15,000 Latvian Russians Protest School Closures

By J. Michael Lyons

The Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia -- Nearly 15,000 Latvians rallied against the elimination of state-funded Russian schools Friday, the biggest protest in the Baltic country since its independence.

Organizers scheduled the event a day before the annual Eurovision contest aired, taking advantage of the nearly 1,000 journalists from across Europe, and the world, who had gathered in the capital, Riga, to cover the event.

The protest was held just a few blocks from the event's site.

Singing folk songs and waving signs, the protesters included thousands of students who would be affected by the decision to switch the language of instruction in 150 schools from Russian to Latvian. Many came to the capital in buses from the countryside.

"Russian is not only our language it's our way of life," said 16-year-old Jana Krainova, as a man sang in Russian nearby. "Our government wants to destroy our way of life."

Students waved placards reading "Hands Off Our Schools" and "We Want to Learn in Our Own Language."

The Latvian government is planning to phase out state-funded education in Russian, which is spoken by about 35 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people, by 2004, and replace it with Latvian.

The move is the latest effort to restore the Latvian language, which Russian supplanted during the Soviet era.

Many ethnic Russians are descendants of industrial workers and others sent here during the Soviet era. Most speak Latvian poorly or not at all and fear the move is a government attempt to assimilate them into Latvian culture.

Government officials contend the plan will help Russian students learn Latvian, a requirement to obtain good jobs in the public and private sector and admission to most universities.

Nils Muiznieks, head of the newly created Social Integration Ministry, argued for the reform.

"For these kids to compete they need more than a few hours of language courses a week," he said.


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