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Latvia: European Rights Official Stirs Debate With Citizenship, Voting Comments

Prague, 10 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A European rights official has stirred debate in Latvia with comments about the rights of the country's minority Russian speakers. Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, said naturalization requirements should be eased and that noncitizens should be able to vote in local elections.

Gil-Robles made the controversial comments during a visit to Latvia on 8 October. He said naturalization requirements are too complicated and should be eased. And he said noncitizens -- who make up around one-quarter of Latvia's 2.4 million people -- should be allowed to vote in local elections.

"[Latvia should] consider allowing noncitizens -- which means everybody, including noncitizens regularly residing for many years and who were even born [here], who are working, who pay taxes, et cetera -- to gain responsibility in the decisions that correspond to them also at the local level. It is a practice in many countries in the European Union that non-nationals of the countries who are regularly residing in the country vote in local elections," Gil-Robles said.

That's music to the ears of Latvia's minority Russian-speaking population, many of whom were born in the Baltic country but do not have citizenship or voting rights. The headline in "Chas," a Russian-language daily in Latvia, said it all: "Alvar Gil-Robles: Citizenship Should Be More Accessible."

As in Lithuania and Estonia, most of Latvia's Russian speakers are Soviet-era immigrants and their descendants. After independence in 1991, Latvia ushered in strict requirements, denying citizenship -- and the right to vote -- to thousands of Russian speakers.

But Latvia has since eased those requirements to the satisfaction of Western critics, and many consider the issue closed. If Russian speakers are slow to take up naturalization, they say, it's because they lack motivation.

Was Gil-Robles issuing some new directive? No, he said. "Latvia is a member of the Council of Europe, and we are all working together to see the problems and try to find solutions to these problems. Nobody threatens anybody," he said. "Only the [European] Court of Human Rights imposes a decision."

The naturalization issue is a major sticking point in relations between Latvia and Russia, which has often complained of what it calls rights violations against the Russian-speaking minority.

Yesterday, Russian State duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin said Foreign Affaits Committee he chairs has drafted a statement expressing concern at "flagrant violations of human rights" in Latvia and discrimination against ethnic minorities. Latvia's noncitizens not being able to vote, he said, is the "most glaring example of the trampling of democracy in contemporary Europe."

Rogozin is known for his provocative statements about Latvia. Last month, he claimed that Nazis have come to power in Latvia and that it is a land of hooligans. His comments came after the opening of a reburial site for members of Latvia's Waffen SS units and the sentencing of a former KGB officer for genocide against the Latvian people.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, meanwhile, made only oblique reference to the problems in a speech to the European Parliament yesterday. "While the relations between Latvia and Russia have sometimes been strained in the past, the positive changes that have already occurred with the expansion of the [European Union] and NATO in the Baltic sea region provide a good basis for continued rapprochement between Russia and her immediate western neighbors," she said.

The issue is unlikely to go away once Latvia joins the EU next year, however. Latvia's noncitizens will simply become EU residents -- but not citizens -- meaning they won't be able to enjoy the full benefits of EU membership.

(RFE/RL's Peter Zvagulis and Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)