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Reform – the last drop 0

If you compare the amendments in the Education Law to natural processes, then it could be said that Latvian society is generally “heating up.” No one is indifferent anymore; not those out on the street shouting “no” to the reform, nor those who choose to stay at home and watch events on their TVs.

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Can the school reform that was conceived in 1998, which called for all high schools to completely switch over to using the state language in their classes, but which now only requires that 60% of the curriculum be taught in Latvian, be implemented? What are the arguments both for and against this reform and what will happen in the schools on September 1st?

Answers to these questions and more came out in the politika.lv discussion with Jurijs Petropavlovskis, The Headquarters of the Defenders of the Russian Schools; Evija Papule, The Ministry of Education and Science; Baiba Petersone, the State Chancellery; Viktors Gluhovs, a teacher and a member of Latvia’s Russian-language School Support Association (LASOR); Brigita Zepa, the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences; and Indra Dedze, the Centre for Public Policy PROVIDUS. Discussion took place on February 27th, 2004.

These protests against this reform raise the questions: how can a reform be implemented democratically if a significant portion of those people involved object to it and is Latvia facing an ethnic conflict?

Jurijs Petropavlovskis: …If we are talking about open, physical conflict, then this is not the case… [T]his is more about the press’ provocative work… But I don’t feel, after having met with many Latvians and Russians, that tension is increasing between the two communities. It is more a conflict between the Russian community and the government…

Brigita Zepa: The conflict between the minorities, or at least those demonstrating for their rights, and the government has been going on for a long time… {[R]ight now the conflict is being extended also among ethnic groups. We cannot forget that Latvians and Russians have very different mentalities… and that is why any sort of reform with an ethnic character in Latvia must be carried out cautiously, because it could just add gasoline to the fire. Unfortunately, that is what has now happened…

Indra Dedze: There is a conflict between the Russian community and the government… New requirements are being offered without the chance to express opinions. Since the beginning of bilingual education, the Russian schools have had to constantly adapt to new requirements. They are always in a tense situation…


I would like to ask you as a teacher – how can this reform be implemented?

Viktors Gluhovs: The reform must have one pedagogical goal – to increase proficiency in the state language… [But] the reform had no experimental period – no sort of pedagogical innovation can be introduced immediately into all the schools without a period of preparation. The results are already visible.

In truth, the level of language proficiency is increasing, but no thanks to the Ministry. Generally, there is a desire and a readiness in Latvia to study Latvian… This raises the question, what is the goal of what is going on right now? The reform is not a means of improving the language, but its political goal is to push the Russian language out of all spheres of life, including the education sphere…

Of course, it is easier to pretend that this is an ethnic conflict, that the Russians do not want to learn Latvian. In my opinion, this is not an ethnic conflict…

Ms. Petersone, how should this reform be implemented in a democratic manner?

Baiba Petersone: The reform has not been implemented in an undemocratic fashion. It has been implemented through all of the mechanisms of representative democracy…

The idea that the political purpose of this reform is not being carried through in the form of a pedagogical assignment is simply not true!… There is the problem that much of what was planned in the beginning was not implemented due to a lack of resources, or began to be implemented with too much backwardness…

I don’t agree that there was no experimentation and that everything was implemented haphazardly. Since 1993, schools have voluntarily existed in Latvia that implemented this method themselves and tried it out…

Finally, about the idea that the goal is to push out the Russian language. No, that is not the goal! The goal is positive – to guarantee a level of proficiency in Latvian that would allow society to be created on a basis of mutual understanding… Is that not correct? I think so. As long as we cannot all fully speak a shared language, then we cannot really understand each other…


Mr. Petropavlovskis, how can this reform be implemented? The legislation has already been adopted.

J. Petropavlovskis: My answer is immediate, this reform will not happen. Today, I guarantee that when Latvia is accepted into the EU on May 1st there will be a grand demonstration against this reform… The protests are growing and I can’t rule out that, with time, the Headquarters might lose control…

I often attend these protests as a journalist and ask the simple question, “Why did you come here?” I am often told that it is a chance to hang out. “Why are you against this reform?”… there is no answer. That mass which is out there protesting doesn’t really understand what it is all about.

J. Petropavlovskis: Then I will answer you… Here we can clearly see what is not acceptable to us in this reform – the arithmetic principle of democracy because our opinion is being completely ignored. Basically, the government and the President are simply spitting in our face.


Why did you take the last step and involve children in politics?

J. Petropavlovskis: We didn’t involve anyone, but children have human rights… This is our land, this is our homeland and we will solve our problems ourselves.

The last step came from the President. There were 20 000 children at the President’s palace, there were discussions all day and in all formats with members of the Strasbourg group. But the results? They simply spat on us.

But, if this event is called “a meeting with PCTVL voters,” why should the president be there?

J. Petropavlovskis: Excuse me, but because those girls have been to see the president, don’t you agree? The president brainwashed them for an entire day – excuse me, but I’ll tell it like it is. She simple does not want to take reality into account…

The future of the members of the Russian community – that is our problem and we want it given back to us so that our opinion is taken into consideration…

B. Zepa: The time that we have had for bilingual education has been too short…The reform is happening with slightly larger difficulties than the politicians had theoretically planned and that should be taken into account… In order to solve this issue, we must stop politicizing it and confusing the mass of the Latvians, we must look at the reform as it really is…

V. Gluhovs: …I agree that the issue has been politicized completely and this must change. I only see one solution – the reform must be put under a moratorium, it must be postponed. This period should then be used for a respectful dialogue among professionals about what sort of reform should take place and what its main goals should be…

I wanted to ask Ms. Papule why there is this 60% and 40%? What study is this based on and is it really a compromise?

Evija Papule: In three years of discussion, the Ministry refused this program of percentages, which is why the order of the Cabinet of Ministers stipulates a different method of calculation – the number of hours, the content of education, etc.

The percentages are based on two sets of reasoning. Latvian is used between 50 and 70% of the time in primary school, but, since 1999, it has been used 100% of the time in higher education. Thus, using Latvian 60% of the time in high school is the mathematical middle, which can be seen as a compromise…


What do you think will be the situation in September?

E. Papule: I must agree that the aggression kindled by those responsible will be back in the schools again…

These political divisions will simmer for years. In the end, it is the teachers and professionals who will have to answer for everything…

Has the Ministry done enough so that this reform will begin successfully in September 2004?

E. Papule: The Ministry has, through professional dialogue, done exactly what it is able to do…

J. Petropavlovskis: Did the Ministry ever consider LASOR’s opinion?

E. Papule: If you ever looked at our web page, you would see that LASOR’s opinion is one of the dominant ones there. We have been working with them since 1996 and representatives from this organization have even taken part in discussions about the primary school model.

J. Petropavlovskis: Excuse me, but what was the result?

E. Papule: In accordance with the decision of the Consultative Council, a conference of directors was organized in 2000/2001 where LASOR was able to present its position and listen to what the directors had to say. This institution cannot really complain that its opinion was not considered.

J. Petropavlovskis: You keep saying that our opinions were taken into consideration. That is not true! You let LASOR be there and kind of take part, but the result is not acceptable. That is a clear case of trickery on behalf of the Ministry to talk about percentages because you know very well that all of the examinations will be 100% in Latvian.

E. Papule: It is good that you brought that up, because that is not so. The order of the Cabinet of Ministers says that the content of the exam is in the state language – that means that in May 2007 students in the 12th grade will receive their exams in the state language. But these centralized exams also have instructions and, in any case, you will find that it will be written that, in 2007, if a student is taking the centralized mathematics exam, he or she can choose what language to reply in. Politicians do not determine this, studies do… That is the only basis on which to determine whether or not to allow students to choose which language to reply in. If the majority of physicists and chemists choose Russian, then logically the instructions will say that the student can choose which language to answer in.

J. Petropavlovskis: We don’t want to be dependent on the Ministry’s instructions. It must be guaranteed by law because you, Ms. Papule, could change the instructions in an hour…

What steps do the teachers expect from the Ministry and what does the Headquarters expect from the Saeima?

B. Petersone: The rhetoric that is used when talking about the reform exudes aggressiveness… On a political level, of course, a discussion cannot take place because each person stands behind his or her position and nothing will come of it.

We need to sit down and find some alternative. There was only one goal to this reform – to increase proficiency in Latvian. The possibility that is allowed for in the Education Law has not been made complete use of – education in another language in the private sector. For example, one of the complaints is that tax payers are being made subject to some state policy. One of the solutions could be that those people that do not agree with the state’s education policy… should be given educational financing as a voucher and should be allowed to freely organize the sort of education that they think is right…

V. Gluhovs: What do we expect from the Ministry? In the current situation – nothing. The Ministry as a group of professionals and the school employees as another group of professionals have been caught up in politics… Some sort of reform is obviously necessary, but the reform being pushed on us by the politicians is not professional and it is possible that we need another.

As concerns private schools, this needs to be discussed in detail. Currently, the law does not allow minority private schools to receive financing, even if this money follows the students.

I. Dedze: The politicians and the Russian community have different views on what the goals of this reform are. Even though all of the documents say that the goal of this reform is to improve the use of Latvian and to raise the competitiveness of students on the job market, the Russian community thinks that there is some other goal. I would like there to be an intense discussion: first, to clarify whether both sides see these goals the same way and then a dialogue about ways to realize them…

B. Zepa: …I would like the new government to take off those glasses and understand that the reform is being forced and say that we can only implement this law gradually. Those schools that are ready and willing do not have to put it off, but the others that are not ready must evaluate the situation and mutually agree on the further implementation of the reform…

J. Petropavlovskis: It is difficult to really expect anything from the Ministry, it just somehow has to realize or simulate the implementation of this reform. We don’t have any pretenses concerning the Ministry. The problem is with the law itself. I completely agree with Ms. Petersone about dividing the budget, just like in the United States. A precondition for such discussions and corrections to the law is a moratorium, first a STOP, and then we can sit down at the table… It’s not worth hoping that the Russians will calm down. That was the last drop – this reform…

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