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18 Dec, 2008 16:36

Want to speak Russian – get ready to pay

The Russian speaking population of Latvia, could face fines if their Latvian language skills aren't satisfactory. Parliament is set to consider a draft bill that would force people to undergo tests.

Jeanna Kupchik is a Latvian citizen with Russian parents. After teaching Russian at a local school for more than 20 years, last month it turned out Jeanna’s knowledge of the Latvian language just wasn’t satisfactory.

Language inspectors claimed Jeanna’s command of Latvian was poor and fined her $20. She wasn’t happy about the testing process. 

“Words fail me, it’s so humiliating! I’m a proud person by nature but this is mockery! An inspector who checked my knowledge of Latvian used to be a street cleaner before she became a teacher. She writes reports with grammar mistakes. And that’s somebody who is checking me, a professional teacher with years of experience?”

According to Latvian law, those who finished school with Latvian as their second language, have to take an extra exam.  Language inspectors handle up to 800 complaints a year from Latvian citizens about Russians, who choose to speak Russian in public places and offices.

Latvian officials are required to hold meetings and negotiations in Latvian despite the fact the Russian-speaking minority makes up thirty percent of the population.

One of the leaders of Latvia’s human rights party says, there’ve been several attempts aimed at belittling the Russian minority in his native country. Vladimir Buzaev from the ZapChel party says, “When Latvia was a candidate for joining the EU and NATO, the authorities treated the Russian community with caution and tried to respect their human rights. When they got what they wanted, they started to impose restrictions on things previously acceptable.”

He has gone further to add that Latvian authorities have implemented the language barrier over fears Russia wants to influence Latvia’s political and economic landscape,  “I wouldn’t say they fear Russia. They are rather afraid of the competition with the Latvian Russians in the country.”

But authorities reply that minority rights are not being violated.
“There’s a notion: affirmative action. Yes, the Russian language is being discriminated against, but by means of law. There’s no alternative, but it’s a measure required to protect those who are weaker,” said Anton Kursitis, a State Language Institute officer. 

The Russian-speaking population in Latvia hopes that one day the state will provide a level playing field.