Russia’s parliament has threatened economic sanctions in response to a language reform in neighbouring Latvia that will see older schoolchildren taught in Latvian rather than Russian.
The call for sanctions further raises tensions with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, members of the European Union and Nato who have been wary of Vladimir Putin’s promises to “defend the rights” of Russian speakers in other countries.
On Tuesday, the leaders of the three countries expressed their concern about Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy at a meeting with US president Donald Trump in the White House.
Although Latvian is the official language in that former Soviet republic, a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians, and nearly 100 state-funded schools offer Russian or bilingual teaching.
A language reform approved on Monday by president Raimonds Vejonis, however, will phase in Latvian-language instruction for all students in the 10th through 12th years by 2021, with the exception of some Russian language and literature courses.
Mr Vejonis said this would “form a more cohesive society and a stronger state”.
Early education will remain bilingual, with half of courses taught in Russian for schoolchildren and 20 per cent for 7th- to 9th-year students.
Nonetheless, Moscow reacted angrily to the reform. MP Sergei Zheleznyak called it a “language genocide” and compared it to the “open Naziism toward the Russian population” he claimed was occurring in Ukraine, which has been promoting Ukrainian language as it battles Russia-backed separatists in two breakaway republics.
In a statement on Tuesday, Russia’s Duma condemned the “discriminatory” language reform as “forced assimilation” that infringed on the rights of national minorities.
“The state Duma notes that the actions of the Latvian authorities violating the rights and freedoms of our compatriots in Latvia should be followed by the adoption of special economic measures,” it said, citing a law that allows for sanctions like banning financial operations and cancelling trade agreements.
Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, an influential former aide of Mr Putin, called on Russia to take a “more active position” on Latvia’s supposed failure to uphold international agreements.
The statement comes after Latvia expelled a Russian diplomat last month in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
It also passed a US-style Magnitsky Act banning Russian citizens involved in the death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky or other human rights violations, just as the other two Baltics have. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson said last month that the Britain would introduce a UK version of the act.
Ethnic relations have long been a delicate issue in Latvia, where Russian speakers have staged protests against the language reform. The pro-Russian Harmony party controls a quarter of parliament and is led by the mayor of the country’s capital, Riga.
Since the opposition of Russian speakers to a new Western government in Ukraine exploded into conflict in 2014, drawing on Russian military support, the Baltic countries have been ramping up military and civil defence training and hosting Nato troops.
Last year, American and Canadian troops were deployed for training in Latvia, and British troops arrived in neighbouring Estonia.
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