Russia has forgotten who started the problems

  • 2004-03-11
  • By Anita Medenis
One thing in the current Latvian education and human rights debate that people seem to forget is what the whole governmental system was like only 13 years ago.

Ethnic Russians are complaining of discrimination. This must be an exaggeration when comparing this to the real humiliation and discrimination against ethnic Latvian people by the Soviet Union, which includes genocide, deprivation of freedom or basic human rights and an active policy of Russification. Approximately 380,000 ethnic Latvians were murdered, deported or forced to flee, these being replaced by ethnic Russians. This extreme injustice cannot compare to what "injustice" and "lack of human rights" the Latvian government is being accused of today.
However, two wrongs don't make a right. Of course ethnic Russian students should not suffer because of these previous crimes. It simply must be understood why this country has this problem now, and what the just and sensitive way of dealing with it is in light of its historical context. Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's commissioner, soundly advised to prevent any further noncitizens being born in Latvia. However, his comment about telling Latvians to forget history was extremely insensitive. Why should this be when, for example, the Jewish people have been compensated for the atrocities of the Holocaust, even recently? Absolutely no compensation for Latvian genocide or other crimes has been awarded by the Russian government. Not even an apology. Yet it is still the same place now as when it was called the Soviet Union.
It is true that everyone should live together in harmony and mutual respect of ethnic origin. Yet Latvia must now deal with the aftermath of the Russification policy. And the result is that Latvian culture and language faces a threat from Russification. Most citizens of Latvia currently speak Russian (due to ethnic Latvians previously being forced to learn), and Russian comes into Latvia via the media, business and daily activities. Some even argue that much of the ethnic Russian's loyalty lies with Russia, not Latvia.
Thus there is a dire need for protecting the Latvian language and culture from being swamped by its giant neighbor - from outside and within. Ethnic Russians have no danger of losing their identity when it is being cultivated in such a huge country so close to Latvia. Many could even choose to live there. Therefore, a real and fair course of action would be an active policy to help the native Latvian culture and language continue to survive in its own nation. This is not an unreasonable request. This is the motivation behind the education reform and citizenship laws.
Why doesn't the current Russian government help fund education reform instead of criticizing it? This would be fair compensation for it being the cause of the problem. Such funding would train more teachers to educate in a language that will eventually give students an equal chance in higher education and the Latvian workplace, thereby empowering and not discriminating. The Russian government should look for solutions rather than resorting to economic sanctions, as it is currently considering. Perhaps these threats are part of Europe's motivation to placate Russia, by advising Latvia to forget?
Either way, nobody seems to be considering the human rights of ethnic Latvians. And apart from all this, perhaps the Russian government should concentrate more on its own human rights in Chechnya.
So despite the sensationalism of the marches and protests, we should keep in mind every aspect of this problem and how it came to be: It is due to the former Russian government and the enforced Russification policy.
If a person chooses to live in a country and wants to stay, then surely all nations agree that this person should live by the laws of that country. Many Latvians forced to flee had to learn the language of the country they fled to. They were not able to demand education in their own minority language. Yet despite this, most managed to flourish.