Genesis of the legal status of the state language and the main legal policy conclusions
Keywords: Constitution (Satversme), official language, state language, language policy, national minorities, constitutional policy
Language: In Latvian

Everyone who permanently resides in Latvia must know the language of this country, and moreover, at a level enabling to participate full-fledgedly in the life of the democratic society. Members of the society who understand and respect the values on which the Satversme is based are a precondition for the existence of a democratic state governed by the rule of law. The Constitutional Court has already acknowledged that the Latvian language performs the functions of the only state language, namely, it is the language of mutual communication among all inhabitants of Latvia and the language uniting a democratic society. It is to be noted that the Latvian language has been the official language of state administration in Latvia since the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, although German and Russian were also used freely in the Saeima, local governments, and higher education institutions. In this respect, the fact that the status of the state language could not be determined in the Satversme of the Republic of Latvia must be considered a significant shortcoming. The constitutional status of the language would have created constitutional pressure on the legislator, who would have been forced to adopt a separate law on the state language. The absence of such a law in Latvia actually created trilingualism that was restricted only in 1932 by enacting regulations with the force of law. The authoritarian regime of Ulmanis added penalties to this regulation of the parliamentary period and turned it into a law. The law was beneficial to the nationalist ideology of the authoritarian regime.

With the Soviet occupation, the Latvian language became a minority language, which, like other languages of the peoples of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was subject to the policy of Russification. On the eve of the collapse of the USSR in the late 1990s, the Latvian national awakening with claims to autonomy went hand in hand with linguistic demands. The national awakening that eventually resulted in the declaration of independence in 1990 and the restoration of the State of Latvia, contributed to the adoption of the Language Law of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was amended in 1992 to establish the dominance of the Latvian language in public administration and public space. The Latvian Academy of Sciences also has its merits in the process of standardisation of the state language already during the Soviet period. Although the law was not complete in the legal aspect, it worked well to strengthen the positions of the Latvian language.

In November 1995, the development phase of a new State Language Law began ending the four-year dynamic legislative process. The draft law has been reviewed in several Saeimas and has survived harsh criticism from international experts and the veto of the President. In 2000, the new language law came into force, and many politicians were disappointed and acknowledged that the law had become “much milder” than the previous one, and that the positions of the Latvian language had been weakened. While delving into the discussion of the new law, the feeling persists that the idea of the law was not rooted in a legal need for a newer, better regulation, but instead, in the desire of politicians to build their political career on the basis of discussions. Already when the law was being drafted, it was clear that the effort to create a new law rather than improve the old one was a major strategic mistake, as it could be possible to do just as well with the previous regulation. The inability to set ambitious, strategic goals at the parliamentary level is a mistake characteristic of Latvia’s statehood, and not only in terms of language policy. The establishment of the Latvian language as the state language in the Satversme in 1998, as well as the decisive victory of the state language in the 2012 “language referendum” on Russian as the second state language should be considered significant events. However, the response of the political elite to the 2012 referendum is to complicate and strengthen the requirements for the referendum, which makes referendums in Latvia only theoretically possible.