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  School as an object of geopolicy: is Latvian experience valuable for Lithuania?

Viktor Denisenko
2011 05 23

The tension between Poland and Lithuania increases. The issue of the original spelling of the Polish names is yet unresolved, and today we have another irritant, a new Law on Education adopted in March. Pursuant to the Law which will come into force on 1 July, the school of national minorities shall deliver the subjects of Lithuanian geography and history, as well as the principles of citizenship in Lithuanian language (earlier only Lithuanian language lessons were delivered in Lithuanian). According to those who drafted the Law, the amendments will facilitate integration of the youth of ethnic minorities into Lithuanian society and labor market, and their admission to higher schools. But the opponents of the Law say that the Law stipulates compulsive assimilation of the young generation of national minorities.

In this respect Lithuanian experience is not unique. The neighboring Latvia is facing a similar problem. There the reform of ethnic minority schools (mostly Russian schools) incurred displeasure of local politicians representing Russian community, and stormy reaction of Moscow.

In 1995 Latvia adopted amendments to the Education Law stipulating that at least two subjects must be taught in Latvian in grades 1-9 of ethnic minority schools, and at least three subjects in grades 10-12. But the main area of disagreement was related to the reform of 2004 according to which 60 percent of all subjects of ethnic minority schools should be taught in Latvian starting from grade 10.

Russian speaking Latvian citizens (and non-citizens) were especially resistant toward this reform:  they organized protest campaigns under the slogan “Russian Schools are Our Stalingrad!”, they shouted about the “compulsory assimilation” and “the break of the backbone of Russian culture”.

The issue of Russian schools was also used in Russia’s geopolitical games: for Moscow it was a pretext to continue speaking about violation of human rights in Latvia and calling the country a “fascist state”, etc. Such a reaction is not surprising, because Russia considers Russian speaking schools of former Soviet republics as part of the “Russian world” or a single geopolitical network.

By the way, the opponents of the Latvian reform have several serious arguments. According to them, 60 percent of lessons taught in Latvian would increase the workload of pupils from ethnic minority schools, they will need more time to do their homework. Besides, for some pupils it is too difficult to acquire knowledge in other language, not all of them can understand the material of lessons.

It is interesting to note that even opponents of the reform acknowledge that pupils of ethnic minority schools have problems with Latvian language. However, no matter what the opponents of the “2004 reform” say in Latvia and Russia, the recent public opinion surveys show that pupils of the above schools are quite positive toward the changes. For instance, in 2004 less than half of all pupils were in favor of bilingual education, whereas in 2010 their number amounted for 58 percent. In 2004 the reform was supported by 15 percent of pupils from ethnic minority schools, in 2010 – by 35 percent.

Besides, the reform didn’t fully destroy the relations between Latvia and Russia. Today the communication between Riga and Moscow is rather conservative. This could be seen during the visit of Latvian President Valdis Zatlers to Moscow at the end of the last year.  Thus, the reproach concerning the future of Russian schools was not the main object of the dispute between Riga and Moscow. It was rather a rhetoric argument of a wider political discord.

The relationship between Lithuania and Poland also faces “a school problem”. Provisions of Lithuania’s new Law on Education are not as strict as in Latvia. Besides, Lithuania and Poland are in one side of the barricade from the geopolitical point of view, but trivial details might cause a serious storm, especially in the context of worsened relations.

Today the issue of education of ethnic minorities in Lithuania is useful for those who want to get political dividends. Local political powers and politicians in Poland take this opportunity, but here we can also discern the fault of Lithuania which hasn’t given proper attention to problems of national minorities. The Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad was dissolved and the majority of its functions were passed to the Ministry of Culture. For quite a long time the issues of national minorities were regulated by the Law on National Minorities which was adopted during Soviet times and amended in 1991, but by 1 January 2010 its period validity has expired and a new law has not been drafted yet.

The policy of information of ethnic minorities is also underdeveloped in Lithuania. In 2007 the National TV canceled the news broadcast in Russian, the total number of TV programs designed for national minorities has also decreased. The above niche is currently being filled by the Polish and Russian press published in Lithuania and by the media production of other countries (impact zones). In Lithuania this is first of all Первый Балтийский Канал (First Russian TV Channel) seriously competing with the Lithuanian National TV and commercial TV’s. This means that national minorities in Lithuania might become an object of impact/manipulation of other countries and a source of new disagreements.

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