The Baltic Course  

Latvia, is it Latvian or European?

By Boriss Cilevics

The Latvian law “On Education” decrees that starting from 2004, secondary education financed from the state budget will be performed only in Latvian as the language of instruction.

Photo: A.F.I. On the eve of the Eurovision contest more than 15000 people gathered at a meeting in support of Russian language education. Riga, May 23rd.

Non-governmental organizations and political parties of the Russian-speaking minority are actively against this law, but the government wants no compromise. This past spring was the most strained time in society in this aspect. There were meetings held in Russian schools, where parents keenly expressed their opinion against this reform.

The planned abolishment of secondary education in minority languages was the main topic discussed in the press, first, in the Russian language press, and then in the Latvian press. At the end of May a massive public manifestation against this reform took place… What are the roots of the problem? What are the perspectives for its resolution?


Unique “know-how”

In the beginning of the 1990s when Latvia regained its independence, various political scientists predicted a rather pessimistic future for our country, i.e. there would be inevitably ethnic conflicts in the republic, they said. After the 50 years of Soviet regime, Latvians will never agree to share political power with the Russian-Latvian people. But to safeguard the will-be dominant ethnic group’s political dominance at a time when the proportion of Latvian and Russian-speaking population was almost “fifty-fifty” seemed practically impossible.

However, a miracle has happened due to a so called unique “know-how”. The main idea behind the concept was the concept of citizenship. Latvia and Estonia became the only two post-soviet countries neglecting the so called “zero-option” according to which citizenship was provided almost automatically to all permanent residents at the moment of proclaiming independence. But only those were recognized as Latvian citizens whose ancestries had Latvian citizenship at the moment of the annexation of Latvia by the USSR in 1940. In order to justify the “restored citizenship” concept, numerous volumes of historical and legal observations have been written. With the main idea being: Latvian annexation was illegal and it de jure could not change either the Republic of Latvia’s international legal, or the citizenly status.

However, the essence of the main idea was different. At the moment of regaining independence, about half of the population were ethnic Latvians (presently 58%), but among them there were about 80% of so called acknowledged citizens. In this regard the political dominance of Latvians has prevailed.


Democracy deficit

However, the price for such “solution to the problem” turned out to be high enough. The actual discharge of a third of the Latvian taxpayers from participation in the national political processes created a long-term deficit of democracy. Latvia’s democracy turned out to be a democracy for a few. Most of those who were born and had lived their whole life in Latvia were actually regarded as non-citizens. Even in the middle of the 1990s, newborn non-citizen children were registered as the Soviet Union citizens – a country, which at the time, did not exist for already five years.

Of course, the new political elite did not rush to adopt a law on naturalization; why share the acquired power? Only in 1995, the law “On Citizenship” finally came into force that provided for the possibility of naturalization on rather tough conditions. Among other norms, the law included so-called “windows of naturalization”, a special slow-down system which allowed naturalization only of certain of non-citizen categories. Under pressure from the EU and the OSCE, the “windows” were abolished only in 1998. But even now non-citizens are not hurrying to naturalize, as for many of them it means to admit that they have been fairly treated before. But the majority of non-citizens do not agree with this at all.


Is citizenship contagious?

However, the number of non-citizens in Latvia is decreasing rather quickly, and first of all due to mixed marriages. Unlike Estonia, where citizens and non-citizens are divided geographically (the majority of Russian-speaking non-citizens are concentrated in the country’s North-East and in Tallinn), non-citizens in Latvia live in all major cities. A political project aimed at “formation of the nation” hardly influenced everyday life – it is hard to call the relations between Latvians and Russians as “strained”. One fifth of marriages are still mixed Russian-Latvian. There are even more marriages in the citizen–non-citizen category. Children in such marriages are becoming Latvian citizens by fact of birth. Therefore a sad joke is quite popular: citizenship in Latvia is mainly transmitted in the same way as AIDS…

The gradual growth of non-Latvians among citizens seriously influences the political landscape in Latvia. “Mainstream” parties are oriented at the Latvian electorate, their programs represent a wide political spectrum, i.e. from radical to liberal nationalism that don’t attract the Russian electorate. Unlike Lithuania and Estonia, citizens of Latvia generally vote according to their ethnic origin. Thus during elections to the 8th Parliament (Saeima) in 2002, the parties that were regarded pro-Russian, got one fourth of the seats in the parliament.


Ideological assimilation

How to secure the development of the “Latvian Latvia” concept in such a situation when integration into the EU will lead to an avalanche-like expansion of the Anglo-, Franco-, and German-speaking cultural environments?

The Latvian political elite has chosen the education system as a key to success. The education legislation (mostly that of teaching languages) was made more or less liberal under pressure from the OSCE and after Latvia lost some cases in the European Court of Human Rights and in the UN Committee of Human Rights. But in the sphere of education, using minority languages of instruction, there are no strict international rules and governments have some freedom for maneuver. The strategy was chosen for a gradual abolishment of the education system with minority languages of instruction. The aim of the strategy was not linguistic nor cultural. The purpose was an ideological and political assimilation; thus Latvian elite forcibly tried to foster in Russian youth “Latvian values” just on the eve of new elections.


All “become Latvians”

Since the times of the “Popular Front”, the new elite has declared its purpose concerning preservation of minorities’ cultural identity. At that time, this strategy had a certain aim: to split the rather homogeneous Russian-speaking community and to acquire an ally in the form of the growing national self-identity of the non-Russian minority. According to “Latvian Latvia’s” ideologists, the ideal model would be the following: on the social level all become Latvians, e.g. they communicate in Latvian language, share “Latvian values”, but on Saturdays, representatives of national minorities gather in their culture associations, sing their songs, dance folklore plays, and so on. This scheme is used in certain so-called national minority schools; basically, these are common Latvian schools, where additionally, the minority language, history and culture of the ethnical fatherland are taught. The Ministry of Education would like to see also Russian schools acting in the same way: a regular Latvian school plus an optional course of playing balalaika.

Unfortunately, the discussion turned into a symmetrical monologue of deaf people. Latvian politicians and the Ministry of Education’s officials say: “we want Russian children to be competitive in the labor market, that they would not be discriminated and could enter Latvian higher education establishments. To achieve that, they need to have a good command of Latvian language. In order to achieve it, it is not enough to learn language during separate Latvian lessons; they need to use it as the language of instruction. Therefore learning in Latvian is in the interests of our children.

Parents, in their turn, claim that when a child is taught subjects in a language that is not his native, the quality of education is suffering. Moreover, it becomes worse if the teacher too has insufficient knowledge of the language. Pupils in such schools  know physics, math’s, economics much worse, because instead of the subject, they learn the Latvian terminology of the subject. The result is contrary to the one declared: the competitiveness of our children decreases. A normal employer is interested in the qualification of employees and not in the accent of spoken Latvian. Moreover, “strong” schools provide its graduates today with a good knowledge of the Latvian language, many Russian graduates are quite successful in the state universities; there are also private higher education establishments with Russian as the language of instruction, and many young people enter universities in Russia, Europe, the USA. Give us the right to choose, don’t try to make us all alike!


No dialogue in the end

The Education Ministry has taken the easiest way, i.e. to exert  pressure on the school head masters. They received clear signals from the ministry: if you don’t support the reform, you will lose your job. There were also some extra incentives, i.e. teachers, who agreed to teach their subjects in Latvian, received special perks.

On the level of the government’s leading figures, the attempts to support the right to receive education in other native languages but Latvian were called the intrigues of “anti-governmental forces”.

Ignoring the problem, refusal to start a dialogue, all this had bad results. In spring this year, it has become clear that not the marginal population groups but rather successful people, who have adapted to the market economy and are loyal to Latvia, were ready to go to the streets and protest.

Only then the government began to pay attention to the problem. The Education Ministry put forward a draft of the secondary schools for minorities’ program according to which 40% of subjects are allowed to be taught in one’s mother tongue. However, the main legal provision, i.e. to teach only in Latvian – was not subject to any changes, and this has led to serious doubts concerning the faithfulness of the authorities. In fact, how can ministerial normative documents contradict the national law? It seems that behind unclear promises, the government is trying to calm down parents, prevent manifestations, but afterwards forget about all the promises.

However, it will hardly happen. For all normal people, their children’s future has the highest value, and they will hardly agree with the fact that the destiny of their kids is decided without their participation and ignoring the opinion of parents and ordinary taxpayers.

Today, unlike Atmoda times (the initial period of the struggle for independence), the provincially–nationally oriented concept of “Latvian Latvia” is not any more targeted against Soviet people, e.g. in fact, it becomes anti-European. Solving the problem concerning the education of minorities in Latvia will largely determine our place in united Europe. Will Latvia take a place in the mosaic of the European varieties or it will become an unfriendly country farm, full of troubles?