Today Purvciems, tomorrow the world

  • 2005-03-09
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - Secondary School 84 is an unlikely setting for a revolution. It is a battered concrete building in Riga's Purvciems district, sandwiched between Soviet tower-blocks and a snow-blown wasteland where children sled down frozen spoil-heaps. Trolley-buses grind black slush along the pavements, and even the graffiti look strangely colorless. But last weekend, the school hosted a barely-noticed milestone in Latvian politics.

On March 5, a small group of Latvian students organised the first regional selection contest for the European Youth Parliament. Teams of delegates from five Riga schools braved the elements and the trolley-bus network to debate, in English, pressing Euro-topics like gay rights, immigration and the value of low-cost airlines. Four of them will go through to the national finals, where they will come up against teams from Latvia's regions in front of a panel of international judges. The best team will then have the chance to represent Latvia in front of delegates from over 30 countries at EYP's full session in the autumn.

Budding politicians

It hardly seems revolutionary. After all, we already have the European Union, the European Commission, the European Parliament and, of course, the euro: isn't the EYP one Euro too many? It's true that the EYP is a European institution, organised by the big Camemberts in the West; but Latvia's participation is organised purely by Latvians, and what's remarkable is that they are still at school.

Meet Lelde and Linda, two teenagers from Riga with enough diplomatic experience between them to found an embassy. Their story started a year ago, when they took part in Latvia's first EYP contest. (Latvia has been involved in the EYP since 1997, but until 2004 delegates were nominated, rather than being selected after competitive debate.) Their team came second, but two members of the winning team then dropped out, and Lelde and Linda were asked to replace them at an EYP session in Berlin. It was their first full experience of democracy, European style.

"It was amazing. For the first few days, we felt so small," says Lelde. "The opening ceremony was attended by ambassadors and diplomats, and then we were debating inside the Reichstag. It was overwhelming."

"There were so many people from all over Europe," adds Linda. "We felt lost to start with."

They learned fast. The EYP is a fully-functioning international forum, complete with a bewildering array of subcommittees, and the issues it addresses mirror the debates called in the European Parliament: minority rights, immigration, national security, the so-called war on terror. Even larger than the EU itself, the EYP includes delegates from such countries as Belarus and Russia, and the first challenge for delegates is to adapt to one another's cultures.

"Sometimes it was really hard," says Linda. "Once I was chairing a debate on culture and education. There was a Belarusian girl there who just couldn't accept anyone else's point of view. Halfway through a speech by one of the Estonians, she stood up and stormed out." On another occasion, a Slovenian delegation, refused permission to amend a proposal, walked out en bloc.

Political correctness was another difficult issue. "We work by the UN's rules," says Linda. "There are some things you just can't say. One time we were discussing gay rights. A Russian delegate stood up and said, 'Homosexuality is an illness.' A Portuguese girl replied, 'You have to vote for gay rights, because when I walk through that door, I want to feel that I belong to a culture which is open and tolerant.' You can't say things like that in a real debate."

Spreading the word

One year on, and their dream is to give other young people the same experience. "We all found out about the EYP by word of mouth. So many people have never had the chance. This year, we want to make sure everyone gets invited," says Lelde.

They mean it literally: last year a group of EYP veterans founded the youth group TELLUS, dedicated to broadening Latvian awareness of the EYP and other international youth forums. The girls were quick to join the movement, which now lists around 20 active members, and they have taken it upon themselves to organise a nationwide EYP qualification process, with four regional contests culminating in the national final this summer.

Around 20 schools are set to compete in the regional sessions (Riga, Vidzeme, Latgale and Kurzeme-Zemgale). The response has been mixed, with only two teams participating in the Kurzeme-Zemgale division, but they hope for more.

"We need to generate more interest in TELLUS and the EYP. The more people we can get involved, the more successful we can be," Linda explains.

The 10 teams which make it to the final will experience a four-day event complete with accommodation, transport, entertainment and international moderators. Linda, Lelde and their TELLUS colleagues are now faced with organising a nationwide contest from an 11th form classroom.

It is certainly impressive to watch them in action. As this year's young hopefuls debate gay rights in Purvciems, Lelde and Linda chair the meeting with the ominous formality of driving examiners. "Transport and Tourism, you are welcome." "Is that a point of personal privilege?" "Please do not speak unless summoned."

It would not be out of place in Brussels, and the young contenders 's few of whom have had formal debating classes 's are quick to pick up the style. "According to the latest EU research conducted by the Gallup group…" "That issue was not included in the proposition, so we cannot comment on it." "I propose that the motion be adopted…" If parliamentary skills are any indicator of organisational ability, this summer's event should go with a bang.

But for the moment, their most pressing need is money. It costs up to 2,000 lats (2,845 euros) to send a six-person delegation to an EYP event. This summer's contest (hopefully to be held in Sigulda), plus the cost of sending the winners to Italy, is likely to reach around 3,500 lats. For TELLUS to achieve its aims, it needs a sponsor. One Latvian group has already been chosen to go to the EYP's April session in Norway, but so far they have been unable to find backing. "It's so sad," says Lelde. "We have a really talented group, but they can't afford to go. Finding funding is a huge problem." If no sponsor is found soon, the delegates will be staying home.

TELLUS' young democrats are doing what they can with the resources available. They have set up a Web site in Latvian (, with an English version to follow. They continue to spread their message to Latvian schools by e-mail, and are now intent on making a success of the regional events. It is a slow process, but Lelde and Linda are determined to make it work.

"The EYP gave us new ideas. It made us think about things we'd never had to consider before. It gave our political awareness a wider horizon," says Linda.

It has certainly broadened their ambitions. Organising a nationwide contest is a challenge which few teenagers would be willing to undertake, but some of TELLUS' members are already looking beyond that, toward careers in politics and diplomacy. With energy, organisation and international experience like this behind them, Latvia's EYP veterans may yet become a force to be reckoned with in Latvian politics.