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Latvia: Russian Population Says Naturalization Comes At High Cost

  • Francesca Mereu

About 550,000 ethnic Russians now living in Latvia do not have Latvian citizenship. Moscow says Latvia is discriminating against non-citizens. But Latvian officials say that Russian speakers simply have not applied for naturalization and that it is very easy to pass the basic language and history tests required for citizenship.

Riga, 19 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some 700,000 of Latvia's 2.3 million residents -- about 30 percent -- are ethnic Russians. After gaining independence 10 years ago, Latvia granted automatic citizenship only to those who had settled in the country before 1940, the year the republic was forcibly annexed by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The move excluded thousands of ethnic Russians, who were required to undergo restrictive naturalization procedures that elicited objections from Moscow and criticism from the Council of Europe, whose representatives called for amendments to the procedures to put them in line with international standards.

In 1998, after a nationwide referendum, the Latvian parliament amended the citizenship law in order to ease the naturalization process. Today, to acquire Latvian documents, citizens must pass an exam testing basic knowledge of Latvia's language, history, and constitution. Minorities can use their own language during public meetings, and print posters and store signs in their native tongue.

But according to Leonid Fedoseyev, the editor of the Russian language daily "Chas," the Russian community still does not feel at ease in Latvia, since even ethnic Russians who were born in Latvia before 1991 have to go through the naturalization process. Fedoseyev describes that situation as ambiguous: "The status of [ethnic Russians] is unstable: They don't understand whether they are [Latvians or Russians] or how to behave. The majority of them feel that they belong to Latvia. Those who felt that they were not part of Latvia have already taken Russian citizenship. But most [ethnic Russians] don't want to take Russian citizenship, because they feel that [Latvia] is their country. But at the same time Latvian authorities are pushing them away. [Authorities] make them feel that they are not at home. It seems like they are saying, 'You are not our [citizens].' It's an ambiguous situation."

Antons Seiksts, the chairman of the Saeima (Latvian parliament) Committee for Human Rights, says authorities are behaving in a democratic way, because they give people the right and the opportunity to choose whose citizens they want to be. It's a choice, he points out, that was not extended to Latvians in 1940 when the country was occupied by Soviet troops: "When we are reproached [by foreign governments] with having many people living [in Latvia] without citizenship, we answer that to give people automatic citizenship is repressive, undemocratic, and Stalinist. When the Soviet Union occupied Latvia in 1940, people weren't asked whose citizen they wanted to be. In one hour's time they were given a citizenship, and if they dared to express their point of view, they were just shot or sent to Siberia. We don't want to behave in such a way. On the contrary, everyone can choose [which citizenship they want to have]."

Seiksts says that in 1991, Latvia did not gain new independence, but simply reinstated the independence it had lost. He says the citizenship debate is closely linked to Latvia's restoration to its previous independence: "[In 1991] Latvia brought back its independence. It was not only an independent state from 1918 to 1940, but it was also a member of the League of Nations [in 1921]. In 1991 Latvia didn't become independent, but regained its independence. This is the reason why [automatic] Latvian citizenship is restricted only to those people that are descendants of those Latvians who used to live in the independent Latvia."

Furthermore, Seiksts adds that members of other ethnic groups that moved to Latvia after the Soviet occupation are given the possibility to naturalize, and that the process is now quite simple.

Nevertheless, only some 150,000 Russians out of 700,000 have applied for citizenship. Non-citizens are given a passport, but officially they are not Latvian citizens and cannot vote or work as civil servants.

Fedoseyev of "Chas" newspaper says that up until now only small numbers of Russians have naturalized because they think the process will have little impact on their lives: "The reason why most people don't naturalize is that they don't see the point in doing that. A Russian that has [Latvian] citizenship feels as left out as a Russian without [Latvian] citizenship. The division [in society] is not determined by citizen, non-citizen status but by ethnic principles. [Russians] understand that after they naturalize nothing will change [in their life]. They think: 'Will the government's attitude toward me change? No. Will I get more rights for cultural autonomy? No. Will I get more rights for education? No.'"

Fedoseyev said Russians feel alienated because they have little political representation. Furthermore, many Russians have a poor understanding of their rights because the laws are written in Latvian, a language that few Russians speak or understand well.

In Soviet Latvia, Russian was the dominant language -- Latvians were forced to learn and to speak it. Andreis, a 65-year-old pensioner, said that in the Soviet times if someone spoke Latvian in a public place, he was asked to speak "like an human being." The Latvian language, he said, "was like an inferior language. It was really humiliating."

Native Latvian Paija Uzia spent 16 years in Siberian exile after being accused of supporting the Nazi regime. When she returned home in 1959, she says she was surprised to discover that few spoke Latvian. The dominant language was Russian and all the shop signs were in Russian. She says Russian residents should have learned Latvian a long time ago: "[Russians] should have started to learn our language a long time ago. In 1959, after 16 years in Siberia, I went back to Latvia, where nothing was written in Latvian. All the documents were in Russian. Russians were everywhere. Latvians could only preserve their own culture."

Fedoseyev said the language issue is not a problem for Russians, who he said "have finally understood that to live in Latvia they have to know the language. It is normal that if you live in America you have to speak English to be a member of the American society."

According to the last population census, taken in 2000, 62 percent of Latvian residents named Latvian as their native language, while 36.1 percent indicated Russian. This percentage is even higher than the 29.6 percent of ethnic Russians that make up the total population.

Valentina Pavlova was born in Russia but has lived in Riga for the past 21 years. She says she regrets having started to learn Latvian only a few years ago. During Soviet times, she said, she didn't need to speak anything but Russian.

Now Pavlova says she would be ashamed if she didn't have at least a basic knowledge of Latvian and says she is doing her best to integrate into Latvian society. She plans to take the naturalization exam next year. But she points out that many of her friends don't naturalize because they cannot afford to pay the 30 lats ($43) processing fee: "I'm trying to be part of the [country's] life. You can't live any other way. You have to know the language. It would be shameful for me if I didn't know the language at all. But not everybody lives so well that they can afford to pay for [the documents you need to naturalize]. For that reason, many people have doubts about whether to apply for [naturalization] or not. But in any case, it is necessary to be a full member of the state where you live."

Seiksts agreed that for many Latvians 30 lats is a large sum, and said soon the government would change it.

But at the moment what worries Fedoseyev is that Latvian and Russian communities don't share any contacts. This situation, he says, can be taken advantage of by nationalist groups: "At the moment, a serious problem worries me. It is evident that in the last 10 years both communities have been distancing themselves from each other. The two communities share fewer contacts [than they did 10 years ago]. There is less and less mutual understanding and contact. And this is a problem. Sometimes it is very difficult to discuss [your problems], because the other part is not willing to listen to you. They don't need you, they are self-sufficient. This may prepare the ground for stimulating radicalism in Latvia."

The Open Society Institute, a pro-democracy body founded by the American citizen George Soros, recently issued a report noting that non-Latvians are under-represented at municipal and parliamentary levels.

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