RIGA - A thinly veiled threat from the anti-education reform organization Shtab claiming the state was "on the brink of ethnic violence" caused consternation in the capital and among law enforcement agencies on Aug. 13.
An open letter by six minority organizations, including Shtab (Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools) addressed to the president, the prime minister and members of Parliament, called for a moratorium on the planned education reform mandating that as of Sept. 1, 60 percent of all high-school level classes be taught in the state language.
The letter stated that, should the reform go ahead, there was a valid possibility of police confrontation during the demonstrations planned for early September. Among the signatories was MP Nikolai Kabanov.
Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons called the letter "a provocation," while denouncements from Latvian politicians on both the right and left of the political spectrum quickly followed suit. Even communist stalwart Alfreds Rubiks called Kabanov's statement a provocation in an interview with the Russian-language daily Telegraf.
Shtab, for its part, said it would promise the biggest protest yet on Sept. 1, accompanied by a hungerstrike, and would appeal to schoolchildren to stay out of school until a moratorium on the reform was announced.
Head of the security police Janis Reiniks has said that he did not believe Shtab could control the situation any longer, while others said the "threat" was exaggerated and just more of the same bombastic rhetoric from an organization that needed to impress sponsors in Russia.
Should things get out of control, police have threatened to use water cannons to keep the peace.
"This is nothing new, Shtab has been releasing veiled threats, which they call warnings for about a year now," Special Task Minister for Integration Nils Muiznieks told The Baltic Times.
"Its clear that some of them want a confrontation, but we don't have any evidence to believe that one will happen," he added.
Muiznieks also pointed to a recent study released by the Baltic Institute of Social Science that found the possibility of ethnic violence remote.
MP Jakovs Pliners, who is also from For Human Rights in a United Latvia and a sponsor of the rallies, promised to do everything he could to avert violence at the demonstrations.
Shtab supporters are hoping the Sept. 1 rally will draw as many as 38,000 people.
Numerous, large demonstrations organized by Shtab have been held for months now, and without violent outcomes. However, others within the ethnic Russian community are worried about when the reforms are actually implemented.
"For the sane people within Shtab, many are really afraid about the possibility that the events will spin out of control," Alexander Krasnitsky, a Russian language journalist told The Baltic Times.
"All tension in society benefits the extremists within the organization and on the opposite flank. This time the letter, in my opinion, more or less corresponds to reality," he said.
"I am plainly afraid of the month of September," he added.
Still, Shtab activists downplayed the threat of violence when asked about it.
"I don't think any violence will occur at this demonstration, because earlier we agreed on a campaign of nonviolent resistance, and we have been trying constantly to hold very peaceful demonstrations. Besides, the government is not interested in using any violent measures," Genneday Kotov, a member of the Riga City Council, told The Baltic Times.
"Shtab is advising children not to attend school as a protest against the education reform. And we will keep doing that until government will hear us," Kotov added.
In addition to protests, Kotov said that he and ten other activists would begin a hunger-strike on Aug. 23.
In the meantime, Kabanov, speaking to the Telegraf daily, said, "In no way can I consider my signature on a letter by six societal organizations a provocation. Ninety percent of the letter is about the problem of Russian-language education. The mention of a potential confrontation with the police in the later - just one sentence! - was blown out of proportion by the media."
The controversial letter corresponded to a demand for the legal sanction of protests planned for the coming weeks. The Riga City Council initially refused to authorize the Sept. 1 protest but later acquiesced, approving them from Aug. 23 to Sept. 3 in Esplanade Park and a rally on Sept. 1 at Victory Park.