Latvia's language tremors

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Walking through Riga presents a curious irony. Here in Latvia's capital city, all the street signs, storefronts, and advertisements are in Latvian, while most street conversations are in Russian.

During the 50-year Soviet occupation of this nation, tens of thousands of ethnic Latvians were deported to the fringes of the Soviet Empire, while thousands of Russians were resettled here. Before World War II, ethnic Latvians comprised over three-quarters of the population; today, they make up just over half. In Latvia's seven largest cities, ethnic Latvians are the minority.

Like many post-Soviet Eastern European countries today, Latvia, a country of 2.4 million wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea, finds itself negotiating nettling questions of minority relations, integration, and identity.

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At the beginning of September, the issue came to a head when Latvian authorities put into place regulations for implementing the state language law - an act that has touched a sensitive nerve in Latvia's ethnic communities.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international organizations have kept a close eye on the language issue during the entire legislative process. The OSCE high commissioner on national minorities, Max van der Stoel, has said he views the regulations "as being essentially in conformity with both the law and Latvia's international obligations."

But shortly after the adoption of the new regulations, the parliamentary faction For Human Rights in a United Latvia called on nongovernmental organizations and others to use all nonviolent means to resist the newly adopted state language-law regulations, which it believes infringe on Russian-speakers' rights.

The 50-year Soviet occupation and Latvia's post-Soviet nation-building effort have led to enduring mistrust on both sides.

"Everyone is afraid of losing their identity," observes Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

Russians in Latvia perceive that the Latvian authorities are putting them in an untenable position.

Tatiana R., a Russian saleswoman at the Laima candy shop in downtown Riga argues, "I was born here and lived all of my 35 years in Latvia. People must recognize that there are many Russians who were born and lived their entire lives here. They have nowhere else to go."

The dispute in Latvia is not centered on the precise text of the language law and its regulations so much as it is on the way in which these will be interpreted and implemented.

"The Russian-speakers' fear is of bureaucratic harassment," says Mr. Muiznieks. The law regulates language-proficiency requirements for different state jobs, and is optional for private-sector enterprises, unless companies subcontract for the state.

Tatiana, the Russian saleswoman adds, "I don't think the [language] law will be applied fairly." She believes "the law would be fairer if it was applied to reflect the proportion of each group of speakers in the country."

This line of reasoning goes to the question of whether the Russian language deserves a special status, which is what many Latvians believe Moscow and Latvia's Russians actually are after.

Armands Gutmanis, of Latvia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argues that the Latvian government's "aim is to treat Russians as a normal minority. But Russia cannot agree to having Russians as a minority in Latvia." As further evidence of the Russian community's desire for privileged status of the Russian language, Latvians point to the post-Soviet experience of other minorities in Latvia, such as the Ukrainians, Poles, and Lithuanians, all of whom have established minority schools in Latvia. The Riga Jewish Secondary School was the first non-Russian minority educational institution to be founded in Latvia and the first such school on the territory of the former USSR.

While Latvia has attracted considerable attention from international organizations and a steady stream of criticism from Moscow, the fact is that on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, real or perceived threats to identity are a serious problem.

Complicated questions relating to national minorities - citizenship, education, immigration - are at the forefront of heated national debates. In the European Union, such established democracies as Denmark, France, and Austria are witnessing controversial political movements whose success arises largely from programs grounded in nationalism and intolerance of foreigners.

The challenge is much trickier in Eastern Europe where countries are trying to manage sensitive minority-relations issues while at the same time working to establish democratic societies after five decades of failed Soviet rule.

Latvia - as well as Estonia - faces an immense challenge. From one side it is squeezed by Moscow, which sees the ethnic Russian minorities living outside Russia as a fertile political issue, while from the other side, the EU sets the bar very high on a range of issues for transitional countries such as Latvia.

Armands Gutmanis of the Latvian Foreign Ministry notes, "Western countries don't admit they have the exact same problems as we do, but they can treat Latvia differently because Latvia is relatively weak and an accession candidate [to the EU and NATO]. Latvia's problem is not unique."

*Christopher Walker is a New York-based analyst specializing in European affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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