Two events at the end of 2013 once again turned public attention to the topic of ethnically, linguistically and geopolitically segregated education in Latvia. A journalist using a hidden camera found that a Latvian history related poster displacement in predominantly Russian-language schools was influenced by a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is financed by the Kremlin.
The other event was a call by Latvia’s Ombudsman, Juris Jansons at an annual conference, to reopen the debate on the necessity of education in the Latvian language for the students at state-financed schools. Kārlis Šadurskis, a Latvian member of the European Parliament, emphasized that education in Russian initially had been intended as a transitional measure and that segregated education had already proven susceptible to misuse for ideological purposes.
The journalists’ investigative experiment caused anger at the method used rather than a discussion of the problem that the investigation had uncovered. The Ombudsman’s initiative was also strongly criticized by politicians of the Harmony Center party, a partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. They, along with their “satellite” NGOs, demanded that the Ombudsman’s staff, which reported on the situation in Russian language schools, be fired.
When the educational system places ethnic groups each in their own separate space, it encourages ideological manipulation in Russian-language schools. Since 2012, Latvian public broadcast media have carried stories about Russian-speaking Latvian high school students attending the military training camp “Sojuz” (“Union” – the Russian abbreviation for the Soviet Union) in Russia. It is hard to imagine that youths of Arab or Turkish ancestry in Sweden or Germany would openly attend “military-patriotic camps” in the lands of their forefathers.
Presently, Latvia has become a playground for various Russian efforts at influencing Latvia’s domestic politics and foreign policy, ranging from soft power to direct influence through “Russkij Mir” organizational networks, media, corrupt officials and strong economic pressure. Russian-speaking youth in Latvia is of great interest for the Kremlin and ethnically segregated Russian language schools are easy prey for various agents of Russian power.
To understand how the contemporary segregated educational system in Latvia came about, one has to go back 20 years in the past, to the 1990s. This was a time when European policies were intensely focused on finding mechanisms for rapidly, by non-military means, reducing the possibility of armed conflict. Peace had been ensured by military means, but this was insufficient and one had to look for additional ways to prevent conflicts from re-igniting. The USSR had ceased to exist and the war in former Yugoslavia was winding down. There was a new multilateral organization – The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – that was seeking these new security instruments. Max van der Stoel, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities became one of the architects of Latvia’s non-integrated educational system. Latvia was one of the countries where the Commissioner worked in the context of “quiet diplomacy”. The OSCE Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities for the group of so-called transition countries were accepted as “the Gospel” in Latvia. The recommendations offered a segregated educational system with bilingual education. The Hague Recommendations were written so as not to offend the centers of two former “empires” – Serbia and Russia.
The Hague Recommendations defined van der Stoel’s mandate as follows: “His involvement has focused primarily on those situations involving persons belonging to national/ethnic groups who constitute the numerical majority in one State but the numerical minority in another State, thus engaging the interest of governmental authorities in each State and constituting a potential source of inter-State tension if not conflict.”
Put in simpler terms – segregated education is implemented so that an aggressor nation is not tempted to use armed force.
It was not taken into account that the former ruling ethnic group, suddenly designated as a minority, which had arrived in Latvia during a colonization process, was deeply ingrained with a different ideology and historical mythology. Potential future risks from such an automatically segregated education system were not evaluated. The ruling ethnic group, which had suddenly become a minority, remained in the same school system as before, with some later modifications.
Latvia chose to provide state-financed education not only for the former ruling nation, but also for a whole list of other minorities. This was unusual in Europe, expensive and pleasing, but it contributed nothing to diminishing segregation. Gravitation toward one’s own exclusive ethnic group was maintained and these school leavers joined the Russian-speaking world, more rarely, the Latvian world, outside of their school and family environments. This was a natural process – a large group of Latvian residents had arrived very recently in historical terms and in good faith believed in all the privileges of empire. It was a group with a mixed ethnic identity that socialized in Russian and had never felt itself a minority. The minority from Soviet times in Latvia, the Latvians, switched roles with the majority mass. This was traumatic for both sides. The switch in roles placed new rights and responsibilities on both sides that neither has been able to accept or implement.
The OSCE’s approach to education has changed following the ethnic unrest in Macedonia in 2002 and the disorders in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The Hague Recommendations are seen as a viewpoint that was expressed under the conditions of a particular time. Van der Stoel emphasized in 1995 “education is very important for preserving and deepening national identity”. The current High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, last year before the Macedonian parliament in Skopje called himself “a champion of integrated education” and emphasized that common schools are needed. I quote: “separate schools tend to preserve ethnic stereotypes and prejudices. We have to make a common space for youth.” However, the healthy recommendations by Vollebaek had not been applied in Latvia. We can only guess why not, because the mechanisms for conflict resurgence in segregated educational systems work the same everywhere. Moreover, I think that a nation with an instinct for self-preservation doesn’t need a Vollebaek or van der Stoel to know what needs to be done.
Certainly, it is important for the revanchist forces in Russian politics to maintain an ideologically controlled young generation in Latvia that is faithful to imperial ambitions. On the other hand, Latvia has handed them this young generation. To begin with, the architecture of segregated education was in place here. It was present in the governance of the state, in an academic environment that was unable to think for itself and where intellectuals fed from the neoliberal thought of the 1990s. There were people who built their academic and professional careers hoping for comfortable ministerial seats in Latvia and even more comfortable places in European institutions.
The OSCE institution of High Commissioner for National Minorities has suffered through the “illness” of segregated schools, while Latvia, which rushed to implement the Hague Recommendations in an excellent manner, is now seeing the tragedy of segregation. In Latvia we are diverse: according to religion, cultural and historical heritage, interpretations of history. The media space is divided. The Latvian media space, thanks to Latvia’s peculiar legislation and the attitude of the state, is on the verge of extinction. It is part of the information space available in a small country. Segregation is preserved and deepened in the workplace, because a generation leaving segregated schools tries to stay in its ethnically separate comfort zone.
The need to preserve the familiar Russian-speaking environment in schools has created a new discriminated group. It is “politically incorrect” and defenders of civil rights in Latvia timidly don’t speak of it. School leavers from Latvian schools are discriminated against. Job advertisements offer less than 0.5% of job openings to those, whose knowledge of Russian is not at native level, that is, the younger generation of Latvians. Almost all advertisements require Russian at a good level, that is, a level at which Latvian schools do not teach the language.
Russian schools currently prepare a workforce for the real labor market, entirely financed by state funds with parents paying nothing, thereby, in fact, creating a privileged school system. At the same time as a young person from Latvia’s outlying areas unsuccessfully seeks work in his home area and Riga, Russian school leavers can use this time for an internship or real work, getting a much better start in their career development. This ensures a new phenomenon – that the elite of the future will be Russian school graduates with a geopolitical orientation toward Moscow. At the same time, criminal groups are working in rural regions of Latvia and on the internet to recruit Latvian-speakers into trafficking and other criminal activities. Experts on human trafficking in Latvia informed that 95% of victims are ethnic Latvians, mostly aged 18- 21.
The Russian language requirement in workplaces most often is not related to the nature of the work. It is a requirement related to preserving an ethnic comfort zone. People continue the familiar ethnically segregated environment of their schools in their workplaces. Knowledge of Latvian does not mean an ability to cooperate. Russian schools are richly flooded with textbooks published in Russia, primarily history books. Teaching a language in a segregated, ideologically contradictory system does not solve the problem. A new glass wall has been created that makes potential careers outside the state sector accessible only with difficult for young Latvians. Outside of media, education, culture and the small state labor market, the chances for a young Latvian to find work are miniscule. It is like the ice floe in the classic Latvian story “Nāves ēnā” (In Death’s Shadow) where fishermen are adrift in the sea on a shrinking piece of ice. The ice gets smaller and smaller, leaving an ever shrinking and more dangerous area on which the heroes of the story can survive.
In fact, initially segregated schooling had not been meant forever. In 1994 the national education policy concept envisaged a Latvian language education in 10 years’ time. However it never happened. Neither in ten years, nor twenty years later.
The only suitable, non-discriminating and unifying platform for Europe in the XXI century is education. Nothing better can be offered. Baseball teams, hockey clubs or arts and crafts groups alone will not work.
Both for those, for whom it is a dream, and for those, for whom it is frightening, one has to say that schools do not produce assimilation. There are many powerful platforms for identity – the family, culture, history, religion, the media, and language. School is just one identity platform, often just one brick among many different bricks. But if it is taken out, the whole wall can collapse. Ethnically segregated education can seem comfortable for a while, but it has too many ugly consequences both for the future of the child and of the nation. Children will have to work in a mixed ethnic environment and it is fair to prepare them for this in a timely manner. A reasonable national state does not create an unhealthy situation with parallel worlds in the same geographical area.