MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This year, Latvia is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding as an independent country, even though for half that time, it was as an unwilling member of the Soviet Union. Now, to strengthen its national identity, Latvia's government has decided to cut down on the use of the Russian language in schools. But that is causing an outcry from some Russian-speaking residents. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from the Latvian capital, Riga.
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LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: In Riga's historic Old Town, you can hear a cacophony of languages as foreign tourists pack the cobblestone streets.
UNIDENTIFIED TOURIST: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: If you overhear locals, they're as likely to be speaking Russian as they are Latvian. That's one reason Latvia's government has passed a law that, starting next year, will limit Russian as a language of instruction in the country's schools.
RIHARDS KOLS: Our constitution states the state language is Latvian, whereas, at home, you can speak your mother tongue freely, no objection whatsoever.
KIM: Rihards Kols is a lawmaker from the nationalist party that pushed for the law. Latvia's a tiny nation of less than 2 million people, and many Latvians feel the need to protect themselves from cultural and political assimilation by their giant neighbor Russia.
KOLS: Basically, we're a nation state, so we're founded on the basis of language, tradition and culture. We gained our independence in very troubled times.
KIM: But about a quarter of Latvia's population don't share those traditions. They're ethnic Russians, many of whom moved here during Soviet times. To find out what ordinary citizens think, I leave the quaint steeples of the Old Town and head for Riga Central Station.
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AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Latvian).
KIM: I jump on a commuter train going to the edge of the city.
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KIM: The Imanta neighborhood was built during Soviet times with row after row of concrete apartment blocks. Here, I run into Erik Darznieks, a driver who's out for a walk with his wife. He thinks the law is really about October's Parliamentary election.
ERIK DARZNIEKS: (Through interpreter) It's pure politics. If there weren't such bans like the language law, there would be a lot fewer problems in our society.
KIM: Darznieks is ethnic Latvian but says he feels more comfortable speaking Russian. He says language isn't an issue in daily life. Darznieks laughs when I mention the opponents of the law are accused of being puppets of the Russian president.
DARZNIEKS: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: Darznieks says he's never considered himself one of Vladimir Putin's helpers. But Russia's annexation of Crimea four years ago is still on the minds of many Latvians. Putin justified his military intervention in Ukraine by claiming to defend the rights of Russian speakers there. Elizabete Krivcova says a similar scenario could happen in Latvia.
ELIZABETE KRIVCOVA: If our politician will increase this ethnic tension, then, on one point, it would be possible.
KIM: Krivcova is an ethnic Russian activist who is suing the Latvian government over the language law. The Latvian security services suspect her of working for the Kremlin. She says she's acting on her own convictions.
KRIVCOVA: I hope we will find a good way in our state without violence, actually, and without need to ask help to any foreign country.
KIM: Latvia's sovereignty is supported by its membership in NATO and the European Union. Karlis Sadurskis, the education minister, says the new law is intended to defuse ethnic tension.
KARLIS SADURSKIS: If we are not learning together, we are not able normally to live together. And, therefore, this is just breaking ice between two communities in Latvia.
KIM: He says the new law will help integrate Russian speakers into Latvian society.
Lucian Kim, NPR News, Riga, Latvia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.