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The sentence is being passed upon Russian kindergartens in Latvia. EU reacts negatively.

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The sentence is being passed upon Russian kindergartens in Latvia. EU reacts negatively.


Alla Berezovskaya

Latvian authorities have turned their attention to toddlers and preschoolers, after issuing new reform on switching Russian schools in Latvia to the State language. In January 2020, without any discussion with parties concerned, the Latvian parliament passed through the first reading a controversial bill. Its goal is to eliminate Russian language from kindergartens of national minorities. Truth be told, there was a hitch before the second reading, though it did not last long…

Policy makers from the National Block have had grudge against Russian-language kindergartens in Latvia for quite a while, saying that there was no room for Latvian children, and parents were forced to take them to kindergartens that are far away from home or to a private kindergarten. Is there any solution? Come on, it’s a no-brainer! One group with tuition in Latvian must be arranged in each Russian kindergarten. Obviously, number of other children shall be reduced. What if there is no personnel, assets or manuals? Where should Russian speaking families bring their children if they still do not understand any Latvian? The policy-makers did not really care of such trivialities.

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Surely, teachers of preschool institutions, parents, grandparents became worried. Will raids be initiated against kindergartens? But, as we know from the classics, the caravan does move on, and at the accelerating pace. The Latvian Parliament scheduled hearing on controversial draft law in second reading on February 6

Human rights activists stood up for kids. On January 27, lawyers appealed to Lamberto Zannier, the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, on behalf of the Latvian Human Rights Committee (LHRC). They sent him an English translation of the scandalous amendments depriving young children of education in their mother lounge, as stipulated in the Hague recommendations.

The Latvian Human Rights Committee, represented by its leaders Alexander Kuzmin and Vladimir Buzaev, has been cooperating with the OSCE for many years. But this time, the reaction of the High Commissioner was simply flash-like. Just three days later, he sent a letter to the Speaker of the Latvian Parliament, pointing out the serious risks for children associated with the introduction of Latvian programs in kindergartens of national minorities.

I met with the current Commissioner Lamberto Zannier last year during his official visit to Riga, said Alexander Kuzmin to the Russkiy Mir Portal. - The meeting was held at his personal invitation, which means that we are considered a reliable source of information. His visit was connected with forced introduction of the state language as the only language of tuition in schools of national minorities. That time I handed over a number of documents to him, including the resolution of the All-Latvian Parents' Meeting, organized by the Latvian Russian Union, and made him aware that parents requested not to deprive them of the right to choose the language of tuition in schools. In addition, I explained the situation with permanent alien residents and threats to demolish historical monuments.

Alexander Kuzmin. Photo by the Author.

Commissioner Zannier visits the Baltic countries from time to time; he is aware of our problems, - Alexander Kuzmin assured. - But even we were surprised that his reaction to our letter had been so fast. And what is very important - this time the High Commissioner sent his letter to two addressees: the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and, more importantly, the Speaker of the Saeima of the Republic of Latvia. As a rule, the Foreign Ministry correspondence is classified. But you can’t hide the letter to the Saeima; all its members become aware of it. On the day before voting, when the amendments were to be discussed in the second reading, this issue was removed from the Parliament meeting agenda.

In his letter, the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities reminded parliamentarians of the bilateral relations between Latvia and the OSCE, and also indicated that the proposed amendments to the law on education could reduce educational opportunities for students of national minorities. He called for consideration of possibility to “adopt preventive frameworks that would ensure the continuation of preschool education in the mother tongue, if that is what parents of the children want.” The letter also contained a reference to the Hague Recommendations on rights of national minorities in the field of education, according to which it is the best for young children to learn in their mother tongue, the language of the family. In addition, the Commissioner recalled that "any policy or legislative initiative in the field of education of national minorities should be carried out through effective communication and consultation with all groups concerned."

Perhaps, it was the first time in the midst of longstanding fight for education in Russian led by Russian-speaking population of Latvia, that the Saeima of Latvia received such a resounding slap from the OSCE, which the entire Russian public immediately became aware of. And let’s face it, many people felt cheered up. “Well, our fight will not be in vain; our protests will not be in vain! We were right to knock on each and every door! Europe has heard us. It stood up for us and our children! ” our compatriots rejoiced sincerely. Though, their joy did not last long.

A week later, without any fuss or scandal, majority of lawmakers voted to pass their draft law on the organization of mandatory Latvian stream in all kindergartens of Latvia in the second reading. That shall be done regardless of demand. At the same time, everyone perfectly understands that it will actually mean the gradual getting rid of Russian groups, dismissal of Russian-speaking teachers and, as a result, disappearance of kindergartens with Russian language of tuition

Igor Pimenov. Photo by the Author

The commissioner's letter was received just in time, said Igor Pimenov, a member of the Saeima of Latvia from the Social Democratic Party "Harmony" and the chairman of the Latvian Association of Russophone Schools. - And it attracted attention of the Latvian public, discussions on the draft law were initiated; its legal inconsistencies were revealed. But, unfortunately, it coincided in time with the dissolution of the Riga City Council and the resolution to conduct pre-time elections on April 25th. This means that the election campaign and hunting for voters have begun.

The main battle is to begin – the battle for the capital. And it will surely distract us all from the problems of kindergartens. The intention to introduce a two-stream pre-school education would be acceptable, but since it is absolutely raw, it would be completely discredited. Conflicts and struggle for places in kindergartens will begin. It will poison minds of people of different ethnic background against each other and will lead to even greater increase of tension in society

And here are the arguments of R. Janson, the representative from the National Bloc. He stated that it was "not normal when the Latvians in their own country have to wait in long lines to get admitted into the Latvian kindergarten." According to him, they are forced to go to kindergartens of national minorities, where children are taught in Russian. And the law-maker comes to such a surprising conclusion: “If a child whose mother tongue is the state language has to learn in different language, that is assimilation.” Oh really? But we all thought the other way around... In such a case, why don’t they introduce at least one mandatory Russian group in the Latvian kindergartens? In order to avoid segregation. And let's not forget that Russian is native to almost 40% of the population of Latvia.

You can submit your proposals for the third reading of the draft law until February 28. Although, experience has proven that no fundamental amendments are made for the third reading. Nevertheless, a group of active parents were able to make the chairman of the parliamentary commission on education to listen to their comments and suggestions. He welcomed them in a very kind manner and listened carefully. But he did this an hour after the members of Parliament had already voted. Well now, with a clear conscience, they will inform the Commissioner in the OSCE: your recommendation was taken into account - the issue was discussed with the public ...

Julia Sokhina, mother of three children and the chairwoman of the Parents Community, holds monthly meetings with parents of students in Russian schools. They discuss problems that children who are forced to learn in a language, which is not their native one, currently face. But the main task at the moment is preparation of lawsuits from parents to be filed in the ECHR.

Last year, the Constitutional Court of Latvia rejected advocates of Russian schools, who requested to call off the amendments to transfer all the education into Latvian language. And we refer here to the largest national community in Latvia: more than a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians. There are 538 thousand Russian-speaking citizens and permanent alien residents of Latvia. Nevertheless, they were deprived of rights for their native language and education.

Julia Sokhina. Photo by the Author

Last summer, I did an internship at the UN, where I represented a Russian linguistic group from Latvia, said Julia Sokhina. After completing the curriculum, we took part in the UN Forum on National Minorities. I also spoke and talked about our realities, that Russians have been living with Latvians on this land since ancient times; we are just as indigenous people as the title population. Russian is the mother tongue for 37 percent of the population; however, it is considered to be a foreign language for Latvia. All my foreign colleagues were surprised at such state of affairs, especially the Swiss ones. And they advised us to contact the ECHR, offering assurances that we would definitely win in the European court.

According to Sokhina, the decision on kindergartens is another step towards the assimilation of Russian children, which the Latvian authorities do not even try to conceal. An elephant must be eaten piece by piece. At first they dealt with schools, now they focus on kindergartens. The Constitutional Court has already received claims from parents against the law on kindergartens, adopted last year. According to that law, from September 1, 2019, most of all play-based activities for children aged 5+ in preschool institutions for national minorities should take place mainly in Latvian.

But our compatriots do not feel reliance in local courts; they are preparing lawsuits to the European one, decisions of which will be binding on Latvia as well. To date, more than 40 lawsuits have been sent to Strasbourg. They are from parents of students of national minority schools who ask to recognize their children as victims of complete transition of the education into Latvian language and request to repeal such a discriminatory regulation. Another 30 applications are currently being worked on by the Latvian Human Rights Committee and by the end of the month they will also be submitted to the ECHR.

In the meantime, members of the Venice Commission are on their way to Latvia being invited by Boris Tsilevich, representative of Latvia at PACE. They will evaluate compliance of the education sector with human rights and democratic standards. The core group of parents will do their best not to miss such opportunity to communicate with the European emissaries in person.

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