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Latvians face new wall: language

By CNN's Jill Dougherty

Latvian students protest against language reforms in Riga.

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Latvians seek language identity
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Vaira Vike-Freiberga

RIGA, Latvia (CNN) -- The cobblestone streets of Riga look peaceful enough.

But as Latvia prepares to enter the European Union, the Baltic republic with just over 2 million people brings with it a troubled history.

For half a century it was part of the Soviet Union, and the scars of that experience are slow to heal.

Even today, 40 percent of the population is Russian-speaking. And their place in society is a hot-button issue here -- and in Russia.

A remake of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" -- with Russian lyrics -- became an underground hit, an anthem of the Russian-language school movement.

At Riga's Minority School Number 22, the language for the most part has always been Russian.

Now, a new law will require that 60 percent of instruction be given in Latvian.

Many of the students do speak some Latvian, but that's not the point, they claim.

"I don't speak Latvian as well as Russian and so my comprehension of the subject won't be very good," says Daniel Khodyushin.

Adds Andrei Turanov: "I think students should be able to study in whatever language they want to."

In a basement office in Riga, the Russian School Defense Staff holds a strategy meeting.

Yuri Petropavlovsky, of the organizers, says the group wants the new language law stopped -- or else.

"If the government will not change this, I can say definitely we are prepared to ruin the celebration of Latvia's entry into the European Union," he says.

Language isn't the only thing that separates the Russian-speaking students from other students.

Even though they were born in an independent Latvia, 40 percent of them are not full citizens. Officially they are "aliens."

Eight-year-old Nastya Dergunova is an "alien." So are her parents, Victor, a physician, and Lena, a nurse. It's written in their passports.

Among other things, it means they do not have the right to vote.

Victor, whose father was in the Soviet military, moved to Latvia with his family as a child.

"It's not about the language," he says. "We consider it revenge against our fathers, nothing more."

The Dergunovs say they could easily pass the exam to become full Latvian citizens. But many Russian speakers refuse to, they say, as a form of "quiet protest."

Vike-Freiberga: "They have a choice to become citizens -- or not. It's their free choice."

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga knows what it's like to have to learn a new language. As a refugee, she had to learn several.

If Russian-speaking children are to become full members of Latvian society, she says, they must speak the national language.

Demonstrations by schoolchildren, she claims, are being stirred up for political purposes both in Latvia and in Russia.

When it comes to "aliens," she says, they are not being forced to remain non-citizens.

"The people living here in Latvia who came in Soviet times -- and it was a period of colonization -- most of them chose not to leave, and we didn't force them to leave," the president says.

"They had the choice to stay here or to repatriate. Now they have a choice to become citizens -- or not. It's their free choice."

Back at the Russian-speaking school, 15-year-old Anna Zaikina says she plans to take the citizenship test.

"I think it's important, since we're entering the European Union, to be a citizen of the country you live in," she says.

The school's director, Natalya Rogaleva, predicts it will take a generation or more for what she calls the "sharp, emotional memory of hurt" on both sides to be erased.

"There will be young people who want good relations, want to make their careers," says Rogaleva.

"Their values will be different. They are open to the world."

Latvia is trying to bury its Soviet legacy. The wall that shut it off from the West was shattered years ago.

But now both ethnic Latvians and Russian-speaking Latvians fear that new barriers could hurt their efforts to rejoin Europe.

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