Although their rights are under attack, Latvia's Russian minority is ignored by the international community.
During the whole period of so-called democratic “transition” in Eastern Europe, minority rights have been a growth industry for international human rights activists. They have received special attention in the Balkans, where national minorities have been at the heart of international interference in the region since the treaty of Versailles. In Macedonia, in Romania and in Serbia the issue of minority rights - especially the right to education in the minority mother tongue - has frequently been at the forefront of political debate. So great is the importance attached to them, indeed, that in the case of Serbia, the changing of the school history curriculum in Kosovo in 1989 to include more Serbian history, and less of the history of neighbouring Albania, was seriously advanced as one of the casus belli for the Albanian uprising ten years later. In Macedonia, from 2000, the failure of the Macedonian state to recognise the freelance Albanian-language University of Tetovo was also used as an excuse to start an armed rebellion – a rebellion which was tolerated and perhaps even encouraged by the international community. By the same token, in Bosnia, the scrupulous respect of language rights has become a key demand, especially where the provision of media outlets and schools in “Bosnian”, “Croat” and “Serb” is concerned - even though these are all variants of the same language, Serbo-Croat. The same is also true of other parts of East Central Europe, notably in countries like Slovakia which have large Hungarian and gypsy minorities, where minority rights have also often been on the political agenda.
It is surprising, therefore, that Latvia, an EU and NATO member state, has been able to introduce a radical “reform” of its education system, the main effect of which is will be to reduce drastically the amount of teaching in the Russian language in schools. This is in spite of the fact that Russian speakers make up well over one third of the population of Latvia, and constitute probably the largest minority in Europe (in percentage terms). A law, passed in 1998, came into force on 1st September 2004: its main provision is to require all minority language schools to teach 60% of their classes in Latvian, whereas they currently teach 100% of their classes in Russian or another minority language. Many Russians in Latvia fear that the purpose of this measure is to make them feel unwelcome in their own country, or to cause them to assimilate and become “ethnic” Latvians. Both of these policies would be quite incompatible with the standards required of other post-communist states. BHHRG sent four representatives to Latvia to investigate, as well as to neighbouring Estonia, where a watered-down version of the same law is being introduced.
Language and citizenship
Historically, Latvia has always been a multinational territory. Originally colonised by the Teutonic knights in the 13th century, the territory was first governed by German-speakers. As it fell under Polish, Swedish and then Russian domination – Latvia was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1710, albeit with its Swedish and German feudal lords remaining in place - the languages spoken and taught varied accordingly. The first Russian school in Latvia was opened 250 years ago; Latvian schools opened later. In addition, Latvia was home to Jews, Poles, Estonians and Byelorussians, who often had their own schools too.
When Latvia became an independent state after the First World War, the state education policy of the new country reflected this linguistic diversity and this long multicultural tradition. Citizenship was awarded to people regardless of their ethnic background, and there were schools which taught in Latvian, Russian, German, Yiddish, Polish, Estonian and Byelorussian. The education law of 1919, indeed, said that all citizens of Latvia had the right to be taught in their mother tongue. In 1934, when Prime minister Karlis Ulmanis dissolved parliament and established a dictatorship, the education system was changed to prevent people from choosing to send their children to a school in a different language category from their mother tongue: Poles could no longer elect to send their children to German schools, for instance, even though they considered the teaching there to be better. Consequently, the number of minority language schools fell after 1934.
From then on, education policy was inevitably caught up in the world historic events of which Latvia was a victim. In 1939, Latvia was secretly put into the Soviet sphere of influence by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the country became part of the USSR in 1940. Many Baltic Germans were repatriated, and German schools were closed. In 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and occupied the Baltic States, driving out Jews: Yiddish schools naturally did not survive, but Latvian and Russian ones were left intact. German language teaching was of course intensified. When Latvia was reincorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945, teaching was provided in Latvian, Russian and Polish. Universities taught in both Russian and Latvian. The Latvian schools had 6 periods of Russian language and literature a week. Now there are seven Polish schools primary and secondary), one Lithuanian one, one Estonian one, two Jewish schools, and of course hundreds of Russian ones.
Occupation and incorporation
In 1991, when Latvia seceded from the Soviet Union which then itself was dissolved, the pre-war constitution of Latvia was re-established. This was in keeping with the official myth that the country had been “occupied” by the Soviet Union in the meantime, a myth propagated by the presence of a “Museum of Occupation” in Riga. (There is also a similar one in Tallinn.) In reality, of course, Latvia was not occupied by the Soviet Union but instead incorporated into it. Occupation is a specific term in international law, and it is distinguished from cession, conquest, prescription or colonial possession. There are plenty of well-known examples in contemporary international politics, and in history, which make the distinction clear: Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1921, and Northern Ireland remains so to this day. Those opposed to this fact may indeed refer to the situation as one of “occupation” as a rhetorical flourish, but it is nothing more than this. Other examples of the distinction include Nazi Germany which incorporated Austria into the Reich in 1938, but only occupied other countries. Israel occupies Gaza and the West Bank, but neither international nor Israeli law regards these territories as annexed or incorporated. Armenia admits that it occupies parts of Azerbaijan, territory which is adjacent to Nagorno-Karabagh, but neither it nor Nagorno-Karabagh lay legal claim to them. Even the states which seceded from Yugoslavia in 1990-91, and which, unlike the Baltic states, actually fought wars to obtain their national independence, do not say that they were “occupied” by Yugoslavia.
Drawing the distinction between occupation and incorporation is all the more urgent in the case of the Baltic States because the Balts were among the most enthusiastic Bolsheviks and Communist apparatchiks. In Latvia, some 60% of the Communist apparat were ethnic Latvians. Many ethnic Latvians were only too happy for their country to join the Soviet Union in 1940 and again in 1945. Not unreasonably, they were anti-Nazis; and they doubtless regarded the USSR as the bearer of modernism and progress - just as today many ethnic Latvians have been very keen to join NATO, the EU and the American dominated “war on terror”. Moreover, the Soviet Union was itself an enthusiastic supporter of minority languages: it used them to give the illusion that many different nations supported the internationalist Soviet project. That Latvians however failed to make the distinction between occupation and incorporation was clear to BHHRG when it first visited Latvia in 1993. Then, Latvian officials correctly compared their situation to that of Algeria vis-à-vis France after de-colonisation, but incorrectly referred to both as examples of occupation. (Algeria had been incorporated into France, of which it formed three départements.) This fiction of “occupation” has also been systematically aggravated by a persistent and incipiently racist reference to “Russia” as the “occupying” power, instead of the Soviet Union.
 These figures, as well as the numbers of pupils in each category of minority school, can be found at http://www.latinst.lv/multiethnic.htm,
 J. L. Brierly, The Law of Nations: an Introduction to the International Law of Peace, 6th edition ed. Sir Humphrey Waldock, Oxford, 1963 (reprinted 1984), p. 163 ff,
 For instance, this Latvian web site, http://www.aic.lv/HE_2002/HE_LV/factsheets/hist.htm, which gives a summary of the major events in Latvian history, refers to “Russian” troops “occupying” Latvia in 1940. But the troops in question were Soviet, not exclusively Russian.