How the ‘Russia Threat’ Is Fueling Latvia’s Bitter Identity Politics

How the ‘Russia Threat’ Is Fueling Latvia’s Bitter Identity Politics
NATO conscripts practice during exercise Iron Sword, near Vilnius, Lithuania, Nov. 28, 2016 (AP photo by Mindaugas Kulbis).

In 1987, in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was loosening the screws on free enterprise, high-school teacher Bronislav Zeltserman opened a new teaching center in Riga, the capital of what was then the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. In a country receptive to new ideas for the first time since the 1950s, Zeltserman hoped to develop academic thinking and rear a new generation of students connected to the West. Tapping into the spirit of the times, he called his project “Experiment.”

The Soviet Union collapsed four years later, in 1991. Today, the small Baltic nation of Latvia is a prospering independent state and a member of both NATO and the European Union. Zeltserman’s Experiment has since spawned Innova, a private middle school that consistently ranks among the country’s best. Its students have gone on to study and work around the world, from the London School of Economics to Facebook.

But in addition to its success, Innova is atypical among Latvian schools for another reason. It is one of about 100 “national minority schools,” a bureaucratic euphemism for schools that actively advance Russian language and culture and cater to students from Russian-speaking homes. Like many other such schools in Latvia, where a quarter of the population identifies as Russian, Innova has been engaged in regular disputes with the state. The latest, Zeltserman fears, may well prove to be the last.

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