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Latvia: Opponents Of Bilingual Education Reform Hold Rally On Eve Of Eurovision Contest

By Ieva Raubisko

Latvia tomorrow hosts the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but this may not be the only event to attract the attention of the many foreign journalists and guests now gathering in the capital Riga. Several nongovernmental organizations will hold a public meeting in downtown Riga today to voice their protest against bilingual education reform, which is due to begin next year. RFE/RL reports from Riga.

Riga, 23 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several nongovernmental organizations will hold a rally in central Riga today to protest the government's plan for bilingual education reform.

The participants -- politicians, NGO leaders, teachers, students, and their parents -- will demonstrate against the demand to switch to Latvian as the main language of instruction at the country's 149 minority high schools beginning in the autumn of 2004.

Minority high schools will have to teach 60 percent of the curriculum in Latvian, the official language of the country. The remaining 40 percent can be taught in the minority language -- which, in the case of Latvia, is usually Russian.

The 60-40 split has met with opposition from critics who say it will have a negative impact on students' ability to learn. They say switching to Latvian will reduce the quality of education and deprive the 10,000 students in minority schools of their native language and cultural environment.

Igor Pimenov, the chairman of the Latvian Association for Support of Schools with Russian Language of Instruction (LAShOR), the main organizer of the anti-reform rally, says the government has not done enough to address the concerns of the Russian teachers, students, and parents represented by his organization.

Pimenov says the rally is a way to make the government listen to the more than 30 percent of Latvia's population who consider Russian their mother tongue.

"We have [gone] a long way -- making different conferences of parents, seminars, and some other activities -- to attract the attention of the government. Unfortunately, all our attempts failed and have been ignored. We simply want to show the faces of the people to the officials of the state, to the government," Pimenov says.

But Latvia's Education Ministry says it has always valued the views of students and teachers at minority schools and is trying its best to help them to prepare for the bilingual education reform. The government says the reform will promote social integration and help make young people more competitive in education and the job market. At the same time, it says, the reform supports minorities in their drive to preserve their culture and traditions.

Ina Druviete, a member of parliament and a professor of linguistics at the University of Latvia, says halting the education reform would only make sense if the country changes its entire official language policy.

"People are issuing ultimatums in trying to achieve their goal of having high school education mainly in Russian. No one talks about what will happen to these students later when they go to university and enter the job market. If attempts [to reverse the education reform] are to acquire any meaning at all, we have to review the entire language policy of the country. That is, we have to reconsider the issue of the language of instruction at [Latvian] public universities and cancel the requirements for people in certain professions to know the official language. I see a dead end here," Druviete says.

Supporters of the reform claim that some political parties -- mainly For Human Rights in a United Latvia (PCTVL), a long-time favorite of Russian-speaking voters -- is trying to misinform its constituents and cast the reform in a negative light, thus further dividing the Latvian public. A month ago, two PCTVL deputies -- together with several nongovernmental organizations and parents -- formed a special headquarters for the protection of Russian schools. The group will participate in today's rally.

Political scientist Artis Pabriks says that a number of politicians will lose their ethnically orientated electorate if the education reform is successful. Pabriks also says some of the resistance may come from beyond Latvia's borders.

"In general, the reform endangers the chance in the future for these parties to have enough voters, who are ethnically oriented. If the reform succeeds, in five, 10, 15 years, we will have a much more united community in Latvia where ethnic differences will no longer play such an important role. Neither ethnic nor linguistic differences will be a major issue any more. So they are, of course, afraid that they might lose some kind of support from the group, which was so nicely defined until now. I think there is also particular interest from some Russian politicians in Russia. If there is ethnic division in the Latvian society, it's always much easier to get support for external influences in this country," Pabriks says.

But LAShOR chairman Pimenov brushes aside the charges of political motives behind the anti-reform rally. He says this is one of the few chances for people to gather and publicly express their opinion about the imminent changes in high school education.

"The activities of civil society usually are [criticized] as the activities of politicians looking to increase their ratings. We believe [that's] wrong. We don't see any other means of demonstrating the interests of a large group of people in this country," Pimenov says.

But the timing of the rally appears to have been chosen deliberately. The protest takes place on the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest, which Riga is hosting and which has drawn thousands of journalists and guests from abroad. The Riga city council initially denied permission for the rally, but eventually yielded following calls by the media to respect the right to free speech.