While reading the report (Monitoring the EU Accession Process. Minority Protection), I came up with a few questions about methodology and the reflection of problems. I am not sure that it is equally important and adequate to focus on the situation of Russians in Latvia and Estonia and the situation of Roma in other member states. I do not say that now the protection of national minorities is perfect, however, the attitude of the state has changed to very big extent.
Dita Araja of "Diena" interviews Peter Semneby, Head of OSCE Mission to Latvia
What has changed in the attitude of the Latvian Government towards minorities?
If the at the beginning of 90-ies the priority of political agenda was the re-establishment of sovereign country, then today it is a necessity to form a society where relations between Latvians and national minorities are in balance. I do not say, that now the protection of national minorities is perfect, however, the attitude of the state has changed to very big extent. Let’s recall – when Latvia just re-established its independence it took a long time to adapt the Law on Citizenship and other laws that concern the status of non-citizens. Now after naturalisation has been launched even those who were strictly against this law have realised that nothing horrible has happened. The adoption of the National Society Integration Programme was a very essential step.
The study about the protection of national minorities in the EU member states will be presented tomorrow. Does it concern issues important for Latvia?
While reading the report, I came up with a few questions about methodology and the reflection of problems. I am not sure that it is equally important and adequate to focus on the situation of Russians in Latvia and Estonia and the situation of Roma in other member states. The problem concerning Russian rights in Latvia and Estonia is rather important, but the problems of Roma are much more topical. I also had an impression that the authors of the study were rather too much into attempts to compare differences between citizens and non-citizens. Latvia has done a lot to erase differences, and I think that the efforts will be more effective if we focus on encouraging non-citizens to naturalise.
The recommendations given to the Latvian Government in the report are nothing new for us – some of them we are already fulfilling, in regard to others the state has demonstrated its stance that is the specific issue is not going to be reviewed at least for the moment.
I do not put my signature under all recommendations but on the whole they can be the subject of a political discussion. There is a controversial issue related to naturalisation and citizenship: on the one side, it is a problem that a big part of residents in big cities are not able to have their representatives at local councils, however, from another side, it is also recognisable that the rights to vote are acquired through naturalisation.
In the recommendations it is also said that the Integration Program should be turned from declarative document into a program which is implemented on a practical level.
Although the program has not started to operate on the practical level, I hope that it will be dynamic, and that actually depends on resources and management. The program already had a positive impact – encouragement of residents to naturalise is named as a priority.
Which are the most discriminating norms towards national minorities in the Latvian legislation?
The majority of Latvian law corresponds to minimal international standards. However, I think that beyond these minimum standards the number of professions, which require citizenship, could be reduced. There are several occupations where citizenship is not necessary in order to perform well. Here I am not talking about the positions in state administration, citizenship does not determine whether a person does good or bad job. Also the State Language Law could be liberalised a little, for instance, the articles that applies to the language usage in a private sphere.
Does this mean that the language problem is one of the most topical problems in Latvia?
I consider that state’s program for naturalisation is more vital. It is not normal if about one fourth of state residents are not citizens. I presume that a big part of this group will never want to naturalise, but it is very important to support those who have the interest in acquiring citizenship. The support could be in the form of courses. There is still a lack of information about the opportunities which citizenship provides in the long-term. As it is essential to provide non-citizens with such information we together with the Naturalisation Board will lunch an awareness campaign in a couple of weeks in order to motivate people to acquire Latvian citizenship. The study Towards the Civic Society presented in spring shows that about 40% of non-citizens plan to acquire Latvian citizenship in the coming years and that is already a good rate.
Then why don’t they realise this wish because after the rapid increase in naturalisation just after the Law on Citizenship was liberalised, now we experience a step back?
It is a combination of different aspects. One of the key factors is state fee, which has been reduced. Second, language; but the biggest problem is that people still have not realised the advantages provided by citizenship and we have to inform them about that. For instance, it will be possible to acquire EU citizenship through the Latvian citizenship. Unfortunately, political activity does not have a big importance for a lot of people, which is demonstrated by the observation that people do not see a big difference between the status of citizen and non-citizen.
And what are the biggest language problems? In the study it is reproached that in the country where the Latvian language is not the mother tongue of 38% residents, state and municipal authorities accept documents only in the state language.
This controversial issue is based on the concerns of Latvians that communication in another language would lead to bilingual situation in the country. A few individual municipalities have found very good solutions, for instance, Daugavpils Council has hired a translator/interpreter. It is of strategic importance to create a positive atmosphere in order to encourage non-citizens to learn and use the Latvian language. If the focus is only on penalties it is possible to reach the adverse effect and cause a negative reaction against language usage.
How can we encourage people? Particularly, the new generations, as the results of some studies show – young people know the language but do not want to speak.
The National Program of Latvian Language Learning has done a lot by offering people language courses, although it focuses more on teaching teachers and representatives of specific professions. State language courses for the applicants for naturalisation launched by the Naturalisation Board should be also appreciated, although this year the courses are sponsored only from international funds, which were raised with the help of the OSCE and UNDP.
An increasingly serious problem is the year of 2004 when students of 10th grade of minority schools will have to study exclusively in the state language.
It is a very complicated issue and the relations between ethnic groups depend on it to a very big extent. The transfer period is too short as bilingual education at basic schools is not going to be completely implemented by 1 September 2004. Also a sufficient amount of resources has not been invested and I doubt whether all teachers will be able to conduct their subjects in the Latvian language. Therefore, first of all, it is necessary to ensure that the quality of education will not suffer and as a result of that students as well. The second problem is that the goals of the reform are not clearly defined. It is not clear, what role a minority language will have at school. The Government has to define it and communicate to the parents and teachers. I do not think that non-Latvians will be assimilated by learning the Latvian language, since the Russian community in Latvia has strong roots.
There are also reproaches because we have not ratified the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities.
This is neither the OSCE, nor the EU requirement because individual EU countries have not ratified the Convention either. It would be a positive step, particularly in Latvia’s case, because here the minority part of the population is big, but I also think that some times it is better to wait. I do not think that the ratification of the Convention were ratified that would mean big changes in legislation. Already today Latvia is taking measures that will create the conditions for the ratification of the Convention. Also the State President is asking the residents to naturalise. It is important that Latvia has a long-term policy regarding the protection of minorities.
In your opinion, does Latvia have it now?
It is important that there are no ethnic conflicts on the daily level in Latvia, but it should be realised that the goals are not static. It is important to keep working at these issues because when Latvia becomes a member state of the EU these issues will be on the political agenda every day. Today’s discussion about national minority rights is basically about Russians because they are the biggest minority in Latvia, but for me it is important that Latvia does not forget its other national minorities.