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About 5,000 rally in Riga against reform of Russian-language schools in Latvia

The protest was organized by the Russian School Defense Staff and the Latvian Russian Union party

RIGA, September 15. /TASS/. A protest against the transition of schools for ethnic minorities to teaching in the Latvian language was held in the capital of Riga, where about 5,000 people had come to the Dailes Theater for a demonstration that ended with a rally in Riga’s central park, a TASS correspondent reported from the scene on Saturday.

The protest was organized by the Russian School Defense Staff and the Latvian Russian Union party. The participants were carrying red balloons and placards in defense of the Russian language and chanting ‘Hands off Russian schools.’

"In 1998, a law rooting out Russian education totally from Latvian schools was passed. Nevertheless, in 2004 we managed to seek a compromise and the Russian schools were left in peace for long 13 years. It happened thanks to a first school revolution which we carried out taking dozens of thousands of people to Riga’s streets," Miroslav Mitrofanov, a MEP for Latvia and co-chair of the Latvian Russian Union party, told TASS.

"This historical experience shows that one must fight, as strength - the inner strength and resolve - is respected in all times and in all countries and expert discussions cannot replace people in the streets who say ‘No’ to the government," he said. "Now we are saying ‘No’ to the language reform at Latvia’s Russian schools."

Protests against teaching in Latvian at Russian schools are taking place in the run-up to the parliamentary election, due to be held on October 6 in the country.

"However, we will do our best in these conditions. Today’s rally is linked to the election and without it, no successes are possible in the future. We should make a powerful statement that the Latvian Russian Union party will be represented in Latvia’s would-be parliament and that we will be provided with a platform so as to organize more events in protection of Russian schools," Mitrofanov stressed. "We must continue fighting at the level of parliament."

Fight for the truth

After the demonstration, a rally and concert featuring Russian folk ensembles were held in Riga’s central park. Members of the European Parliament, representatives of the Russian School Defense Staff, human rights activists and parents made speeches in front of the protesters.

"Today here came people of different ages and ethnicities, people with different flags and slogans, but we are united by one thing - we stand up for the truth and this truth is only one," Andrejs Mamikins, a MEP for Latvia and a candidate for Latvia’s prime minister from the Latvian Russian Union, told the rally.

"I have never called Latvia a Nazi country or something like that, but a few days ago I discovered a horrible fact from our joint history. The fact is that neither Tsarist Russia, nor the Soviet Union, nor even Nazi Germany ever closed schools for ethnic minorities in Latvia," he noted. "This reform is a shame for our country."

In the conversation with the TASS correspondent, the politician pointed out that the fight in defense of Russian schools in Latvia would be continued.

"We stand up for the truth and justice. We are part of Latvia too, and we have the same rights as any other citizen in our country. At our next protest in November, we will mark the centenary of Latvia's independence," Mamikins said.

"Besides rallies in Riga and Brussels, we are planning to send 100 petitions in support of Russian education to the European Parliament, 100 letters to Latvia’s parliament, 100 letters to the prime minister and 100 letters to the president of the republic," he added.

Disputable reform

The reform was earlier drafted by Latvia’s education ministry, approved by the government, passed by the parliament and signed into law by the president. Under the reform, all the ethnic minority schools should change to the Latvian language in teaching almost all subjects. The students of Russian schools will be able to study only the Russian language, literature and subjects related to culture and history in their native tongue. The reform is to be implemented gradually, starting from the beginning of the next academic year and ending by September 1, 2021.

These plans have triggered a wave of indignation among the Russian-speaking residents of Latvia who make up about 40% of the country’s population. Defenders of Russian schools have held numerous rallies and demonstrations against the reform. Petitions to gather signatures are posted on public sites.

In spite of the impressive size of the community that speaks Russian as a native tongue, it is considered a foreign language in Latvia, with Latvian being the only state language. The first reform of school education in Latvia took place thirteen years ago when the Russian schools had to slash the amount to teaching in Russian in high school to only 40% of the subjects.

After that, the nationalists have made a number of attempts to switch the instruction process at all the state and municipal schools over to the Latvian language only.