Thousands in Latvia are citizens of nowhere

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jan 3 21:45:59 UTC 2003

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer,  Posted on Fri, Jan. 03, 2003

  Thousands in Latvia are citizens of nowhere

  By Bruce I. Konviser

  Lidija Novikova wants to be a Latvian citizen. But though she has lived
here all her 54 years, that goal remains elusive.  Her problem is twofold:
She is an ethnic Russian, and she was born here after the Soviet Union
annexed Latvia in 1940.  To make things worse, she is poor and was
orphaned as a child, and thus lacks the money and documents she needs to
cut through the bureaucratic tangle Latvia has placed between her and her

  "I'm very interested in getting citizenship," she said. "It would help
my children get citizenship. And citizenship would eventually give them
better job opportunities."  Novikova is one of 514,000 noncitizens of
Latvia - mostly ethnic Russians, but also Ukrainians and Belarusians - who
effectively have been stateless since 1991, when the Soviet Union
collapsed and the little Baltic nation regained its independence.  Unable
to vote, restricted in their rights to travel and hold certain jobs, they
are 22 percent of Latvia's 2.3 million population, the remnants of 50
brutal years of enforced Russification during which the Soviets resettled
hundreds of thousands of Russians here, made Russian the official
language, and did everything in their power to smother Latvian culture.

  Once the Latvians regained the upper hand in 1991, they moved quickly to
take back their country, imposing strict language laws and citizenship
requirements. All those who lived in Latvia before June 17, 1940, when
Soviet occupation began, and their descendants were granted automatic
citizenship. So were all those born after independence in 1991. All those
in between - including Lidija Novikova and her children, now 14 and 12 -
were not.  Since the mid-1990s, Western pressure has led to the softening
of some laws, and noncitizens now can become citizens. A relatively small
number have, but those who are not ethnic Latvians must apply, even if
they were born here, and must pass Latvian history and language tests.

  Even for ethnic Russians who are citizens, there are barriers to
integration into Latvian society, chiefly involving language. Many
Russians, especially the middle-aged and elderly, never learned a word of
Latvian and are struggling in a country where all public-sector business
must be conducted in that language. A controversial new education law will
require Russian-language high schools to begin teaching a broad range of
subjects exclusively in Latvian by September 2004.

  The long-term effect has been increasing polarization between ethnic
Latvians and the largely disenfranchised, predominantly Russian minority.
The divisions are casting a shadow just as Latvia's international profile
is rising: In December, it was invited to join NATO and the European
Union. Now it is under pressure, particularly from the European Union, to
hasten the process of naturalizing noncitizens.

  Nils Muiznieks, recently appointed to the new post of minister of
integration, acknowledges that the problem runs deep, and concedes that
Latvia is likely to achieve full integration only when politicians "can
get Russian votes without losing Latvian votes."  But many consider the
citizenship controversy closed - if they ever considered it an issue at

  Artis Pabriks of the right-of-center People's Party, says: "The
citizenship issue is solved. Come to the office and we'll help you. The
door is open, but step inside yourself."  Novikova, responding to a recent
initiative to spur citizenship applications, has done just that and, like
thousands of others, found the process not as simple as Pabriks says it
is.  Under Western pressure, the Latvian government has reduced the
application fee by a third, to the equivalent of $33. But that is still
more than Novikova's monthly rent. In addition, the government requires
documented family histories, which Novikova cannot provide. "I don't know
my parents," she said. "I was an orphan, and was raised in a state-run

  Now her unemployment insurance has run out and to feed her family she
forages for scraps in the garbage heaps of Riga's otherwise picturesque
Old Town.  The plight of the Russian minority is more vexing here than it
is for Latvia's Baltic neighbors. Lithuania had relatively few ethnic
Russians, and it essentially granted citizenship to all its residents
after the Soviet empire fell. Estonia, which has a sizable Russian
minority, opened the door to noncitizens years ago.

  Latvia, on the other hand, has always been a special case, and has
struggled to deal with its inarguably cruel half-century of Soviet
occupation.  More than 40,000 Latvians were executed or banished to
Siberia, never to be heard from again. After large swaths of the
indigenous population had been relocated or wiped out, Russian citizens
were forcibly sent to repopulate the country.  That bloody past has made
Latvians skittish that ethnic Russians, given the chance, would seek to
realign the country with Russia.

  "If we gave everyone citizenship, we would be betraying our
independence," Pabriks said. "If we start giving away citizenship as a
present, democracy will lose. Many in the Russian minority say this
country is a mistake."  While such fears are still widespread here, they
seem to reflect a struggle with the past rather than an acknowledgment of
the current reality - a Russian population that has shrunk by several
hundred thousand in the last decade.

  Neil Brennan was deputy head of the Latvian mission of the Organization
of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and worked with the
government on minority-rights issues until a year ago, when the government
declared it had resolved any problems and pressed the OSCE to close its
office.  Of Latvia's reluctance to accept Russians as citizens, he said in
a telephone interview: "It comes down to a concept of self-security."
Latvians "have to have a greater sense of security," he said - and once
they get into NATO, they will.  Many in the Russian minority believe just
the opposite, says Boris Tsilovich, an outspoken member of Parliament:
They fear that NATO membership will send Latvians the message that they
have done all they need to do.

  "I'm not aware of any human-rights mechanism in NATO," Tsilovich says,
citing NATO member Turkey, which has long been locked out of the EU
primarily because of its abysmal minority-rights record.  As for Novikova,
she just wants Latvian politicians to put history behind them and address
the needs of the country's have-nots. "That would give us hope," she said.
"We can manage if we have some hope."


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list