Voice of reason in a storm of discontent

  • 2004-07-15
The closer the start of the new school year, Sept. 1, approaches, the louder the voices against the school reform program grow. One of these voices belongs to Igor Pimenov, a founder of the Latvian Association for Support of Russian Language Schools (Lashor). Unlike many in opposition to the school reform, Pimenov and his organization have been able to strike a dialogue with the government. Aaron Eglitis recently met with him to get his assessment of the current government, its conflict within the Russophone community and the mass protests planned for September.

What is your organization about, and why are you opposed to the reform?
We stand for the independence of the Republic of Latvia. We understand the importance of protecting the Latvian language for the future of this country and the interest of the Latvian population and those who regard Latvian as their mother tongue.
It was not our goal to simply protest. We understood the necessity to protect the Latvian language, but our idea is that it should be done in a different way, without interfering in the education of Russian-speaking teenagers who want to be brought up predominately in the Russian language.
For six years we have repeatedly addressed the government with our proposals to change the course of the current national education reform. Unfortunately, for many years our proposals were ignored or neglected. We think it was neither fair nor pragmatic. It was a political mistake of the government to issue the changes in the education reform in the way it was done in this country.
Since our organization has teachers and principals, we have had two goals, the first of which is a good command of the Latvian language for Russian-speaking children. We want our children to be taught so that they speak Latvian fluently, but [so that] they can also maintain their language properly. Last but not least, we want our children to be patriots of Latvia. We don't want them to be guests in this country. We want both Latvians and Russians to be citizens of Latvia and to look at the country as our motherland.

Shtab is regarded as an extremist organization by Latvian politicians, with some members of Latvia's political elite asserting that they are in the hands of Moscow.
What [Jurij] Petropavlovski and [Jakov] Pliner [leaders of Shtab] do is express the opinion of many non-Latvians that live here and are offended by the state. The Latvian national revolution is under way; the economic background is expressed clearly - both the privatization of the state and the separation of people into different layers. In Soviet Latvia we did not have such separation. On the one hand, the government is addressing what happened in the past. The Latvian people were a minority, the language was neglected, so the government, while insuring the national self-determination of Latvians, should not neglect the Russian speakers.
I am not one of those who say we face outrageous discrimination in this country. It's not true. But many non-Latvians are unhappy. Many people are very vexed since the government does not consider them loyal. The gap between Russian speakers and the state is particularly wide.
What Petropavlovski and Pliner do is they feel this discontent, and as politicians they use it. These social groups who think this way will find different organizers and politicians to speak on behalf of them.
I believe there is a third part of this society that does not belong only to the Russian-speaking community, but one that speaks both languages, who read both Russian and Latvian newspapers, and who feel the problem of this country as a problem of their own.

Do you feel this government is more open to compromise than the previous government?
Yes, this government is more open to compromise than the previous ones. They are more open to dialogue. It's not only the protests. The position of Latvian nationalist parties are weak in this government, and they are more open to the interests of Russophones, without neglecting the interests of Latvian speakers.

Are you concerned about Sept. 1? Shtab has promised massive rallies as well as keeping some students out of school in protest.
The problem for Latvia is the unreasonable transition to the Latvian language. Sept. 1 is an exaggerated problem. The matter is the state ignores protests - and proposals. It is the right of the taxpayers not to send their children to school. In this area I support parents who wish to do this. What I am against is the use of this problem to strengthen political parties. But if some politicians want to call children onto the streets to demonstrate - for journalists first of all - how bad the system of education is in Latvia and how bad the state is itself, that is a quite different problem. I shall never support such approaches and activities.
Many non-Latvians believe it is the goal of the government to assimilate the non-Latvian population. Maybe not in a few years, but in, let's say, 25 years. If the government does not refuse such aspirations, it will meet large protests from the minority community.

Do you support a two-community state?
I don't think the model of Belgium is the best result for Latvia. In contemporary Europe borders are vanishing. When states are becoming closer and closer, we here in Latvia separate into two communities. It's a paradoxical result of the national revolution. I believe in the context of Europe we can find solutions where Latvians can be absolutely sure of their future, and Russophones can be sure of the future of their children.

Do you think Lashor has been losing ground to Shtab?
I believe we can lose it. It's very possible if we are not active ourselves, if we fail to explain what solutions can be made to solve the problem. If this government is too stubborn to take into account other proposals, in this case the extremes will meet, and center-orientated politics will be lost.

Why is there such animosity between Shtab and Lashor?
To a great extent the opinion of Lashor is my opinion, since I opposed the influence of Shtab within Lashor. In my opinion, the struggle for influence among possible voters to the elections of local governments and the ninth Saeima (Latvia's parliament) is already under way. Our organization does not participate in this struggle, but [Tatyana] Zdanoka's Equal Rights tries to make use of protests to get voters. And anyone that tries to attract these people becomes an enemy of this party. The National Harmony Party is enemy number two for this reason. But we prevent Shtab from attracting the opinion of all Russian speakers. [Shtab] is neither fair nor pragmatic; it will result in the growth of Latvian xenophobia and gains for parties like For Fatherland and Freedom. Activities of Shtab have increased the influence of Latvian nationalist parties in this country. The stronger Shtab acts, the stronger the adherents of the reform respond.