Desegregating the Latvian school system ends a divisive Soviet legacy.

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 that easy to eradicate. One of those legacies was a segregated school system that divided ethnic Latvians and Russians. This year, the Latvian government enters the 6th year of an 8-year program designed to end this divisive situation. Although the program is designed to promote social integration, equal opportunity and citizenship for all of Latvia’s 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 Soviet citizens, mostly of ethnic Russian origin, established residence in Latvia, and remained there after the break up of the Soviet Union. Many were brought in as part of Stalin’s Russification campaign. Most spoke only Russian, as did their eventual Latvia-born children and grandchildren. When Latvia restored its independence in 1991, they all found themselves in a country that had re-established its national sovereignty, state language and Latvian identity. They were former Soviets, mostly of Russian ethnicity, now living in the Republic of Latvia.

After adoption of the Law on Citizenship in 1994, a Naturalisation board was established in 1995, enabling former Soviets to apply for Latvian citizenship. All permanent residents of Latvia who could pass a Latvian language and history test could become citizens. The process of naturalisation was slow, in part because a large segment of the ethnic Russian population could not speak Latvian. A national Latvian language training programme was established in 1996 to help residents acquire the language skills needed to qualify for citizenship.

The rate of naturalisation 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 a hardship. However, since many ethnic Russians continued to study in the 159 exclusively Russian-language state schools, the rate of naturalisation continued to lag even among the young.

While the retention of the Russian 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. Pupils who could only speak Russian could not become citizens, had difficulty integrating into Latvian society and had limited higher education and employment opportunities.

To correct this situation, a Law on Education was adopted in 1998. The law 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 program to introduce Latvian language study in minority schools included a gradual phasing in of bilingual courses over a period of 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 on September 2004.

The 8-year program was designed to provide pupils ample time to prepare for the transition to bilingual education. During the first 5 years no one objected. But in 2003, as changes in the secondary school courses were being prepared, political organisations emerged in opposition to the plan. Encouraged by a few radical parliamentarians and led by adult activists, some Russian secondary school pupils began to organise 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 institutions.

The size and aggressive nature of the protests has grown over the last year. Methods have become more sophisticated and confrontational, and have received sizable financial support from unknown sources. The Russian Government has also weighed into the controversy, condemning the Latvian Government’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 Latvia’s language and citizenship policies. Both of these positions, which would increase segregation and reverse integration in Latvia, have long been Russian Government policies toward Latvia.

Despite Russia’s protests, which amount to interference in another state’s internal affairs, the Latvian government’s language, citizenship and educational policies have received broad international support. Meeting international standards on these issues was necessary in order for Latvia to qualify for EU and NATO membership. Latvia was welcomed into both organisations earlier this year. The Council of Europe and the OSCE have also endorsed Latvia’s policies, particularly in regard to educational reform.

Following a March 2004 fact finding trip to Latvia, a Council of Europe 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 Council strongly advised Russia to cease its counter-productive interference in Latvia’s internal affairs.

The protests are indeed counter-productive. 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 organisations that have followed this issue in Latvia have agreed that the social integration of former Soviets must be accelerated and that naturalisation rates needs 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. The Latvian educational reform program 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 Europe.