RIGA - Thousands of schoolchildren gathered in protest on the evening of Sept. 1 as the much-anticipated start of the school year arrived, and the accompanying educational reform, obliging minority students to take more classes in Latvian, went into effect. At the same time thousands of teenagers gathered in Dome Square to attend a state-sponsored concert organized as a means to counter the anti-reform rallies.
Protest organizers, including Shtab (Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools) and the political faction For Human Rights in a United Latvia, were to be barred from entering Riga's Old Town, and it was unclear as The Baltic Times went to press if they would try to enter.
If the decision was not struck down by the administration, organizers said they would stage a "coincidental walk" through downtown Riga - one akin to the unsanctioned protest outside Parliament against the nomination of Ingrida Udre as the country's European commissioner.
Police officials, however, said they would even block avenues leading to the historic old part of the city using mounted police.
Most speculation on the protests, which are also expected to take place on the following day and on select days throughout September, focused on the possibility of violence, particularly in light of vague hints from the party of ethnic Russian MPs.
Shtab, by far the most radical anti-reform group, has called for students to skip classes entirely until the government abolishes the reform program. Some of its organizers are already in their second week of a hunger strike.
"There will be no violence at the protests, although no one can guarantee that no violence will occur in the Cabinet of Ministers at night," Alexander Kazakov, one of the leaders of Shtab, and a volunteer for Dmitry Rogozin's Motherland party in the Russian Duma, said.
Shtab organizers said they expected a crowd of 30,000 for the first rally set for Victory Park and similar crowds leading up to Sept. 12, when a major congress of over 400 minority representatives are expected to meet to discuss strategy, should the reform continue.
Others downplayed the threat of violence.
"I believe nothing special will happen tomorrow," Igor Pimenov, a member of the more moderate Lashor (Latvian Association for Support of Schools with Russian Language of Instruction) said on Aug. 31. He added that, minus "provocation by extremists," the protests should proceed safely, though he admitted that the event was poorly organized.
One MP from the National Harmony Party, which this week threatened to help bring down the government if it did not address the education issue and tension in society, said that violence was unlikely since many of the police on the streets will be ethnic Russians.
Government authorities were taking no chances and even organized a "counter-rally" to celebrate the first day of school as an attempt to siphon off support for the protests. The Education Ministry organized a concert with the popular Russian rock band Mummy Troll in Riga's Old Town.
Meanwhile the government was not backing down, despite the possible political or societal repercussions.
"The reform will not be canceled, because when I had meetings with Russian school directors none of them gave me any reasons why the government should cancel it," Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said on Aug. 31.
In addition, Emsis promised swift action and punishment in accordance with the law for instigators of lawless activity.
Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons announced that the security police had located the source of Shtab's funding, which so far has remained an enigma.
Shtab remains an unregistered organization, and its financing has caused some speculation that part of its resources comes from Moscow.
Meanwhile, a cadre of hunger strikers has bolstered the protests, although they number only six. The protesters are not expected to starve themselves to death, though according to Shtab's Web site, one protestor, Mikhail Kotov, has already had heart problems.
It was difficult to speculate how many children would skip school beginning Sept. 1, or for how long the street demonstrations could be sustained.
"I plan to go to school," said Anastasia, a 16-year-old student at Riga 42 High School. While she expressed unhappiness at the decrease in the number of classes in Russian, she added, "I have some friends who want to skip school, but I find it unreasonable."
The reform will mandate that 60 percent of classes take place in the Latvian language, beginning in grade 10 this year. The program has created major PR challenges for the Baltic country, particularly in Brussels and Moscow. In order to combat many of the myths about the reform in Russia, a group of Latvian education experts traveled last week to Moscow, where they participated in a series of interviews explaining both the crux and the details of the program.
The experts - Sergeys Ancupovs, advisor to the Latvian Ministry of Education, Irina Vinnika, director of ethnic minority affairs at the Integration Ministry, Eizenija Aldermane, head of the naturalization board of the Ministry of Justice, and Romans Alijevs, a school director - said that they were surprised by Russian journalists' one-sided questions and lack of understanding about the reform program.
Ancupovs even said that, at times, the delegation had to answer absurd questions concerning the minority situation in Latvia.
"We didn't know how to respond to questions like 'Will children still be allowed to speak Russian in schools after the education reform?'" said Romans Alievs. "And that shows us that the Russian media is more interested in protesting this reform than in its essence."
Engaged media included the NTV, REN-TV, CENTER-TV stations, radio Mayak and Svoboda, and the newspapers Izvestiya, Vremya novostei, Russkiy kuryer, Gazeta and Moskovskaya Pravda.
Julia Balandina contributed to this report.