Unsteady progress in Latvian

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Latvia

The Latvian government appears to have won the latest battle in its attempt to boost the number of lessons taught in Latvian in its schools for Russian-speaking children.

Nearly 160 schools in the country cater for Russian-speakers, a legacy of Latvia's days in the Soviet Union which ended in 1991.

Russian-speakers make up nearly 40 per cent of the population and moves to persuade them to learn Latvian have been deeply unpopular.

Thousands demonstrated in the capital of Riga in September when the last phase of education reforms begun in 1998 was brought in. This said that 60 per cent of lessons from age 14 must be in Lativan, even if the teacher and all the students are Russian.

The government has tried to naturalise the Russian-speaking minority, but most have grown up with minimal contact with Latvian. Three-quarters of the target group are ethnic Russians while the rest are from other former Soviet states, including Belorussia and the Ukraine.

The 1998 Act tried to increase gradually the amount of Latvian taught in schools. In 2003 it came up against a movement set up by communist Latvian-Russian MPs and student leaders. It was called Shtab, the Russian word for "headquarters".

Students demonstrated in front of the parliament building, and boycotted classes. In December 2003 protesters set fire to the door of the education ministry.

Critics of Shtab say the group is being financed and organised by parties that have a political interest in undermining the process of naturalisation.

Despite the widespread opposition to the legislation among the Russian population, recent inspections in about half of schools suggest that its stipulations are mostly being carried out.

Irena Lesenkova, an ethnic Russian student, told The TES: "The main problem is that many Russian teachers do not have the required level of Latvian to teach, say, maths in that language. But they are being forced to - which means the students don't always understand the lessons."

The Russian government has also criticised Latvia's education policy. A spokesman from the Russian foreign ministry said: "This law will inevitably worsen the situation, reduce the education level of the Russian-speaking school-leavers and create new social divisions."

But supporters of the law point out that the United Nations and Nato, both of which Latvia joined this year, said that the country's education policies met the international standards needed for entry.

Recent government inspections of schools found that some classes were still being taught bilingually, that materials were often scarce, and schools were being used to stage Shtab protests.

But no school was found to be in serious breach of the law.

The inspection team said that rewards for schools that achieve good results and provide more tuition in Latvian for Russian teachers would help.

Incentives are already in place to encourage Russian-speaking teachers to improve their Latvian.

An in-depth review of the legislation is due next spring. In the meantime, some cynical observers believe that with no threat of inspections until then, many teachers will revert to teaching in Russian, the language with which the vast majority feel comfortable.

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