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Latvia allows to study in English, not in Russian

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Latvia allows to study in English, not in Russian


Alla Berezovskaya

Constitutional Court of Latviahas debarred Russian-speaking children of the right to study in their native language, even in private schools recently. Previously, such a resolution was passed by the government and supported by the president. According to explanatory notes to the court decision, it was done taking into account “historical circumstances,” prolonged occupation and Russification.

Let us recall that in April last year the same judges upheld amendments to the law on education, providing that all public schools should teach in Latvian. Despite the arguments of professional experts and human rights defenders, both Latvian and foreign, as well as objections from teachers, parents' appeals to courts and mass protests, the Constitutional Court recognized the reform imposed on society by the nationalistic majority of the Latvian parliament as legal. The main court of the country, where Russian language is native to about 40 percent of the population, found no reason to provide special treatment for children from Russian-speaking families.

Hearing of the Latvia’s Constitutional Court.Photo credit: official page of the Latvias Constitutional Court

The lawsuit was filed by parliament members from an opposition party named Harmony (Saskaņa in Latvian). They insisted that the new amendments to the law violate three articles of the Latvian Constitution - on prohibition of discrimination, on the right to education and on protection of national minorities.

Violation of the rights of national minorities in the field of education in Latvia was emphasized by Lamberto Zannier, the Secretary General of the OSCE, who visited the country last year, and Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. Russia has also repeatedly raised the issue of violation of the rights of its compatriots living in Latvia in connection with discrimination in the language sphere. But the authorities of this country have not budged.

Stress in students, stress in teachers

Since September 1, 2019, schools of national minorities, having neither special allowances nor trained personnel, have been conducting lessons mainly in Latvian language. Moreover, some particularly zealous school principals act even ahead of the plan reducing share of subjects, which the law still allows to teach bilingually from grades 1 through 9, in favor of Latvian. It is said they act in the best interests of children to make them get used to it quickly. By the academic year 2021/2022, the secondary school will have to switch its education process to the state language only.

From the first days it became clear that not all children in primary school are able to perceive the curriculum in the language that is not their native one. For many of them it has caused a lot of stress, which parents write about on social networks. They share about deterioration in performance of their children. The main reason for poor grades is that they do not understand the task in Latvian, and teachers do not help to figure things out. Children cry and refuse to go to school...

It is also difficult for the teachers - they have to teach Russian children in Latvian, and children do not understand 50% from what they hear, which, of course, is bad for class discipline. Students quickly lose interest in the subject, and finally it can turn into pedagogical neglect. How they are supposed to keep the childs attention while communicating with him/her in a foreign language!

Rally in defense of Russian schools in Latvia. Photo by the author

Nervousness in schools is also accumulated due to language inspections, which make raids to former Russian schools from time to time. I was told that recently they tested primary school teachers in a Riga school for proficiency in the state language. One teachers level of knowledge was considered insufficient by the "language inquisitors", so she was fined 280 euros, which is the significant amount taking into consideration crummy salaries teachers are paid. Inspectors promised to visit the fined teacher again in six months.

No to Russian schools!

Often, having discussions with our Latvian fellow citizens, I happened to be challenged by their sincere bewilderment: they could not understand why we did not want our children to study in Latvian – isnt that great?! However, hardly anybody of them recalled their school years, when they had mastered mathematics, physics, chemistry in their native language, and no one banned them from it. No, they told us, public schools had to teach in the state language only that was how things should be. And this is the way the things are done in Europe and the world. Examples of Finland, Switzerland, Canada and other countries did not help. In the best case, Russians were advised either to hit the road for Russia, or to go to private schools. But now they have shut this door as well. And this is just another confirmation that transition to Latvian is not initiated for the sake of students; it is part of thorough and forceful assimilation of Russian-speaking residents

Tengiz Djibouti, a Riga lawyer, made a stand to protect rights of his children, who study in a private Russian school, and filed a lawsuit with the Latvias Constitutional Court last year. Having recognized liquidation of bilingual public education system to be legal, the court severed the issue of education in private schools into a separate proceeding. Private educators saw fragile hope - after all, even the Latvian State Ombudsman, whom no one could suspect in having soft spot for Russian residents of the country (previously he had not scrupled to refuse Russian-speaking children the right to study in their mother tongue in Latvian public schools), spoke in their support.

Tengiz once also studied at a school in Russian, after which he successfully completed doctoral programme at a Latvian university, now he teaches law in Latvian at the university, which once again proves that studying in Russian does not prevent anyone to achieve high proficiency in the state language. Filing the action to the Constitutional Court, the teacher of law pointed out violations of several articles of the Latvian Constitution committed when new amendments to the Law on education had been adopted.

The amendments, which are of discriminating nature to Russian-speaking residents of Latvia, do not apply to representatives of other national minorities whose languages are the official languages of the EU. They are not forbidden for teaching in private schools and universities. A British school is successfully functioning in Latvia; there are universities with English as teaching language; French, German, and Polish schools work without any disturbance. And at the same time, Russian children are denied the opportunity to study in their native language even in private schools.

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, also pointed this out to Latvia, noting that different rules for teaching in EU and other languages create illegitimate differences between representatives of national minorities.

Rally in Riga against the Education Reform. Photo by the author

Among other things, the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Article 113) also stipulates the right of national minorities to establish their own private schools without language restrictions.

Tengiz Djibouti supported his claim by presenting all these arguments on 60 pages. A year and a half later the Constitutional Court dismissed the claim having discussed it without a protocol and in private. No to Russian schools, even private ones!

Court or revenge?

Giving clarification to journalists, Gunar Kusins, a judge of the Constitutional Court, stated that although provisions of the state standard really restricted the right of national minorities to education, it was done with good purposes - to protect democracy and rights of other people... I will not even comment on this.

It is hard to believe, but this court decision, which can hardly be called anything but scandalous, contains a reference to historical circumstances that arose as a result of a long-term occupation and Russification .... It is not surprising that this almost revolutionary reasoning made Russian-speaking residents of Latvia indignant the most.

Here is a couple of emotional quotes from social networks:

When the countrys principal interpreter of letter and spirit of the law admits limitations of certain population category in its decision and leaves them stand relying upon such term as historical right, it signifies that law and justice in this country have been put to rest. That law does not exist anymore. There is a revolutionary need and viability...

Yes, it is a sign. Brown, thick and disgusting one. Just as swastika. And judges of the Latvias Constitutional Court have printed it over all our remaining hopes and illusions. But it is not about historical justice or special circumstances. Here is mean, trite and slavish revenge to Russian children and their parents, even the most loyal of them. It's disgusting...

The fight goes on

But you wont achieve justice with emotions. Yes, another battle on the Russian field in Latvia has been lost. It's a shame, unpleasant, but predictable outcome. It means only one thing - we must go further, that is to say, to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Tengiz Djibouti is confident that he is right and ready to go all the way. The lawyer has called on other parents whose children study in private schools not to spare time and fill out complaint forms for the Strasbourg Court.

At the rally in support of Russian schools. Photo by the author

The Russian Embassy in Latvia also condemned the decision of the Republics Constitutional Court, which recognized the ban on teaching in Russian in private schools as legal. This is just another evidence that the Latvian judicial system interprets norms of international law designed to protect representatives of national minorities in a very selective and specific way. Russian-speaking children were taken away their last opportunity to get education in their native language, in their own country, even on a commercial basis, the Russian Embassy said in its statement.

Meanwhile, the Latvias Human Rights Committee, together with the Russian Union of Latvia, has already prepared and sent to the ECHR applications on behalf of the parents, which prove that their children suffered from introduction of the discriminatory school reform. To this date, 18 such complaints have been sent to Strasbourg.

According to Vladimir Buzaev, the co-chair of the Latvian Anti-Fascist Committee, who was elected as the people's ombudsman in 2017, losing the case in the Latvias Constitutional Court increases chances of winning in the ECHR. The guarantee of freedom to choose the language of education in private schools is a global consensus. By such decision, the Latvian authorities have absolutely debarred the Russian minority in Latvia of such a right.

We have prepared a model lawsuit from students and parents of public schools to the ECHR based on the precedents where parents were only partially deprived of their freedom to choose the language of education, while retaining the opportunity to study in their native language in private schools. And all those five relevant cases that we found had been won by the plaintiffs in the ECHR. But now we have been completely deprived of such right in Latvia, said the human rights activist.

The a/m relevant cases won in the ECHR were filed by French-speaking residents of Belgium, Greeks in the Turkish part of Cyprus, adherents of Latin alphabet from Transnistria, as well as gypsies from the Czech Republic and Croatia. Pointing to the need for mass filing of individual lawsuits, the human rights activist also mentions a case against Slovenia, where they started to designate permanent alien residents after the collapse of Yugoslavia, just as in Latvia. Though, there were only 25 thousand of them. However, the European Court, alarmed by potent stream of possible claimants, ruled that the situation had gone beyond the individual interests of the applicants and required consideration of the issue from the point of view of general measures (that is, changes in legislation). As a result, the case was assigned a Draft Prosecution Highway, providing for expedient hearing.

Today Latvian human rights activists are seeking the ECHR to have the same attitude to the problem of schools of national minorities in Latvia. After all, about 50 thousand schoolchildren, not to mention their parents, suffered from the ban on learning in their native language.

In October and November, the first 18 lawsuits from the parents of Riga, Jelgava, Daugavpils, Salaspils and Jurmala have been sent to the ECHR, - said Vladimir Buzaev. The claimants include native citizens, naturalized citizens, permanent alien residents, and even one RF citizen who has a residence permit in Latvia. There were also sick children among the claimants; they needed help of a speech therapist, and the reform has hit them the hardest.

Vladimir Buzaev. Photo by the author

The general part of the lawsuit states that the reform violated the rights of many people, which is the ground for expedited hearing, as well as the demand for the country to review its legislation. That is why Latvian human rights activists urge all affected parents to join their campaign and send claims to Strasbourg.

The Parents Community, a social movement bringing together active parents of students from national minority schools, has also stepped in. They are ready to continue fight for Russian schools, but this is a long-term issue, and the reform has already been getting on childrens nerves. Recently, an open appeal on behalf of parents has been sent to directors and teachers of public schools with a request not to complicate childrens lives, to have understanding and patience, not to lower their grades for answers in Russian and not to allow discrimination on ethnic grounds.

It is still difficult to say how schools will take requests of concerned fathers and mothers, but the Latvian press has already reacted, traditionally calling Russian parents a group of Kremlin-influenced agents.

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