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Language policy in Latvia, by Giovanni Poggeschi


The education law of 1991 gave individuals the right to be educated in their native language, and at the same time it stated that all children must be taught the State language. This communitarian approach had to change, and the fundamental normative instrument which shows this shift is the Education Law of 1998. This law foresees the introduction of Latvian as the language of education in all State secondary schools and the implementation of bilingual education in primary school starting from 1st September 2004. The Latvian educational system has been described as “the most important driving force of the integration process”. (13)

The most relevant articles of the Education Law are the following: (14)

Article 9. Language of acquiring of education

(1) At state and municipal education institutions education shall be acquired in the state language.

(2) Education may be acquired in another language:

a) at private education institutions;
b) at state or municipal education institutions which implement education programs of national minorities. The Ministry of Education and Science shall determine the subjects of these programs which have to be taught in the state language;
c) at education institutions prescribed by special laws.

(3) Every person to be educated, in order to acquire primary or secondary education, shall master the state language and take examinations of the state language to the extent and in accordance with a procedure set by the Ministry of Education and Science.

(4) Examinations for professional qualification shall be taken in the state language.

(5) Papers necessary for qualifying for an academic degree (Bachelor's or Master's degree) and a scientific degree (Ph.D.) shall be written and presented in the state language, except for cases provided for by other laws.

(6) Raising of professional qualification and changing of a profession which is financed from the state or a municipal budget, shall be in the state language.

Article 41. Programs of Education for National Minorities

(1) Education institutions shall prepare education programs for national minorities in accordance with state standards of education, using as a basis general education models which have been approved by the Ministry of Education and Science.

(2) Minority education programs shall include in addition the necessary content [required] for acquiring the appropriate ethnic culture and integration of the minority in Latvia [into Latvian society].

(3) The Ministry of Education and Science shall determine the subjects for study in minority education programs which are to be studied in the state language.

According to the foreseen schedule, the subjects, which could be taught in minority languages in minority secondary schools after September 1, 2004, are only minority languages themselves, as well as subjects, "related to minority identity and culture".

A struggle has arisen, (15) because the Russian speaking persons consider those provisions as discriminating them. The new situation may cause the consequence of the growth of private Russian-language schools, “an option only available to the children of the wealthy”. (16)

Surely the issue of education is very sensitive, but it is consequent for the Latvian authorities to create a system in which the Latvian language is pivotal. Such a system is bound not to create linguistic ghettos, in which the people do not know the State language. The integration of the non Latvian speakers has its starting point in the educational system. The “sacrifice” to this integration are some linguistic rights of the Russian speaking minority, but this has to be understood from the optic of the building of a Nation-State which respects the minorities, but which does not consider their status as equal to the status of the majority, which corresponds to the founding nation.

5. The citizenship legislation

The Latvian legislation on the State language, and the related legislation on education, must be understood as an effort to provide a strong basis for the recuperation of a language which, even if it is the majority language, have to be considered an “endangered language”.

What raises more founded doubts about the Latvian legislation on minorities is the package of provisions regarding citizenship. Some commentators have described those measures as an unconfessed, but existing, desire to erase most of the Russian speaking people from Latvia, making them leave the country.

The Law on Citizenship of 1993 and the connected regulations, even though their most extreme aspects have been amended to meet the European requirements in 1998, limit the immediate access to Latvian citizenship to those who already had it in 1940 (when Latvia lost its sovereignty) and their descendants, and to those  who were  born in Latvia after 1991: for other people, there has to  be a “naturalization process,” according to the so called “window-system”, which stipulates a maximum number of “naturalizations” every year. The consequence is that around 600,000 residents of Latvia are still stateless: they are granted certain rights (mostly given through the law on the status of former Soviet citizens), but they are not entitled to fundamental political rights. (17)

More precisely, according to Article 2 Citizens of Latvia are:

"1) Persons who were citizens of Latvia on June 17, 1940 and their descendants who have registered according to the procedures established by law, except persons who have become citizens (subjects) of another state after May 4, 1990." (18)

It is thus undoubted that the “European Commission recommendations contributed to changes in citizenship and language legislation. In 1998, for instance, Latvia abolished the ‘window system’ and granted, upon request of their parents, citizenship to stateless children born in Latvia after 21 August 1991”. (19) In fact, the new text of Article 3 states as follows:

(1) A child who was born in Latvia after August 21, 1991 shall be recognized as a Latvian citizen in the procedure determined in the second or third Parts of this Article, if he/she corresponds with the following requirements:

1) Latvia is his/her permanent place of residence;

2) He/she was not sentenced to imprisonment for committing a crime for longer than five years within Latvia or any other country;

3) He/she throughout all previous time was a stateless person or a non-resident.

Those changes are very important and they reflect the intention of the Latvian government to embark on a new direction in its ethnopolitical policy “after it became clear that six years of large-scale exclusion was only deepening ethnic separation in society”. (20)

6. The Latvian and European jurisprudence related to the Latvian linguistic policy

It is interesting to analyze some domestic and international judgments about language and minority rights in Latvia, (21) also to underline ho differently those issues are tackled in different ways according to the different parameters (and also sensibilities).

The Mentzen or Mencena judgment of the Latvian Constitutional Court of 21 December 2001 has been so far the most relevant high domestic Court case in Latvia. On July 13, 2001 Juta Mencena (hereafter the applicant) submitted a claim at the Constitutional Court, because after marrying a citizen of the German Federal Republic, Ferdinand Carl Friedrich Mentzen, the Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs issued her a passport, spelling her surname Mencena. The passport’s page 14 indicated in English that the original form of the surname was Mentzen.

The Constitutional Court declared the legitimacy of article 19 of the state language law which states that “Names of persons shall be presented in accordance with the traditions of the Latvian language and written in accordance with the existing norms of the literary language, observing the provisions of paragraph two of this section.” Paragraph two, together with Regulation of the Cabinet of Ministers No. 295 of 22 August 2000, belongs to the case invoked by Ms. Mentzen (or Mencena), stating that:

"There shall be set out in a passport or birth certificate, in addition to the name and surname of the person presented in accordance with the existing norms of the Latvian language, the historic family name of the person, or the original form of the personal name in a different language, transliterated in the Roman alphabet, if the person or the parents of a minor person so wish and can verify such by documents."

This last provision preserves the personal right of the applicant, who may also have her name written in the original form in her passport, along with its Latvian version. But the Court has considered how important and vital for the sociolinguistic situation of the Latvian language may be the “translation” in this language of a foreign name. This practice is deeper-rooted in the Latvian language than in any other Roman alphabet language’s spelling.

Two cases regarding the linguistic obligation to know Latvian will be briefly analyzed. The first is the Ignatane case, (22) adopted by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations (established under article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights). The author of the communication was Ms. Antonina Ignatane, a teacher with Latvian citizenship and of Russian nationality, who in 1993 had been awarded a language aptitude certificate, stating that she had attained level three, the highest level of proficiency. In 1997 she stood for local elections as a candidate of the Movement of Social Justice and Equal Rights in Latvia. On 11 February 1997, she was struck off the list by a decision of the Riga Election Commission, on the basis of an opinion issued by the State Language Board (SLB) to the effect that she did not have the required proficiency in the official language. According to Article 9, paragraph 7 of the “Law on Elections to Town Councils and Municipal Councils” of 13 January 1994, anyone who does not have level 3 (higher) proficiency in the state language may not stand for election. According to article 22, the Election Commission may strike a candidate off the list if this candidate does not meet the requirements corresponding to level 3 of language proficiency in the state language, and that fact must be certified by an opinion of the SLB.

After having exhausted the domestic remedies, and after the domestic Courts had confirmed the validity of the linguistic sanction, Ms. Ignatane claimed that, by depriving her of the opportunity to stand for the local elections, Latvia violated articles 2 and 25 of the Covenant.

The Election Commission’s ruling confirmed the earlier decision., and the  Human Rights Committee of The United Nations stated that:

"The State Party is of the view that the provisions of the Law on Elections to Town Councils and Municipal Councils comply with the requirements of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as provided in the Human Rights Committee's General Comment No. 25, article 25, which states that "any conditions which apply to the exercise of the rights protected by article 25 should be based on objective and reasonable criteria".

According to the State Party, participation in public affairs requires a high level of proficiency in the State language and such a precondition is reasonable and based on objective criteria, which are set forth in the regulation on the certification of proficiency in the state language. The State party says that, according to those regulations, level 3 proficiency in the State language is required for several categories of persons, including elected representatives. The highest level (level 3) shows an ability to speak the official language fluently, to understand texts chosen at random and to draft texts in the official language, in connection with his or her official duties”.

Ms. Ignatane’s main argument lay in the fact that she had already obtained a linguistic certificate from the SLB. She also described the conditions under which the examination was carried out: Ms. Ignatane was at work, when the German lesson she was giving to a class of schoolchildren was interrupted and she was required to do a written exercise in Latvian. The examination was carried out by an inspector in the presence of two witnesses, who were teachers employed at the same school. Given the circumstances, Ms. Ignatane maintained that the spelling mistakes and other errors that were used as evidence of her limited proficiency in Latvian should not be taken into account. The Committee’s findings were as follows:

"The Committee notes that, in this case, the decision of a single inspector, taken a few days before the election and contradicting language aptitude certificate issued some years earlier, for an unlimited period, by a board of Latvian language specialists, was enough for the Election Commission to decide to strike the author off the list of candidates for the municipal elections. The Committee notes that the State party does not contest the validity of the certificate as it relates to the author's professional position, but bases it decisions on the results of the inspector's review in the matter of the author's eligibility. The Committee also notes that the State party has not contested counsel's argument that Latvian law does not provide for separate levels of proficiency in the official language in order to stand for election, but applies the standards and certification used in other instances The results of the review led to the author's being prevented from exercising her right to participate in public life in conformity with article 25 of the Covenant. The Committee notes that the first examination, in 1993, was conducted in accordance with formal requirements and was assessed by five experts, whereas the 1997 review was conducted in an ad hoc manner and assessed by a single individual. The annulment of the author's candidacy pursuant to a review that was not based on objective criteria and which the State party has not demonstrated to be procedurally correct is not compatible with the State party's obligations under article 25 of the Covenant".

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