Language policy in Latvia

Language policy in Latvia

The basis of Language policy in Latvia are articles 4 and 114 of Constitution of Latvia, which constitute official status of Latvian and rights of ethnic minorities to preserve and develop their languages. All languages, except Latvian and endangered indigenous Livonian language, are declared to be foreign, although Russian is the first language for more than one third of the population. In addition, five other mother tongues are spoken by 5,000 or more inhabitants (Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Romani). The question of whether Latgalian constitutes a separate language from Latvian is also an issue with implications for language policy.

The aim of State Language Law is defined as "the increase of the influence of the Latvian language in the cultural environment of Latvia by promoting a faster integration of society". [ [ State Language Law] — Sections 1, 3-5]

Legal framework

The official language ("valsts valoda", literally "state language") in Latvia is Latvian; this status has been explicitly defined since 1988. [ [ Decision on status of the Latvian language (Supreme Council of Latvian SSR, 06.10.1988.)] lv icon] In 1992 amendments to the 1989 Law on Languages strengthened the position of Latvian. All other languages, except endangered Livonian language, are defined as foreign languages in the Section 5 of the State Language Law of 1999.

Since 1998, the official status of the Latvian language has been written into the Constitution (Article 4); and since 2002, MPs are asked to promise to strengthen Latvian as the only official language in order to take their seats (Article 18). In Constitution's chapter on human rights, rights to get answer from authorities in Latvian are specified since 2002 (Article 104).

In 1995, Latvia signed, and in 2005 ratified the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. When ratifying it, the Latvian Saeima (Parliament) made two declarations (worded as reservations) limiting implementation of Articles 10 and 11. Latvia does not plan to sign the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. [ [ Third report on Latvia] by ECRI, 2008 — see Paragraph 4]

Language policy is implemented by a number of institutions: the State Language Commission (under the President) prepares proposals in this field; the State Language Centre (under the Ministry of Justice) executes control and imposes fines for administrative violations, the State Language Agency provides consultations and analyses the language situation; the National Agency for Latvian Language Training provides the opportunities for learning the Latvian language (the last two institutions work under Ministry of Education and Science).

Official use of languages

Since the State Language Law came into force in 2000, submitting documents to government (including local one) and state public enterprises is allowed in Latvian only, excerpt cases specially defined in the law (emergency services, foreign residents etc.), according to Section 10. In 1992–2000, authorities had to accept documents in Russian, German and English, too, and were allowed to answer in the language of application. [ [ 1992 Law on Languages] — Sections 8, 9lv icon]

Before the losses of Latvian government in cases "Podkolzina v. Latvia" [ [ ECHR judgment in case No. 46726/99] ] (ECHR) and "Ignatāne v. Latvia" [ [ UN HRC views in case No. 884/1999] ] (UN HRC), certain level of command in Latvian was asked for eligibility to Parliament and local councils. In practice, this had led to re-examinations of various candidates, at least sometimes unexpected, which prevented Ignatāne and Podkolzina (representatives of Equal Rights party in 1997 local and 1998 parliamentary elections ["Жданова Д." ООН встала на защиту «Равноправия», «Час» icon] ) from participation.

Names and surnames in Latvian-issued documents are formed in Latvianized form, according to Section 19. These provisions were subject in ECHR cases "Kuhareca v. Latvia" [ [ ECHR decision in case No. 71557/01] fr icon] and "Mencena v. Latvia" [ [ ECHR decision in case No. 71074/01] fr icon] (both declared inadmissible in 2004), since Latvian Constitutional Court had found them constitutional in 2001. [ [ Constitutional Court of Latvia judgment in case No. 2001-04-0103] ] An analogous application was submitted to UN HRC in 2007 ("Raihmans v. Latvia").

Toponyms are formed in Latvian language only (in the Livonian coast – in Livonian language, too), according to Section 18 of the State Language Law.

1995 Radio and Television Law [ [ Radio and Television Law] ] orders to use only Latvian language in the first channels of public radio and television, and limits use of other languages within 20% in their second channels (Section 62).

The government of Latvia in its policy documents refers to Latvia as a (democratic) nation state, [ [ State programme "Social integration in Latvia"] lv icon - see p. 8] [ [ Guidelines of cultural policy 2006-2015 "Nation state"] lv icon] constructing societal integration on the basis of the Latvian language, [ [ State programme "Social integration in Latvia"] lv icon - see p. 4] while respecting the diversity of languages. [ [ Guidelines of the State Language Policy for 2005-2014] — p. 19] Most of the government coalition parties (People's Party, [ [ What is the People’s Party?] Section "The basic principles of the People’s Party’s policies"] TB/LNNK, [ [ Electoral programme] of TB/LNNK, 2006lv icon] and Union of Greens and Farmers [ [ Electoral programme] of Union of Greens and Farmers, 2002lv icon] ) also describe Latvia as a nation state. The idea of the nation state, where "language = nation", is seen as the core and main engine of the language policy of the Latvian state. ["Dilāns G." [ Valodas politika — vai 2004. gada reformas dziļākais pamatojums ir objektīvi analizēts?] lv icon] Critics draw parallels between measures of Latvian government and assimilation of linguistic minorities in various countries. ["Dilāns G." [ Valodas plānošanas politika un integrācija Latvijā pēc 1990. gada] lv icon]

One critic, James Hughes, Reader in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has pointed out that Russian-speakers in Latvia constitute one of the largest linguistic minorities in Europe, therefore he considers Latvia's language laws are denying Russophones their language rights, and thus are contrary to international practice in the field of minority rights. [cite web |url= |title=Discrimination against the Russophone Minority in Estonia and Latvia |accessdate=2008-03-27 |author=James Hughes |date=2005 |work=Development & Transition |publisher=London School of Economics] Nataliya Pulina in "Moskovskiye Novosti" asserts that Latvia's Russophones are by percentage actually the largest linguistic minority in the EU whose language has no official status. [cite news |first=Наталия |last=Пулина |title=Татьяна Жданок: «Русские могут влиять на политику Латвии» |url= |work=Московские новости |language=Russian |date=2007-11-16 |accessdate=2008-03-29 ] Regarding the demographic arguments for Russian language rights in Latvia, the BBC's Angus Roxburgh reported in 2005:

Among the parliamentary parties, ForHRUL offers in its programme to grant co-official status to Russian, Latgalian and possibly others languages in municipalities where these are native for more than 20% of population. [ForHRUL programme (2006) — see section 7.5.: [ Russian] , [ Latvian] ] In a draft of its political programme, [HC programme project – section "Cultural and language diversity": [ Russian] , [ Latvian] ] HC offers to grant co-official status to Latgalian and Russian in printed media, public sphere and education (for Russian, in communication with authorities, as well), stressing its support for the sole state language. Both these parties are in permanent opposition on the state level.

On the other hand, TB/LNNK, a member of governing coalition since 2006, is asking that Latvian be made the sole language of instruction, even in minority schools. [ [ TB/LNNK electoral programme (2006)] lv icon]

According to research conducted by BISS in 2004, [ [ Ethnopolitical tension in Latvia: looking for solving the conflict — see p. 39] lv icon] 19% of ethnic Latvians, 87% of Russians and 75% of others (51% of total respondents) were for granting to Russian language the same official status as to Latvian, against — 77% of ethnic Latvians, 8% of Russians and 18% of others (44% of total respondents).

Private use of languages

1995 Radio and Television Law [ [ Radio and Television Law] ] prescribes that films aired in any channel should be dubbed in Latvian or to have original soundtrack and Latvian subtitles (Section 20). The same concerns movie theatres, according to Section 17 of State Language Law. Until a judgement [ [ Constitutional Court of Latvia judgement in case No. 2003-02-0106] ] of the Constitutional Court upon request of 24 ForHRUL MPs (delivered in 2003), broadcasting in minority languages was limited for private TV and radio (originally within 30%, since 1998 within 25%).

According to Section 6 of State Language Law, levels of skills in Latvian are defined for various professions, which concern legitimate public interset. Totally, there are six levels and two lists of professions (longer for public sector and shorter for private sector), classified by needed level. For those who didn't get education in Latvian and aren't disabled, an examination is needed to define their skills in Latvian, to work in these professions. Those who fail to show needed level during inspections, can be fined. Labour market shows high demand for skills in Latvian, Russian and English languages. [ [ Valodu prasmes ietekme uz ekonomiski aktīvo iedzīvotāju dzīves kvalitāti] , 2006lv icon]

According to Section 11 of State Language Law, organizers of public events have to provide in Latvian information, which concerns legitimate public interest (defined in Section 2 — public safety, health care "et cetera"). [ [ Noteikumi par tulkojumu nodrošināšanu pasākumos] lv icon] The same affects posters, billboards and signboards, according to Section 21. [ [ Noteikumi par valodu lietošanu informācijā] lv icon] Previously, according to the Law of languages as amended in 1992 (Section 5), organizers of any public event had to provide translation into Latvian in their conferences. An exemption had existed for organizations of ethnic minorities and religious organizations; 1997 Law on Meetings, Processions and Pickets has foreseen free choice of language in meetings, pickets and processions, too (Section 19). [ [ Law on Meetings, Processions and Pickets (as adopted in 1997)] lv icon]


Since the beginning of 1990s, some Polish language schools were created besides the existing schools with Latvian and Russian language of instruction. Certain schools (e.g., Riga Dubnov Jewish Secondary school, founded in 1989, [ [ Riga Dubnov Jewish Secondary school] ] and Riga Ukrainian Secondary School, founded in 1991 [ [ Riga Ukrainian Secondary School] lv iconru iconuk icon] , which had originally used Ukrainian as language of instruction, but switched to Latvian in 1993/1994 ["Puķītis M." [ Ivans mācās «pa latviski»] //"Nedēļa", 06.09.2005. lv icon] ) now include in their curriculum lessons in respective minority languages. The number of Russian schools, however, is decreasing, [ [ Statistics of Ministry of Education and Science] lv icon] partly due to natural demographic decline and partly due to emigration, [ [ Minority protection in Latvia] Open Society Instutue, 2001, p. 291] as the following table demonstrates, with some schools with apparent viability closed. [ [ Minority protection in Latvia] Open Society Instutue, 2001, p. 292]

There is also increasing number of minority children attending Latvian-language schools. [ [ Third report on Latvia] by ECRI — see Paragraph 54]

According to Education law [Education law: [ edition being in force between 27.02.2004. and 15.09.2005., English] and [ current version, Latvian] ] , as adopted in 1998, the language of instruction in public secondary schools (Forms 10-12) had to be only Latvian since 2004. This has mostly affected Russian schools, some existing in Latvia without interruption since at least 1789. ["Фейгмане Т. Д." [ Русская школа в Латвии: два века истории] ru icon] After wide protests in 2003 and 2004, the law was amended allowing to teach up to 40% of curricula in minority languages (Transition Rules) and allowing orphans to continue their education not only in Latvian, but also in the language he or she began it (Section 56).

In 2005, one judgment [ [ Constitutional Court of Latvia judgment in case No. 2005-02-0106] ] of the Constitutional Court (upon request of ForHRUL, NHP and LSP MPs) has declared unconstitutional the ban of public co-funding for private minority schools, another [ [ Constitutional Court of Latvia judgement in case No. 2004-18-0106] ] has declared the proportion "60:40" constitutional.

According to the same 1998 Education Law, the tertiary education in public colleges and universities has to be in Latvian only since 1999 (it had to be basically in Latvian since the second year, according to 1992 Law on Languages, Section 11). In fact, there still exist programmes with education in English for foreigners (Riga Technical University [ [ Riga Technical University Department of Foreign Students] ] ) or according to special laws (Riga Graduate School of Law [ [ 2005 Latvian-Swedish Treaty on Riga Graduate School of Law] - See Article 7; there is a version in English under one in Latvian] ). There is a demand for tertiary education in Russian, too: it is used, for example, in Baltic International Academy.

Latvian residents who have completed a full educational course (Forms 1-12) in Latvian, may register themselves as Latvian citizens without the usual procedure of naturalization (Section 2 of the Citizenship Law [ [ Citizenship Law] ] ).

Historical background

In the medieval Livonian Confederation, Latin and German were the dominant languages of education and administration. German kept this position under subsequent periods of rule by Poland, Sweden and, initially, under the Russian Empire. German was the language of instruction in the first institution of tertiary education on the territory of Latvia (Riga Polytechnicum, founded in 1862). In Latgale, the Polish language gained some influence, beginning from 16th century.

From the mid-19th century, Latvian started to rise in influence. At the end of 19th century, tsar Alexander III instigated a policy of Russification in non-Russian areas of the Empire. [cite book |title= A History of Russia |last= Raisanovsky |first= Nicholas V. |authorlink= Nicholas V. Riasanovsky |year= 1993 |edition= 5th ed. |publisher= Oxford University Press |location= New York; Oxford |isbn= 0195074629 ] As a result, language of administration, that of Riga Polytechnicum and most schools was changed from German to Russian, and some German toponyms in eastern Latvia were Russianized (e.g., Dünaburg became Dvinsk). After the 1905 revolution, possibilities for schooling in Latvian increased.

The pro-Bolshevik revolutionary soviet, Iskolat, declared on 4 January 1918 that Latvian should be the primary language of administration on the territory of Latvia. [ [ Iskolat decree on the use of Latvian in official administration, 4 January 1918] lv icon]

Under the short-lived Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1919, Latgalian enjoyed co-equal status with both Latvian and Russian as an official language of administration. [ [ Decree on use of languages in official documents, 8 March 1919] lv icon]

The Republic of Latvia (founded in 1918) was initially liberal in its language policy: while Latvianizing toponyms (e.g., Dvinsk became Daugavpils), it also allowed to use Russian and German languages in Parliament along Latvian, [Saeimas kārtības rullis. "Valdības vēstnesis", 27.03.1923. — 145. pantslv icon] [Saeimas kārtības rullis, "Valdības vēstnesis", 10.04.1929. — 147. pantslv icon] acknowledged minorities' rights to learn in schools in their mother tongues [Excepts from 1919 Law on educational bodies: [ Russian] , [ Latvian] ] and, despite switching public tertiary education to Latvian, did not forbid private post-secondary education in minority languages. State had acknowledged public use of Latgalian. [ [ 1921 Rules on use of Latgalian idiom] lv icon] After the 1934 Ulmanis coup d'état the policy changed, and many minority high schools were closed. ["Фейгмане Т. Д." Русские в довоенной Латвии — Р.: БРИ, 2000. ISBN 9984-606-68-6 — стр. 281—296 ru icon] Particularly hard hit were the Belarusian primary schools, all but 5 of which were closed. Belarusian schoolteachers and other intellectuals in Latvia were suspected of having a pro-Soviet agenda harmful to national security. ["Latvijas izlūkdienesti 1919-1940: 664 likteņi", ed. Vija Kaņepe (Riga: LU žurnāla "Latvijas Vēsture" fonds, 2001), ISBN 9984639298, pp. 240–1. lv icon]

During World War II, German community of Latvia was mostly moved to Germany, and the Jewish community was destroyed (hit first by the Stalinist deportations in 1941, then by the Holocaust). Due to that, these groups' respective schools disappeared.

In the postwar Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of Latvian-speaking population decreased due to large losses in World War II and mass deportation, while the Russian-speaking population increased due to the presence of military forces and mass immigration of labour to implement the Soviet Union's industrialization policy (still, due to low birth rate, population of Latvia has grown by 27.4% between 1959 and 1989 censuses, while that of the whole USSR — by 36.8%). ["" database: population of USSR and its republics (by ethnicity) — [ 1959] , [ 1989] ru icon] Consequently, the use of Russian language increased and it started to dominate in the areas integrated on federal level (state security, railway etc.). As concerns tertiary education, in some faculties, the language of instruction was only Latvian, in some – only Russian, in some there were two language "streams". Under Stalinism, Polish schools were closed ["Jēkabsons Ē." [ Poles in Latvia] ] and after Arvīds Pelše's 1959 victory over the "national communists" (Eduards Berklavs "et al."), the last Latgalian newspaper was closed. ["Зейле П." [ Латышская культура и культура в Латвии в 20-30-е годы XX века] ru icon]

Latvian was declared the state language of the Latvian SSR by a decree of the republican Supreme Soviet on 6 October 1988. Nevertheless, citizens could still choose to communicate with state authorities in Russian, and all correspondence with the USSR's federal bodies was to be in Russian. [ [ Latvian SSR Supreme Soviet Decree on the Status of Latvian, 6 October 1988] ]

Demographic background

In the first post-Soviet census in 2000, 1,311,093 persons in Latvia reported Latvian as their mother tongue, representing the vast majority of the estimated 1.5 million Latvian speakers worldwide. [ [ Entry for Latvian on] ]

Livonian is currently a moribund language spoken by some 35 people, of whom only 10 are fluent. [cite book |title=Nyelvrokonaink |last=Nanovfszky |first=György (ed.) |year=2000 |publisher=Teleki László Alapítvány |location=Budapest |isbn=9630034247 |language=Hungarian, Russian |oclc=45621804 ] In the first decade of 21st century, it was estimated that Livonian is native tongue of 4 people in Latvia, all of whom are elder than 70. ["Ernšreits V." [ The Liv language today] (published between 2005 and 2008)]

Latvia's current territory is a close approximation to the range of Latvian habitation since Latvian people had emerged. As such, Latvian and Livonian are native only to Latvia.

In the 2000 census, 891,451 respondents listed Russian as their mother tongue, representing 37.5% of the total population, whereas Latvian was recorded as the mother tongue for 58.2%. [ [ 2000 census results] — choose "Results of Population Census Year 2000, in short" and "Iedzīvotāju dzimtā valoda un citu valodu prasme"lv icon] Latvian was spoken as a second language by 20.8% of the population, and 43.7% spoke Russian as a second language. [LR CSP preses izlaidums: [ 2000. Gada Tautas Skaitīšana Latvijā; 07.11.2000.] lv icon] At that time, in age groups up to 10–14 years, a greater proportion of Russians could speak Latvian than ethnic Latvians could speak Russian. In age groups over 15 years, however, more Latvians expressed proficiency in Russian than vice-versa. [ [ Latviešu un krievu valodas prasme 2000. g.] lv icon] In total, 71% of ethnic Latvians said they could speak Russian, and 52% of Russians could speak Latvian. [ [ Dažādu tautu valodu prasme] lv icon]

Of all districts and cities in Latvia, the highest command of Latvian was in Talsi District (98.8%), while the lowest was in Daugavpils (41.4%). In Daugavpils was also the highest percentage of people speaking Russian (95.7%), and in Kuldīga District the lowest (57.6%). There was a similar breakdown with regards to mother tongue: 94.6% in Talsi District and for 11.6% in Daugavpils for Latvian, 80.4% in Daugavpils and for 3.0% in Talsi District for Russian. [ [ Latvijas iedzīvotāju valodu prasme] lv icon]

In the previous 1989 census, conducted while Latvia was still part of the USSR, Latvian was reported as the native language for 52.0% of the population, Russian for 42.1%; [1989. gada tautas skaitīšanas rezultāti Latvijā. Итоги переписи населения 1989 года по Латвии — Rīga: LR Valsts statistikas komiteja, 1992 — 89. lpp./стр.lv iconru icon] 62.4% of population could speak Latvian, and 81.6% could speak Russian. [ [ Migranti Latvijā] lv icon]

It should be noted that Latgalian was not considered a language separate from Latvian in any census, whether during the Soviet period, or since the restoration of independence. Therefore no specific data on the number of its native speakers are available.

Other than native speakers of Latvian and Russian, the numbers of speakers of different mother tongues recorded in the 2000 census were: [ Central Statistical Bureau Database for 2000 Census, table on mother tongues] lv icon]
* Belarusian: 18,265
* Ukrainian: 17,301
* Lithuanian: 13,187
* Polish: 11,529
* Romani: 5,637
* Tatar: 867
* Yiddish and Hebrew: 825
* Estonian: 720
* German: 541
* Others: 6,055

International recommendations

In 1999, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities found Latvia's new language law to be in conformity with Latvia's international obligations and commitments. [cite web |url= |title=High Commissioner welcomes State Language Law in Latvia |accessdate=2008-03-29 |author=OSCE Press Statement |date=1999 |publisher=OSCE]

International organizations have recommended to Latvia on various occasions to:
* revisit language policy, aiming to better reflect the multilingual character of society; [ [ Report on mission to Latvia (2008)] , UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance — see Paragraph 89]
* facilitate use of minority languages in written correspondence between people belonging to the national minorities and authorities; [ [ 2007 Memorandum of CoE Commissioner for Human Rights] ] [ [ CEPA Resolution No. 1527 (2006)] — P. 16, 17.11]
* be flexible in introduction of bilingual education; [ [ 2004 List of main claims and recommendations of international organizations and NGO to Latvia as regards rights of national minorities] ]
* give priority to constructive and non-obligatory measures, encouraging the Russian-speaking population to learn and use Latvian. [ [ Third report on Latvia] by ECRI, 2008 — see Paragraph 126]


Further reading

*"Dorodnova J." [ Challenging Ethnic Democracy: Implementation of the Recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities to Latvia, 1993—2001] Hamburg, 2003 (pp. 96-128 concern the State Language Law)
*"Druviete I." [ Language Policy and Protection of the State Language in Latvia] , "Noves SL" 2001
*"Djačkova S." [ Latvian Language Proficiency and the Integration of Society] Riga, 2004
* [ "Euromosaic" on Latvia] , 2004 or 2005
*"Hansson U." [ The Latvian Language Legislation and the Involvement of the OSCE-HCNM: The Developments 2000-2002] , 2002
*"Kelleher S." [ Defending Minority Language Rights in Quebec and Latvia] , 2005
*Latvijas tiesību vēsture (1914—2000) — Rīga: Fonds Latvijas Vēsture, 2000. ISBN 9984-643-14-X — 228.-229., 437.-438. icon
*"Martišūne S." [ Language use in Latvian radio and television: legislation and practice] , 2004
*"Poggeschi G." [ Language policy in Latvia] , 2004
*"Poleshchuk V." [ Estonia, Latvia and the European Commission: Changes in Language Regulation in 1999-2001] , 2002
*"Raihman L." [ Media Legislation, Minority Issues, and Implications for Latvia] Riga, 2003
*"Romanov A." [ The Russian Diaspora in Latvia and Estonia: Predicting Language Outcomes] , Boulder (CO), 2000
*"Tsilevich B." [ Development of the Language Legislation in the Baltic states] , 2001

External links

** [ National Agency for Latvian Language Training]
** [ State Language Agency] lv icon
** [ State Language Commission] lv icon
*** [ The Latvian Language, Languages of Latvia] State Language Commission, 2003
** [ State Language Center]
** [ Riga State Language Service] lv icon
*Laws and policy documents:
** [ 1999 State Language Law] (no amendments made as of 2008)
** [ Law on Languages, 1992 edition] lv icon
** [ 1989 Law on Languages] lv icon
** [ 1935 Law on State Language] lv icon
** [ 1921, 1932, 1934 acts on state language] lv icon
** [ 1918, 1919, 1921 etc. acts on state language] lv icon
** [ 2002 Draft concept of State Programme of Latvian Language Development] (includes historical overview of Latvian language policy)lv icon
** [ Programme of the State Language Policy for 2006-2010] lv icon

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