ECRI 2nd report on Latvia (excerpts on language), 2001

SECTION I: OVERVIEW OF THE SITUATION

A. International Legal Instruments

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2. In its first report, ECRI recommended that Latvia ratify the Framework
Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The authorities have stated that one of the obstacles to the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is the possible non-conformity of specific domestic legislation with the provisions contained in this convention, especially in the field of the use of languages. ECRI strongly urges the Latvian authorities to introduce the necessary changes in domestic legislation which would allow ratification by Latvia of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and to promptly ratify this instrument. ECRI furthermore reiterates its call for ratification by Latvia of the European Charter for Regional or Minority
Languages.

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B. Constitutional provisions and other basic provisions

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Language law

14. The new Latvian State Language Law (adopted in December 1999) entered into force on 1 September 2000. According to its Article 1, the purpose of the law is to ensure: the preservation, protection and development of the Latvian language; the preservation of the cultural and historical heritage of the Latvian nation; the right to use the Latvian language freely in any spheres of life on the whole territory of Latvia; the integration of national minorities in the society while observing their right to use their mother tongue or any other language; and the increase of the influence of the Latvian language in the cultural environment of Latvia by promoting a faster integration of society. Article 5 of the Law, stipulates that any languages used in Latvia other than Latvian, with the exception of the Liv language5 , shall be considered as “other” languages. ECRI regrets that this provision appears to contribute to the creation of an atmosphere of antagonism in language policy with regard to the use of all other languages on the territory of Latvia which might qualify as regional or minority languages.

Footnote 5 The Liv language is the language spoken by the Livs, an ethnic long-established group on the territory of Latvia.

15. The State Language Law contains provisions regulating the use of language in different areas, including employment, contacts with public institutions, public events, names of places and personal names. In addition, further legislation regulates the use of language in other areas, such as elections to the Parliament and City Councils, electronic mass media and education. ECRI will address these areas in other Sections of this report6.

Footnote 6 See Constitutional provisions and other basic provisions – Laws on election to Parliament and City Councils; Access to public services – Access to education; and Media

16.It is a general principle of the State Language Law (Article 2) that the use of language in private institutions, organisations and companies is regulated only where there is a legitimate public interest (public safety, health, morals, health care, consumer and labour rights protection, safety at work and public administrative supervision). ECRI strongly urges the Latvian authorities to ensure that implementation of the Law is strictly in accordance with this principle. As will be mentioned below, employment is an area that ECRI considers of particular importance in this context7.

Footnote 7 See Employment below

17. The State Language Law explicitly prohibits state, municipal and judicial institutions from accepting documents from individuals in any language other than Latvian, except for some special situations (e.g. personal statements submitted to the police and medical institutions, rescue services and other institutions when urgent medical assistance is summoned, when a crime or other violation of the law has been committed or when emergency assistance is requested in case of fire, traffic, accident or any other accident). Documents submitted in other languages are accepted only if accompanied by a notary-certified translation into Latvian. Although translators have reportedly been hired in some municipalities, these provisions adversely affect the possibility for the members of the non-ethnic Latvian community to access public institutions. Many of these persons do not master the Latvian language sufficiently to submit documents to public institutions in Latvian, and, for some, the costs of
translation and notary certification are particularly burdensome. Some of the most vulnerable groups amongst Russian-speakers, such as prisoners and persons under investigation, are reported to be particularly negatively affected by these provisions, which have resulted in their petitions, complaints and other documents submitted in Russian not being accepted. ECRI strongly urges the Latvian authorities to keep the Law under review and to ensure that provisions regulating the use of language in contacts with public institutions do not result in reduced access to such institutions, particularly by people with poor command of Latvian and limited resources8.

Footnote 8 See below, Problems relating to the integration of the Russian-speaking population into the Latvian society

18. The Law stipulates that personal names and surnames in identification
documents must be reproduced according to the Latvian language tradition and spelling, although it is possible for the individual to add the original name in Latin transliteration on request. ECRI urges the authorities to ensure that the public is made aware of this possibility and that the right to use the original name in concrete situations is thoroughly respected.

19. The Administrative Violations Code contains fines for different violations related to language policy. ECRI strongly urges the Latvian authorities to ensure that, in cases involving the private sector, sanctions are limited to cases where there exists a “legitimate public interest” and to ensure that this principle is strictly abided by in the implementation of the Code. ECRI notes that the formulation of certain violations, such as the one establishing a fine for “disrespect towards the state language”, lend themselves to a potentially arbitrary application. ECRI urges the Latvian authorities to carefully monitor the implementation of these provisions. Furthermore, noting that the fines established for violations related to language policy can be as high as 250 Lats (450 Euros), ECRI urges the authorities to keep the amount of the fines under review. More generally, ECRI doubts whether fines are the most appropriate tools to ensure implementation of language legislation in Latvia and stresses in this respect that more positive measures to ensure implementation ought to be made widely available and applied.

20. The State Language Centre is the institution responsible for implementing language policy, including controlling compliance with normative acts, such as the State Language Law. Although they may act on their own initiative, the inspectors of the Centre work mainly on the basis of complaints. The Centre is reported to have been active in ensuring compliance with language provisions. The Latvian authorities have reported that, since July 2001, 26 administrative cases have been initiated. ECRI notes that the Centre is collaborating with the OSCE for the preparation of manuals containing guidelines for inspections.

Laws on election to Parliament and City Councils

21. Latvian laws on election to Parliament and City Councils establish Latvian language proficiency requirements which must be met by citizens to qualify as candidates for elections. On the basis of these provisions, some candidates for election to Parliament or City Councils who have been found by the electoral commissions not to fulfil such requirements, have been removed by the lists of candidates. These cases involved persons with Latvian language certificates, whose knowledge of Latvian was re-tested by the State Language Centre. ECRI notes that an individual communication and a complaint have been filed before the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights. Noting that the political representation of non-ethnic Latvians is rather low, however, ECRI expresses its concern that the linguistic requirements for elected representatives may prove an additional barrier to the participation of such groups in public life in Latvia.

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N. Media

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61. As concerns public electronic media, the Law on Radio and Televison provides that one of the two public TV channels must broadcast only in Latvian, while the second may allocate up to 20% of time for programmes in other languages. In consideration of the large proportion of non-Latvian mother tongue speakers in Latvia, ECRI considers that instead of a limit not to be exceeded for programmes in languages other than Latvian, 20% of time could be considered as a share to be compulsorily allocated to such programmes. ECRI notes the work of the National Council on Radio and Television — the body responsible for enforcement of the Law, in this respect. As regards the private electronic media, the Law stipulates that no more than 25% of airtime can be allocated to programmes in languages other than Latvian. ECRI notes that the National Council on Radio and Television has frequently intervened to ensure compliance of broadcasters with these provisions; sanctions which the Council imposes on broadcasters for exceeding the permitted 25% ceiling include cautions, fines and temporary closure. The Council may also file a case against a broadcaster demanding withdrawal of their license in case of repeated violations. ECRI notes that the constitutionality of the provision limiting the time available for broadcasting in languages other than Latvian to 25% of the total time has been questioned, although the Constitutional Court has dismissed the
application on procedural grounds. ECRI is concerned that, in practice, this
provision contributes to perpetuating the situation of separate access to media and information described above, as members of non-Latvian speaking groups, and notably members of the Russian-speaking population, tend to turn to Russian-language channels originating from other countries.

SECTION II: ISSUES OF PARTICULAR CONCERN

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P. Problems relating to the integration of the Russian-speaking population into the Latvian society

66. As highlighted in different sections of this report, the members of the Russian-speaking population27 of Latvia experience difficulties in various areas of life. ECRI has illustrated some of these difficulties, especially those originating from laws, regulations and practice concerning the use of languages and education in languages other than Latvian. In addressing these issues ECRI recognises the pressing historical and political factors underlying the policies of the Latvian Government in seeking to protect the Latvian language. ECRI also recognises the importance of such an objective in safeguarding the identity and cohesion of the country. ECRI’s concern is that such policies should not, in the way they are implemented and in the way they impact on other areas of policy, work in a way that is counter productive to this end.

Footnote 27 As mentioned above, ECRI uses the term “Russian-speaking population” to refer to those minority groups which generally use Russian as their first language of communication within Latvian society for reasons of political history and in some cases lack of take-up of Latvian language learning opportunities. Such groups include groups of a mother tongue other than Russian. These include approximately 158,000 Belarussians, Ukrainians and members of other smaller groups. Approximately 122,000 are non-citizens.

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68. In proportion to their numerical size, members of the Russian-speaking
population are seriously under-represented at various levels in Latvian society, such as its political life and its administrative structures, including the civil service, the judiciary and State enterprises. ECRI notes that representation of the Russian-speaking population appears to be well below even the share of Russian-speaking population within the citizenry of Latvia (approximately 23%). For example, out of 100 Members of Parliament, only 16 are non-ethnic Latvians. In Riga, where non-ethnic Latvians constitute the majority of the population, the City Council counts, amongst its 60-strong membership, 12 persons belonging to the Russian-speaking population, with three high-rank executive positions entrusted to Russian speakers — an improvement from the situation prior to the last municipal election of March 2001. ECRI notes that this situation seriously impacts on the possibility for this part of the population to influence the decision-making processes leading to legislative and policy developments. Language regulations governing political representation, difficult access to public employment, lack of citizenship as well as lack of proficiency in the Latvian language are amongst the factors explaining the current limited participation of members of the Russian-speaking population in public life in Latvia.

69. In addition, it has been reported that social problems, such as unemployment, have tended to impact disproportionately upon the Russian-speaking population, although, as mentioned above30, official figures do not necessarily reflect this situation. Once again, language skills appear to play an important role in determining this situation. For instance, a survey recently carried out under the auspices of the Latvian Naturalisation Board, indicates that, of those whose native language was not Latvian, 38% of all non-citizens and 22% of all citizens felt they could not work in a job requiring Latvian language knowledge and 28% and 30% respectively felt they could work but with problems.

Footnote 30 Employment

70. A sociological survey commissioned by the NHRO in January 2000 also
indicates that 24% of all respondents to the survey (i.e. 18% of all Latvians and 31% of all non-ethnic Latvians) felt they had experienced discrimination in the last three years, especially in the field of employment and access to social services. Ethnicity and language were the two main grounds of discrimination mentioned by all respondents, especially by non-ethnic Latvians and noncitizens (respectively 40% and 43% of all those who claimed discrimination).

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76. As mentioned above, ECRI believes knowledge of Latvian language to be of particular importance to ensure successful mutual integration of all members of the population of Latvia. In this respect, ECRI welcomes the work done by the National Programme for Latvian Language Training (NPLLT), a Programme designed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the request of the Latvian Government. Running for a ten year period (1996-2006), the Programme focuses mainly on: training of teachers in Latvian as a second language and in bilingual teaching; adults’ language training; and development of teaching material. The authorities have stated that more than 42,000 persons have benefited from the Programme between 1996 and 2000. ECRI notes that, in 2001, the Latvian Government has started co-financing and co-ordinating the NPLLT, which was previously financed solely by international donors and coordinated by UNDP. ECRI strongly urges the Latvian authorities to provide all possible support, including adequate human and financial resources, to the NPLLT and to ensure, in this respect, that an adequate portion of the State budget allocated for the implementation of the National Programme for Integration of the Society is devoted to the NPLLT.


Document data: CRI (2002) 21; adopted on 14.12.2001, published on 23.07.2002 Link: https://rm.coe.int/second-report-on-latvia/16808b58b0 Also available in Latvian at http://rm.coe.int/second-report-on-latvia-latvian-translation-/16808b58b2

Publisher’s note: for other language-relevant issues, please see excerpts on education and employment.

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