Stateless in Riga
Walking quietly around the cobbled streets of Riga’s old town, Zanna explains to a group of tourists about the particularities of the Art Nouveau style that adorn many of the facades of the buildings in Latvia’s capital city. For many years now, this 71-year-old woman has worked as a tour guide for Russian visitors in the country where she was born after her father, who was born in Russia, was sent to the Baltic shore to fight the Germans in the Second World War. Zanna, born in 1941, never knew her father. He set off for the war one day and never made it back.
This story originally appeared in New Eastern Europe issue 1/2013: Can Russia Really Change?
Facing reality was tough for her family after such a loss, but they opted to stick together and stay in Latvia. They had no one waiting for them back in Russia. Life was all about surviving in the western part of the yet to be vast Soviet empire. Many years have passed since then, but in her voice there are still shades of many bittersweet moments of her life. Zanna reflects on her mother’s efforts to build a reasonable a comfortable life in Latvia, and how all that changed from one day to the next.
Second class citizens
Recalling the day the country regained its independence, Zanna says, “I literally went from being an average citizen to being on some kind of a blacklist; I became a second-class citizen of the country where I was born.”
Many people took part in the 1991 referendum on re-establishing the country’s independence, even those ethnic Russians who were either sent to Latvia to work or, like Zanna, born in the country when it was a part of the Soviet Union. They represented as many as 715,000 people in a country of little more than two million inhabitants. The restoration of the 1922 constitution was among the first measures the newly elected government of Latvia implemented, and individuals who were citizens of the country as of June 17th 1940 were once again recognised as Latvian citizens along with their descendants. All those who didn’t fit this description were given a “non-citizen of Latvia” status, limiting their rights at the social and political level in the newly re-established independent republic. This action left contradictory feelings in those left behind, turning their lives upside down, and the 71-year-old Zanna recalls one example: “My family was given 30 per cent less privatisation certificates than Latvian-born people, limiting our right to privatise our apartment. For me it has always been clear about what happened –they improved the lives of the others at our expense.”
During the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the path to citizenship was blocked for this large community, leaving them in a sort of limbo. Only in 1995 did the Latvian government pass the law on the status of the citizens of the former USSR, making naturalisation an option for them. However, annual quotas and so-called windows were imposed for the next three years, which limited both the number and sort of people who could apply for Latvian citizenship.
Latvia’s “non-citizens” represent a unique status never seen before at the international level. They are former citizens of the USSR, individuals who are neither citizens of Latvia nor of any other country. Theycannot vote in any type of elections, nor actively participate in Latvia’s political life. They can’t work in the public sector nor work in certain private businesses, and their pension rights are restricted.
Today, around 315,000 of these non-citizens live in Latvia (14 per cent of the entire population), down from approximately 715,000 in 1991. The data is still relevant for such a small country of just 2 million inhabitants, and after two decades of ups and downs, the non-citizens’ community seems to have finally taken the initiative to try to achieve a change in their situation. Last September, the social movement For Equal Rights submitted over 12,000 signatures to the Central Election Commission (CEC) in order to initiate a referendum to grant full citizenship to all Latvia’s non-citizens. The bill submitted by the petitioners stipulates that all non-citizens of Latvia who do not apply to keep their status of non-citizens by November 30th 2013 would be automatically granted Latvian citizenship on January 1st 2014. The CEC, however, decided that the second round of signature collection for staging a referendum, which would have needed petitioners to gather at least 10 per cent of voters’ signatures (approximately 150,000 signatures), couldn’t proceed for technical reasons.
The Latvian authorities welcomed the decision, and then-Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said that the CEC’s decision was based on the incompatibility of the bill with the country’s constitution and believes that it should contribute to defusing inter-ethnic tensions in Latvian society. Officials also stated that the automatic granting of citizenship to non-citizens would contradict the European Union’s security standards, being also discriminatory to those who had already been naturalised.
Nevertheless, the initiative has already shaken the political arena in the country, with Latvia’s president, Andris Bērziņš, saying during an interview previous to the CEC’s decision, that “automatic citizenship for non-citizens is not the right solution, although I believe that the problem requires an urgent solution.”
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and Amnesty International describe non-citizens of Latvia as stateless persons, belonging to a state that does not exist anymore. However, under Latvian law, they are long-term residents of the country who are neither citizens of Latvia nor any other country. Tatjana Ždanoka, Parliamentarian and co-chairperson of For Human Rights in United Latvia, maintains that what happened in Latvia was “a clear division by origins”, adding that parliament, “elected by all the people, deprived a large number of the country’s citizens of some rights. Basically, it was the creation of apartheid.”
Such comparison could be dangerous, but clearly illustrates the bitter feelings, especially for Ždanoka, who has made non-citizens’ rights one of her main political pillars. Over the years, the situation of these people has been evolving, in part, thanks to international pressure when the country joined the EU and NATO back in 2004. Nils Muižnieks, a Latvian human rights activist and since April 2012 Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, believes that the citizenship law has not really worked: “It has not promoted integration and participation, and the majority of politicians are not very concerned about the situation. In fact, some are quite satisfied with how things are.”
The Latvian authorities believe that time has given them the reason. Latvian culture and language are stronger than they were 20 years ago, and the small Baltic country has been able to get on to its feet after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I truly believe that there have been no big mistakes at the political level over the last two decades,” Roberts Zīle says. The Latvian economist and member of parliament, who served as Minister of Finance from 1997 to 1998 and Minister of Communications from 2002 to 2004, considers non-citizenship to be a non-issue. “We would not have become an EU member state if we had not fulfilled the legal framework on citizenship. Being a non-citizen poses no obstacles to work and contributing to the development of the country, and I think the issue has been over exaggerated many times,” Zīle adds.
However, the numbers speak for themselves; around 14 per cent of Latvia’s population has the words “alien” and “non-citizen” printed in their passports. Such a large figure proves that it is a large and diverse community which includes an important number of elderly people, youngsters, and children. Alex Krasnitsky, a journalist born in Riga, says he feels “cheated by all Latvian politicians who do not represent us,” and notes that everyone was promised citizenship during the “awakening period” of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “At the social level there is no such problem between citizens and non-citizens, but I believe we have been used politically many times. I love my country, but sometimes I have felt alone and isolated from a political point of view. To be honest, I think we have been forgotten over the years,” Krasnitsky adds.
Non-citizens have been offered the opportunity to naturalise since 1995. More than 135,000 people have taken advantage of this opportunity proving that they had lived in Latvia for at least five years and knew the country’s constitution, language, history and national anthem. Death rates and migration movements have also contributed to bringing down the numbers of non-citizens in Latvia. Today, however, naturalisation rates are very low, while the number of non-citizens applying for other citizenships, mostly Russian, has increased slightly. There are reasons to explain this phenomenon: poor knowledge of the Latvian language, especially among older people, and a lack of motivation.
“Naturalisation is acynical procedure introduced at the beginning of the 1990s,” 24-year-old student Aleksandrs Filejs says. “I was born in Riga, so why should I pass an exam to acquire citizenship of my own country? I believe it should be given to me automatically.” Filejs, a highly active polyglot – speaking Latvian, Russian, French, German and Spanish – mentions “a moral discomfort” when talking about the right to vote in Latvian elections.
The case of Yuri Petropavlovsky is unique. His naturalisation application coincided with the education reform protests that took place in Latvia in 2004, when hundreds of ethnic Russians took to the streets claiming their right to be taught at school in their native language. Born and raised in Latvia, he passed the naturalisation exams, but the government revoked his citizenship after considering him disloyal to the country. In 2006 he took his case before the European Court for Human Rights after being told that in Latvia “political decisions of the government are not under the influence of the Latvian Court system.” He expects to have a positive resolution in the near future, although he says that it would only be “the end of a small battle”.
However, the naturalisation process also has its positive sides. Nadzezhda lives with her husband, a non-citizen, and their daughter who has citizenship as she was born in independent Latvia. Tired of feeling like an outsider in the country where she lives and having to deal with endless procedures when travelling, Nadzezhda naturalised because she wanted to be a “full-right citizen of Latvia, take part in the social and political life of the country and freely travel around Europe”. She had to take the naturalisation exam twice as she failed to prove her fluency in the Latvian language the first time around. “When I passed the exam, I felt very confident in myself for achieving something I had very much longed for,” Nadzezhda says. Like her, most young non-citizens were either born in the country or had their education in Latvian. Elderly people, however, struggle to speak the Latvian, mainly because they can get around only speaking Russian and refuse to learn the language after living for many years in the country.
Language poses a key element for the integration of such a large community whose mother tongue is mostly Russian. Svetlana Djačkova, a social and human rights researcher at the Latvian Centre for Human Rights, says that the state should take more steps to further promote naturalisation, and believes that there is a “lack of political will to promote social integration” in Latvia. “International observers have advised easing some of the naturalisation procedures for social groups such as the elderly in terms of language. However, there is a lack of dialogue between the state, experts and minorities,” Djačkova adds.
After non-citizens were granted visa free travel throughout the Schengen Area and Russia, the debate on how to further promote the integration process of these people has focused on one of the most important democratic rights: the right to vote and participate in politics; something that is sometimes taken for granted in Western Europe.
Nils Muižnieks points out that “people learn democracy through participation and Latvia doesn’t see the drawbacks of having such a large community of non-citizens … to promote participation and have their rights represented, you have to promote naturalisation and voting rights at the local level.”
The Latvian political elite doesn’t share such an approach. “Can you tell me of a country where non-citizens can vote in national elections? I don’t know of any,” argues Roberts Zīle, who also adds: “If you want to be politically active, you have to be a citizen, and the doors are open for everybody. There are no quotas or so-called windows as there used to be.”
Latvia took important steps to address the situation of its non-citizens prior its accession to the European Union, but once the country became a member state, the problem was moved to the very bottom of the list of political priorities. International pressure and therefore political will have disappeared, and the EU, which says that citizenship issues belong to the internal affairs of individual countries, limits its position.
Meanwhile, Russia has not contributed positively to finding a solution to the problem. Taking into account that these non-citizens are mostly ethnic Russians who were either born or sent to the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic during the time of the Soviet Union, the messages sent from the Kremlin have been everything but helpful, calling for external interference and for non-citizens to believe that their situation in Latvia, and that of the Russian language, would change.
So while Latvia has achieved important goals during these 20 years, non-citizens have not. They may have got used to their status, but as long as they cannot vote and lack representation at the political level, the social integration process will not go forward in the country. Democracy sometimes doesn’t mean fairness, and while some people promise to keep fighting for this cause, the battle for the hearts and minds is yet to be won by Latvia.
Want to read more from our archives? Become a digital subscriber. All subscribers get access to the entire Digital Archive. Start your subscription today.
Ruben Martinez is a freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia and has collaborated with different international media in both Spanish and English.