Memo to Gerard Stoudmann: The next time someone asks you about language policy in Latvia, keep your mouth shut. Stoudmann is director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
During a two-day visit to Rīga that concluded March 20, Stoudmann met with government officials and discussed a number of issues. He also pressed Latvia to remove a provision in the country’s election law that requires political candidates to prove their proficiency in the Latvian language, according to an OSCE press release. The need for reform, he suggested, is urgent as Latvia heads toward its next parliamentary election on Oct. 5 and looks beyond that date to potential membership in the NATO defense alliance and in the European Union.
But then, in a remark about language policy made during a conference on OSCE and Latvian cooperation, Stoudmann stepped over the line, according to media reports. He said Russian should be made Latvia’s second official language. A third of the nation’s inhabitants speak Russian as their first language.
The OSCE, for those not familiar with this powerful international body, traces its roots back to the early Cold War era. It attempts to resolve disagreements between European nations before they rupture into armed conflicts.
Human rights and democratic reforms have been among the OSCE’s key concerns. But so has the principle of self-determination.
Stoudmann, as Latvians would say, izgāza podu (upset the pot). His remark, widely reported in local media, soon brought a groundswell of rebuke. Even Latvian Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš called for his resignation.
Apparently realizing that he was guilty of a major faux pas, Stoudmann on March 21 recanted, saying his comments were meant as "personal reflection," not a statement of OSCE policy. "I wish to stress that my intention never was to suggest that Russian be made the second state language in Latvia, or that this issue was on the agenda," Stoudmann said in a press release. "I am fully aware of the sensitivities surrounding the issue in Latvia."
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, for example, piggy-backed on Stoudmann’s remark and once again complained that Latvia isn’t mindful of the rights of its Russian-speaking minority.
The OSCE is correct to point out problems in Latvia’s election law. Asking that political candidates prove their language ability is discriminatory and unconstitutional, as a language commission appointed by President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga said earlier this year. To be a candidate for political office in Latvia, you must be a citizen. Citizens should not be asked such questions. Let the voters decide whether a candidate is fit for office.
But to suggest, even as "personal reflection," that Russian be made a second official language is unfair to a nation that is still trying to clean up the mess left by a half-century of occupation. It’s particularly unfair because the loudest voice in the language debate is across the border and some 800 kilometers away in Moscow. Who’s watching out for the interest of the Latvians?
If the OSCE really wants to help, it could do more to promote Latvian language education as part of the process of becoming a citizen. Of Latvia’s 2.3 million inhabitants, 22.3 percent are still classed as noncitizens, according to government figures. Russians make up nearly 350,000 of the noncitizens.
In the meantime, Stoudmann’s remark is a reminder for ethnic Latvians that they are the only ones who will look after their interests. Already a number of readers of the SVEIKS mailing list are planning an electronic notification "tree" that would serve to mobilize letter-writing campaigns and other activities for the next time someone like Stoudmann says something damaging to Latvia’s cause. According to Jānis Trallis, better known online as "Rodrigo," there are plans to set up a Web site to coordinate the effort. SVEIKS readers are trying to come up with a name, with "e-Taure" slightly favored over "e-Koks."
The unintended result of Stoudmann’s "personal reflection" may well be the strengthening of Latvians’ resolve on the language issue. If he survives in his OSCE post, he’s sure to find his job in Latvia will have become much tougher.
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