RIGA — Last September, school children werent the only ones headed back to class in Latvia. The end of the summer vacation also saw some 3,500 Russian-speaking teachers go back to school to brush up on their Latvian.
The question of language is a vexed one in the Baltic country. Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union before the fall of the Iron Curtain, shares a border with Russia. A quarter of its 1.9 million population is ethnic Russian, and many of the 45,000 minority students taught in schools that offer instruction in Russian are not fluent in Latvian.
A contentious bid by the outgoing center-right government to make Latvian the primary language of instruction in all schools drew sharp criticism in Russia earlier this year, with the foreign ministry calling it “discriminatory” and part of a policy of “forceful assimilation.” Previous efforts to increase Latvian instruction in Russian-speaking schools, in 2004, sparked widespread protests.
But this time around, the new law — which its proponents say is a long overdue step to expedite the integration of the two communities — hasnt mobilized a loud response among Latvias Russian-speaking minority. The biggest problem facing the government is its ability to implement it.
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Under the new policy, by September 2021 half of elementary school classes, and 80 percent of classes for students in grades 7 through 9, must be taught in Latvian. In grades 10-12, instruction will be entirely in Latvian, the state language. Currently, in schools catering to Russian-minority students the share of classes taught in Latvian is closer to 40 percent.
The reform is “the only mechanism we have to create a truly integrated society in Latvia,” says Guntars Catlaks, who heads the National Center for Education, the department responsible for enacting the law. Its designed, he says, “to help unify the country by creating a common sphere of communication.”
But while the outgoing government — dogged by a banking scandal and charges of cronyism — touted the reform as one its most important achievements, it visibly failed to capture the imagination of voters. The ruling coalition was ousted, and negotiations for a new government are ongoing.
Some Russian-speaking teachers, wary of the move, have retired in anticipation. But a majority of teachers appear to have accepted the change, insists Dace Dalbina, the official overseeing the retraining efforts, who said “interest and support” from administrators and teachers has been “overwhelming.”
The policys supporters claim the reform is essential to ensuring students from the Russian-speaking minority are competitive in the labor market. “Students are dropping out of vocational college because of their poor grasp of Latvian,” says Inga Springe, editor of Re:Baltica, a Riga-based news site.
“Russian-speaking parents tend to take their children to Latvian kindergartens so that they can learn the Latvian language from early childhood” — Olga Petkevich, journalist
Politics aside, something had to be done to even the playing field between Latvian and Russian-speaking students, according to Springe.
For some, the move is also important for its symbolism. “Twenty-eight years after regaining our independence, its time that Latvian became the language of instruction in our schools,” says Aiva Rozenberga, who heads the Latvian Institute. “We needed to do this as a country.”
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The governments first push to phase out Russian in schools back in 2004 was met with heavy criticism. Crowds of protestors — estimated at over 15,000 — took to the streets to object to the new policy, and accused Riga of trying to force “linguistic suicide.”
The phrase has been revived by opponents, including Tatjana Ždanoka, one of the reforms most vocal critics. But demonstrations these days are considerably smaller, drawing some 200 protestors or less.
Ždanoka, a co-chairwoman of the Latvian Russian Union, gave up a seat in the European Parliament to devote her time to pushing back against the reform.
Her efforts sparked accusations that shes a Kremlin stooge — claims she dismisses as nonsense. Her opposition to phasing out Russian in schools has more to do with its effects on the minority population than any loyalty to Moscow, she says.
She adds that shes been disappointed by the lack of support from Moscow, which has stayed clear of the matter after a flurry of early condemnation. The support she and her colleagues expected to receive from Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs, the head of Saskana — the largest party representing the Russian-speaking population — has also failed to materialize. Hes a “conformist,” she says, flatly.
“In general, society seems to have accepted the idea that education should be in Latvian” — Guntars Catlaks, head of the National Center for Education
The new policy will aggravate what many consider to be the countrys biggest problem — its rapidly declining population, says Ždanoka. “After education in Russian is abolished, Russian speakers will leave the country.”
Its also wrong-headed from a pedagogical point of view, she claims, pointing to studies that show “children who are taught in their own language as long as possible find it easier to learn other languages.”
But Ždanokas arguments dont appear to be rallying Latvias Russia minority. In Octobers election, her party drew less than 5 percent of the vote.
The Russian population may not be moved by the reforms political raison dêtre, but many see it as having practical advantages.
“People here want to know the Latvian language,” says Olga Petkevich, a journalist and mother of three from Daugavpils, Latvias second largest city, whose population is over 90 percent Russian speaking. “And they realize that their children want to know it.”
“Russian-speaking parents tend to take their children to Latvian kindergartens so that they can learn the Latvian language from early childhood” and make sure they can keep up in Latvian-only classes in high school, says Petkevich.
Leader of pro-Kremlin social democratic party Harmony Nils Ušakovs (R) and leaders of the New Conservative party (L) are seen on pre-election posters in Riga, Latvia on October 3, 2018 | Ilmars Znotins/AFP via Getty Images
“In general, society seems to have accepted the idea that education should be in Latvian,” says Catlaks, of the education ministry.
Still, the road ahead is likely to be rocky. Even supporters question whether the government is dedicating enough resources to the effort.
The ministry points out that it is spending €3.3 million to help teachers in Russian-speaking schools improve their grasp of Latvian. Catlaks concedes that there is a shortage of Latvian language teachers, “but there is also a shortage of physics teachers” and others, as a result of low salaries and the jobs lack of attractiveness — problems that are not specific to Latvia.
“This is where I am angry at our politicians,” says Springe, the journalist. “Its OK to wish that Russians living here should learn Latvian but [in the] meantime politicians should do more to provide the basic things they need to execute the reform — like teachers and good text books.”
Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Riga.