RIGA - Latvia's controversial school reform set to begin this September was embroiled in controversy once again as protesters took to the streets to condemn a recent amendment under vote in Parliament that critics say will threaten minority education. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said on Jan. 27 that she would return the amendment if it was not properly clarified.
The proposal, ethnic Russian detractors claim, will overturn the compromise passed into law last year guaranteeing 40 percent of all classes in a minority language and possibly lower that level to as little as 10 percent. Due to the ambiguous wording of the proposal, which passed its second reading last week, critics fear that classes for the preservation of minority identity refer only to language and literature classes.
Ina Druviete, a member of New Era and a linguist at the University of Latvia, refuted this interpretation.
"There are no conceptual changes in this draft proposal," she said. "This is a great misunderstanding."
As Druviete explained, "We will change the wording in the third reading to make it more clear. There will still be free choice of subjects [taught in minority languages]."
As it stands now the unclear wording has skeptics concerned about the implementation of the amendment in the future.
"I believe it is a clear deception that the Education Ministry has been saying that the situation has not changed," Boris Cilevics, from the National Harmony Party, said.
"It shows amazing insensitivity to the very fragile compromise achieved," he added. "This concession allows only radicals to score more points."
Analysts are also concerned over the uncertain wording of the amendment.
"What the Saeima [Latvia's parliament] is proposing gives a lot of room for interpretation," Indra Dedze, an education policy analyst, said of the draft amendment.
The amendment is needed to implement the current 60-40 model agreed to last year that allows 60 percent of education in the state language and the remainder in a minority one. The previous law adopted over 10 years ago had originally stated that by Sept. 1, 2004, minority secondary schools would have to teach mainly or only in Latvian, Dedze explained.
"The Education Ministry has been very poor at communication," Dedze added.
Russian opposition to the reform is hardly united, with the two main groups Shtab (Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools) and Lashor (Association in Support of Russian Language Schools) both openly hostile to one another, Shtab representing the more radical opposition.
The recent protests, which included ethnic Russian schoolchildren from all around Riga, culminated on Jan. 23 outside the Saeima and the Education Ministry. Pupils held signs in Russian, English and Latvian excoriating educational reform, the human rights situation and Latvia itself.
At another protest the following day in Espalande Park one sign warned that the education reform could lead to a Baltic Kosovo disaster.
During the interwar years Latvia had a liberal education policy, offering state support for education for a multiplicity of ethnies, even boosting both Yiddish and Hebrew schools for Latvia's Jewish population.
However, the Soviet Union, seeking to assimilate Latvia's minorities, disposed of all minority schools except Russian and Latvian language schools, effectively closing all other avenues for minorities wishing to learn in their language.
With the renewal of independence minority-language schools returned to Latvia. The country now has four Polish, one Ukrainian and one Belarusian school, primary and secondary, with classes taught primarily in other minority languages. There are also schools with classes held in Roma, Lithuanian, Estonian and other languages.
These new minority schools, however, make up only a small fraction of the current total, the bulk of which is divided between Latvian and Russian schools.
Analysts say that poor communication by the Ministry of Education and Science has lead to mistrust over the intentions of the proposal and helped feed conspiracy theories. For instance the Russian-language daily Chas published a bullet point presentation in a Jan. 26 front-page editorial that included warnings of "authorities preparing for repression." In the words of the paper, "the police are demanding principals provide lists of schoolchildren who participated in the protests...[and] are frightening teachers and parents."
To be sure, dissent has not been limited to Russian-language media. In Askolds Rodins' column "A 100 percent mistake" in the daily Diena, he wrote, "changes in the education law will only help extremists."
The amendment is expected to have its third reading next week. Many commentators hope that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga will return the amendment to the Saeima if it has not been properly clarified.