the
Orthodox living in Latvia belong to the Russian Orthodox Church governed
by the Moscow Patriarch, although the Latvian Orthodox Church enjoys a
kind of autonomy. In our view, it is not correct to judge about so
sensitive issue as religious holidays without serious knowledge in the

"Language alert" in Rezekne

Medical staff of the Rezekne municipal hospital is worried about
language examinations. In December language inspectors visited the
hospital and found out that several staff members do not have state
language proficiency certificates at the necessary level (3A  the fifth
out of six levels is necessary for doctors and nurses).

Before September 1, 2000, when the new State Language Law and
governmental regulations came into force, nurses had to possess the
state language proficiency certificates at the second level of
proficiency (out of three). After the Regulations on the Proficiency
Degree in the State Language Required for the Performance of the
Professional and Positional Duties and on the Procedure of Language
Proficiency Tests came into force, such certificates have been equalised
with current 2A and 2B level proficiency certificates, but not 3A.
Therefore, the nurses of the Rezekne municipal hospital will have to
pass new state language examinations soon; if the examination will not
be passed, the nurse will be fired. It will be hard to pass the
examination for the biggest part of them, because the language courses
for 3A level last approximately for six months, as the medical staff

Our commentary

According to data provided by the Statistical Yearbook of Latvia 2001,
in the town of Rezekne only 42.8% of the population are ethnic Latvians.
As in other parts of Latgale (eastern region of Latvia inhabited
predominantly by Russian-speakers), in Rezekne a big part of Latvians
mainly use Latgalian. Linguistic status of Latgalian is not clear  some
Latgalian language activists claim it is a separate, independent
language, while many Latvian linguists claim it is a regional dialect of
Latvian. Anyway, Latgalian quite differs from Latvian, therefore it is
hard to learn literary correct Latvian in Rezekne without state support.
This example demonstrates clearly that regional differences are to be
taken into account, elaborating language policy for Latvia. Besides, the
state should provide its support for Latvian-language training, not only

Right-wing MP asks for comments on TV in Latvian only

Chairperson of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs Inese
Vaidere ("For Fatherland and Freedom"/LNNK) had written a letter to the
general director of public Latvian TV Uldis Grava, asking to neglect
comments to the journalists of LTV by people, not speaking Latvian.
According to Inese Vaidere, this is an obstacle for the society
integration, as Russian-speakers start thinking, that integration can
take place on the basis of Russian (the newspaper "Vesti Segodnya" ("The
News Today"), December 20,
She thinks, that there are a lot of Russian-speakers, who know Latvian
and they are to be given voice on LTV. "They are speaking with accent,
their vocabulary is more limited than in their mother tongue, but their
will to be integrated in Latvia on the basis of the Latvian language is
clearly seen", Mrs Vaidere stated. She also asked to demonstrate movies
in their original language with subtitles in Latvian.

Latvia as a racist country

Mr George Steele is an African American, living in Latvia for 8 years.
In the interview for the policy portal policy.lv he gives his account of
situation with racism in Latvia. According to him, manifestations of
racism in Latvia are not only pre-election ads of the Freedom Party (see
Minority issues in Latvia, No. 53,
http://lists.delfi.lv/pipermail/minelres/2002-August/002234.html), they
are met in everyday life too. The Freedom Party, not trying to apologize
after advertising, had proven to be racist. He submitted his personal
claim against Freedom's party and Latvian Television (that aired
advertising) too, to prove, that advertising was racist, not to receive
compensation. Mr Steele is sure that case with the Freedom Party
advertising had opened eyes to many people, showing that racism is
Latvia's problem. Racism in Latvia is met in everyday life too, in the
form of beatings by Russian nationalists and paying attention to one's
colour of the skin, when walking in the city. George Steele thinks that
the latter is problem of people, not of him. If people in one country
cannot imagine, that a person of another race can come to live there in
contemporary globalized world, then it is the problem of these people,
who have an archaic view of the world (see at

Our commentary

Apart of Mr Steele's emotional comments, it is worth noting that racism
is really the problem of Latvia. If paying attention to people of other
race can be attributed to conservativeness of Latvian society, active
racism cannot. Latvian society had proven to be non-hesitant and mostly
dumb in cases of inciting ethnic hatred against other ethnic minorities,
thus no wonder, racial hatred is not seen as something unusual or worth
cursing. At the same time we are amazed, how Mr Steele is able to find
out ethnic origin of racists and tell for sure that local racists are
mainly Russians.

Russia donates books to Russian-language schools in Latvia

The newspaper "Panorama Latvii" ("The Panorama of Latvia") reported on
January 15 that the government of Russia and the city of Moscow have
presented 62,000 books for Russian-language schools in Latvia and other
interested persons. A big part of the present is textbooks. The books
will be sent to school and university libraries by virtue of the NGO
LASHOR (Association for Support of Russian-Language Schools in Latvia).
LASHOR hopes to co-operate with the Ministry of Education and Science in
order to disseminate the books; however, no one representative of the
Ministry has attended the presentation, although they had been invited

EU and minorities: divided they stand?

The Russian-language daily "Panorama Latvii" ("The Panorama of Latvia")
starts publication of a series of articles devoted to the European
Union. The first article within the project titled "In the European
Direction" was written by columnist Alexander Rzhavin. The article is
aimed at exploring the issue of minority protection within the EU
framework. The author points out, that while each Member State has a
distinct answer on the question about minority protection (with Finland
and France being an example), there are some standards in the field,
although their implementation seems to be formal due to the lack of
concern of the EU as well as "unwillingness of politicians to notice
them". The fact that "minorities fail to adjust to the new
circumstances" is also mentioned. Besides, Alexander Rzhavin stresses,
that the EU does not engage into solving the minority rights problems,
as the Council of Europe plays the crucial role in ensuring minority
protection (see "Panorama Latvii", January 7,

Compiled by:

Alexei Dimitrov
Tatyana Bogushevitch
Yuri Dubrovsky

Minority issues in Latvia
Newsletter published by the Latvian Human Rights Committee (F.I.D.H.)
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