July 07, 2012
Two unexpected shocks have shaken off the post-referendum quiet in Latvian politics. First, although Latvian voters in the February 18 referendum overwhelmingly rejected the proposition that Russian should become a second official language, moves to strengthen Latvian by changes to the Labour Law have been stymied in the Saeima (Parliament).
And from left field entirely, Jewish organisations have raised anew the question of restitution of property belonging to Jewish social organisations, bringing surprisingly swift and unexpected political reactions.
The language issue arose in response to the long-standing complaint that many employers had regularly advertised or had in their work contracts that prospective employees must have a command of Russian (or sometimes English, among others) even where the job clearly did not demand use of this language. It was proposed that such a demand for a specific language was only allowable when that language was clearly necessary for the job.
Over the years a steady language shift had occured in the education system as many younger Latvians no longer studied Russian in school and had a much weaker grasp of it than did the previous generation. Meanwhile, Russian youth had significantly improved its capacity in Latvian, leading to claims of linguistic discrimination on the part of Latvians who did not know Russian but applied for jobs even where it would not be necessary but still demanded by employers.
After lengthy debates, the Saeima did pass the amendment to the Labour Law banning the advertising of specific language requirements unless clearly necessary for that particular job. But two subsequent amendments that would have given teeth to this proposition were surprisingly defeated. First, the Saeima rejected the amendment that would disallow such requirements in work contracts, and secondly it rejected a more global amendment making it illegal for employers to make such unnecessary language demands of employees.
The vote was lost because a number of coalition members, who had a free vote on this issue, voted against the last two amendments, or abstained. Significantly, most of the members of the Reform Party (RP), a coalition party and the second largest party in the Saeima, voted with the Russian-oriented Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs - SC). A number of members of the Unity (Vienotība) party, the party of the Premier Valdis Dombrovskis also abstained on the vote, critically influencing the numbers.
This performance of the Reform Party was another low point for a party that has had a catastrophic fall in pubic support after its strong showing in the 2010 elections. It is worth remembering that at that time it had declared a willingness to go into coalition with the SC, but had given up this idea when Unity threatened not to join such a coalition. In the June 2012 ratings, the party had slipped to only 2.6% support, well below the 5% needed to get back into Parliament. In the same ratings, Unity improved its support over that of previous months and even pipped SC, the largest party in the Saeima and long-time ratings leader; this result seems to be thanks largely to Dombrovskis’ steady stewardship and the slowly improving economic situation. The Reform Party’s vote on the language issue would not have boosted its stocks.
The issue of restituting the properties of Jewish social organisations came as a surprise because a number of Jewish religious properties had long been given back or were being managed by joint Jewish-local government agreements. The issue quickly brought diametrically opposed responses: some pointed to the question of why these demands were being made now rather than at the time in the 1990s when all privatisation and property issues for the majority of properties had been decided. The only difference now was that many of the claimed Jewish social organisation properties had greatly increased in value compared to their often threadbare status in the 1990s. As many of these properties had been since legally bought and sold by other parties, compensation - running into the millions - rather than restitution of property had become the issue.
Immediately, other social oganisations that for various reasons had been unsuccessful in their restitution bids came to the fore. Jewish organisations were taken aback by these claims, arguing that this issue had been long-standing and one which several governments had been slowly working on.
The upshot came when Justice Minister Gaidis Bērziņš, of the National Association faction, one of the members of the governing coalition, resigned from his position, claiming the Premier was forcing him to make hasty decisions on this issue, a view the Premier Valdis Dombrovskis denies. The issue brought international media attention, not favourable to Latvia, and how this issue will be resolved at the moment remains unclear.
Beyond the property issue, the resignation of the Justice Minister would seem to raise questions of the future of the coalition. Yet Gaidis Bērziņš insisted the decision to resign was his own, and was not even discussed by his party. A considered view is that the National Association is worried by a perceived lack of influence and being largely ignored in the present coalition; the unsatisfactory outcome of the language question being only one such instance. A number of other major decisions, including driving down budget deficits to satisfy Eurozone eligibility criteria, and some large and less-than-transparent purchases of railway rolling stock, are issues the National Association also feels strongly about, and feels its voice is not heard.
Although Dombrovskis has had success in improving economic conditions, and in some quarters of international finance is seen as a paradigm of good fiscal policy, these issues of Jewish property and other economic decisions will continue to present significant political challenges.
Uldis Ozoliņš is immersed in politics both as a hobby and a profession. He lectures and researches in politics in Australia and on frequent trips to Latvia, and considers that the more closely you study politics, the less likely you are to become a politician.