Minority representatives want the Convention ratified before Latvia's referendum on joining the EU. Otherwise, Russian organizations could start a campaign against the EU to force the government to halt its policy of assimilation.
Framework Convention for the protection of National Minorities - salvation from assimilation?
The connection of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to the referendum on joining the European Union, the official status of the Russian language, the educational reform scheduled for 2004 and, finally, the necessity of creating a dialogue between the government and minorities – these were the most noteworthy topics discussed at the first ever forum for minority representatives, which brought together a large number of “rank and file” members of minority organizations. This seminar on the Convention, organized by the Council of Europe’s Information Centre and the Naturalization Board in early February, was the first event of its kind for such a broad spectrum of minority representatives and was conducted in both Latvian and Russian.
It was hoped that during the discussion the attitude of minority groups towards the ratification of the Convention would be clarified. The assembled representatives persuasively put forth their opinion that the Convention must be ratified in its entirety, without any declarations or reservations. Without acknowledging that the Convention is only a “framework,” and not a norm, the minority organizations perceive every retreat from the text of the Convention as a significant infringement of minority rights. Moreover, these organizations are convinced that the Saeima (Parliament) must ratify the Convention before the referendum on joining the EU, thereby ensuring the democratic process and demonstrating the loyalty of the government towards minorities. Otherwise, as evidenced by calls heard at the seminar, Russian organizations will begin a campaign against Latvia joining the EU. According to minority representatives, this would be sufficient leverage to force the government to halt what is, in their opinion, forced assimilation. These minority representatives clearly stated that they are in favor of joining the EU but, if necessary, they could change their opinion.
These statements are worthy of attention for at least two reasons. First, as shown in opinion polls, the support of non-Latvians for the EU is greater than that of Latvians. The members of various minority groups make up around one quarter of all those eligible to vote in Latvia. Second, this proposition was put forth by the representative of the influential Russian Society in Latvia, whose organization includes 11 Russian non-governmental organizations. This proposition was immediately supported by almost all of the minority organization members present at the seminar.
In my opinion, the government does not have to rush the ratification of the Convention, but it must begin preparations for this ratification and it must start explaining the convention, including minority representatives in the process. Even the Special Tasks Minister for Social Integration, Nils Muiznieks, has acknowledged that the issue of whether the Convention should be ratified before or after the referendum has not been decided. In my view, the Convention will not solve the most pressing issues relating to minority rights such as, for example, the use of Russian language in relations with municipal governments. Its ratification would sooner allow the government to work out self-control mechanisms and undermine the position of those segments of society both in Latvia and abroad that deride Latvia for its failure to observe the rights of minorities.
One more contradictory appeal was made during the seminar – Russian must be recognized as the second state language in Latvia, as demonstrated by the seminar’s own working language. Thus the desire to hold the seminar in a language understood by minorities, so as to involve them in a discussion of relevant issues, became a useful argument for the Russian organizations to make their case for two official languages in Latvia. The appeal to introduce two state languages was put forth with such elevated emotion that at one moment it seemed as if all those seated in the hall were about to head for the Saeima to have their demands implemented. The only person who openly objected to the introduction of two official languages was the chairman of Latvia’s Association for the support of Russian language education (LASHOR), Igor Pimenov. He said that language is one of the primary symbols of independence for Latvians and the declaration of Russian as a state language would only make the situation of minorities worse, therefore Pimenov suggested that Russian language education be preserved.
Minority representatives view the 2004 education reform as the beginning of a purposeful rout of Russian language education. The participants in the seminar fully acknowledged that the primary education program conforms to the Convention, but derided the proposed reform of secondary education as unsuitable. The minority organizations mistakenly believe that the Convention saddles the government with responsibility for ensuring secondary education in one’s native language, thereby serving as a savior of minority education in Latvia. In reality, Section 2, Article 12, Point 3 of the Convention states, “The Parties undertake to promote equal opportunities for access to education at all levels for persons belonging to national minorities.” Yet neither this point, nor any other attachment intends for the government to guarantee all levels of education in minority languages. Moreover, the implementation of this point does not place any financial obligation on either party and is not intended to influence the acquisition of the state language. Of course, it is important to minorities that their identity, culture and language be preserved. But, it is just as important that, through knowledge of the Latvian language, they be guaranteed access to the job market.
Minority representatives expressed the view that forced assimilation is occurring in Latvia and that the destruction of Russian culture is being carried out instead of cultural dialogue. In their opinion, this is the last chance for the government to evaluate the needs of minority cultures and finally bring order to the chaotic manner in which the government distributes its endowment to minority culture. Moreover, they hold that an openly discriminatory regime is being instituted against minorities in Latvia to create a mono-ethnic state. Professor Leo Dribin’s attempts to explain various ethno-political terms went unheeded, as did the remark that Latvia is a democratic nation state, in which all national groups have equal rights. This proves that before this sort of discussion can be held, another seminar is necessary to explain the definition of various ethno-political terms. Otherwise, a dialogue cannot be formed as both sides, using the same terms, glean radically opposing information from them.
This seminar laid bare the fact that the majority of these minority organization representatives neither understand the content of the Convention, nor wish to delve more deeply into it. Instead, various chauvinistic allegations were put forth, calling not for social cohesion, but for division. The opinion that government institutions should abstain from organizing such seminars because they provide a forum for views unfavorable to state institutions, was also advanced. In my opinion, such seminars must be organized more often in order to create a dialogue and overcome disagreements between minorities and the government.
 The seminar, “The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities: Explanatory information,” was held in Riga, February 7, with the participation of representatives from 37 minority organisations, including Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Tatar and other minority groups.