Russians mug up on Latvian to gain status

August 14, 1998

THE citizenship dispute between Latvia and its former ruler Russia over rights for Soviet-era immigrants mean little to Gennady Ambalov and others like him working in a university system where, seven years after independence, full integration is a fact.

A native of the Caucasian district of Northern Ossetia, Mr Ambalov speaks fluent Latvian - a key condition for would-be citizens - and after more than 35 years in Riga, considers Latvia as home.

As dean of surgery at Riga's Medical Academy of Latvia - from next month the Riga Stradina University - Mr Ambalov uses Latvian at work in a teaching hospital where the demands of the job leave little time for the politics of ethnicity. Mr Ambalov, one of around 80 Russians in a faculty staff of 400, became a Latvian citizen in April.

Unlike most of the 650,000 ethnic Russians - a third of Latvia's population - who must pass language and history exams to swap their stateless status for citizenship, he was granted a passport under a special scheme for professional, artistic or sporting personalities. For those who must jump the linguistic hurdle to become citizens, the challenge is mostly a practical one, he believes.

"The situation today is purely political. Most Russian people in Latvia have been born here, worked here, brought up families here. They're getting on with their lives and don't think about politics. Many people understand Latvian, even if they cannot read thick books in the language."

Events such as the bid by Latvia's nationalist party For Fatherland and Freedom to block draft parliamentary changes which ease citizenship rules and speed integration, have drawn censure from the European Union and the police beating of elderly Russian protesters in Riga, following a rally by Latvian SS veterans earlier this year, provoked a sharp reaction from the Russians.

But little bitterness trickles down to the grassroots, Mr Ambalov says:

"Integration is not a problem in academia." He thinks that a better system for providing language tuition for the Russians who need it and easing the pressure on people, especially the elderly and less able, to pass exams would help. Mr Ambalov and his fellow Russians at the medical academy, took intensive Latvian language courses soon after independence in 1991 and were using the language at work within six months.

He concedes that switching languages after a years of using his native tongue in a Soviet republic where Russians could live without ever speaking Latvian, was a challenge at first.

Janis Vetra, rector of the Medical Academy, where Latvian and - in the social science faculty - English are the languages of instruction, says that integration of ethnic Russian students and staff in Latvia's 16 state universities is virtually complete. Most of the 14 private universities are Russian language-only, teaching courses in business, economics and law. Entrance exams to the Medical Academy include a compulsory Latvian language test - for all applicants.

"Applicants are invited to volunteer information about their native tongue, but it's not obligatory," Dr Vetra said. Latvian language courses are provided in the first year for the 10 per cent of the academy's 2,000 non-Latvian students, including foreign students from the Middle East, India and Pakistan.

Dr Vetra believes that Latvia needs to do more to ensure ethnic Russians can learn Latvian at every opportunity - at school, in the workplace, privately. "It is no big problem, we just need to organise education to make language instruction more widely available." One sign of the strength of integration at the academy is that when finalists are given the choice of which professors should be present at the graduation ceremony, the Russians are most popular.

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