Preamble to Latvia’s Constitution: How to Evade the Venice Commission?

Preamble to Latvia’s Constitution: How to Evade the Venice Commission?

The production and institutionalization of official historical narratives remain predominantly a domestic issue in Europe. The available human rights monitoring bodies often cannot prevent states from adopting legislation pertinent to their constitutional identity. The 2014 amendments to the Constitution of Latvia are analyzed from this perspective by our expert Dr. Kiryl Kascian.

The production and institutionalization of historical narratives by a state creates an official vision of the homeland perceived as “a repository of historic memories and associations, [and] the place where ‘our’ sages, saints and heroes lived, worked, prayed and fought”.[1] Moreover, the messages of these narratives have a clear cross-border dimension as they refer to the historical experiences of the state and its relations with the neighbors. Usually attributed to the preambles (but not explicitly limited to them), these interpretations provide an official view on the country’s “history behind the constitution’s enactment, as well as the nation’s core principles and values”.[2] These historical references have both the legal and social functions.[3] Consequently, they can be characterized by a non-legalistic language [4] and a hybrid specification of national identity markers.[5]

Before 2014, the Constitution of Latvia (Satversme) lacked a preamble defining the identity of the state. Thus, the Constitution was based on the concept of civic nation.[6] The “nationalization” of the Constitution was triggered by the controversial referendum on the question of making Russian a co-official language in Latvia, which took place in 2012. In other words, the preamble might be seen as a protective measure adopted in order to prevent similar situations in the future. On the one hand, the Preamble stipulates that “the people of Latvia won their State in the War of Liberation”.[7] On the other hand, it sees the state as the embodiment of the Latvian nation’s will for own statehood and its right for self-determination. Moreover, the state is acknowledged as a guarantor of “the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and its culture”. This formulation is a transfer of the Estonia’s approach towards the ethno-cultural issues.[8] Moreover, it demonstrates that in these two Baltic States “language is [still] universally interpreted as the innermost sanctum of ethnicity”.[9]

It is also the state which is “to ensure freedom and promote welfare of the people of Latvia and each individual”. Hence, the ethnic model of the Latvian society might be seen through another formulation of the Preamble which proclaims that “Latvia as […] national state […] recognizes and protects fundamental human rights and respects ethnic minorities”. Thus, the Constitution of Latvia was adopted not on behalf of the Latvian nation, but rather for securing its needs and protection. The Constitution’s “protectiveness” is determined through the references to the country’s negative historical experiences in the 20th century, as well as through mentioning loyalty to Latvia and the Latvian language as the sole official language, in turn determined as “the foundations of a cohesive society”.

There are two approaches with this regard. On the one hand, the criticisms of the Preamble were based on the logic that its text contradicts Art. 2 of the Constitution which prescribes that “the sovereign power of the State of Latvia is vested in the people of Latvia”. In other words, it was argued that the new preamble created additional qualitative ethnic-based divisions between different segments of the Latvian society.[10]

On the other hand, arguments in favor of the preamble were largely inspired by the views of professor Kārlis Dišlers, a classic of the interwar Latvian constitutionalism. They rest on a strong linkage between the “people of Latvia” (Latvijas tauta) and the “Latvian nation” (latviešu tauta) as a political subject, so that the latter forms a “core” of the former, being its central element.[11] Within this framework it is argued that ethnic Latvians form the “state nation” (valstsnācija) within the State of Latvia,[12] although this notion was not included in the preamble. This logic is vested in the obligations of the Latvian state to protect and promote its national cultural identity which is by default Latvian. Moreover, it is argued that Latvia is the only place in the word where the maintenance and development of the Latvian culture can be ensured; this concept further claims its compliance with the principles of equality of citizens and minority protection, as secured in the Constitution (Art. 91 and 114 respectively).[13]

The Constitution also establishes that the identity of Latvia “has been shaped by Latvian and Liv traditions”. This implies a special status of the tiny Liv community which nearly lost its language. This approach might be seen as merely a symbolic measure which rather complies with the formula according to which Latvia is the only place in the world where Liv culture can be maintained and preserved. Furthermore, the Preamble has a territorial dimension underlining that the foundation of the State of Latvia occurred “by uniting historical Latvian lands”. This implies that ethnic Latvian lands do not stretch beyond the actual borders of the country, probably, except for the Abrene/Pytalovo district ceded to the Russian Federation in 1944 and claimed by the Latvian authorities back after the restoration of the country’s independence.[14]

As demonstrated above, the adoption of the Preamble of the Latvian Constitution meant a conscious political choice to embrace an explicitly formulated nation-centered identity of the state and thus to switch from a purely civic model of the society towards a protective ethnic-based hierarchy. However, the adoption of the Preamble remained a purely domestic issue in Latvia. Despite some appeals to request the Venice Commission to prepare an opinion on the constitutional amendments, the Latvia’s parliamentary majority considered this measure unnecessary. This decision might be explained as a combination of two reasons. Firstly, the parliamentary majority in Latvia is formed of the representatives of those parties that merely focus on ethnic Latvian electorate. Moreover, these endeavors followed the aforementioned controversial (or provocative) referendum on the official status of the Russian language in Latvia. Secondly, Latvia’s membership in the EU might have contributed to the country’s self-perception as already sustainable democracy capable to handle these issues itself.


[1] A. D. Smith. National Identity, University of Nevada Press, Reno, 1991.
[2] L. Orgad. ‘The Preamble in Constitutional Interpretation’. I•CON, 8(4) (2010), pp. 714–738.
[3] Ibid.
[4] D. Bayir. Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish Law, Ashgate, London, 2013.
[5] M. Meyer Resende. Catholicism and Nationalism: Changing Nature of Party Politics, Routledge, London, 2015.
[6] B. Cilevičs’s speech. Transcript of the Saeima plenary session on 27 March 2014,
[7] Hereinforth, the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia is quoted according to its Latvian and English versions, available at the website of the Saeima of the Republic of Latvia, and
[8] English translation of the Constitution of Estonia (including the Constitution Amendment Act), website of the President of the Republic of Estonia,; see also: J. Laffranque. ‘A Glance at the Estonian Legal Landscape in View of the Constitution Amendment Act’. Juridica International, XII (2007), pp. 55-66.
[9] G. Schöpflin. Nations Identity Power: The New Politics of Europe. Hurst and Co., London, 2000.
[10] ‘Latvia’s parliament approves Constitution’s Preamble in principle’, The Baltic Course, 27 March 2014,
[11] R. Balodis. ‘Latvijas Republikas Satversmes ievads’, in: Latvijas Republikas Satversmes komentāri. Ievads. I nodaļa. Vispārējie noteikumi, Latvijas Vēstnesis, Riga, 2014, pp. 91-135.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] See, for instance: P. Joenniemi. ‘Border issues in Europe’s North’, in: T. Diez, M. Albert and S. Stetter (eds.). The European Union and Border Conflicts: The Power of Integration and Association, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 129-172.

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