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The case of Martijans Bekasovs and Latvian “democracy”

Martijans Bekasovs is a Member of the Saeima (Parliament) of Latvia. Recently, the ten countries about to become members of the European Union were invited to send official Observers, who would have the right to participate in the work of the Parliament but not to vote. Mr Bekasovs was one of those chosen to go to Brussels/Strasbourg as his party was represented in the Saeima.

Unfortunately, the Latvian authorities, which routinely discriminate against the Russian minority in the country to an extent which should certainly have debarred its entry to the EU, did not like it when Bekasovs wrote an article criticising them. He was recalled and his mandate terminated. If he were a Member, this would be illegal. As the Observers are supposed, to the extent that the Parliament’s rules allow, to represent their countries just as MEPs do, his sacking is at best against the spirit of the law.

Unfortunately, Latvia’s rulers appear to have no understanding of the most basic democratic norms. Bekasovs’ article followed a rabidly right-wing speech to the Parliament by the country’s President. When numerous MEPs, and not just from the left, protested his removal, one right wing Latvian Observer, Juris Dobelis, wrote the following bizarre defence of his government’s anti-democratic action:

On Thursday, October 30, members of the Saeima (the Latvian Parliament) decided to dismiss Mr. Martijans Bekasovs, a member of the Saeima elected from Latvia’s Socialist Party, from the observer’s status in the European Parliament. The dismissal of Bekasovs was supported by both government and opposition parties. 64 of the 100 MPs voted for, 22 voted against, 3 abstained.

As a member of the Saeima and an observer in the European Parliament I would like to explain the reasons for this dismissal.

The Parliament of Latvia condemned Bekasovs' actions in the EP - circulating a statement on discrimination of ethnic minorities in Latvia. Let me also explain why his initiative was evaluated as unacceptable by the majority of MPs.

Firstly, Bekasovs' statement contained false facts and deliberately misrepresented the situation. For example, his statement said that Latvia's non-citizens were required to have a certain command of the state language to be employed. In his statement he also said that non-citizens could not learn the language because it cost them too much. In reality non-citizens are employed in the same way as citizens, and only some restrictions similar to those that we find everywhere else in Europe are applied.

Secondly, this statement is a slanderous attack on Latvia – the state that it’s author represents in the European Parliament. It is unacceptable that a member of a national parliament acts against the interests of the state he represents.

Let me emphasise that the procedure was fully democratic. Bekasovs’ actions were reviewed in the Mandate and Submissions Parliamentary Committee where the decision to dismiss Mr. Bekasovs was supported unanimously. The Latvia’s Socialist Party political group was asked to recall Mr. Bekasovs and to propose another representative of the group but they did not react. Then the decision to put the issue on the agenda of the Saeima was made. During the debates Mr. Bekasovs was invited to speak but he did not use the opportunity given to him.

In addition, it should be mentioned that 4 MPs of Latvia’s Socialist party voted against the ratification of the Treaty of Accession to the European Union. That fully shows their destructive attitude towards the future interests of the state.

I am convinced that you will agree that the Saeima, being a parliament of an independent state, elected in free and democratic elections, has the right to express its opinion on this matter and make a decision; and that an official who represents his or her state in international institutions must act honestly and in good faith.

Dobelis’ arguments reveal a worryingly misguided notion of what constitutes democracy.  Let us leave aside the fact that his first point is simply untrue. Such fibs are an honourable democratic right and tradition and can easily be exposed.  We and Bekasovs say one thing, Dobelis says another. Anyone can do a bit of reading, visit Latvia or listen to people who have, and decide for themselves which of us is telling the truth. No problem.

No, it is not this which is worrying, but Dobelis’ belief that MEPs represent “states” to whose interests they must be true. Of course, MEPs represent the people who elect them, not states. Both Dobelis and Bekasovs represent the Latvian people. Those people do not always see eye to eye, and so they create different political parties to express their views and then they try to persuade people to vote for them. They then enter whatever body they have been elected to, and try, if they are honest, to represent those views.

Secondly, and most revealingly, Dobelis states his view that people who opposed Latvia’s accession to the EU should not be allowed to be MEPs. In other words, that section of the electorates of the EU member states which would prefer to see their country outside the Union should be deprived of all democratic rights. Numerous MEPs from most EU countries would be sent home. This is an interesting definition of democracy indeed.

Following the vote in the Saeima, Bekasovs  announced his attention to challenge the decision at the Constitution Court as violating his rights to the freedom of speech. During the debate, MPs from the right demonstrated the same ignorance of democratic norms as shown in Dobelis’ letter. Before the vote the centre-left Socialist Party described the attempt to remove Bekasovs as  "an anti-constitutional action aimed to silence our fellow lawmaker by means of demagogy." MP Valerijs Agasins from the centre-left National Harmony Party said removing Bekasovs will "trigger a big international scandal, seriously harming Latvia's image abroad." Left-wing bloc For Human Rights in a United Latvia (FHRUL) representative Vladimirs Buzajevs shouted from the rostrum that the draft resolution to remove Bekasovs was "the most shameful document ever put before the Latvian parliament" and in conclusion of his speech demonstratively tore the paper into pieces.

Fortunately, it is not only these left-leaning Latvian MPs and the European Parliament’s United Left Group (GUE-NGL), to which Mr Bekasovs’ party is affiliated, which finds his dismissal unacceptable.  As the protests from social democrats in the Saeima demonstrate, many who do not share Bakasovs’ views find it scandalous that he can be dismissed in this arbitrary fashion. In the European Parliament too, members from across the spectrum have protested.

Swedish Green Per Gahrton, one of the leaders of the No campaigns in Sweden 1994 and 2003, said that he found Dobelis’s article “absolutely not acceptable”, pointing out that if the principle that citizens who had opposed Latvia’s membership of the EU should be barred from becoming MEPs were made general, “quite a number of present MEPs would have to leave the EP! And should also those who oppose their "state" be disqualified? Sorry to say it bluntly but if these are the main motives for the majority of the Latvian Parliament to exclude a person from being Observer in the EP the Saeima has quite a lot to learn about democracy!”

British Tory “Eurosceptic” Roger Helmer was also characteristically blunt: “Let's get this clear,” Helmer said, “Bekasovs was fired because (A) He drew attention to what he regards as breaches of human rights in Latvia and (B) He took a different view from you on the benefits of EU membership. If this is so, and the Latvian parliament voted for it, it seems to me that there is a prima facie case that Latvia has disqualified itself from membership of the EU by adopting an anti-democratic, anti-free-speech position. Or am I missing something?”

Swedish right-wing MEP Lennart Sacrédeus argued that “What has happened in the Latvian parliament has to be brought up on a higher level. What has happened is, of course, very serious. No one could (have) … his or her political rights (taken away) depending on what side that person has supported in a referendum. That is so basic to our liberties and to democracy that it should not have be repeated.”

Former Labour, now Tory MEP Richard Balfe, one of the so-called Questors – the Members responsible for looking after the interests of MEPs in relation to such matters as salaries, conditions and rights - said that “The essence of democracy is the right to express minority opinions. The actions of the Latvian parliament are a disgrace and will reflect poorly on Latvia. I have never met or spoken to Mr Bekasovs and from what I know of them, as a member of the European Movement, I certainly do not support his views. I do however support his right to hold them.”

Next week’s Strasbourg plenary session of the Parliament is likely to see the row blow up again. Watch this space.  Martijans Bakasovs’ offending article, translated from the original French, is reproduced below.

Discrimination against minorities

People who arrived in Latvia after 21 June 1940 and have not acquired Latvian nationality do not have the right to vote in either national or municipal elections. Years spent working outside Latvia, either as party officials or in the Soviet army, are not taken into account for the purpose of calculating their pension entitlements. In 1992, this applied to some 600,000 people, i.e. around 22% of the population of the country. Now, more than ten years later, around 70,000 of them have acquired Latvian citizenship. This involves passing examinations in Latvian language and history and swearing allegiance to the constitution and the laws of Latvia. At present, some 500,000 people in Latvia hold "non-citizens'" passports, a Latvian and Estonian invention which is not recognised in international law. There are no formal impediments to obtaining Latvian nationality other than the requirement to learn the Latvian language and pass a very demanding examination in that language as well as a history examination. To complete this whole procedure, one must also pay a fee. However, how is one to earn enough to afford this fee if one can't get a job without prior proof of proficiency in the language? It is a Catch-22 situation.

Russian is spoken by 40% of the population, 30% of whom are ethnic Russians. In Riga and the Latgalia region up to 60% of the population speak Russian, although Russian is regarded as a "foreign" language even in regions where the official language is spoken by only 20% of the population.

Education in Latvia

The first law on education in Latvia following independence, adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Latvia in 1991, met the requirements of international law. I was involved in drafting that law, which had both good and bad points. The law did not contain any provision offensive to the rights of national minorities. On 8 December 1991 the first President of Latvia, Yanis Yakst, signed the law "on the educational institutions of the state" as well as the first Constitution. The law on the educational institutions of the state provided that "in school, children shall be taught in the language of their family. The parents shall specify which is their family language and send the children to school. Schools teaching in the language of national minorities must be opened in sufficient numbers for the children concerned". In 1995, during the fifth parliament, the Saeima adopted an amendment to the 1991 law without having carried out any research and without justification, stipulating that in the basic schools of national minorities (which cover grades 1 to 9) Latvian had to be taught, while two additional subjects had to be taught in Latvian. In secondary schools (which go up to grade 12), three additional subjects had to be taught in Latvian. In 1998, without having carried out any scientific research or experiments, and without any practical need, an irresponsible and deliberate decision was taken. This sixth parliament decided that, from 1 September 2004, the sole language of instruction as of 10th grade in all state, local authority and vocational schools would be the official national language, i.e. Latvian.

In the seventh parliament, the "For human rights in a united Latvia" bloc told Parliament and the government coalition that the issue of education had been unduly politicised, that this was incompatible with the interests of society and the requirements of international law, and that the law in question was undemocratic and difficult to implement in practice and would exacerbate social tensions. Regrettably, the government coalition in the seventh parliament rejected our proposals and a great many of those Members of Parliament are now members of the eighth parliament. This means that physicists, chemists and agricultural scientists will be trained solely in Latvian, to the exclusion of any other language. The government's experiment in bilingual education in 1999 has not been a success. In the schools of the national minorities certain subjects chosen by the school's management and teaching staff were taught in Latvian. However, without any scientific basis, specially trained teachers, quality teaching materials or guidance for teachers or training courses, it is impossible to change the language of instruction from one day to the next. It is unfeasible (and absurd) for non-native speakers of Latvian to study Russian, English or German, and the relevant literature, in Latvian alone. It is also unfeasible to study the same subject simultaneously in different languages.

In the Soviet era, it was impossible to get all schools to switch to Russian, and now it is impossible to get all the national minorities schools to switch to Latvian alone. Efforts must be made to improve the scientific groundwork, the quality of teacher training and the manuals with which they are issued, and to avoid making education a political football, which can only be detrimental to the quality of the education provided. In most schools, chemistry, physics and biology labs have received no new equipment since the Soviet era, because the government lacks the necessary resources.

The current law does not satisfy either parents or students. This is demonstrated by the polls carried out by social organisations and by the Institute of Social and Scientific Research. It was also shown by the demonstrations in Riga on 23 May and 4 September 2003. On each occasion, over 10 000 demonstrators turned out to protest at the law on education, even in its current form.

It is clear that the law on general education is seriously at odds with at least one section of public opinion, that of the national minorities.

In the end, the government decided to amend the legislation, proposing to drop the word ‘only’ where the law stipulates that secondary teaching should be ‘only in the Latvian language’, and now the ball is in Parliament’s court. At the same time, however, it is proposed that 60% of subjects should be taught in Latvian and 40% in the language of the national minorities, while as of 2007 examinations will only be in Latvian. An educational system of that kind has no sound scientific, educational, psychological, linguistic or physical basis. International experts recommend that some subjects should be taught in languages other than the students' mother tongue, but that does not mean that students should be taught physics and chemistry in one language, and take exams in another. The correct approach is to think first and act accordingly, but unfortunately we are reversing the procedure. This will not help to achieve an integrated society, improve the skills and knowledge of children from the national minorities and ensure equal opportunities on the employment market. I am afraid that once again we are wasting our time, money and efforts in a so-called reform which will not achieve positive results.

I propose changing the law to specify that all children must learn the national language, Latvian, in accordance with the programme drawn up by the Ministry of Education, and that in both basic and secondary schools students should take examinations in the official language on its language and literature, as prescribed in the programme. All the other subjects must be examined in the language in which they were taught. Arrangements for bilingual teaching and the subjects concerned must be decided by the school, the teaching body, parents and the local authorities. In so doing, they must ensure that Latvian is taught for six hours per week to students in the schools of the national minorities. History, geography and Latvian culture must be taught in the national language. This will help to improve knowledge of Latvian among the children of the national minorities, will ease the process of social integration, will not be detrimental to the students’ education and will improve their employment prospects while promoting patriotism and citizenship.

In Latvia there is a real problem in connection with the national minorities, above all the problem of people without citizenship. In view of the fact that Parliament and the government are controlled by Centre-Right forces, there is little prospect of improvement in the rights of the national minorities.