Walking through Riga presents a curious irony. Here in Latvia's
capital city, all the street signs, storefronts, and advertisements
are in Latvian, while most street conversations are in Russian.
During the 50-year Soviet occupation of this nation, tens of
thousands of ethnic Latvians were deported to the fringes of the
Soviet Empire, while thousands of Russians were resettled here.
Before World War II, ethnic Latvians comprised over three-quarters
of the population; today, they make up just over half. In Latvia's
seven largest cities, ethnic Latvians are the minority.
Like many post-Soviet Eastern European countries today, Latvia, a
country of 2.4 million wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea,
finds itself negotiating nettling questions of minority relations,
integration, and identity.
At the beginning of September, the issue came to a head when
Latvian authorities put into place regulations for implementing the
state language law - an act that has touched a sensitive nerve in
Latvia's ethnic communities.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
and other international organizations have kept a close eye on the
language issue during the entire legislative process. The OSCE high
commissioner on national minorities, Max van der Stoel, has said he
views the regulations "as being essentially in conformity with both
the law and Latvia's international obligations."
But shortly after the adoption of the new regulations, the
parliamentary faction For Human Rights in a United Latvia called on
nongovernmental organizations and others to use all nonviolent means
to resist the newly adopted state language-law regulations, which it
believes infringe on Russian-speakers' rights.
The 50-year Soviet occupation and Latvia's post-Soviet nation-
building effort have led to enduring mistrust on both sides.
"Everyone is afraid of losing their identity," observes Nils
Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and
Russians in Latvia perceive that the Latvian authorities are
putting them in an untenable position.
Tatiana R., a Russian saleswoman at the Laima candy shop in
downtown Riga argues, "I was born here and lived all of my 35 years
in Latvia. People must recognize that there are many Russians who
were born and lived their entire lives here. They have nowhere else
The dispute in Latvia is not centered on the precise text of the
language law and its regulations so much as it is on the way in
which these will be interpreted and implemented.
"The Russian-speakers' fear is of bureaucratic harassment," says
Mr. Muiznieks. The law regulates language-proficiency requirements
for different state jobs, and is optional for private-sector
enterprises, unless companies subcontract for the state. …