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Latvia: Complicated Citizenship Issue Defines Politics

Riga, Latvia; 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Sergei Antsupov joined Latvia's independence movement back in 1988, just as Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms began to shake up the Soviet Union.

That October, he attended the founding congress of Latvia's Popular Front. The following year, Antsupov linked hands with two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians as they formed a human chain 700 kilometers long across the Baltic states.

"We all shared one idea," he recalls, "we wanted freedom. Freedom for democracy and freedom from totalitarianism."

By the time Latvia regained its independence in 1991, Antsupov was running the parliament's press service. He soon became Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs's spokesman, as the country reappeared in European atlases after 50 years of Soviet occupation. To the outside world and many of his compatriots, Antsupov embodied the new Latvia. The problem was, he embodied the new Latvia and its contradictions only too well.

Antsupov is an ethnic Russian whose parents moved to Latvia, then a Soviet republic, when he was a newborn. According to the new citizenship law, that means Antsupov will only be eligible to apply for naturalization in four years after passing a series of tests and paying a hefty fee. Until then, Antsupov carries a residence permit, but no passport. He advises ministers but cannot vote. He is stateless in the state he helped re-establish.

Latvian passports were granted at independence to ethnic Latvians and pre-1940 residents of Latvia and their descendants. Everyone else, roughly a third of the population -- 85 percent of them native-Russian speakers -- was told they would have to apply for citizenship. But it was not until 1994 that the Latvian Parliament adopted a citizenship law to make this a possibility.

The law requires applicants to pass a Latvian language test, followed by a discussion of the country's history and constitution, also in Latvian. A registration fee equivalent to $60, or half an average monthly salary, must also be paid.

Not everyone can apply for citizenship at once. The law sets a complex timetable, according to which non-citizens aged 16 to 20, who were born in Latvia, can apply for naturalization this year. In 1997, Latvia-born aliens up to 25 years old will be allowed to take the test, and so on. By the year 2000, all those born in Latvia will be eligible for the test. In 2003, all remaining non-citizens, including those born outside Latvia, will be able to apply for naturalization.

The current legislation was in fact a compromise prepared in consultation with the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The original draft mandated stricter quotas and threatened to put Latvia at odds with Russia as well as its European Union (EU) neighbors across the Baltic.

Even so, the new law has not been a success. Of the 33,000 non-citizens eligible for naturalization this year, only 450 have so far applied to take the test. Why? There are several reasons.

Human rights activist Boris Cilevic explains it this way: "Before independence, many of today's non-citizens, mostly Russian speakers, supported the Latvian Popular Front. They were promised democracy, freedom and equal rights for all. But as soon as independence was regained, the 'equal rights for all' platform was dropped."

Cilevic says many felt duped. "Russian speakers were told: 'you are aliens here.' They were denied citizenship. Restrictions were imposed on them. Everything was done to prevent them from taking an active part in public life. Now, five years later, after much foreign pressure, non-citizens are reluctantly told, 'O.K., you can now apply for citizenship."

"Tell me," Cilevic asks, "do you think most non-citizens are now going to trust the government and pay to register for a test they have no guarantee of passing?"

On top of the resentment many non-citizens feel towards the authorities, there are other disincentives to seeking naturalization. Non-citizens may not be able to vote, but they also don't have to serve in the Latvian armed forces. In addition, obtaining a Latvian passport means an end to visa-free travel to Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), where many non-citizens maintain family or business ties.

The head of the OSCE mission in Latvia, Charles Magee, acknowledges that the citizenship law his advisers helped the government create is not working. But he points out that Latvia's peculiar demographics go a long way towards explaining lawmakers' fears that mass naturalization would lead to destabilization of the state.

Before World War II, ethnic Latvians made up three-quarters of the country's population while ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians made up just ten. Now, after decades of industrialization and in-migration of workers, scientists and retired military officers, ethnic Latvians have shrunk to just over half of the population. Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians have risen to nearly 40 percent. Nor has the distribution been even.

Post-war migrants flocked to Latvia's cities, largely avoiding the countryside. As a result, all of Latvia's major cities, including the capital Riga, now have majority Russian-speaking populations and a bare majority of citizens. Observers say the country is divided into two classes: citizens, mostly ethnic-Latvians, who dominate politics and agriculture, and non-citizens, mostly Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, who dominate business and industry.

As a temporary measure, the OSCE is working with the government to distribute alien identity documents to non-citizens. The identification papers are supposed to replace expiring Soviet-era passports, and should in theory be recognized abroad like Latvian passports. But that will be up to individual foreign governments to decide. The EU's ambassador to Latvia, Gunther Weiss, admits diplomatic practice will likely mean continued discrimination against non-citizens by Western countries.

Clearly, a more permanent solution lies in long-term education. But ideological considerations threaten to turn schools into a battleground.

Latvia continues to operate a divided school system, as it has for the past 50 years: one in Latvian and one in Russian. The government originally approved a 10-year national program to gradually increase the number of subjects taught in Latvian at Russian-language schools. But last year, Parliament passed a law requiring all primary schools to start teaching two subjects in Latvian and all secondary schools to teach three subjects in Latvian, effective immediately. A bill now pending in the legislature calls for all secondary education to be in Latvian by the year 2005.

Cilevic, the human rights advocate, is a Latvian citizen, but he sends his daughter to a Russian-language school. He says the result of the new policy is that two subjects have simply been deleted from the curriculum. There are not Cenough Latvian-speaking teachers to instruct the children, and Russian-speaking teachers are barred by the new quota from continuing their classes.

"Our children's future is being sacrificed for political goals," he laments. "All the new laws succeed in doing is lowering the overall education level."

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which also favors a gradual approach, has developed a four-year pilot plan that aims to train some 1,000 teachers in the Russian-language school system in teaching Latvian. The project is primarily funded by Nordic countries and no one thinks it will be easy. For one, training native-Russian speakers to teach Latvian is far from ideal, but it is at this stage the only practical solution. The UNDP is also preparing a TV series to help adult non-citizens learn enough Latvian to pass their naturalization tests.

"Ultimately," says Cilevic, "citizenship will spread through sex." Children of mixed marriages become Latvian citizens automatically. And on a personal level, the rate of intermarriage in Latvia, at about 20 percent, is higher than in many other countries.

But in the meantime, for Latvia to remain cohesive, most agree that dialogue between citizens and non-citizens will have to improve. Russian speakers will have to overcome their resistance to seeking citizenship and the authorities will have to overcome their inflexibility in dealing with the alien community, which though it cannot vote, does have to pay taxes.

In the long run, Sergei Antsupov is optimistic. He says he is convinced that if given a chance, "95 percent of non-citizens will want to apply for citizenship and make Latvia their permanent home."

"Rich Russians have more political connections here than you imagine," he smiles. "And as for those with no connections, they just have to look across the border to see how their relatives are living."

Economics, in short, will likely determine whether Latvia turns into another Switzerland or another Yugoslavia.