Opinion on minority education reforms (excerpts on background), 2020

II. Preliminary remarks

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B. Background information

1. Linguistic situation in Latvia

10. According to the 2011 population census of Latvia, the ethnic Latvian population makes up 62.1% of the total population, which is approximately 2 million. The largest ethnic groups are Russians (26.9%), Belarusians (3.3%), Ukrainians (2.2%), Poles (2.2%) and Lithuanians (1.2%).1

1 “On key provisional results of Population and Housing Census 2011”. Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia. 18 January 2012.

11. According to data collected in 2017 by the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 2 Latvian was the mother tongue of 60.8% of the inhabitants followed by Russian (36%) and other languages (3.2%) such as Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish and Liv(onian). The same data reveals that the share of population mainly using Latvian at home accounts for 61.3%, while that of people using Russian constitutes 37.7%. Around 217,000 or 10.4% of Latvia’s population hold the status of the former citizens of the USSR. They are so-called “non-citizens” as they are not citizen of Latvia or any other state.3

2 “Indicators characterising languages used by the population of Latvia”, Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia. 2017

3 Upon ratifying the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (hereinafter: “the Framework Convention”) on 26 May 2005, Latvia stated, in a Declaration concerning the personal scope of application it intended to give the Convention, that “[p]ersons who are not citizens of Latvia or another State but who permanently and legally reside in the Republic of Latvia, who do not belong to a national minority within the meaning of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as defined in this Declaration, but who identify themselves with a national minority that meets the definition contained in this Declaration, shall enjoy the rights prescribed in the Framework Convention, unless specific exceptions are prescribed by law.

2. Historical overview of the amendments in the field of the education in minority languages

12. Throughout history, Latvian – similarly as several other languages in Central and Eastern Europe – was actively suppressed and sometimes voluntarily abandoned in favour of languages considered more sophisticated or more international. This was the case of German in the 18-19th century and Russian in the 19-20th century. The situation of the Latvian language became critical after the occupation and unlawful annexation of Latvia by the Soviet Union in 1940, even more after the Soviet re-occupation of the country in 1944-1945 that led to large-scale migration from the other parts of the USSR into Latvia4 as well as mass deportations of the local population. The Soviet authorities relentlessly pursued semi-official policy of Russification. The Russian language was promoted as the means of inter-ethnic communication, other languages did not have an equal status, and this fully applied to occupied Latvia. 5

4 The number of Russians in Latvia grew from 8.8% of the total population in 1935 to 34% in 1989. It started to decrease again after Latvia regained independence in 1991 falling to 25.2% at the beginning of 2018. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia, “Ethnic Composition and the Protection and Promotion of the Cultural Identity of National Minorities” (15 January 2015); and Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, “In 2017, usually resident population of Latvia declined by 15.7 thousand” (28 May 2018).

5 The implementation of the policy of Russification during Soviet period and its consequences on the linguistic situation in Latvia are explained in details in the judgments of 23 April 2019 and 13 November 2019 of the Constitutional Court of Latvia

13. The restored Latvian state inherited from the Soviet system a segregated schooling system, in which Russians and other minorities attended schools with Russian as the language of instruction, while Latvians went to Latvian schools, but where Russian was a mandatory part of the curriculum. As a result, at the restoration of the independence of Latvia in 1991 the largest minority language – Russian – had in fact a more prominent place in schooling than the newly re-established state language Latvian. In 1991, most Latvians were bilingual, i.e. Latvian and Russian speakers, while Russians and other ethnic groups living in Latvia generally did not speak Latvian. On the other hand, other ethnic groups – Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Jewish – did not have access to education in the language of their ethnicity, since they had been subject to the same policy of Russification as the titular ethnic group. Only since the restoration of Latvian independence were minority schools other than Russian schools re-established (they had existed in independent Latvia before World War II) – Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian and Estonian at first, to be joined by a Belarusian and a Lithuanian school some three to four years later.6

6 Analytical Report PHARE RAXEN_CC Minority Education, study compiled by RAXEN_CC National Focal Point of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), Vienna, 2004, p. 6

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17. The 1998 Education Law provided that in 2004 upper secondary education (grades 10 to 12) would switch to the Latvian language only. However, after protests in 2003 and 2004, the Law was amended, imposing on state and local government schools9 an obligation to ensure education in Latvian for not less than three fifths of the total number of lessons in a school year, which means that up to 40% of the curriculum in grades 10 to12 could be taught in a minority language (Sub-paragraph 3 of paragraph 9 of the Transitional Provisions of the Education Law). By its judgment of 13 May 2005, the Constitutional Court declared the constitutionality of the provisions of the Education Law introducing this requirement.

9 In Latvia most of public schools are established by local authorities – municipalities. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, the present opinion uses the term “state schools” for all state and municipal institutions of education

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3. Current situation of the education in minority languages

20. According to the information shared on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia11 as of June 2018, minority education programmes existed in seven languages: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian. The state provided funding to 104 schools implementing minority education programmes (among them, 94 schools implement education programmes in Russian and bilingually, 4 – in Polish and bilingually, 1 – in Ukrainian and bilingually, 2 – in Hebrew and bilingually, 1 – in Latvian and Lithuanian, and 1 – in Latvian and Estonian) as well as 68 schools that offer both Latvian and minority education programmes (“dual stream schools”). For the 2017/2018 school year, a total of 49 380 students were registered in basic minority education programmes (grades 1 to 9) (out of 176 675 students at this education level in total) and 9 271 students were registered in upper secondary minority education programmes (grades 10 to 12) (out of 36 693 students at this education level in total).

11 https://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/society-integration/minority-education-in-latvia/minority-education-statisticsand-trends

21. Education in other languages of instruction than Latvian may be acquired in private schools as well. However, the number of private basic and secondary schools using other languages is insignificant. According to data provided to the rapporteurs by the Ministry of Education, in 2018/2019 58 private basic and secondary schools operated in Latvia (grades 1 to 12): 6 were international schools, 11 schools were teaching in Russian, 8 in Latvian and Russian, 2 in English, 1 in German, 1 in Latvian and French, 1 in Hebrew and the rest only in Latvian. In the same school year, the total number of students enrolled in ethnic minorities education programmes (bilingual Russian-Latvian) of private schools was 1 484.

4. Statistical data regarding proficiency in Latvian

22. The gradual introduction of the state language in minority education programmes improved Latvian language proficiency substantially. While in 1989, in the last years of the Soviet Union, only 23% of the non-Latvians living in Latvia could communicate in Latvian, already in 2000 this indicator reached 53% and in 2009 over 90%. 12 Research carried out at the request of the Latvian Language Agency, through opinion polls and in-depth interviews with experts, and published in 2012, revealed that the proportion of non-Latvian inhabitants with command of Latvian (92%) was still lower than that of Latvian-speaking inhabitants with command of Russian (98%). It however indicated that proficiency in Russian was decreasing, especially in the youngest generation, whereas the popularity of Latvian was raising. Statistics indicated that among young people (aged 17-25) there were more speakers of Latvian than Russian.13

12 https://valoda.lv/wp-content/uploads/aktual/Val_sit_informat_lapa_3.pdf

13 Language situation in Latvia: 2004–2010, Latvian Language Agency, 2012, pp. 19-20

23. The follow-up research, published in 2017, confirmed these trends: “Among Latvia’s young people (aged 15-24) Latvian is more widespread than Russian and, according to their selfassessment, their level of Latvian language proficiency is considerably higher than that of their Russian language proficiency. 87.3 % of Latvia’s young people aged 15-24 say that they speak Latvian very well or well, but 58.5 % say the same about their Russian language proficiency.14 This shows that around 13% of Latvia’s young people asses their knowledge of Latvian as not good.

14 Language situation in Latvia: 2010–2015, Latvian Language Agency, 2017, pp. 53, 55, 88.

24. The same research indicates that the language used for communication in society still is more often Russian than Latvian (p. 54), but it also indicates a tendency among members of ethnic minority communities to send their children to schools with Latvian as the language of instruction, specifically in order to ensure that they learn Latvian at a good level. As a result, the proportion of all schoolchildren in Latvia studying in schools implementing minority education programmes slowly but continually decreases (it was 33% in 1999 and 27% in 2010) (p. 79). This tendency was confirmed as well by certain interlocutors met in Riga.

25. Notwithstanding the abovementioned developments, the Latvian educational system still does not guarantee a sufficient proficiency in Latvian of all students. As for the students attending minority education programmes, the 2017 research indicates that “ethnic minority students who received their secondary education in a school with Latvian as the medium of instruction have Latvian language proficiency that is somewhat higher than those who continued to attend schools implementing the ethnic minority educational program.”(p. 82) The Ministry of Education provided the rapporteurs with the results of the grade 9 Latvian language exam of the students of the schools implementing minority education programmes for the period from 2016 to 2019. The results indicate that most of the students of those schools have B1 or B2 level of proficiency and only around 10% of them attained C1 level and almost 0% C2 level. The Ministry also provided comparative data regarding the results of the grade 12 Latvian language exam for years 2012 to 2019. They indicate that the results of the students of the schools with Latvian language are approximately 15% higher than the results of the students of the schools implementing minority education programmes. The results have remained almost the same for both two categories of students from 2012 to 2019.

26. These data demonstrate that in Latvia there is an issue of lack of proficiency in the state language amongst students enrolled in schools implementing minority education programmes.


Document data: 18.06.2020. CDL-AD(2020)012; Opinion No. 975/2020. Link: https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2020)012-e Also available in French.

Publisher’s notes: much of the interpretations given in the document is based on inaccurate data or definitions. The most striking ones, from the excerpts quoted here, are:

the description of the choice of language of instruction as “segregation”. This is contrary both to the Council of Europe’s own definition of segregation, provided by ECRI in the explanatory memorandum to its General Policy Recommendation No. 7, and to the clarifications of explicitly permitted linguistic diversity in Article 2 of the anti-segregatory UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education. The Venice Commission itself refers to the latter in para. 35;

the claim that Russian “had in fact a more prominent place in schooling than the newly re-established state language Latvian” in 1991. Please see the 1992 data from Latvia’s own education ministry to refute this claim;

the claim of Soviet Latvia subjecting non-Russian minorities to “the same policy of Russification as the titular ethnic group”, which creates an impression as if: a) there were no schools and universities with instruction in Latvian in the Soviet Latvia, b) there were no Latvianization along with the Russification. In fact, the smaller minorities could and did send children to schools with instruction in Latvian as well;

the description of “a tendency among members of ethnic minority communities to send their children to schools with Latvian as the language of instruction” without pointing to Russian-language schools having been mostly closed during the renewed independence.

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