Social Integration Issues and the 8th Saeima

03. September, 2002

Foto: AFI

Compared to the previous Saeima elections, issues related to social integration and ethnopolitics have not been very prominent in this electoral campaign. This quiet on the “integration front” is a bit deceptive.

Compared to the previous Saeima elections, when the citizenship referendum mobilised voters and polarised society, issues related to social integration and ethnopolitics have not been very prominent in this electoral campaign. With the exceptions of “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” (FHRUL) and Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (FF/LNNK), which have always devoted much attention to these issues, and the unsuccessful attempts of Ziedonis Čevers’ Freedom party to locate a political niche with the help of racist advertising, almost all parties are trying to position themselves as pragmatic forces that support the Latvian language. This quiet on the “integration front” is a bit deceptive, as deputies will have to address a number of complex ethnopolitical issues over the next four years.

The most controversial issue will be education reform, in particular whether and how the shift of minority secondary schools to instruction primarily in Latvian will take place in 2004. Numerous experts doubt the preparedness of many schools and teachers to implement the shift successfully. According to the results of recent surveys, minority parents are split – about half support the reform and half are against it. The Russian language media and Russian-speaking NGOs, usually at each other’s throats, are united against the reform and invoke minority rights, the threat of assimilation, etc.

The international community and human rights experts will have a difficult time participating in this very politicised debate, as there are no clear international standards outlining government responsibilities in financing education in minority languages. Moreover, European practice in this realm is diverse. During his last visit to Latvia, even the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus asserted that the planned shift in 2004 is not in contradiction to Latvia’s international treaty obligations, but stressed that it is essential to ensure that the position of minority languages not suffer as a result of the reform. What have political parties and their leaders to say on this issue?

The only parties who speak clearly on this issue in their short programmes are FHRUL (“will ensure state funded secondary education in minority languages after 2004” and FF/LNNK (“will consistently implement the shift, mandated by law, to the Latvian language in secondary schools by 2004.”) On its home-page under “ethnopolitics,” the New Era Party (NEP) promises to “strengthen the preparatory work for the shift of minority secondary schools to Latvian as the basic language of instruction starting with 2004.” The People’s Party (PP) has had the Minister of Education and Science throughout the 7th Saeima and has regularly expressed support for the reform. The leaders of the Latvian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (LSDWP) and the Social Democratic Union (SDU) recently expressed support for the reform to Russian journalists. Latvia’s Way (LW), for its part, has not taken a clear position on the issue, while founder and funder of the First Party (FP) Ainārs Šlesers recently claimed that the shift is “technically impossible.” Considering these views, it can be predicted that there will be harsh debates, which will mobilise Russian-speakers, but the shift will most likely take place in 2004, if only on paper. The question remains open as to whether the government will devote sufficient attention and resources to those schools which will not be ready for the shift.

A second important task for the 8th Saeima in the realm of social integration will be to formulate a clear stance on the ratification of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Latvia signed this convention in 1995 and is the only European Union candidate country in Eastern Europe that has not yet ratified it. Although the implementation mechanism is quite weak, the convention could serve as an important frame for dialogue between the government and minorities, as well as between Latvia and the Council of Europe. With the closure of the OSCE Mission to Latvia and Latvia’s movement towards EU accession, international pressure to ratify the convention will grow, as Western countries will perceive ratification as a signal that progress in social integration and the “normalisation” of the minority situation is continuing.

In the last parliamentary vote on ratification in March 2001, 46 deputies abstained. The primary barriers to ratification are the inability to agree on a minority definition, as well as the incompatibility of several aspects of language policy with the letter and spirit of the convention. Here, one should mention the language restrictions in the Radio and Television Law, the prohibition on rendering place names in minority languages, as well as the limited opportunities and guarantees for communication with local authorities in minority languages in those areas where minorities live traditionally and in significant numbers. In order to ratify the convention, it will be necessary to amend several laws or make declarations (reservations) at the moment of ratification. Will the 8th Saeima amend laws, agree on a minority definition, formulate reservations and agree on ratification?

It seems the answer is “yes.” Though only FHRUL in its short programme expresses clear support for ratification of the convention, for the first time, numerous other party spokespersons have claimed a readiness to address this issue. Representatives from NEP, LW, PP, LSDWP and FP all recently claimed that their parties supported ratification. NEP and FP both stressed the necessity of making reservations, while LW considers only citizens to be members of minorities. Thus far, FF/LNNK has been categorically against ratification and is unlikely to change its views if its should make it into the 8th Saeima. Thus, it is completely possible that the 8th Saeima will ratify the convention, while making a number of reservations.

It is unlikely that the 8th Saeima will want to amend laws that are in contradiction with the convention. At the same time, the Council of Europe has announced that it views reservations in a very negative light. This means that, should Latvia ratify with reservations, the Council of Europe and Minorities will harshly criticise Latvia, but will quietly be satisfied that the new framework for dialogue and international monitoring of this policy area will have been established.

Another controversial issue which may be on the political agenda of the next parliament will be the authority of the State Language Centre. The State Language Centre and its political supporters are not reconciled with the limitation of the Centre’s authority enshrined in the 1999 State Language Law and implementing regulations adopted in 2000. These documents envisage that that the Centre can regulate language use in the private sector only in those cases when a “legitimate public interest” is at stake. In line with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, legitimate public interests should be understood in a narrow fashion. After long discussion with OSCE and Council of Europe experts, Latvia set out a very short list of professions in the private sector subject to language regulation.

It is predictable that there will be political forces which will want to broaden the list and subject all salespersons, hairdressers and so forth to language control. Thus, for example, regarding the Latvian language the NEP states in its section on “ethnopolitics” that it “will not permit ignoring it in state or municipal, social and service sectors.” In its short programme, FF/LNNK promises “regular state language proficiency tests for all who serve the public.” The PP and LW, for their part, stress language teaching. If the NEP and FF/LNNK garner significant success in the elections, it is possible that the issue of the authority of the State Language Centre will be placed on the agenda of the parliament or government, which could create problems for Latvia with international human rights organisations.

There will be other social integration issues to be addressed by the 8th Saeima, but none as controversial as those already mentioned. How much funding should be granted the Social Integration Fund and what should its priorities be? How long should the government support the National Programme for Latvian Language Training? Besides Latvian language training and promotional campaigns, what else should be done to promote the naturalisation of non-citizens? What will be the status of non-citizens in the European Union?

A number of experts on ethnopolitics are running in the elections for the first time, including head of the Naturalisation Board Eizenija Aldermane (LW), political scientist Arts Pabriks (PP), president of the Association in Support of Russian Language Schools Igors Pimenovs (FHRUL), and linguist Ina Druviete (NEP). Those with an interest in social integration should monitor the electoral fortunes of these candidates, as they could have a critical role in formulating their party’s stances in the 8th Saeima. raksts

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