RIGA - After six hours of debate, Latvia's Parliament passed the education reform bill on Feb. 5 despite protests from opposition MPs and some 6,000 ethnic Russian students who demonstrated outside the parliamentary building in the morning.
The bill, which actually consists of amendments to an earlier law, provides for high-school age students to take a minimum of 60 percent of their lessons in Latvian, while minority students may fill up the remaining 40 percent of the curriculum in their native tongue.
An earlier version of the bill, which passed in its third reading, had been criticized by minorities, analysts and even President Vaira Vike-Freiberga for vague wording that appeared to lower the 40 percent minority language threshold to as low as 10 percent.
But even though the bill easily passed, mustering 71 votes from center-right parties, it contained a provision for a major salary hike for teachers that the ruling New Era party had spoken out against and therefore helped lead to the dissolution of the Cabinet. (See story on Page 1.)
Ironically, Prime Minister Einars Repse had promised that his minority government would resign if the law were blocked.
Most rightists, however, praised the bill. Peteris Tabuns from the For Fatherland and Freedom Party, which was part of the ruling coalition, said leftist politicians only wanted ethnic minorities to remain "an easily managed crowd" unable to obtain a proper, competitive education.
Former Education Minister Silva Golde from the People's Party stressed that education reform was obligatory if the state was to provide for equal development of all of society.
Announcing her decision to promulgate the law, Vike-Freiberga said, "I have been trying to understand what is the most dramatic the school students, parents and school teachers of national minorities predict after Sept. 1, but I have found no answer so far. Thus I don't see why not to promulgate the amendments."
Expectedly, opposition MPs and minority leaders assailed the bill's passage.
MP Vladimirs Buzajevs from For Human Rights in a United Latvia said the bill's passage signaled "the end of Russian secondary education."
Shtab (Headquarters for Defence of Russian Schools), the more radical of the two organizations fighting education reform (the other is Lashor), and which claimed credit for convincing MPs to change the bill's previous wording, said the street protests were proving effective in exacting change and that they would continue.
Opposition MPs confirmed this possibility.
"Of course there will be more rallies," Boris Cilevic, an MP from the National Harmony Party, told The Baltic Times. He said that since the government has largely ignored Lashor and other more moderate elements of society, more people would turn to Shtab.
"The message is absolutely clear: The ruling government does not understand dialogue and will only listen to street protests," Cilevic said.
Moscow, which has criticized Latvia frequently for the education reforms, was equally harsh in its assessment of the vote.
"This inevitably will worsen the situation, reduce the level of education that Russian speaking schoolchildren finish, create new divisions along social and property lines," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"It does not go unnoticed in Russia that Latvian lawmakers are acting alongside a previously known scheme when, while preparing legislation on matters vital for the Russian speaking part of the country's population, they first react to protests - making the wording of the legislation tighter, making it predictably unacceptable - and then return to the initial version, presenting it as going half-way to meet the Russian speaker population and international organizations," the ministry said.
Students at the Feb. 5 demonstration carried a variety of signs and posters, ranging from "don't twist our arms - allow us to speak Latvian voluntarily," to one calling for education to be 100 percent in Russian for native speakers.
It was the second such protest in two weeks.
Outgoing Education Minister Karlis Sadurskis, who is a member of New Era, said there would be no "witch hunting" after the protest against school principals whose students joined the protest.
"I understand very well that school headmasters are powerless in situations like these, and we have good cooperation with them. I understand well the kids too - if they have a choice to either sit at school and study or walk around the streets in Riga, they, naturally, choose the latter.
"The question is about MPs and Riga City Council members getting involved in urging school students to breach the law. This though is the matter of law enforcement authorities to assess," said Sadurskis.
After promulgation, the education reform law will go into effect beginning with the new school year in September 2004.