President of Latvia

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 23 January 2001

I am truly pleased to have this special opportunity to address you today. For the first time in the history of the Council of Europe, my country has assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. That is a responsibility and an honour that Latvia is happy to assume as we welcome the opportunity to become more actively involved in European affairs.

I express my heartfelt congratulations to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which will become full members of the Council of Europe later this week. I have no doubt that membership of this Organisation will help to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law in those two new member states.

The accession of Armenia and Azerbaijan attests to the progress that they have made on their commitments to the high human rights standards of the Council of Europe. Those standards must be applied in the same manner to all the Council’s member states if the moral and political credibility of this Organisation is not to suffer.

The Council of Europe has a proven record of fairness and objectivity, for which Latvia has had occasion to be grateful. More than forty years ago, in 1960, the Parliamentary Assembly expressed, in a resolution, its opposition to the forcible occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. I am very pleased that the Parliamentary Assembly decided earlier this morning to terminate its monitoring procedure on Latvia’s compliance with the commitments that we made on joining this Organisation. Thank you for that. It is evident that the Council of Europe must continue to defend fundamental democratic values throughout the European continent, whenever and wherever the need arises.

The Council of Europe is the only pan-European organisation that serves to assess the democratic maturity of its members, including all European Union candidate countries, EU member countries and others. This Organisation offers a democratic forum for a vast region stretching from the western shores of Europe all the way to the Caucasus. Through the promotion of open dialogue, the Council of Europe has worked towards achieving its main objectives, which are to ensure the protection and promotion of democracy, respect for human rights and the primacy of the rule of law among its member states.

In assuming the chairmanship of the Council’s Committee of Ministers, Latvia wishes to maintain continuity in the current priorities and activities of the Council of Europe. Those include: ensuring the continued effectiveness of the European Convention on Human Rights; reinforcing the political role of the Council of Europe; emphasising the standard-setting role of the Council of Europe in member states and applicant countries; highlighting the contribution of the Council of Europe to issues of cultural identity; and increasing the effectiveness of the Council of Europe as an organisation. We are confident that close co-operation with the upcoming presidencies of Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Luxembourg, will ensure attention to those priorities in the longer-term perspective.

Linguistic diversity is one of Europe’s greatest strengths, and that will become increasingly evident with the forthcoming enlargement of European institutions. Therefore, it is most appropriate, timely and symbolic that the Council of Europe and the European Union should have joined forces to organise the European Year of Languages. I would like to quote the introductory words of Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Education and Culture, when they launched the European Year of Languages: “Everyone in Europe should have the opportunity, throughout their lifetime, to learn languages. Everybody deserves the right to benefit from the cultural and economic advantages that language skills can bring. Learning languages also helps to develop tolerance and understanding between people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.”

As a country whose national language is spoken by only about 2 million people worldwide, Latvia also wishes to contribute to the protection and promotion of Europe’s smaller languages in this, the European Year of Languages. In April, Riga will host a conference on minority languages, which will be Latvia’s main contribution to marking the European Year of Languages. My thanks go to the Council of Europe for its active involvement in that conference, at which linguists, politicians, and representatives of governmental and nongovernmental organisations will be invited to participate.

Given that Latvia has been home to a multicultural society for several centuries, and given Latvia’s unique and advantageous geographical position at the crossroads between East and West, most Latvians speak at least one foreign language.

Latvia’s multicultural environment is reflected in the country’s primary education system, which provides schooling to a greater or lesser extent in six different languages, including Roma. There are almost 200 Russian language schools in the country, as well as Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian and Belarussian schools. Minority children in Latvia are being given the chance to maintain their cultural identity while being Latvians and Europeans, in a spirit of cultural diversity and tolerance.

Since the end of the 1980s, minorities such as Lithuanians, Estonians, Russians, Belarussians, Germans, Poles, Jews, Roma, Tartars, Hungarians and Moldovans have renewed the cultivation of their identity in Latvia. There has been rapid growth in the number of national cultural associations, several of which have united under the Association of Ethnic Minorities and Cultural Societies in Latvia. Those of you who attended last month’s closing ceremony in Riga of the Council of Europe’s Campaign on a Common Heritage might have noticed the spirit of harmonious co habitation that governs relations between Latvia’s ethnic groups.

Relations among Latvia’s different ethnic groups are satisfactory, but the legacy of the fifty-year Soviet occupation still weighs heavily on my country. A considerable number of inhabitants have yet to acquire Latvian citizenship. They are, of course, legal permanent residents with legal rights to employment, property, ownership and unrestricted travel. Some are choosing to become Russian citizens and others Latvian citizens. Others still are undecided. Recent opinion polls show that many people are afraid of failing the naturalisation board’s Latvian language examination. Those fears are largely groundless since 95% of those who take the exam pass it.

The Latvian Government, in close co-operation with the Council of Europe and other international organisations, has established a language policy aimed at achieving increased Latvian language proficiency throughout the country. Latvia’s language law, together with the regulations for its implementation, was also elaborated in co-operation with the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Our aim is to create an environment in which non- Latvian speakers feel motivated to learn the state language, while maintaining their own mother tongues. I believe that that is an achievable aim. The state programme for Latvian language learning has been successfully ensuring the acquisition of the Latvian language for non-Latvian teachers, doctors, police officers, the unemployed and other groups. The programme is supported by the government and international donors, including Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. We are very grateful for that support, and the results have been very impressive. In 2000 only 9% of non-Latvians surveyed said that they could not speak Latvian, compared to 22% in 1996.

A country’s national language is a manifestation of its identity and an instrument of communication and social integration. We are encouraging our minority population to master the Latvian language, because in the end a good knowledge of Latvian will increase their economic marketability and ensure their ability to participate in the country’s democratic processes. Nevertheless, language learning automatically depends on each individual’s commitments and motivation. Initiatives taken by the government can only set the framework that make learning and integration possible. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

Language policy is but one area of the Council of Europe’s successful co-operation with Latvia. The Council of Europe has also provided expertise to the Latvian naturalisation board in establishing criteria for its naturalisation tests. Latvia has made good use of international funding for other programmes as well, which were later taken over by our government.

Those programmes relate to areas such as the strengthening of democracy, the protection of minorities, the promotion of tolerance and understanding and increasing the state’s administrative capacity. Latvia has in many cases become a positive role model, and other countries now seek our advice in several areas.

The Latvian National Language Centre is sharing its experience with Moldova and the Latvian School of Administration has submitted co-operation proposals to Georgia. There are encouraging signs of future cooperation with Ukraine in sharing the lessons that we have learned on our path of integration into the European Union and in restructuring our economy. There are other examples of such friendly co-operation at all levels, including the parliamentary level, with a variety of countries. We feel honoured to be consulted and are proud to give assistance to others.

I conclude by addressing the question of the European Convention on Human Rights. Last November, ministers from all the Council of Europe states gathered in Rome to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Convention, which is now widely recognised as the lynchpin of the European human rights protection system and as a fundamental achievement of the Council of Europe.

Until now, the success of the Convention has been largely due to the excellent work of the European Court of Human Rights. However, a vast increase in the number of individual applications over recent years has placed an enormous strain on the Court’s capacity. A thorough review of the Court’s workings and, possibly, a reform of the Convention system is required. I warmly welcome the efforts of the Committee of Ministers and the European Court of Human Rights to tackle the issue jointly.

The effectiveness of the Convention system also depends on member states’ willingness to implement the Court’s judgment. The Parliamentary Assembly has contributed a most valuable report on the matter which was debated at the Assembly’s previous session last September.

I must also stress the need for the best efforts of each member country’s national institutions, particularly the courts, to safeguard the rights laid down in the Convention. The Council of Europe has the noble task of ensuring that member states comply with the highest human rights standards. Let us make a concerted effort this year to give a new lease of life to the Convention and to the European Court of Human Rights. By doing so, we will ensure that the Council of Europe remains at the vanguard of the struggle to defend human dignity and individual rights.


Thank you, Madam President. You have demonstrated an understanding of the Council of Europe and empathy with its principles and aims. You have been good enough to agree to answer questions, and twelve members have asked to put questions. We shall try to get them all in, and I think we should. I remind members that questions should be clear and short – no longer than thirty seconds. I shall apply that rule rigidly because I will allow supplementary questions. Not surprisingly perhaps, the first six questions concern minorities in Latvia. I shall call the first three members to put questions to the President, which she will then answer together before tackling supplementaries. The first three questions are all from members of the Socialist Group: Mr Slutsky of Russia, Mr Gjellerod of Denmark and Mr Vis of the United Kingdom.

I call Mr Slutsky.

Mr SLUTSKY (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked about the ratification by Latvia of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. He said that although it had been signed in 1995 it still had not been ratified and he wanted to know when ratification would take place.

Mr GJELLEROD (Denmark)

I congratulate you, Madam President, on the fact that the committee has signed off the monitoring procedure. However, it is no secret that we discussed extensively the ratification of the framework convention. My question is exactly the same as that of the previous speaker – when can we expect that ratification?

Mr VIS (United Kingdom)

Thank you very much for coming here, Madam President, and explaining the situation in Latvia. Will you explain in more detail the relations between native Latvians and Russian Latvians?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

I shall start with the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Latvia plans to ratify it in due course but we have not currently set a date. I do not believe that the status of minorities in Latvia is in any way affected by the situation – no more than it is in France, the Netherlands or a number of other countries that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.

We have put in place a number of legal frameworks and our joining several international conventions has ensured that minority rights in Latvia are protected by a variety of mechanisms, much as they are in other countries that have not signed the treaty.

Ethnic relations or human relations are certainly complex and have been framed by history. In 1939, before the second world war, 80% of Latvia’s inhabitants were ethnic Latvians. During the years of Soviet occupation, the number of Latvians decreased dramatically, through losses in the war and forced mass deportations to Siberia and through the loss of exiles who fled the Soviet occupation regime. During that time Latvia underwent enforced industrialisation and the influx of very large numbers of industrial workers from the Soviet Union. Many of them were ethnic Russians, but as many as a hundred ethnic groups were represented.

Latvia had a Russian minority before the war. Those people had lived there for generations and they are the people who are most closely integrated into Latvian society. Among those who came to Latvia during the Soviet occupation we find a variety of attitudes. I have talked to a great many people who were born in Latvia and who feel that it is their native country; they feel at home. I have met a number of people of Russian origin who, with their hands on their hearts, say that never in their whole lives have they had any difficulty in relations with Latvians. Those people had learned Latvian in childhood, which helped tremendously with their integration into society.

I mention as a positive sign of good cohabitation between the two ethnic groups the fact that up to 20% of marriages are mixed marriages between Russians and Latvians.

Mr SLUTSKY (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

said that one article of the framework convention suggested that there must be provision of finance for education of ethnic minorities when Latvia ratified the document. When would that be?

Yes, there are many people being repatriated and I like to think that they manage reasonably well and function effectively in being integrated into their place in Latvian society.

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

But the state is providing financing for the education of national minorities. We have almost 200 schools where schooling is entirely in Russian. I think that we have more than 150 schools that are bilingual and, as I mentioned in my presentation, we have a number of other ethnic minorities for whom schooling is offered in their languages.

In this regard, we are well ahead of Russia, which has six million Ukrainians but not a single Ukrainian school within its frontiers.

Mr VIS (United Kingdom)

Have Latvian exiles been going home, so to speak, in the past few years in any substantial numbers?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

You have one sitting in front of you, and there have been a number of others. Unfortunately, we do not have full statistics on the number of repatriations. One of the populations that would like to come back to Latvia is having difficulty – those who were deported to Siberia at various periods. They have lived -1 should say survived – under very difficult conditions. We would welcome international help and financial assistance to resettle these people who were forcibly deported in Soviet times.

The people who fled as refugees to the West and to democratic countries have of course, after half a century, in many ways taken root in the places that they have made their homes. Their children have often intermarried with the local population. For many of them, it is difficult and wrenching to decide whether to return to their native home.

Mr Nicolay KOVALEV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

asked what Mrs Vike-Freiberga had meant by saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

Mr FRUNDA (Romania)

I congratulate you, Madam President, on your speech. I belong to a national minority, as I am a Hungarian from Romania. I know that the only way to ensure good understanding and peaceful co-operation between communities is to ensure the right of minorities to keep and develop their identity. It is not good to give negative examples from other member states that do not recognise the rights of national minorities. Having said that, I respectfully ask you when Latvia will sign and ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is a basic document of our Council?

Mr ADAM (Germany) (translation)

Madam President, as far as I am aware, there were fears in Latvia before the referendum on 3 October 1998 on changing the citizenship and language laws that too many people who did not have proper command of Latvian would want to become citizens. Now, however, we know that the reverse has been true and fewer applications are being made.

I should therefore like to ask what the reasons are for this. Have the causes of the negative trends been investigated and, if so, what are the key factors and what counter-measures have already been taken?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

I have already answered the second question. The first and third questions were somewhat similar. Latvia is making every effort to make it possible for people of good will to become citizens of the country. The requirements are absolutely minimal. It is a question of desire, a personal decision that people must make about whether they want to link their fate with the future of Latvia or with that of some other country. As I said, thousands of people have opted to choose Russian citizenship because they came to Latvia while it was still an occupied territory of the Soviet Union. Their identity and sense of belonging is with their birthplace and it is perfectly legitimate for them to choose that option.

Latvian citizenship is open to every person of good will who is willing to accept the sovereignty and independence of our nation, that they are in a country that was originally inhabited by Latvians and where the state language is Latvian. We also require a minimal, elementary knowledge of our constitution and history. We do not require new citizens to know more than certain rudiments of our history, so that they have some idea of where they are living, and the kind of place with which they are linking their fate. One cannot force people to make a commitment. It is an individual decision, but we are encouraging them in every possible way. As President, I have been very active, and I intend to continue being active, in reminding people that the doors are open and we are ready to welcome them. I have been to shake the hands of new citizens and tell them that they have made a wise and good decision, and that we are happy to have them. However, we cannot force people. They are the ones who have to choose to take the step.

Mr Nicolay KOVALEV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

congratulated the Latvian President on her excellent speech and asked if it was true that Latvia planned to cut all state funding for Russian language teaching from 2004.

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

No, that is not it at all. We are simply introducing the Latvian language as a subject in Russian language schools, where it was not taught before. The rather extraordinary thing is that some people have spent their entire lives in Latvia without learning one word of Latvian. We want to remedy..that in the most natural and painless manner, by introducing Latvian as a compulsory language in schools. To facilitate the process and make it less painful, that is being done gradually, and the number of hours of instruction in the state language are being gradually increased until 2004. Even in that year, however, students in Russian schools will still have instruction in the Russian language and culture. There will also continue to be folklore groups and other cultural activities, which will be supported within the school environment, for the various ethnic groups.

Mr FRUNDA (Romania)

I shall simply repeat the question: do the Latvian Government intend to sign, and the Latvian Parliament to ratify, the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

Yes, indeed. I have said it three times. We have the intention, but we have not set the day.


Thank you. Do you wish to say anything Mr Adam? No? I call Mr Vytautas Landsbergis, whom I suspect, Madam President, you have come across before.

Mr LANDSBERGIS (Lithuania)

Madam President, I would like to ask you what justice has been done ten years after the aggression of Soviet troops in Riga in January 1991, when people were killed and injured? Have there been investigations, assisted by Russia? Have there been court cases, trials and convictions of those found guilty?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

Unfortunately, the people responsible for those bloody events, the tenth anniversary of which we have just finished commemorating, have not been brought to justice. There have been a certain number of trials of lower-ranking leaders of the groups responsible for the attacks on various structures, and for the loss of life among unarmed civilians, as well as the militia who were defending the Ministry of the Interior. One person of secondary rank, Mr Parfionov, was tried and received a four-year sentence. He was then eligible for amnesty, which reduced his sentence to two years, after which Russia asked for extradition. Under our international understanding, that of course meant that he should have served his sentence in Russia – but immediately after crossing the frontier he was given amnesty, and therefore has not served the sentence for his crimes.

A number of other people of lower rank were tried in Latvia, but they received conditional sentences on the grounds that they were simply obeying orders, and the initiative did not come from them. Nobody has been put behind bars, or paid, in a judicial sense, for the bloody events of ten years ago.

Mr OLEKAS (Lithuania)

Madam President, thank you for your informative report. What is your personal stance, and Latvia’s stance, on the reports about the nuclear warheads in Kaliningrad when the new modernised short-range missiles are brought in and used there? Do you consider that matter as something of concern only to Poland and Lithuania, or as something of concern to the whole of Europe, with the Baltic states having a special role in firmly expressing that concern?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

We share the concern with everybody in Europe, but of course, we share it especially with another people who inhabit the shores of the Baltic sea. We all recall that the Baltic sea was supposed to be a nuclear-free zone. We were reassured by official statements by the Russian Government that there had been no new deployment of nuclear weapons in that area, and we devoutly hope that that is so. For the sake of the future security of Europe, this is an important condition.

Mr NAUMOV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

viewed Latvian legislation as a barrier to the integration of the Russian community. He asked how Latvia would be applying this legislation.

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

The current legislation of Latvia with regard to both citizenship and language meets every international criterion, particularly within the framework of the European Community. Our language law has been modified several times. It has been elaborated in close co-operation with European institutions, and Commissioner Van der Stoel and other international experts have worked in close collaboration with the Latvian authorities. The language law as it now stands satisfies every criterion of international law and justice, and we have been pleased to receive a number of compliments on the level of justice that we have achieved.

Under the Soviet occupation, it was the Latvian inhabitants who in their own native country had lost the right to engage in a variety of activities in the public sector in their native tongue. By restoring Latvian as a state language, we have restored the rights of the native population, and the rights of those who speak other languages are exactly the same as those of any minority in any other country where there is one official language. Having to learn a language is not the end of the world. I know that some people have not managed to learn even a few sentences of Latvian in their whole lives – but those of us who have been exiles and have lived in a variety of lands and continents can attest to the fact that learning languages is not a hardship but an enrichment. It is a cultural and intellectual enrichment. It is something that opens doors and allows communication and understanding. No harm is being done to Latvia, as we encourage better communication with fellow citizens.


The next question comes from Mr Tom Cox of the United Kingdom. Mr Cox has been the chairman of our Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs.

Mr COX (United Kingdom)

The Assembly places the highest commitment on member states to ensure the protection and welfare of women and children. Will you tell us, Madam President, what protection your government is providing to avoid women from Latvia being forced into the sex trade? What checks are made in your country on press advertisements for work for women overseas?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

Efforts have begun to monitor both postal boxes and advertisements in the press. The Ministry of the Interior tells me that it has been overwhelmed by the amount of material that is being produced on the Internet. Alluring offers appear, which frequently naïve young girls answer in the hope of moving to the West and making money. They are being offered positions as nannies, baby sitters, models and various other innocent-sounding occupations. Often, the first thing that happens when they get their ticket to move abroad, is that their passports are taken away.

Basically, we are dealing with white slavery. This trade in human flesh involves both women and minors. It is an international phenomenon that involves international crime, and international solutions are required. The trade is fostered by demand in countries where consumers have the buying power to be able to afford this type of entertainment.

The onus is on countries where there is demand for human flesh. These countries should monitor their institutions and levels of distribution, as monitoring should take place in the countries from which unfortunate people are being exported.

Mr COX (United Kingdom)

I thank you warmly, Madam President, for that positive and frank reply. I and many other members of the Assembly will be delighted to work with you and your government to do all that we can to protect women and children.

Mr KOSTYTSKY (Ukraine)

I greet you, Madam President, as the President of a state that is constantly building up a democratic society. What is your assessment of the development of Baltic-Black Sea cooperation to ensure stability in Europe? Do you assume that there is a possibility of confrontation in Europe as a result of the changes that have taken place in recent years in the countries of eastern Europe? Do you believe that it is possible for countries such as Latvia to assume responsibility and initiate appropriate consultation with the countries of the Baltic-Black Sea regions?

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

I remind the Assembly that a most interesting conference took place in October 1999, which was held in Yalta at the initiative of Mr Koutchma, the President of Ukraine. Black Sea and Baltic Sea countries and their leaders were represented. It was a most interesting initiative and the possibilities for close collaboration between the regions were explored. The conference closed with the hope that initiatives would be followed up. Latvia stands ready to collaborate in every way with our neighbours to the East as well as to the West.

Mr SUDARENKOV (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

said that in the forthcoming March elections in Latvia one quarter of the Latvian population who paid taxes would not be able to vote as they were not citizens. In Estonia, by contrast, they would have the opportunity to vote and he asked whether Latvia would consider copying Estonia’s model.

Ms Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia

We most certainly congratulate Estonia on the decision that it has taken, but we note that other countries still maintain the principle that the right to vote is a privilege of citizenship. Latvia belongs to that group, and at present that is our position. The right to vote is and remains a privilege of citizenship.


Thank you, Madam President, for answering our questions in such a clear, lucid and direct way. We all greatly enjoyed having you with us. We enjoyed your speech and we wish you well.