Parliament supports higher fines for language law violations

The Latvian Saeima on September 14 supported steeper fines for language law violations, with the option to suspend officials should they repeatedly come foul of rules regulating use of the official state language in Latvia. 

The rules, adopted in the first of the three required readings in the parliament, also allow for fining legal bodies like companies and municipalities, whereas currently only individuals can be fined.

The proposal by five MPs from the right-of-center National Alliance party would see officials suspended should they commit repeat violations of the language law within the course of a year.

One of the goals of these changes, according to National Alliance co-chair Raivis Dzintars, is preventing a cynical attitude against language laws on the part of several officials, like Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs.

"[This attitude] is a very bad signal for Latvian citizens. We think officials should be impeccable as regards the attitude against the basic values of the state. Accordingly, if officials violate these norms, we think the fines have to be higher than against other citizens," said Dzintars.

Should the bill be made into law, companies and legal bodies will face fines of up to €8,000 for breaking language rules.

The bill was criticized by Harmony MPs, with Jūlija Stepaņenko accusing National Alliance of using language as a political tool. 

"I think using language as a tool in political fighting is not a proper strategy. It will devalue language in terms of it being a value we all share," she said. 

Before the second reading, the bill will be reviewed by the Justice Ministry, which will evaluate whether the fines are appropriate.

Officials like Nils Ušakovs routinely clash with the State Language Center, the Latvian language watchdog, and the amendments, if adopted, could make it more costly for him and others to fend off the so-called "language cops". 

The State Language Center is often criticized for its stringent policies, like the decision to fine Jelgava railway station for displaying travel information in English and Russian as well as Latvian. 

However it is also seen as an institution holding some officials in check, with several Latgale councilors being monitored for their seeming inability to speak Latvian. 

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