Status of Russian-speaking minorities in Lavia debated

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Feb 25 21:44:26 UTC 2005

Language Intergroup debates status of Russian-speaking minorities in

Strassburg / Strasbourg 2/24/2005 , by Simone Klinge

The conclusion of the European Parliament Intergroup for Traditional
National Minorities, Constitutional Regions and Regional Languages debate
today was clear and unanimous. While the tragic history of the Latvian
people under Soviet rule cannot be forgotten, it is now crucial to face
the present and give citizenship and the right to Russian-medium education
to the Russian minority in Latvia. At the same time all parties agreed
that is crucial to have a very good command of Latvian, the state

Undoubtedly this is one of the most controversial and delicate issues of
national minorities, loaded with historical and emotional meanings, were
the opening words of Hungarian MEP Csaba Tabajdi, Chairman of the
Intergroup and of todays session in Strasbourg on the sensitive situation.

We do not want to act as judges but try to play the role of a mediator and
get closer to a democratic solution, Mr Tabajdi said to the
representatives of the Latvian State and the Russian-speaking minority,
who were invited to present both sides of the argument to Intergroup MEPs.

Ilmars Mezs, Adviser to the Minister for Social Integration, said that on
a daily basis there was no conflict between the Russian and the Latvian
speakers, pointing to the example of the many mixed marriages.

However, Mr Mezs was concerned that Russian speakers have a large
deficiency in speaking Latvian. He explained this by the fact that during
the Soviet occupation many Russians had moved to Latvia, who at that time
enjoyed privileges and never learned Latvian, and that this attitude had
carried on until today. He complained about the fact that more Latvians
knew Russian than vice-versa.

Andis Geizans, Adviser to the Minister of Education and Science in Latvia,
said that the government was aiming for a unified and integrated
educational policy. When Latvia became independent in 1991, it had
inherited a segregated system of Latvian schools and Russian schools. The
approach today in Latvia is bilingual and pragmatic and is achieved in
several transition stages. He further underlined that the Ministry of
Education was open for dialogue.

The ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of
National Minorities should happen this year to ensure proficiency in
Latvian without losing Russian, said Mr Mes.

A representative of the Russian-speaking minority, Aleksejs Dimitrovs,
co-chairperson of the Latvian Humans Rights Committee, said that, I
believe that Latvia has a tragic history. And I also believe that all
citizens should learn Latvian. But the Latvian state would also benefit
from showing more respect for its minorities. He criticized the exclusion
of minorities in the decision-making process and the assimilation process
at schools and was concerned about the fact that 20% of the people living
in Latvia were non-citizens.

One Russian-speaking pupil from Latvia said, although I was born in Latvia
and, just like my parents, I have lived there all my life, I have a
non-citizen passport where it says that I am an alien. Latvia divides
people into two groups, we are like humans of the second sort. All we want
are equal rights.

All MEPs that took the floor agreed that it is important to acknowledge
the painful history of Latvia, but that it was time to turn to the future
without forgetting the past. They also praised the representatives for the
unemotional debate.

According to MEP Henrik Lax, a generous policy towards minorities is the
best integration, and referred as an example to his home country Finland,
where the Swedish speakers have equal linguistic rights, but still need to
pass tough exams in Finnish in order to hold public office.

Catalan MEP Ignasi Guardans Cambo said that he had mixed feelings about
the situation in Latvia. As Catalans we show a lot of sympathy for a small
state with a difficult history. Latvia deserves the means to protect its
identity and culture. But it is also important to protect the rights of
minorities and individual citizens. No one should pay for the crime of his
parents or grandparents.

Mr Guardans also stressed that a clear distinction had to be made between
the topic of citizenship and that of language, especially with regard to
majority  minority relations.

The Latvian language is still threatened today if it is not secured, Mr
Guardans said. Of course national minorities should have the right to
learn their language, but at the same time imposing knowledge of the state
language has to be supported. The Russian minority will never lose their
language because it is not threatened and because they have a huge

However, when it comes to citizenship, the situation is the exact
opposite, added Mr Guardans and heavily criticized the state for having
450, 000 aliens. This is a serious fault for Latvia. The case should move
to the Civil Rights Committee. We cannot have second class citizens in the
state. No country should have the right to prevent citizenship beyond what
is reasonable. (Eurolang 2005)

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