Latvia marks 25 years of non-citizens

On October 15, 1991 the Supreme Council (the interim parliament) granted citizenship to Latvians that were citizens during the inter-war period, and their offspring. As a result, a third of Latvian residents who did not fit the criteria became non-citizens, reported Latvian Radio Friday.

During the last 25 years, 150,000 non-citizens have been granted citizenship under the naturalization program. A further 250,000 are still non-citizens and have no voting rights. In the last few years naturalization has slowed down, while experts say Latvia cannot afford a split society given the current tensions between Russia and the West.

Supreme Council MP Juris Bojārs: No citizenship for occupiers

"The institution of citizenship is very complex and nuanced, and in that area you have to know the history of many people. First of all citizenship is a politicized institution," said former Supreme Council MP Juris Bojārs.

"Local Russian speakers thought that they have a right to citizenship, that it should be granted to everyone.

Latvia's independence has been reinstated, so everyone should be granted citizenship -- [this idea is] utter nonsense, as occupiers shouldn't be granted citizenship,

and tens of thousands of Russian officer families remained here with children, grandchildren, grandmothers and everything else, and so they settled down here," he said.

Broken promises?

However the Popular Front of Latvia, which was represented in the interim parliament by Bojārs, had said in its election campaign that the front proposes granting citizenship to permanent residents of Latvia who "declare their wish to get Latvian citizenship and without reservation connect their fate to the Latvian state."

That means that people who later were pronounced non-citizens may have voted for reinstating Latvia's independence in hopes to be legally recognized as citizens later on.

Does that mean it's a deception of the electorate? "It partly is, and partly isn't. I wouldn't say that it was deliberate deception.

I myself, to tell the truth, in separate cases did speak about [granting citizenship to everyone] but I never spoke about automatic citizenship.

I did speak about that the citizenship of the Republic of Latvia could be obtained, according to the law, by everyone who lives here. It partly happened, and partly did not. It's how you interpret it," said Andrejs Panteļējevs, who served as a Popular Front MP at the Supreme Council.

Naturalization began too late

As a result of the citizenship law, about 700,000 people - a third of Latvia's residents - were left with an ambiguous legal status which was clarified only in 1995. That's when the naturalization process began.

"I think the biggest mistake was that several years passed. The people without a citizenship were left unsure about their future," said Svetlana Djačkova, a researcher at the Latvian Center for Human Rights.

She stressed that the first criteria for naturalization were very strict, with time windows given to several groups of people during which they can naturalize.

"We recall the so-called naturalization windows and the ban for children non-citizens to obtain citizenship. The children who were born following the restoration of Latvia's independence had no right to obtain Latvian citizenship automatically or following a parent's request," she said.

"The integration of non-citizens began too late and it greatly promoted alienation and the slow course of naturalization," said Djačkova.

By 1998, only 15,000 people had obtained citizenship via naturalization.

While after the so-called "naturalization windows" were lifted following a referendum, the number of naturalized citizens grew, peaking around the time Latvia entered the EU - from 2003 to 2005 about 62,000 became citizens.

Obtaining citizenship has slowed down

The pace of naturalization has slowed down, and while 250,000 are still non-citizens, less than 1000 people became Latvian nationals last year.

Two years ago in a survey by SKDS pollster about 10% of non-citizens said they're planning to naturalize next year.

Latvia can't afford a divided society

A divided society is often mentioned as one of the main security risks for Latvia.

Experts told Latvian Radio that while part of non-citizens will never fully recognize Latvia as their own country, the state should focus on the naturalization of young people and children.

About 7,000 non-citizens under the age of 18 are living in Latvia.

President Raimonds Vējonis this year created a Social Cohesion work group that's making a report on how to unite people living in Latvia. Liesma Ose, head of that work group, said that while the work has been done, the results will be announced by the president in early November.

The Centenary Council featuring Vējonis and a group of former presidents has reviewed several scenarios of reaching out to non-citizens, including granting citizenship to all the people born in Latvia or abolishing the non-citizens' status as such.

Despite this, the president later said that en masse naturalization is not the right solution.

However it's clear that as tensions build between Russia and the west Latvia cannot afford for its society to be divided.

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