The authorities in Latvia have not only put to the country's Russian-speaking minority in a difficult situation. They have also embarrassed the European Union, which will have to think twice before admitting a country that allows such flagrant violations of human rights.
On Thursday, the Latvian Seim finally adopted the amendment to the 1998 law "On Education", which restricts school teaching in the Russian language.
According to the document, from September 1, 2004, teaching in senior years of state and municipal schools should be conducted mainly in the official, i.e. Latvian language. Only 40% of the teaching process can be done in Russian. The language of Pushkin will only remain in classes where pupils study subjects related to "national identity and culture of ethnic minorities", and only for the time being, the amendment's authors allude.
Official explanations claim to care for creation of a single and integral Latvia. The new legislation will allegedly "accelerate the naturalisation" of the Russian-speaking community that makes up one-third of the republic's population. Moreover, the elimination of the Russian language will "increase competitiveness" of ethnic Russians on the local labour market, the reform's authors believe.
In fact, the authorities do not seem too interested in seeing Russian children master Latvian. They want these children to know their place, to feel inferior and subordinated.
The new amendments mean the beginning of the end of Russian education in Latvia. About 116,000 schoolchildren for whom Russian is their native language, will find themselves in the backyard of the education world. Due to their insufficient command of the Latvian language, over one-third of them will not be able to attend vocational or even secondary schools.
However, the main threat is different. The new linguistic barriers will inevitably lead to growing mutual confrontation between Latvian and Russian-speaking communities, will increase property and other social contradictions. As if Latvia does not have enough problems as it is.
What forced the Latvian authorities to take this obvious risk? What aspect made them ignore the mass indignant demonstrations staged by Russian children and their parents, to ignore the Russian Duma's address to the Latvian Seim that urged them not to destroy the Russian education system?
This is no big secret. Many Latvians and especially radical and nationalist Latvian politicians still consider Russian as "the language of occupiers", in their own words.
The Soviet Union broke up long ago; Latvia has regained its independence. But the phantom pains of the Soviet-era resentment continue to torture all too sensitive Latvian politicians, making them avenge their complexes on the Russian culture, the Russian language and Russian people.
Opponents of the Soviet regime are committing a tragic error: they are becoming Russophobes.
Yet it does not occur to any of them that Russian people suffered as much as Latvians because of the Bolshevism they hate so much.
Moreover, sometimes it was Latvians who personified Bolshevism in the USSR. Latvian KGB servicemen deftly repressed Russian peasants in the Tambov region, while loyal Soviet servant Latvian Arvid Pelse for many years occupied the post of chairman of the Party Control Committee under the Communist Party's Central Committee and was a Politburo member, while his compatriot Boris Pugo, chairman of the same committee and later Interior Minister, was one of the leaders of the 1991 putsch, which aimed to prevent the USSR break-up and, consequently, freedom of his native Latvia.
It is impossible to imagine that Russians would blame the actions of these Bolshevist apologists on current generations of Latvians. However, proceeding from the internal logic of the language reform's authors, they have every right to do so.
Let us not forget yet another important aspect. Russians in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, were one of the key forces of people's fronts in the 1990s, including the referendums "For your (Russia's) and our (Baltic States') freedom". Latvians and Russian residents of Latvia were fighting against the communist yoke together, but after the republic gained its long-awaited state sovereignty, some of the former wanted to grant the latter the status of a non-citizen or, in fact, a sub-person. The order to Russian children to use their native tongue only during 40% of the school time is one of these disgraceful acts.
Its hypocrisy is set off by the rule of the Russian language in the business life of Latvia. No one questions the right of Russian to exist in business, the banking sphere, tourism and transit operations. Menus in Latvian restaurants, street plates, packages of well-known cosmetics producers like Dzintars and even software for Latvian frontier guards and customs officers, everything is in Russian.
Russian for Latvia is not just a language of business and everyday life. It is a huge layer of Russian culture. If it is destroyed, the country will lose a lot both literally and metaphorically. What will come next? The adopted amendment caused a protest from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which urged the Latvian authorities "to prevent any further increase of confrontation in the society and to listen to justified demands of the country's Russian-speaking population". State Duma deputy speaker Dmitry Rogozin advised the EU leadership "to wince" at what was going on in Latvia and "to stall" the process of its admission to the Union.
Interestingly enough, the Seim's disputable decision coincided with resignation of Prime Minister Einars Repse and his right-centrist government, which was left with mere 26 seats out of 100 in parliament. Formally, the reason for the resignation was the government's protest against the Seim's decision to raise wages of schoolteachers. In reality, Repse's team had been sharply criticised for corruption and blatant economic mistakes for months. In any case, the cabinet's resignation just set off the dubious nature of the amendments taken, as it turned out, amid a political crisis.
This fosters a hope expressed by another State Duma deputy speaker, Georgy Boos: Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga may veto the bill on the language reform. After all, the bill questions Latvia's adherence to democratic values contained in the documents of the Council of Europe and the OSCE.