Latvia reclaimed its independence from the ashes of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. Officially, the renewed Latvian state is a continuation of its prewar incarnation. Many countries, including the United States, never recognized the Baltic states’ incorporation into the USSR, so Latvia’s de facto return to independence presented no legal difficulties.
But there is another problem. After 50 years of Soviet annexation, the country’s ethnic makeup has been irrevocably changed.
Before World War II, ethnic Latvians made up almost 80 percent of their country’s population. Following decades of in-migration by residents from other parts of the USSR, they now make up less than 60 percent.
Russian speakers are in the majority in several of the country’s largest cities, including the capital Riga.
How do you strengthen Latvia’s national identity without alienating almost half the country’s population? That has been the challenge facing the authorities for the past 15 years.
The government says it wants to desegregate a society where ethnic Latvians and their neighbors live side-by-side but often in separate worlds.
Knowledge of the Latvian language has been identified as the key motor to integration. And the country’s schools are the main laboratory.
To date, Latvia’s education system mirrors the divisions in society. Some 60 percent of children study in Latvian language schools, while the remaining 40 percent attend minority schools where the main language of instruction is Russian.
Latvian language instruction in the Russian schools has gradually increased since the resumption of independence. But this year marks what the authorities hope is a watershed moment on the way to ending de facto school segregation.
Starting with the 2004-05 school year, all 10th graders in minority schools must be taught at least 60 percent of their subjects in Latvian. Next year, ninth graders will follow. By 2007, all secondary students will take their school-leaving examinations in Latvian so that they are ready to enter university or the job market on a par with their ethnic-Latvian classmates.
Aija Priedite, who heads the National Agency for Latvian Language Training, explained the philosophy behind the reform: “This segregated school system is segregating the society. So we have to think about the future, what will be done within the school system. I think the only possibility is a unified schooling system in Latvian for everybody and then you can take minority programs, you can have Russian language culture and history programs or Belarusian or Ukrainian or something like that.”
But many Russian speakers in Latvia do not take such a benign view of the reform. In Riga last year, 20,000 Russian-speaking students demonstrated against the plan.
Russian-speaking parents and teachers have formed a group, called the Latvian Association to Support Russian Language Schools (LASHOR), that aims to preserve the current bilingual education system.
Igor Pimenov, of LASHOR, said he agrees that Russian-speaking students should learn Latvian. But he also said he believes forcing non-native speakers to get most of their schooling in Latvian will slow their development -- putting them at a disadvantage compared to their ethnic Latvian counterparts. School, he said, is about developing young minds, and that is best done, he argued, in a child’s native language.
“Above all, it is essential to assure the dominance of students’ native language in schools because school, above all, is where native language skills are developed," Pimenov said. "It is in the native language that a child’s thinking capabilities are developed, that the child’s natural abilities are nurtured. If teaching takes place in the native language, it allows the full development of these faculties. On the other hand, we support improving the standard of Latvian language teaching in Latvian language classes. In addition, we understand that you cannot learn a language only in language classes. It is essential to teach some subjects in Latvian.“
But not physics, geography, nor world literature, he emphasized. In addition, said Pimenov, having Russian-speaking teachers teaching Russian-speaking students in Latvian -- for the sake of supposed national unity -- helps neither students nor teachers.
“The stereotypical situation is like this: A Russian teacher enters a Russian classroom and begins teaching a lesson in Latvian. I myself studied in a school where English history and literature were taught in English," Pimenov said. "But we all understood that the main goal was to learn English. But when something like this happens in physics class, geography or biology class, it’s clear that biology or geography are not the goal, but rather that learning Latvian is. And secondly, the process of having a Russian teacher teach his or her subject -- physics or chemistry -- in Latvian to Russian children puts this teacher in a humiliating position.”
Ironically, opposition to the government’s language integration policies hasn’t only come from Russian speakers. Aija Priedite said that for many ethnic Latvians, who struggled to maintain their culture in Soviet times, the language became a refuge and acquired an almost spiritual dimension. As a result, some Latvians are intolerant at Russians’ attempts to speak what they consider to be “their” language.
“It was somehow a secret, inside language," Priedite said. "And this feeling is very, very deep in the Latvians. And now they have to spread the language to others, to a big part of Latvia. And all these stereotypes which have been multiplied for many years, that the Russian do not want to learn Latvian, that the Latvian language is so difficult and that you have to speak perfect Latvian. All these stereotypes have to be overcome by both sides.”
At the Latvian Center For Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has been tracking the issue, Director Ilze Brands Kehris said the problem is not so much the reform itself but rather the lack of dialogue between the two sides that has fed mutual suspicion.
“The problem, I think, is precisely that it has been politically mishandled," Kehris said. "I think the issues are not the substance but it’s an issue of how it’s implemented: If sufficient assistance is given by the state, if sufficient materials are prepared, teachers prepared, if there has been interaction and dialogue between the students, teachers, directors, and the government. And in my view, this has been the very weak part of it. There has been essentially no effective participation by minorities in the elaboration of the goal of the reform and in the reform itself.”
Ultimately, she said, integration will not be achieved through restrictions and punitive measures. Russian speakers should see the reform as an advantage that allows them to become multilingual, without threatening their own identity. She suggested relaxing timetables and showing flexibility if individual schools or weaker students have trouble meeting the new requirements.
After all, she argued, if children have difficulties in school, it’s better to ensure they graduate -- even in Russian -- than to have them drop out for failing to pass a language requirement.
The bitter polemics around Latvia’s education reform, which are fed by daily articles in the Latvian and Russian-language press as well as politicians as far away as Moscow, mask a larger reality. Latvia, in recent years, has made progress at integration – even linguistically.
Walk into practically any store or cafe in Riga and you will be automatically addressed in Latvian, even if the personnel is Russian. That was not true 10 years ago. Conversely, many ethnic Latvian teenagers who have no memory of Soviet times, speak basic Russian.
As 18-year-old Karlina, who will graduate in June from Riga’s Latvian language School Number 3, told RFE/RL: “If you want a good job with a multinational company, knowledge of Russian is an advantage. Politics doesn’t enter into it."