Latvia’s recent amendment to its education law, which eliminates Russian language instruction, is part of a larger trend in post-Soviet states. As a result of the amendment, Latvia’s system of bi-lingual secondary education will end by 2021. The government introduced the reforms despite opposition from the Latvian Russian Union, members of the opposition Harmony party –which represents the country’s Russian-speaking minority– and proponents of bi-lingual education. Russians make up about half of the 641,000 inhabitants of Riga, Latvia’s capital.
Latvia is not, however, alone in eliminating bi-lingual education in its schools and institutions of higher learning. In September 2017, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, introduced an education law that made Ukrainian the primary language in all public secondary schools and restricted the teaching of minority languages. According to estimates, around 10% or 400,000 Ukrainian students received their education in a minority language, primarily Russian but also Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian. The new law drew the ire of European institutions, including the Council of Europe. In a statement, the Council’s Venice Commission concluded that, although Ukraine was well within its rights in helping its citizens gain fluency in Ukrainian, “the strong domestic and international criticism drawn especially by the provisions reducing the scope of education in minority languages seems justified.”
This trend of rolling back education in minority languages among Eastern European and Central Asian countries is a major reversal of policies put in place after communism’s fall. At the time, tensions between ethnic majorities and national minorities were high in many newly independent states, where neo-communist regimes were stirring up ethnic tensions to consolidate their power. There was also backlash against minorities that had enjoyed special privileges during communist rule.
The role of the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and its High Commissioner on National Minorities, was critical in defusing these tensions. The so-called Oslo Recommendations, established twenty years ago by the OSCE, were instrumental in setting standards on the linguistic rights of national minorities in post-Soviet states. They provide guidance on how best to ensure the linguistic rights of national minorities within their borders. As of the mid-1990s, the Oslo Recommendations were slowly but surely adopted by the newly independent, post-communist states, which hoped that implementing these standards would help them join regional multi-lateral institutions, like the OSCE, the Council of Europe, NATO, and the European Union.
More than 25 years later, nationalist and anti-Russian sentiment seem to have undermined the importance of multi-lingual, minority education in these countries, which are now backing away from those standards.