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Latvia: Noncitizens In No Hurry To Naturalize

Last week, Latvia announced it is continuing a campaign to promote naturalization among its large population of noncitizens, most of whom are Russian speakers. The campaign is aimed at convincing non-Latvians of the advantages of gaining citizenship. Just a few years ago, a number of noncitizens were eager to naturalize, but now many of them are saying they can do without.

Prague, 1 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With a population of just 2.3 million, NATO and EU candidate Latvia is finding its half-million noncitizens to be more and more of a concern.

With this in mind, Latvia's naturalization service announced last week it is continuing the public-awareness campaign it launched last November to encourage noncitizens to naturalize. The naturalization process entails learning the Latvian language, studying the country's history and culture, and ultimately gaining citizenship.

Janis Kachanovic is the deputy director of the Latvian Naturalization Board. He told RFE/RL the issue of citizenship has become a priority for authorities, who see a direct link between naturalization and the stability of the state. He said officials fear a large population of noncitizens leaves Latvia vulnerable to outside political influence, most notably from Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of Latvia's treatment of noncitizens.

Moreover, he added, seeing Latvia integrate smoothly into NATO and the European Union is a key concern. The EU in particular does not want to inherit a large population of unnaturalized residents. "The authorities want naturalization to be more quick. This is, of course, related to Latvia's plans to join NATO and the EU. That's why this campaign is under way now," Kachanovic said.

Some 52,000 non-Latvians have been granted citizenship over the past seven years, with 11,000 noncitizens naturalizing last year alone. Kachanovic said the numbers have seen a slight upswing since the Naturalization Board began its campaign last autumn. Normally, some 800 noncitizens a month apply for citizenship, but that number jumped to 1,200 in January when the promotional campaign was in full swing.

Eizenija Aldermane, the head of the Naturalization Board, said a sharp rise in the number of people seeking information about citizenship has prompted the country to set up information points in all of Latvia's regions.

Latvians currently comprise just 58 percent of the country's inhabitants. In 1994, officials alarmed by the low number of Latvian nationals introduced strict citizenship laws that discouraged many non-Latvians from gaining citizenship. After protests from Russia and the West, Latvia liberalized its law three years later. But by then, many noncitizens felt, and continue to feel, content to live without a Latvian passport.

Igor Pimenov heads the Russian School Association of Latvia. He said he is skeptical of the naturalization campaign because just a few years ago, Latvians appeared eager to prevent Russian speakers and other non-Latvians from gaining citizenship. Moreover, he said, a number of Russian speakers -- many of whom have lived in Latvia for upward of 50 years -- now feel resentful of the state and less inclined than ever to naturalize.

"The state refused to trust [these long-term noncitizens] before. Now the state is appealing to them, urging them to become citizens on the same conditions as people who moved to Latvia from Portugal, Morocco, Serbia, or Russia just a year ago. In many cases, it's simply humiliating for people who have lived in Latvia for 50 years," Pimenov said.

Nils Muiznieks is the director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights. He told RFE/RL that in addition to psychological barriers, many older non-Latvians cite practical obstacles that keep them from pursuing citizenship. Most notable among these is learning the language. Muiznieks said many people have lived comfortably for years knowing no Latvian and see no need to study the language now. "Especially for the older generations or those who live in the eastern part of Latvia, any kind of language test is impossible, no matter how easy it is. But for those who are motivated and young, the tests are not really a problem," Muiznieks said.

Muiznieks said Latvian authorities last year launched a language-training campaign to accompany its naturalization promotion. Noting that both campaigns were carried out with the help of Western aid, he said Western interest is likely to keep the citizenship issue high on Latvia's political agenda for some years to come.

Pimenov of the Russian School Association said the older generation of Latvian Russians has already adjusted to life as noncitizens and don't feel that they need to naturalize. He said they feel no particular discrimination in their everyday life and don't seek the right to vote in Latvian elections. Where the Latvian promotional campaign is more successful, Pimenov said, is among the younger generations of Russians living in Latvia. "Young people don't feel [any resentment toward Latvia]. They are more open. They simply close their eyes and easily become Latvian citizens," Pimenov said.

Pimenov said many of these younger Latvian Russians speak fluent English, travel to Western Europe on business, and in many cases have never even returned to Russia for a visit. For such people, some of whom may be looking to emigrate farther West, Pimenov said a Latvian passport is seen as a better ticket to the world. Latvian citizenship may hold even more appeal once the country becomes a member of the European Union, as it is scheduled to do in 2004. Then, Latvian citizenship will also mean EU citizenship.