Lash Out Over Language in Latvia
Latvia transitions to native language requirement in schools, as Russian language population protests
On October 23, several hundred Russian-speakers gathered in front of the Latvian Ministry of Education to protest against the government’s decision to have Russian schools begin teaching in Latvian. Protesters called for the protection of the right of minorities to receive secondary education in their preferred language, and pro-Kremlin media in Latvia was quick to amplify the sentiment and slogans of the protestors.
The Latvian Ministry of Education stated in a press release on October 6 that the transition towards instruction in Latvian will consist of four steps.
- Pre-school kids from minority (i.e. Russian) families will receive sufficient Latvian language skills to successfully complete their primary school education in Latvian, which will begin next year.
- The Ministry of Education will also make centralized exams in Latvian compulsory for 12th graders from the 2017/2018 academic year, and for 9th graders from 2019/2020.
- Starting with the 2019/2020 academic year, 7th graders will move towards a new competence-based approach ensuring that, by the end of primary school, Russian language schools will teach 80 percent of subjects in Latvian.
- From the 2020/2021 academic year onwards, schools will teach general subjects in Latvian, while still giving minority pupils the opportunity to learn minority languages, literature and culture, and historical subjects (modules) in their preferred language.
Currently, the Ministry of Education advises Russian schools to teach 60 percent in Latvian and 40 percent in Russian, but schools retain the ability to choose the language split between subjects. Although centralized exams are already proctored in Latvian, Russian pupils can choose the language they answer in.
In response to these changes, multiple Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Latvia wrote an open letter to Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kuchinskis, which stated they would protest the changes.
The Latvian online media portal TVnet.lv captured some of the banners protesters held at the October 23 demonstration, which included slogans in English about human rights abuse and Nazi ideology.
Most slogans were in Russian and Latvian. The banners in Russian oftentimes stressed the right to a “mother tongue”.
Many banners directly addressed Latvian Minister of Education Karlis Shadurskis and the wider Latvian policy of integration.
Minister Shadurskis responded:
The goal of the integration policy is a society that perceives its nationality, respects it and is proud of it, knows the history of Latvia, feels attached to the Latvian culture, freely manages the Latvian language as a mother tongue and celebrate together.
In their letter sent to Prime Minister Kuchinskis, Russian NGOs in Latvia accused the government of using the decision as part of a political game.
An abstract of the letter read:
Moreover, what causes misunderstanding is the unexpected decision to blow up this fragile peace [between Latvians and Russian minority] by submitting to blackmailing of the national radicals from the National Association, and also to support one of the many chaotic reforms Minister of Education Karlis Shadurskis regularly generates. He joined the populist competition with the National Association by pushing the decision to shift education in minority schools in Latvia exclusively in the state language.
One banner at the protest distilled this sentiment and warned Minister Shadurskis to not “cross the red line” and remain aware of the “highly charged” issue.
Another banner featured the false claim that Russians comprise 42 percent of Latvian population. According to the Latvian Central Bureau of Statistics, in the beginning of 2017 Russians comprised just 25.4 percent of the total population. Ethnic Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Poles often use Russian as their primary language. Together with ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers make up 33 percent of the total population.
Disinformation on Kremlin television
Despite the population facts, Kremlin-controlled TV channels used the figure of 40 percent in their broadcast. For example, Rossiya 1 TV channel cited the false statistic in reporting by Russian journalist Daria Grigorava.
Russian language is native language to 40% of Latvian population. 56 thousand kids are going to Russian schools.
The channel’s TV anchor rounded up the number. In his opening statement, he said:
Hundreds of people gathered today in the center of Riga to protest the plans of Latvian government to close Russian schools. Local officials decided that due to 2020 there should be no classroom where a subject is thought in Russian. Moreover, no one asked opinion of the almost half of the population who considers this language native. [..]
The lead statement is misleading on multiple instances. The anchor incorrectly states nearly half of the Latvian population consists of Russian-speakers, rather than the one third they actually comprise, and he claimed the Latvian government will close Russian schools and forbid the Russian language entirely.
A broadcast by Perviy Kanal also exaggerated the story.
Currently minority schools have the right to teach in their mother tongue just 40% of the school subjects. Russian language in Latvia is considered foreign, even though almost a half of the population speaks it.
The sentiment of reporting, beyond exaggerated statistics, included similar hyperbole. Russian media outlet Rambler published an article that quoted Russian Duma MP Sergey Zhelezhyak and compared the transition to minority school teaching in Latvian to language genocide.
Russian TV channel NTV exaggerated not only the number of Russians in Latvia, but also the number of protesters who showed up. The lead paragraph on its online version reads:
Thousands of people went on the streets in the capital of Latvia, protesting the adoption of a law that provides education in secondary schools exclusively in Latvian.
In contrast, even the story on the Rossiya 1 TV channel mentioned hundreds protesting in front of the Ministry of Education. The Rossiya 1 broadcast accurately the scale of protestors.
Kremlin amplifiers in Latvia
Since October 6, when the Latvian Ministry of Education released the announcement on the official portal of the Latvian Government, Sputnik Latvia has published eight stories in Latvian and 16 stories in Russian on the topic in a time span of two and a half weeks. The Russian language Latvian online media Vesti.lv in the same period published 19 stories in Russian. By comparison, the Russian version of the largest online media in Latvia, Delfi, published eight stories in the same time span.
The government’s initiative to increase the amount of teaching done in Latvian in minority schools mobilized hundreds of Russian-speakers in Latvia. The slogans expressed during the protest on October 23 in front of Latvian Ministry of Education called for the protection of the right of minorities to receive secondary education in their mother tongue.
Many Russian-language media outlets disseminated false facts about the number of Russian-speakers living in Latvia. These stories exaggerated the proportion of Russian-speakers from at most 33 percent, to 40 percent and even a half.
The Russian TV channel NTV also spread falsehoods about the scale of the protest, claiming ten times as many protesters participated than actually did.
Pro-Kremlin media in Latvia played a large role in amplifying protests against the transition towards instruction in Latvian in Russian schools. Media coverage about the issue since the beginning of October mostly targeted Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia.