Logotip de la revista Noves SL



hemeroteca

Logo

Autumn 2004


Language policy in Latvia, by Giovanni Poggeschi

Latvia has been accepted in the European "club" the 1st May 2004. To fulfill the European criteria, Latvia has been forced to change some of its provisions about citizenship. The linguistic legislation, which is another pillar of the juridical system, and which tends to create a monolingual society (at least in the public sphere) has been also declared totally legitimate.

The (re)building of one Nation State must foresee a system where the founding nation is prevailing on the others, nevertheless minorities must be protected and respected. The author of this essay justifies the linguistic measures, enshrined in the State Language Law of 1999 and in the Reform of Education of 1998 and criticizes the citizenship provisions (though they have been bettered) which exclude many legal residents from the political decision-making.

 

Printing version. Minority protection and linguistic rights in Lithuania, by Markko Kallonen PDF printing version. 57 KB
         
  en català    
         

Summary

1. Introduction

2. The normative framework

3. The main contents of the State Language Law of 1999

4. Education

5. The citizenship legislation

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

7. Conclusions

 

1. Introduction

Latvia has radically changed its sociolinguistic situation in the last 15 years. In 1989 the official languages of the Soviet Republic of Latvia were two: Russian, which was official in all the territory of Soviet Union, and Latvian, the proper language of the Republic, which was also official inside it. The Latvian language was thus largely used and recognized –like, to a lesser extent, the other minority languages, especially in the field of education-, nevertheless Russian was overwhelmingly stronger in its status of international language of this area of the world. We can say that Latvian was from the sociolinguistic point of view a minority language: today the situation is opposite, Latvian is a majority language, while Russian is a minority language inside the new democratic, and member of the European Union, Republic of Latvia.

According to the census of 2000, the percentage of Latvians has increased to 57.6%, Russians have decreased to 29.6%, Poles are at 2.5%, Ukrainians 2.7%, Belarussians 4.1%, Lithuanians 1.4%, and Jews 0.4%. The figures regarding mother languages differ slightly: 62% of the inhabitants have indicated Latvian as their native language, and the Russian language is spoken by the second highest percentage among the native languages at 36.1%. (1)

Two things have to be clear: the residents of Latvia do not coincide with the citizens of it, and the difference between the “ethnic” and “linguistic” identity may be explained by the ancient Soviet system of indicating in the official documents the nationality, which is inherited by the father and that does not hinder the possibility of a “language shift”.

The case of Latvia is very interesting to analyse, because it shows from one side the need and the wish to recreate a national frame which justifies the adoption of measures to promote the State language which may appear demanding, but which have to be understood as policies in favour of an endangered language whose survival is fundamental for the survival of the nation itself. (2) Language is one of the most relevant features of a nation, and this is also the case for Latvians, who have shown a high degree of loyalty towards their language.

This article will first analyse the legislation on the language of the Republic of Latvia, which, after some initial remarks has been considered compatible with the general human rights standards and with the European legislation. In fact GŁnter Verheugen, EU Commissioner responsible for enlargement, declared that Latvia fulfils all the criteria in the field of societal integration and has complied with all international requirements regarding its ethnic minorities. (3) This analysis will be followed by some critical statements of the provision about citizenship in Latvia, which are relevant for the members of linguistic minorities. (4)

2. The normative framework

According to Article 4 of the Constitution of 1922, revised and “revitalized”, (5) “The Latvian language is the official language in the Republic of Latvia”. Also, on April 30, 2002, as a part of so-called "language amendments" to the Constitution, Article 18 was supplemented with the provision that every MP is obliged to swear or to give a promise "to be loyal towards Latvia, strengthen its sovereignty and the Latvian language as the sole State language, defend Latvia as an independent and democratic State, fulfill his/her duties in good faith, observe the Constitution and the laws."

Soon after the restoration of democracy and independence, Latvia enacted a law with the aim of strengthening the Latvian language, the “Valsts Valoda Likums” or State Language Law of 1992. This law allowed, even if in limited cases, the use of other historical languages of Latvia, like Russian and German, nevertheless the only official language was the State language, i.e. Latvian.

The new State Language Law, established in 1999, is much more “demanding” than the former. For instance, according to Article 5 of this Law, “Any other language used in the Republic of Latvia, except the Liv language (an old Finn language spoken only by few dozen people), shall be regarded, within the meaning of this Law, as a foreign language.”

3. The main contents of the State Language Law of 1999

This law has a double nature: from one side it is a very typical normative tool for the majority, but from the other side it reflects a spirit of defense and promotion of the local language which makes it similar to other language laws in Europe which enhance a kind of “affirmative action” policy. This spirit of promotion of an endangered language is also present in the Catalan law of linguistic policy (6) and even in the French linguistic law of 1993. (7)

The purpose of this Law, according to Article 1 are:

a) the preservation, protection and development of the Latvian language;
b) the preservation of the cultural and historical heritage of the Latvian nation;
c) the right to use the Latvian language freely in any sphere of life in the whole territory of Latvia;
d) the integration of national minorities into Latvian society while respecting their right to use their mother tongue or any other language;
e) the increase of the influence of the Latvian language in the cultural environment of Latvia by promoting a faster integration of society.

It is important to underline both the aim of strengthening the local language, which needs support policies for that, and at the same time the concern for the integration of national minorities into the Latvian society. In order to reach this goal, the members of national minorities must learn the Latvian language, but they are assured the use of their language in the private sphere.

The fundamental provisions for the use of the Latvian language in public and private institutions are contained in Article 2, 6 and 7, which state as follows:

Article 2

(1) This Law shall regulate the use and protection of the state language at state and municipal institutions, courts and agencies belonging to the judicial system, as well as at other agencies, organisations and enterprises (or companies), in education and other spheres.

(2) The use of language in private institutions, organisations and enterprises (or companies) and the use of language with regard to self-employed persons shall be regulated in cases when their activities concern legitimate public interests (public safety, health, morals, health care, protection of consumer rights and labour rights, workplace safety and public administrative supervision) (hereafter also: legitimate public interests) and shall be regulated to the extent that the restriction applied to ensure legitimate public interests is balanced with the rights and interests of private institutions, organisations, companies (enterprises).

(3) The Law shall not regulate the use of language in the unofficial communication of the residents of Latvia, the internal communication of national and ethnic groups, the language used during worship services, ceremonies, rites and any other kind of religious activities of religious organisations.

Article 6

(1) Employees of state and municipal institutions, courts and agencies belonging to the judicial system, state and municipal enterprises, as well as employees in companies in which the state or a municipality holds the largest share of the capital, must know and use the state language to the extent necessary for the performance of their professional and employment duties.

(2) Employees of private institutions, organisations, enterprises (or companies), as well as self-employed persons, must use the state language if their activities relate to legitimate public interests (public safety, health, morals, health care, protection of consumer rights and labour rights, workplace safety and public administrative supervision).

(3) Employees of private institutions, organisations and enterprises (or companies), as well as self-employed persons who, as required by law or other normative acts, perform certain public functions must know and use the state language to the extent necessary for the performance of their functions.

(4) Foreign specialists and foreign members of an enterprise (or company) administration who work in Latvia must know and use the state language to the extent necessary for the performance of their professional and employment duties, or they themselves must ensure translation into the state language.

(5) The required level of the state language proficiency of the persons referred to in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 of this Article, as well as the assessment procedure of their state language proficiency, shall be set by the Cabinet of Ministers.

Article 7

(1) The state language shall be the language of formal meetings and other business meetings held by state and municipal institutions, courts and agencies belonging to the judicial system, state or municipal enterprises and companies in which the state or a municipality holds the largest share of the capital. If the organisers consider it necessary to use a foreign language during the meeting, they shall provide translation into the state language.

(2) In all other cases when a foreign language is used at formal meetings and other business meetings, the organiser shall provide translation into the state language if so requested by at least one participant of the meeting.

The above-quoted provisions show the will to assure a strong presence of the State language also in the private sector, (8)even if it is necessary to underline hat expressions like “to the extent necessary” make less rigid the obligation to use only the Latvian language in international meetings or in activities that concern minorities.

This law has caused several discussions, particularly by the speakers of minority languages. The aim of the State Language Law (followed by a few regulations which make it more effective) (9) is well founded: it is the strengthening of a rare and “delicate” language, spoken by a small percentage of the population of the world, in which the national feeling of Latvia and its identity find a privileged place. In order to save Latvian it is necessary to promote strong linguistic policies, and members of the linguistic minorities must be aware of the importance of learning the state language. Somebody has pointed that it is too much to demand a linguistic change of attitude of non-Latvians in a few years: the all mentality of the members of the national minorities must switch from the feeling of being the majority to the reality of being a minority. (10)

There is a special authority which controls the effectiveness of the linguistic policies. In fact, according to Article 26:

(1) The State Language Centre shall monitor the observance of this Law in the Republic of Latvia.

(2) The State Language Centre shall be subordinate to the Ministry of Justice, and Statutes of the Centre shall be approved by the Cabinet of Ministers.

4. Education

In 1995, there were more than 20 different minority cultural societies functioning, and it was possible to be educated in one of the eight languages in Russian, Jewish, Polish, Estonian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Roma and Belarusian Schools, which were state-financed. (11) The smaller ethnic groups like Tatars, Armenians, Azeris, Germans and Livs could received education in their languages in Sunday school. (12)


1 de 3