Shtab - leave those kids alone

  • 2004-03-04
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - As mass protests continued to mount against Latvia's soon-to-be-implemented education reform, which will mandate 60 percent of classes to take place in the state language, relations between Latvia and Russia continue to deteriorate.

Recently several Russian lawmakers threatened to initiate economic sanctions against Latvia, and last week an influential Russian legislator and persistent critic of the Baltic country was barred entrance to the country for a lack of willingness "to engage in dialogue."
Yet as the Baltic states' formal accession to NATO and EU approaches, the frequency of minority demonstrations has increased dramatically, and theories of a clandestine, conspiratorial force behind the mass protests have begun to cause public and private speculation.
In an article in Diena'a weekly magazine Sestdiena dated Jan. 27, journalist Alexander Shabanov hinted of the possibility that Moscow was providing financial support to Latvia's main antireform organization, the Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools, or Shtab.
The article also hinted that the Equality Party, headed by Tatyana Zhdanoka, might be the recipient of the funds.
In a recent interview, Janis Jurkans, leader of the center-left National Harmony Party, a rival of the Equality Party, stressed Zhdanoka's role in the recent wave of demonstrations that have included thousands of schoolchildren skipping classes to make their viewpoint known.
"She is orchestrating that whole thing. She is not in front of TV cameras, but she is tactically behind the scenes - she is there, and I think she does it purposefully," Jurkans told The Baltic Times.
Neither Shtab nor the Equality Party could be reached for comment.
Bizarrely, the local press has reported that Shtab is not even a registered NGO, though this hasn't stopped it from creating a presence and ratcheting up the tension.
One of Shtab's most recent exploits - though organizations officials deny involvement - was the release of an anti-education reform video using Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." In the clip Latvians are depicted as Nazis destroying Russian language books, and one angry man is snarling to the phrase, "Hey, Karli, leave the Russian schools alone," in reference to Education Minister Karlis Sardurskis.
A copyright lawsuit has begun over the illegal use of the song.
Protestors have responded by writing a letter to Roger Walters, the author of the song, asking permission to use it as a sign of protest from the education reform.
Shtab officials have denied involvement in compiling the video, which is readily available on the Internet, saying it "came out of thin air."
But the video has struck a chord. Andrjes Vilks, Riga City Council security and order head, said fights between Russian and Latvian schoolchildren have broken out because of the clip.
"I don't know if the situation is getting worse, but it certainly is not getting better," said Indra Dedze, an education researcher at the public policy institute Providus.
"People from schools, teachers and directors have said that they have lost control of their kids. And teachers are trying to be there [at the rallies] in order to keep the situation under control," Dedze said.
Still, the clip has proved to be a powerful tool in a confrontation unlike anything the Baltic states have seen since gaining independence.
"Many young people are excited with the clip," Igor Pimenov, head of the Association for the Support of Russian Schools, or Lashor, said.
Lashor is the second organization lobbying against the educational reform, comprised of teachers, parents and NGOs, though it is moderate and does not cooperate with Shtab.
"The activities of Shtab attract more of the attention of the civil society so the government is forced to respond," Pimenov said.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has also condemned the recent rallies as well, decrying them as interference in Latvia's internal politics.
"I think that some [left-wing] MPs with the help of 'friends from Moscow' - and this is no secret - are trying to create a confrontation before May 1 [the date of Latvia's accession to the EU], or rather on the eve of May 1," she said in an article published this week in the Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
The next major rally was set to take place on March 6.
One of the largest anti-education reforms took place last year during the Eurovision song contest in order to garner maximum international media coverage. Another rally against the reform is scheduled for May 1, the day of Latvia's entry into the EU.