“The Brussels Diary With Yana Toom”: Latvia, Russian-Language Schools And European Court Of Human Rights


In April, as sure as fate, our eternal topic of the changeover of kindergartens and schools to Russian-language instruction will become stirred up. Once every few years, the Ministry of Culture commissions integration monitoring, and a fresh report is about to be published. Then the patriots will repeat their mantra: our state is ethnical, Russian-language schools constitute segregation, and we must put an end to this practice once and for all.

It is time to look south to Latvia. Latvia is a ground breaker. Three years ago, the Saeima, its parliament, dealt a blow to the Russian-language schools, having decided that half of the subjects in primary school, 80% in secondary school and 100% in the upper secondary school must be in Latvian. From 1 September this year, education programmes in Latvian should also operate in kindergartens. It is obvious that all of this is being done to mercilessly root out Russian-language education. Education Minister Kārlis Šadurskis made no secret that the decision was purely political. But (I quote) “there are no elements of discrimination.”

Not everyone, to put it mildly, agreed with this. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities said that the reform must consider the views of all communities.

The Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, concluded that the rights and languages of the minorities were being infringed more than the promotion of the state language required, and it recommended a return to bilingual education in kindergartens and an abolition of the changeover in private schools.

Finally, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on 3 March, in which it demanded “to guarantee, now and in the future, access to teaching and learning in minority languages throughout the country, taking into account expectations.”

For the Latvian government, all of this is like water off a duck's back. Therefore, more than 150 ethnic Russian parents and children filed a lawsuit against the reform. And they lost in the court of the first instance, the second one and the third one.

Thereafter, they were able to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

In the ECHR, it must be said, nine out of ten claims are rejected immediately. But this case was different: 150 lawsuits were postponed, and eight were brought in record time to the stage when the court asks for feedback from a potential defendant. In March, the ECHR sent questions to the Latvian authorities. There are a lot of them, twenty-one in fact, and they are quite tricky. For example:

– How do the authorities themselves consider whether they are violating the Convention on Human Rights or not, and why?

– Does the reform consider the interests of various groups?

– Do restrictions on the use of the Russian language infringe on the very essence of the right to education or its effectiveness?

The last question may hit home one day in our country, too, as it is possible to transfer the Russian-language schools to Estonian, but the effectiveness of the education will suffer greatly as a result.

In general, a remarkably interesting process is being outlined, which will be monitored by many in Estonia, and on which, I think, the further course of our reforms depends. Latvia must respond by July, after which the ECHR will decide whether to accept the claims for processing or not.

Experts believe that a win is guaranteed for the private schools. For the rest, everything is more complicated, but there is a chance that the European Court of Human Rights will not follow the lead of the nationalists, and that it will decide in favour of human rights – this could well come to pass.

Well, I think that the experience of our Latvian friends will be useful to us all.