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Language policy in Latvia, by Giovanni Poggeschi


The Committee concludes that Ms. Ignatane has suffered specific injury in being prevented from standing for the local elections in the city of Riga in 1997, because of having been struck off the list of candidates on the basis of insufficient proficiency in the official language. The Human Rights Committee considers that the author is a victim of a violation of article 25, in conjunction with article 2 of the Covenant.

The second case is Podkolzina vs. Latvia, judged by the European Court of Human Rights. (23) It also regards the need of having the linguistic certificate to be able to stand for the elections. Ms. Podkolzina, a native Russian speaker, was a deputy candidate from the People's Harmony Party (the pro-minority coalition For Human Rights in United Latvia) in the parliamentary elections held in October 1998. On 21 August 1998 the Central Electoral Commission struck Ms. Podkolzina from the electoral list on the basis of a provision of the Election Law, viz., because of "insufficient state language proficiency". The decision was taken after the State Language Centre issued the ruling that Ms. Podkolzina's state language proficiency did not correspond to the third level. The reference was based on the results of an examination held by a state language inspector on 7 August 1998, despite the fact that Ms. Podkolzina, like Ms. Ignatane, possess a required third level valid state language proficiency certificate.

Although the Latvian authorities had not contested the validity of that document, the applicant had nevertheless been required to provide a further certificate of proficiency. The assessment had been left to the discretion of a single language inspector, whose powers were considered excessive by the Court. Consequently, it considered that, in the absence of any objective guarantees, the procedure followed in the applicant’s case was incompatible with the procedural requirements of fairness and legal certainty in determining eligibility for election.

It is, of course, not for the Court to determine the choice of the working language of a national parliament, “….as that choice was dictated by historical and political considerations and, in principle, was exclusively for the State concerned to determine…”, but at the same time the applicant held a valid language certificate which showed that it was possible for her to participate in the activity of the Saeima (Parliament) with no major problem. The Court accordingly held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 (right to free elections). (24)

Thus, although the principles enshrined in the State Language Law are fully legitimate, this is not the case for the concrete applications that some civil servants have undertaken. In fact, the “linguistic inspectors” in both cases abused their position to deny a fundamental right to two citizens. The impact of those cases must have been relevant, because the Saeima decided, on 9 May 2002, to abolish the state language requirements for deputy candidates in parliamentary and municipal elections.

This concession seems to be compensated by the revision affecting Article 18 of the Constitution, which now has a new provision according to which every Member of the Saeima is obliged to give a loyalty oath which includes the promise “to strengthen the Latvian language as the sole state language”.

Another fundamental “piece” of the linguistic policy in Latvia has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the education reform scheduled for 2004 which will cease state support for secondary education in minority languages. (25) It is hard to foresee how the Court will react, but if it is true that the application was submitted arguing that the right to choose the language of teaching has been neglected, then the claim has poor prospects, given the precedent of the Belgian Linguistic Case of 1968, which states that the “philosophical convictions” falling under Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights do not include the right to choose the language of instruction in schools. This principle has also been used in the famous judgment of the Spanish Tribunal Constitutional 337/1994 of 23rd December, which declares legitimate the Catalan educational system. (26)

7. Conclusions

A doctrine which is very critical of the Latvian linguistic and citizenship policies states that “the nationalist project aims to establish a nation-state based on the Latvian language and culture in a territory which is at present highly multicultural, and multiculturalism is rejected because it cannot guarantee supremacy fro the titular ethnic group”. (27)

I only raise the doubt that the term “multicultural” is misused in this framework: what the Latvians institution clearly reject is a system based on the equality of the nationalities which live in its territory. Latvians have the right to rebuild their democracy and their State, taking as a basis their cultural national values, as language. The State is to a large extent “of and for the dominant cultural nation”. (28) This implies that members of the minority must be integrated in this State, but the State must also respect and promote some minority rights. In Latvia there is no space for a State based on the political equality of Latvians and Russians (speakers), but a certain degree of multiculturalism must be admitted. It will be the task of the politics to determine how this double task has to be fulfilled. (29) What is absolutely not congruent with this double aim is to live out of the political decisions a large sector of the residents of the country. That is why the policies of Latvia should aim to a better integration of the Russian speaking people not only through education, but also allowing a higher level participation in the decision making: and to assure that the citizenship must be granted to all the legal residents in the Latvian republic.

Giovanni Poggeschi
European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen

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