The Problems of Former USSR: Citizens in Russian-Latvian Relations

By Konstantin Pakhorukov
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

Introduction

The problem of migration is one of the most urgent ones in the modern world. As a rule, people migrate voluntarily. In the USSR, however, migration against people's free will was quite a widespread phenomenon. Thus, many Russians found themselves in the Baltic Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR broke up, but the consequences of its disintegration still influence Russian-Latvian relations. About 15 percent of the Latvian population, mostly Russians, have the status of non-citizens and are therefore restricted in their rights compared to ordinary citizens. There are also other difficulties with the use of the Russian language by the Russian-speaking population, even by Latvian citizens.

In this article I will focus on the problems of the former USSR citizens in Latvia by considering history and analyzing the current state of affairs. The tasks are to investigate the origins of the problems, show their ambiguity, and reveal possible prospects for the future. Thus, being a rather popular issue in Russian and Latvian journals, the problems mentioned above are poorly presented in world scientific databases, e.g. in EBSCO. In that context the term "alien" (noncitizen) shall be defined as a person who lives in the country of destination but does not have a citizenship. Those persons are not stateless because they have Latvian passports, but because they are called to be alien's passports of the Republic of Latvia. For that reason there are two types of passports in Latvia — the citizen's passport and the alien's passport.

The roots of the problem

On Oct. 15, 1991 the Supreme Soviet of the Independent Republic of Latvia issued a regulation stating, "On restoration of the rights of the Latvian Republic citizens and on main conditions of naturalization," which automatically granted Latvian citizenship to only those who had it before the Soviet period, and to their descendants.1

Latvia was forced into the Soviet Union in 1940. A similar law on citizenship was adopted in Estonia, where unlike Lithuania, the citizenship was granted to all of those who resided in the Republic at the moment of the proclamation of independence.

During World War II, a number of Latvians lost their lives and many were deported to other regions of the USSR. During the same period, people mainly from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic were sent to Latvia. It is noteworthy that the Baltic countries were treated like decent places in popular understanding, because of their higher living standards. In 1991 the status of this category of people was not defined. Then, in 1994 and in 1995 two laws ("On the Latvian citizenship" and "On the Status of those Former USSR Citizens who do not have the Citizenship of Latvia or that of any Other State") were adopted.

Aforementioned persons were granted the status of "non-citizens" and were approved by special passports. Non-citizens would only be able to acquire citizenship after many years. For example, people who arrived in Latvia aged over 30 could only receive citizenship in 2002.2 These terms of naturalization were later cancelled — aliens nowadays make up to 15 percent of the Latvian population.3 The worst aspect of their status is the restriction of their rights. They do not have the right to vote, hold public office, join the military service, practice law or become a public notary. They are also vulnerable with respect to social and property rights and business activities.4

A bird's eye view of Riga, Latvia. Russian aliens compose nearly 15% of the country's population.

A bird's eye view of Riga, Latvia. Russian aliens compose nearly 15% of the country's population.

And why is Russia interested in finding solutions for that problem? The response is simple: 66.1 percent of non-citizens in Latvia are ethnic Russians (there are also Belarusians, Ukranians, Lithuanians, Poles and Latvians)5. They arrived to Latvia in the Soviet time when the dominant language was Russian.

Nowadays they have to pass an exam in the Latvian language to obtain Latvian citizenship, and also demonstrate their knowledge of Latvian history. Some managed to pass the history exam, but some elderly people failed because the essence of the exam often contradicts their world outlook.

The problems of discrimination against the Russian-speaking population, and infringement of the use of the Russian language, are also closely connected with the problems of aliens (Russian aliens compose 35.9 percent of all ethnic Russians in Latvia). A great scandal burst out in 2004 when it was decided that 60 percent of lessons were to be taught in Latvian in secondary schools for national minorities.6 But the problem not only concerns educational questions.

For example, an official representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, A. Nesterenko, said "when the local government is fined for giving information on tariffs and services in Russian in places where the Russian-speaking population compactly resides, it is absurd."7 The phenomena of linguistic plurality can be can be observed at the same time: almost every website of the state power body is accessible in three languages: Latvian, Russian and English. With regard to language policy in Latvia in general, one can judge that it is in a predicament. The Center of Official Language of Latvia stated in October 2010 that some of the Members of Parliaments have problems with the Latvian language, an assertion that was confirmed by the Speaker of the Saeima (the Latvian parliament).8

The problems of discrimination against the Russian-speaking population, and infringement of the use of the Russian language, are also closely connected with the problems of aliens

The non-citizen issue is frequently discussed during top-level negotiations between Russia and Latvia. Russian diplomats meet with the representatives of the Russian communities and do their best to support the Russian-speaking population. In 1999, age restrictions of naturalization were abrogated, so children of non-citizens born in Latvia after 1991 are now granted citizenship following parents' application. In 2007 the Russian Foreign minister S. Lavrov, visiting Riga, voiced three Russian proposals on how to solve the problem: 1) to give non-citizens' children (born after 1991) citizenship without any application, to solve the problem of noncitizens within one generation 2) to give elderly people citizenship without exams, because they have been living in Latvia for so many years 3) to grant non-citizens the right to participate in local elections because noncitizens live there, pay taxes but they cannot elect or be elected while the E.U. citizens can.9

The alien problem has a great impact on the political life of Latvia, and in response domestic forces exert their efforts to find an appropriate solution. The main champion of non-citizens rights in Latvia is a political party called "For Human Rights in United Latvia (FHRUL)." Its goal is to secure automatic citizenship for everybody who permanently resided in Latvia in 1991 or, at the very least, to enlarge aliens' rights. As essentially a party of Russian speakers, FHRUL also maintains the official status of the Latgalian language (Latgalians make up a special ethnic group that developed separately in the eastern lands of Latvia) in local communities. FHRUL operates actively in the Latvian parliament and forwards petitions to the Constitutional court.10 It also calls on European organizations to influence the Latvian government.

When Max van der Stoel was the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the OSCE, the OSCE firmly backed human rights supporters. Then, there were petitions to the European Parliament and to the European Court of Human Rights. Vivid, emotional, and supported by the speeches of FHRUL member of the European Parliament, Tatjana Zdanoka, FHRUL seemed to attract attention in Europe. For instance, the European Ombudsman admitted that differences in rights contradict the Constitution of Latvia. European organizations have played an important role in harmonizing the aforementioned citizenship law and made efforts to influence the language policy in the private sphere. Latvia was forced to stipulate that government regulation in the private sphere could only be in place in case of legitimate government interest.11

Does this problem really exist or is it the aliens who prefer to retain their status?

It is widely acknowledged that the non-citizens problem is a double-edged issue. For example, the Head of the Baltic and Nordic Countries Research Center in Saint Petersburg, Dmitri Lanko, believes that granting citizenship to the people who had resided in Latvia before 1940, and to their descendants, corresponds to the international law. Other people who have not obtained any citizenship receive the foreigner's (alien's) passport.12 Lanko omits the "alien" category, saying that this passport (alien's passport) gives almost equal rights as a Russian one except the status of residence permit (aliens have permanent residence permit as opposed to other foreigners who have temporary permit).

By contrast, an E.U. citizen can participate in local elections after six months residence in Latvia. In 2003, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe accepted a recommendation that claims that there is a need to "grant immigrants who have been legally living in the country for at least three years the right to vote, stand in local elections and encourage activities to foster their active political participation".13 Finally, it was essentially the "immigrants" who developed the industry of modern Latvia. Nowadays, however, their merits and even current work for the Latvian prosperity are forgotten. The non-citizen issue is extremely politicized in Russia, because of the proEuropean and especially pro-NATO orientation of the Baltic states thinking can be expected.

15 percent of the Latvian population, mostly Russians, have the status of non-citizens and are therefore restricted in their rights compared to ordinary citizens.

Being an alien is quite profitable. Aliens can visit both the E.U. countries and Russia without visas (while Latvian citizens have free access only to the E.U. countries). On the Jun. 17, 2008, Russian president D. Medvedev signed a decree abolishing 90day visas for aliens. Such a situation occurred between 1993-2000. There was an opinion in Latvia that this decision prevented the Latvian society from integration and hindered the naturalization process.

Before the year 2007 the main reason for the young aliens being denied Latvian citizenship was unwillingness to serve in the Latvian army.15 A friend of mine, an alien, says that he has no problems — he does not work in public service, he is not interested in politics, and so he is satisfied. Finally, one can also discuss the philosophy of aliens. Some of them say that they do not deliberately intend to become citizens of any country. They do not like Latvia, and they are afraid of Russia. They do not associate themselves with any state. They keep neutrality, without taking the false oath, and they are free.16

Taking into consideration their philosophy, we should not forget about its origin. In my opinion it is impossible to justify the fact that the non-citizen problem has not been solved because of the alien philosophy.

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