Report “Preserving national minorities in Europe” (excerpt), 2021

Appendix – Specific case-studies examined in the context of this report



1. Certain elements of the situation of national minorities in Latvia bear similarities to those in Ukraine. A majority – 62.1% – of the population identifies as Latvian, 26.9% as Russian, 3.3% as Belarusian, 2.2% as Ukrainian and the same proportion as Polish, and 1.2% as Lithuanian, with nearly 100 other (smaller) groups identified in the most recent census. Latvian, the State language, is the mother tongue of 60.8% of the population, while 36% of the population have Russian as their mother tongue and 3.2% another language.71 Some data show that pupils following minority education programmes have a lower level of proficiency in the State language than pupils in Latvian-medium education.72 Recent amendments, designed to improve proficiency in the State language, have curbed access to education in minority languages and increased the proportion of instruction that must be provided in Latvian, with teaching in non-EU languages moreover being subject to greater restrictions than that in EU languages in both public and private schools.

71 Central Statistics Bureau of Latvia, Indicators characterising languages used by the population of Latvia, Mother tongue of population of Latvia, 2017.

72 CDL-AD(2020)012, op. cit., paragraphs 22 to 26.

2. In the light of this situation, and in the context of my work on the present report, the committee decided at its meeting of 4 December 2019 to request the opinion of the Venice Commission on the recent amendments to the legislation on education in minority languages in Latvia. I wish to thank the Venice Commission for its rapid and thorough follow-up to this request.

3. As of June 2018, minority education programmes were available in seven languages in Latvia: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Belarusian. A series of amendments, covering all levels of education from preschool to higher education, were introduced in Latvian legislation and regulations between March and November 2018, and scheduled to come into force progressively over three academic years starting from September 2019. The amendments have been described in detail in the opinion of the Venice Commission.73 Some amendments concerning higher education in private institutions were found by the Constitutional Court of Latvia on 11 June 2020 to be incompatible with the Constitution and void as of May 2021. Another part of this case was subsequently referred to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.74 On 19 June 2020, one day after the Venice Commission adopted its opinion, the Constitutional Court found the amendments relating to pre-school education for children aged 5-7 years to be in conformity with the Latvian Constitution.75

73 Ibid., paragraphs 36 to 58.

74 Judgment in case No. 2019-20-01, summary in English, full text in Latvian, and decision of 17 July 2020, available on the Court’s website.

75 Judgment in case No. 2019-20-03, summary in English and full text in Latvian available on the Court’s website

4. The situation arising as a result of the 2018 amendments can be briefly summarised as follows. At preschool level, a bilingual approach can (still) be used from the age of 1.5 years, but from the age of 5 years (when preschool education becomes compulsory) to 7 years, it is now required that Latvian be the main language of communication in play-based lessons. At primary level, the highest proportion of teaching that can be delivered in a minority language is 50% in grades 1-6, and 20% in grades 7-9 (previously the highest proportion of instruction possible in a minority language at grades 7-9 was 40%). Teaching must be delivered entirely in Latvian in grades 10-12, except for minority language and literature courses, which may be given in the minority language (previously up to 40% of teaching at grades 10-12 could be provided in the minority language). A minority language may also be taught as a foreign language (through the medium of Latvian); however, as of November 2018, the first foreign language taught must be an EU language; non-EU languages can only be taught as a second foreign language.76

76 See in particular paragraphs 41, 51-57 and 94 of the Venice Commission’s opinion.

5. As noted above with respect to Ukraine, there is no question that promoting proficiency in the State language of persons belonging to national minorities is compatible with the requirements of the Framework Convention. However, a balance must always be struck between majority and minority languages in education, and measures taken to promote proficiency in the State language must be both appropriate to this aim and proportionate.77 Having examined the above situation, the Venice Commission raised a number of serious concerns. It observed, inter alia, that the new rules on preschool education would not allow pupils belonging to minorities to preserve and develop their mother tongue – a view shared by three United Nations Special Rapporteurs;78 that there should be a legal requirement to ensure that enough schools offered minority education in grades 1 to 9 wherever there was sufficient demand for it; that at upper secondary level (grades 10-12), the law should be implemented in such a way as to ensure that pupils could attain a level of proficiency that would enable them to address complex issues in their minority language; and that the possibilities for persons belonging to national minorities to have access to higher education in their minority language should be enlarged. It also emphasised the need to guarantee the quality of education received by
pupils in minority education programmes, both through improving teacher training in Latvian and minority languages, and by providing adequate teaching materials.79

77. See Advisory Committee, Thematic Commentary No. 3 on The Language Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities under the Framework Convention, ACFC/44DOC(2012)001 rev, Parts VI and VII.

78. Letter of 24 September 2019 of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

79 CDL-AD(2020)012, op. cit., paragraphs 87, 90, 92-95 and 101-102.

6. In addition to these concerns, I wish to raise three further considerations. First, the less favourable treatment of non-EU languages may lead a significant proportion of Latvia’s population to feel stigmatised and undervalued. This runs counter to the thrust of Article 6 of the Framework Convention, by which States undertake to promote tolerance, understanding and mutual respect among all persons living on their territory. Second, it is not clear whether the authorities considered alternatives that may have been less harmful to minority language education before enacting and implementing the changes described above. Third, the fact that consultations with representatives of national minorities did not enable them to influence in any tangible way the outcomes of this process may be a source of resentment and distrust. It is unfortunately a given, in any consultation process, that not all diverging points can always be fully taken into account. However, effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities remains crucial wherever legislative or other measures may affect their rights, and the State bears responsibility, under Article 15 of the Framework Convention, for creating the necessary conditions for such dialogue to occur.

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