Russian-language activists plan further protests against Latvian law

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 3 14:44:12 UTC 2004

Forwarded from Transitions On-line (

Latvia: The Language of Coexistence

by Ojars Kalnins
1 September 2004

Russian-language activists plan further protests against the Latvian law
mandating bilingual education. A former Latvian diplomat argues they are
doing themselves and their country a great disservice.

Although Latvia has made great strides in rebuilding a fair and democratic
society since restoring independence in 1991, not all aspects of the
Soviet legacy have been easy to eradicate. One such legacy was a
segregated school system that divided ethnic Latvians and Russians. This
year, the Latvian government enters the sixth year of an eight-year
program designed to end this divisive situation. Although the program is
designed to promote social integration, equal opportunity, and citizenship
for all of Latvias residents, it has encountered opposition from some
politicians and segments of the ethnic Russian population. Why would
ethnic Russians oppose a plan designed to enhance their opportunities for
education, employment, and civic involvement?

The answer is also part of a Soviet legacy that encourages some
politicians to exploit social divisions and apprehensions.

During the Soviet occupation, hundreds of thousands of people from
elsewhere in the USSR, mostly of ethnic Russian origin, established
residence in Latvia, most remaining there after the breakup of the Soviet
Union. Many were brought in as part of Stalins Russification campaign.
Most spoke only Russian, as would their Latvia-born descendents. When
Latvia restored its independence in 1991, they found themselves in a
country re-asserting its national sovereignty, majority language, and
Latvian identity. They were former Soviet citizens, mostly of Russian
ethnicity, now living in the Republic of Latvia.

After adoption of the law on citizenship in 1994, a naturalization board
was established in 1995, enabling former Soviet citizens to seek Latvian
citizenship. All permanent residents of Latvia who could pass a
Latvian-language and history test could thus be entitled to Latvian
citizenship. The process of naturalization was slow, in part because a
large segment of the ethnic Russian population could not speak Latvian. A
national Latvian-language training program was established in 1996 in
order to help residents acquire the language skills needed to qualify for

The rate of naturalization among older persons was low due to the
difficulty of learning a new language. It was hoped, however, that younger
Russian-speaking residents would not find it such a hardship. However,
since many ethnic Russians continued to study in the 159 exclusively
Russian-language state schools, the rate of naturalization continued to
lag even among the young.


While the retention of the Russian-language schools was initially
considered a gesture of good will during a difficult transition period, it
soon became clear that these schools were fostering segregation which led
to de facto discrimination. Unilingual Russians could not become citizens,
had difficulty integrating into Latvian society, and had limited higher
education and employment opportunities.

To correct this situation, the law on education was reformed in 1998. The
reform was designed to increase proficiency in the Latvian language, while
preserving and protecting the rights of students to attend minority
schools where instruction was also offered in eight minority languages.
Russian and pupils from other ethnic groups would receive a bilingual
education that would enable them to retain their ethnic traditions and
identities, while acquiring the language skills necessary for full
participation in Latvian civic life.

The law to introduce Latvian-language study in minority schools included a
gradual phasing in of bilingual courses over a period of eight years,
giving parents and students sufficient time to prepare for the changes.
Bilingual curricula were introduced to primary schools in the 2002-2003
school year. An increased proportion of Latvian-language curricula will be
introduced to secondary schools when the new school year opens today, 1

The program was designed to provide pupils ample time to prepare for the
transition to bilingual education. During the first five years no one
objected. But, in 2003, as changes in the secondary-school courses were
being prepared, political organizations emerged in opposition to the plan.
Encouraged by a few radical parliamentarians and led by adult activists,
some Russian secondary-school pupils began to organize protests against
the final phase of the program. They demanded that the law be changed and
that state-financed Russian schools remain exclusively Russian-language

The size and aggressive nature of the protests has grown over the past
year. Methods have become more sophisticated and confrontational, and
protest groups have received sizable financial support from unknown
sources. The Russian government has also weighed in to the controversy,
condemning Latvia's educational program and expressing support for the
protest movement. Politicians who support the protestors, both in Latvia
and Russia, have also made additional demands. They not only oppose the
educational reforms, but are demanding changes in Latvias language and
citizenship policies. Both of these positions, which effectively would
increase segregation and reverse integration in Latvia, have long been
Russian government policies toward Latvia.


Despite Russias protests, which amount to interference in another states
internal affairs, the Latvian governments language, citizenship, and
educational policies have received broad international support. Indeed,
meeting international standards on these issues was necessary for Latvia
to qualify for European Union and NATO membership (Latvia was welcomed
into both organizations earlier this year). The Council of Europe (COE)
and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have also
endorsed Latvias policies, particularly in regard to educational reform.

Following a March 2004 fact-finding trip to Latvia, a COE monitoring
committee noted that the protests have little to do with a civil society
or grassroots movements as understood in the western world, but were
instead led by radical forces said to receive moral and material support
from Russia. The COE strongly advised Russia to cease its
counterproductive interference in Latvias internal affairs. The
language-related protests are indeed counterproductive. Pupils who refuse
to learn Latvian and are boycotting classes are impeding their own
education, limiting their employment opportunities, and alienating
themselves from society at large.

International organizations that have followed this issue have agreed that
the social integration of former Soviet citizens whose mother tongue is
not Latvian must be accelerated and that naturalization rates need to be
increased. This can only happen if the permanent residents of Latvia can
speak and understand the Latvian language.

The Soviet legacy of forced Russification, ethnic segregation, and
repression during 50 years of occupation has done irreparable damage to
entire generations of Latvians and Russians in Latvia. For some, the
damage can never be undone. Latvian educational reform is designed to help
the next generations prepare for a better life: one of equal opportunity,
civic engagement, and prosperity in a democratic Latvia and a united

Ojars Kalnins is the director of the Latvian Institute and co-chairman of
the Latvian Transatlantic Organization. He was Latvia's ambassador to the
United States from 1993 to 2000.

Related articles:

News: Minority Rights on a European Stage
Schoolchildren protesting Latvias educational reform greet European
parliamentary deputies in Strasbourg--with some inside help.
by Aris Jansons
26 July 2004

Central Europe Review: Minority Versus Minority
As Latvia's Russian speakers become increasingly restive, they are finding
ways to bring their concerns into the political spotlight.
by Andrew Cave
26 March 2003

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