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Latvia: Minority Report -- EU Membership May Leave Russian Speakers Behind (Part 1)

  • Valentinas Mite

Only a decade ago, Russian speakers were the privileged majority in the Soviet Union. There was no place in the USSR where they were considered foreign. But all that changed with the Soviet collapse. Many Russian speakers living in former Soviet republics are now struggling to adjust to the fact that they are now a minority -- with no ties to Russia, and few rights at home. In this five-part series, RFE/RL looks at the plight of Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and Kazakhstan.

Prague, 18 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When the European Union ushers in 10 new members next May, nearly 500,000 Russian speakers will go overnight from being residents of Latvia to residents of the EU. But they will not be citizens of either.

Latvia's large minority of non-citizens already face political and economic restrictions within Latvian law. Latvia's EU membership will set them back even further -- relegating them to the status of "stateless" persons within the Union. Russian speakers do not even have Russian passports -- only certificates verifying their status as Latvian residents.

Nils Muiznieks is Latvia's special tasks minister for social integration. He says the EU has adopted directives clarifying the future status of Latvian non-citizens.

"[Non-citizens] will come under the purview of a new directive that was adopted in June by the EU called the Regulated Status of Third Country Nationals Within the EU. Now, this new directive regulates not only third country nationals but stateless people, including Latvia's non-citizens. And what it does, it provides a stable minimum standard of rights for non-citizens within other EU countries as well," Muiznieks says.

Muiznieks says stateless people are granted minimal rights to establish residency in the EU as well as some social guarantees and other basic rights. But stateless people are not allowed visa-free travel in the Union; they also are restricted from seeking employment in any EU country except Latvia.

These restrictions add to the burden of Latvia's own legislation on the rights of non-citizens. In Latvia as in elsewhere, non-citizens are not allowed to vote in national or local elections or hold public office.

"A part of the restrictions have to do with not being able to be in the civil service -- you know, not to work in the central ministries, to be diplomats, policemen, and so on. But these are jobs that in all countries are reserved for citizens alone," Muiznieks says.

But Latvia's restrictions extend to the private sphere as well. Non-citizens are prohibited from working as lawyers, notaries, and commercial pilots.

The Center for European Studies in Brussels says Latvia's laws are in keeping with guidelines set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on issues of citizenship, language laws, and education. She says Brussels has little ground to press Latvia to reduce the number of its non-citizens.

Latvia's citizenship question goes back to 1991, when -- newly independent -- it denied citizenship to any non-Latvians who had moved to the country following the Soviet occupation of 1940. These generations of non-Latvians -- mostly Russians and Russian speakers -- were considered the direct result of the Kremlin's Russification policy, and therefore bore the brunt of Latvian resentment toward Moscow.

Initially, the process for achieving Latvian citizenship was discouragingly strenuous, with non-citizens required to prove thorough knowledge of Latvian language, culture, and history. But by the end of the 1990s, on the way to EU membership and under pressure from the Union, Riga scaled back its requirements.

But Latvia's non-citizens have grown accustomed to their status, and have shown little enthusiasm for pursuing naturalization -- despite the fact that the step would automatically earn them EU citizenship following expansion next year.

According to the Latvian Naturalization Office, a total of 9,880 people became Latvian citizens last year. For the first half of this year, the number was just 3,500.

With the lure of EU citizenship beckoning, how can such low numbers be explained?

Igor Pimenov chairs the Latvian Association for Support of Russian-Language Schools. He says the reluctance to naturalize is largely psychological. For many Latvian-born Russian speakers, he adds, the process of applying for citizenship is "humiliating," and they resent the Latvian government for refusing to grant them automatic citizenship -- as neighboring Lithuania did its Russian speakers.

Pimenov also says that the drive in the early 1990s to encourage Latvian fluency among traditional Russian speakers backfired -- forcing them to withdraw from public life and instead pursue private and business interests. Many Russian entrepreneurs have become so successful they no longer feel any need to participate in public life, Pimenov says.

Furthermore, he adds, the majority of Latvia's Russian speakers are older, and simply see no need to take on a new language. He says: "If you are 60 and you comfortably lived most of your life in Riga without knowing Latvian, it's hard for you to understand why you should learn it now, when you're already retired."

"[To become a citizen], one should pass state language exams, but they are not very complicated. I passed those exams myself. And also, [one has to pass] Latvian history exams. It's all a formality, but for some groups of people it is rather hard. The state makes no concessions for older people and it is completely clear they will never undergo the process of naturalization. The second reason, one that is especially important for young men, is that by becoming a citizen one is obliged to serve in the army -- and people don't want that," Pimenov says.

Bojan Brezigar is the head of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL), a nongovernmental organization supported by the European Commission. He says it is hard for Latvia's Russian-speaking non-citizens to accept their new status as a national minority.

"I had some contacts with a few organizations and with a few people -- Russians -- in Estonia and in Latvia. And they say: 'No, we are Russians. We are not a minority.' It's very difficult to explain [to them]. But if you don't consider yourself a minority, you cannot claim [you need to be] protected as a minority -- this is clear," Brezigar says.

Brezigar says there are a number of European organizations and EU laws that deal with minority rights. But to enjoy those benefits, a member of a national minority must be a citizen of the country where he or she resides.

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