The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
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Latvian minorities: The educational reform
HITS: 2440 | 10-11-2005, 21:38 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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The determination to cling to the fiction of “occupation” has led to permanent friction with the Russian minority ever since 1991. This friction has got worse over time, even though Latvia has been incorporated into the main Western institutions. This is in spite of the size of the non-Latvian population in Latvia, a fact with which any wise government would surely try to find a civilised accommodation. According to the census carried out in 2000, there were 2,375,339 people in Latvia: 57.6% of them are ethnic Latvians; 29.6% ethnic Russians; 4.1% Belarussians; 2.7% Ukrainians; 2.5% Poles; 1.4% Lithuanians; 0.4% Jews. This means that at least 36.4% of the population is Russophone: someone who is, to all intents and purposes, Russian can be categorised as “Ukrainian” if his family came from there, or as a “Jew”, rather as a purely Anglophone Briton can be “Welsh”, “Scottish” or “Irish” The true percentage of Russophones may well be higher than this census: because hundreds of thousands of Russians in Latvia are stateless (see below) they cannot emigrate as easily as Latvians. There has been huge emigration from the Baltic States, as the employment situation there has gone from bad to worse. Certainly, Russian is almost universally spoken and BHHRG had the impression that many ordinary people were quite happy to speak the language.
As BHHRG reported in 1998,[1] the relations between Latvians and Russians have not been good since 1991. In 1998, Russian pensioners protested at the rising cost of living, Waffen SS veterans marched to the Freedom monument in Riga, and a bomb went off near the Russian embassy. These events confirmed that the difficult relations between the various ethnic groups in Latvia had not improved since 1991, when the citizenship issue caused a lot of bad blood. Many Russian speakers, many of whom came to live in Latvia in Soviet times, voted for independence in 1991, no doubt expecting that Latvia would imitate the other former Soviet republics and offer citizenship to all residents. Tensions rose when instead the Latvian government pursued a vigorous policy of de-Russification, of which the 1989 language law was an early indication: it imposed the use of the Latvian language in all public situations. Latvian was in any case classified as “the state language,” which means that the mother tongue of two-fifths of the population is officially a foreign language. Teaching in Russian in state universities was suppressed, and Russians were obliged to write their names in the Latvian form, e.g. by adding an ‘s’ at the end for men. This can cause offence to Russians, as when the transliteration into Latvian causes their names to appear as obscenities. The hostile attitude of the Latvian state to its Russian residents and citizens is also illustrated by the fact that the Ministry of Education’s web site is available in English, which is not a language indigenous to Latvia, but not in Russian.[2]
The citizenship law was eventually adopted in 1994, after much debate with the OSCE and the Council of Europe. It gave citizenship automatically to all those who had held it before the war, and to their descendants. But everyone else (with some exceptions) had to apply for naturalisation. They were (and still are) required to pass tests in the Latvian language, and on the country’s constitution and history. In the past, BHHRG has examined the questions put to candidates for citizenship and found them to be difficult, obscure, irrelevant to most contemporary people’s needs, and often implicitly anti-Russian.[3] Very few people applied for naturalisation: as of 30th September 2004, since the introduction of the procedure, only 84,827 applications have been received, for the naturalisation of 95,359 persons. Of these, only 78,540 have been granted citizenship.[4]
For this and other reasons, 20% of the Latvian population - nearly half a million people - still do not have citizenship.[5] (The same problem exists in neighbouring Estonia.) In Riga, the percentage of non-citizens is 32%. These people are therefore stateless: they do not have passports from any other country (e.g. Russia). The failure to resolve this issue can only be the result of government policy, and it is clearly an example of discrimination. Citizenship confers numerous political rights, but it also allows people certain material rights, such as the ability to exercise certain professions (working for the government or in the law). It is interesting to note that the Naturalisation Board, the institution within the Latvian state which implements this discriminatory policy, is funded by Freedom House, the American NGO which is supposed to be promoting the values of democracy and citizenship around the world.[6]
The difference is therefore striking between the attitude towards non-Latvian residents of Latvia in 1919, when the independent state was created of which the present one claims to be the successor, and now. The approach is also the very opposite of that which has been adopted by Western democracies which have large linguistic minorities. Although Quebec is famous for having strict rules which promote the use of French, it is in fact a requirement that all non-French speakers in Quebec must be able to communicate with the organs of the state in English if they wish: it in fact remains possible to live in Quebec speaking only English, despite the reluctance of the authorities. In Belgium, the law also provides for bilingualism, although Belgium’s two composite regions are both aggressively monoglot.
These examples put into context the Latvian government’s claim that its education reform is justified because the Latvians simply want to be able to speak their own language throughout their country: it is inconceivable that the slightly more populous Flemings in Belgium would be able to demand that Walloon schools teach 60% of their lessons in Flemish, simply so that they could order a beer in Flemish in a bar in Liège, or that the Anglophones in Canada would require Quebec schools to have 60% of their lessons in English. There are plenty of countries in the world where the national language, for good or ill, is not widely spoken: few people speak Romanian in the Szekely region of Transylvania; few Hungarians in Eastern Slovakia speak Slovak; try ordering a pizza in Gostivar in Macedonian and see what happens. But a state policy in any of those countries which effectively forced people to speak the state language would be regarded as deeply oppressive and intolerant.

The educational reform

It was as part of this policy of state-sponsored de-Russification that the new education reform was introduced. Its main provision is to insist that 60% of classes in minority language schools be taught in Latvian, i.e. not in the minority language (usually Russian). Such a rule represents a major attack on the principle of having minority schools at all. BHHRG interviewed people on both sides of the debate. The main government spokesman on the reform issue is Sergey Antsupov (Sergeys Ancupovs). Antsupov peddled the usual government line that the citizenship test is easy, and he claimed that there was numerous provision of Russian on the various Latvian state television channels. Antsupov claims that the Latvian government has made a “strategic mistake” by not having enough Russian speakers (like himself) to “explain” government policies to the Russian population. This is a roundabout way of saying that the government is itself overwhelmingly staffed by Latvians, itself anomalous in a country where nearly 40% of the population is Russian-speaking. On closer inspection, the claim that the problem was one of a lack of communication did not really stand up: Antsupov seemed to imply that the fact that the new regulations requiring 60% of teaching in Latvian were being introduced only gradually, at age 16 this year and then progressively for children in lower years, meant that the education reform had somehow been misunderstood by its critics. Yet the fact that a reform is being introduced only year-by-year does not mean that its opponents have not understood that, in a short space of time, Latvia will have closed down huge swathes of teaching in the mother tongue of a very large number of Latvian citizens and taxpayers.
Antsupov claimed that Latvia was developing a “mutinational concept” of education, and that it was very “competitive”. He strove to present Latvia as a country in which education could be in English, German or Russian, and said that the level of achievement was higher in multilingual schools. The implication was that children forced to be bilingual in what have hitherto been monoglot Russian schools will do better. This argument would be more convincing if the bilingualism was applied also to Latvian schools, which are the majority, but of course the rules there do not apply. Latvian language schools will remain glumly monoglot under the terms of the new reform. Antsupov said that he was against assimilation, which is what the reform’s critics allege is its true purpose, and he also claimed that most schools were ready for the change. This was challenged by other people BHHRG interviewed.
Mr. Antsupov was, for the most part, fluent in the language of political correctness. However, he made something of a slip when the subject of the reform’s opponents came up. Upon mention of the name Jakovs Pliners, he replied, “He is not a Russian. He is a Jew!” While this language does indeed reflect the old Soviet habit of categorising Jews as a nationality, and is therefore technically correct (at least according to an old Soviet mindset) Mr. Antsupov’s reaction reflects the general government tendency of artificially reducing the numbers of Russophones by hiving off substantial numbers of people into other nationalities (including Ukrainians and Byelorussians, who are in reality Russian-speakers).
Antsupov also seemed to want to denigrate the opposition to the reform by claiming that it was being politically “exploited” by the PCTVL party. But what else is a Russian party in Latvia supposed to do if not defend the interests of Russians? It seems likely that Latvian government officials like Mr. Antsupov are genuinely worried at the size of the grass-roots opposition to the reform, which has indeed garnered the support of a broad cross-section of the population. Indeed, he partially admitted the scale of the problem when he said that it would compromise the authority of the Latvian state itself if it backed down now on the educational reform. He said, “Latvians will revolt if the state abandons the law.”
Antsupov claimed that the opponents of the reform actually wanted to provoke conflict. So, to gauge the nature and extent of the opposition, BHHRG attended a big rally organised by the protesters in Riga on the first day of school, 1st September 2004. Reports at the time, for instance in The Baltic Times, alleged that the majority of protesters were old, but this was untrue. BHHRG observed people of all ages and social backgrounds, with a predominance of middle-aged professional people – precisely the kind of people who object to their children’s education being tampered with for political reasons. The tone of the meeting was peaceful and scrupulously correct. Speakers insisted that their aim was not to denigrate Latvian culture or language, which they said they respected, but instead to fight for the Russian minority to retain its rights and identity. The customary entertainment was provided – loud rock music - and everyone left peacefully. The deployment of police, however, was totally out of proportion to requirements, with policemen lining the streets every few metres. There seemed absolutely no need for such a massive police presence, and the policemen themselves, who are all ethnic Latvians, seemed determined not to exchange any pleasantries with the protesters.
At the same time as the big demonstration was taking place, a counter-demonstration was organised in the centre of the old town of Riga in favour of the reform. It was organised by Antsupov’s wife, and there was a rock concert to encourage people to come along. Nine men chained themselves to the railings outside the Ministry of Education, in a protest which led to their arrest. They had to appear in court the following morning. BHHRG interviewed one of the men arrested, Gennadi Kotov, shortly after charges had been dismissed at court the next day. A deputy in the Riga town council, Kotov was on hunger strike. He claimed that the arrest and court appearance was intended to intimidate him. Kotov alleged that the purpose of the education reform was to assimilate Russians, and he said that the President of Latvia, Mrs Vaira Vike-Freiberga, had said that if the Russians did not like the way things were done in Latvia, they could go back home. (Were such a statement ever to be made by a Western politician about an ethnic minority, he would be immediately branded a racist.) Kotov claimed that there were already Russian children in Latvia who could not write Russian properly.
Kotov and the other members of the “Headquarters” campaign against the reform had suggested that children boycott their classes on the first day of school, in protest at the reform. Such a strategy seemed doomed to failure, because children simply have to go to school. (Predictably, therefore, the government was able to proclaim the following day that the “empty schools” protest had been a flop.) Kotov then said that the HQ had suggested that children respond to their teachers in Russian, during the classes which were supposed to be in Latvian, but this also seems designed to fizzle out in confusion and futility. Kotov justified such tactics by saying that most teachers were too intimidated to undertake much protest of their own: they feared for their jobs. He also said that the political parties and government in Russia gave the Latvian Russians no help whatever, and that the European institutions, in whom they had placed some hope, were equally unhelpful.
BHHRG also interviewed Jakovs Pliners, one of the leading opponents of the reform. A former headmaster, Pliners knows his subject. He argued that the education reforms had been introduced with no prior consultation whatever. He said that teachers themselves had not been given the training necessary for such a changeover. As he points out, bilingual education is a special task, and it requires special books and training. He also claimed that educationalists had shown that bilingualism in schools (he quoted the Canadian educationalist Colin Baker) was invariably politically-inspired – as opposed to driven by the needs of children – and that it usually led to assimilation. Pliners said that he had spoken against the education reform as soon as it was proposed in 1998, and that he hand his fellow opponents had attempted to mitigate the bill’s effects by putting down some 15 amendments. All were rejected by the governing parliamentary majority. It was because of the failure of these amendments that he and others had called for peaceful and lawful demonstrations. He claimed that since a big rally was held on 20th May 2003, some 200,000 people in total have demonstrated against the reform. Pliner and his colleagues have collected over 113,00 signatures, calling for retention of the status quo in minority schools and good teaching of Latvian. Pliners pointed out that by 2007 all exams will be in Latvian only, and this will clearly reduce the use of Russian even further.
Pliners pointed out that there are other ways in which the state prosecutes its de-Russification policy. As has already been mentioned, state technical colleges and universities have already been forced to close down their Russian teaching and teach only in Latvian. The state also gives subsidies to private schools – but only to those which teach in Latvian, not to those which teach in Russian. This policy is clearly discriminatory, especially when one recalls that Latvian and Russian residents of Latvia pay equal taxes. As Pliners says, the greatest mistake was to divide the residents of Latvia between citizens and non-citizens. National minorities are now massively underrepresented in the government and civil service.
BHHRG also interviewed Alfreds Rubiks, former Mayor of Riga and leader of the Latvian CP before 1991. An ethnic Latvian, Rubiks cannot be accused of harbouring anti-Latvian sentiment, the accusation usually made against the Russian opponents of the reform. Rubiks also knows the history of his country, and he knows that it is bogus to pretend that the territory was anything other than a colony for a succession of great powers, starting with the Teutonic Knights. There was simply no Latvian nation before that. Rubiks made the point that he could understand Latvians wishing to bolster their own national identity and language, but argued that the education reform did not do this: it simply sabotaged teaching in Russian. Rubiks said that it was illogical to emphasise Latvian independence (from Russia) all the time, and then join the EU and NATO. He also expressed the fear that the drive for de-Russification and Latvianisation might lead even to secessionism: important parts of Latvia, after all, are nearly 100% Russian populated, such as the city of Daugavpils. Like Pliners, Rubiks seemed to suggest that the apparent use of a divide et impera strategy to pitch one section of the Latvian population against another was itself a way of distracting attention from the deteriorating economic situation in the country. Rubiks also attacked the argument which says that 60% of teaching must be in Latvian in order for students to be able to attend university, by saying that the number of people who drop out of courses because they do not know Latvian is tiny. He also pointed out that only 6% of the school population attends university anyway.

[1] “Nationalism and citizenship in Latvia”,,
[5] According to the figures provided by the Naturalisation Board,,



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