Richard North, 02/05/2004  

Among all the parties in the new member states (and one wonders who actually attended them and why) a somewhat sour note was sounded by the Russian inhabitants of Latvia. They had a demonstration, possibly to remind all concerned of the old May 1 demonstrations in the Soviet Union, but also to protest about their own bad treatment.

In February of this year, Latvia passed an educational reform, according to which at least 60 per cent of teaching in schools from next year on will be in Latvian. Obviously, foreign languages will be taught, though, equally obviously, the main one of these will be English. The EU has deemed the educational reform acceptable.

This does not please the Russian population of Latvia, which makes up about one third of the total. Though they have lived there for two or three generations, they have not bothered to learn the language. Their presence is resented by the Latvians not just because of the arrogance implied in that attitude but because they were sent there to dilute Latvian national feelings and to make up for the missing population, some of which had disappeared into the Nazi camps and many more into the Soviet ones in 1940 and 1944. For the record, between a quarter and a third of the population of the Baltic states was deported by Stalin and his many henchmen.

Soon after Latvia regained its independence it, as well as the other Baltic states, made knowledge of the language compulsory for citizenship. This has created certain problems with Russia itself, who has seen fit to step in to protect its people, though not to offer any solution to the problem. (Even more upsetting have been recent trials of Soviet “war criminals"? whom the Russian media describes as “liberators"? of the Baltic states. Well, one man’s liberator is another man’s war criminal.)

The Russian population had hoped that President Putin will bear them in mind in his most recent negotiations with the EU but, as we have already said, this did not happen. The EU-Russian agreement was extended to the new members with little to offer to the Russian minority beyond a few fine words.

According to the BBC Russian Service at least 20,000 demonstrators marched to the Victory Memorial to the Soviet liberators, regarded by many Latvians as a symbol of Soviet oppression.

Opinion of the EU itself seems to have been divided among the demonstrators. Some expressed anger because their rights have not been taken into account. Others have been at pains to explain that their quarrel is not with the EU. They would be happy to talk to the Europeans but in their own language. Then there were those who were quite happy about Latvia becoming a member state, as this will make it easier for them to travel west. Whether, having arrived there they will bother to learn the language of whichever host country they settle in, remains to be seen.

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