Latvian non-citizens are a unique group of people who have no citizenship of any state, but at the same time are under legal protection by the Latvian government. On how the position of these people has changed in twenty five years and how it was affected by the current state of relations between Russia and its Western countries, RuBaltic.Ru sat down to talk with Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka:
- Please tell us on what changed in the situation with non-citizens for the past twenty five years since Latvia gained independence?
- Instituting non-citizenship in the wake of Latvia’s independence allowed ethnic Latvians to dominate socio-political and government life and was aimed at “expunging” the maximum amount of non-Latvians from the country. When this status was used in the mid 1990s, there was around 700 thousand non-citizens, and that is exactly when the vast difference in citizen and non-citizen rights was legally adopted and remains in effect to this day.
Nonetheless, the status of our Latvian non-citizens has important sections on rights, which are usually given only to citizens: non-citizens have the unconditional right to live in Latvia and the state takes care of them when they are abroad. And this special status is something the human rights activists had to fight for.
If it wasn’t for our relentless resistance to the “expulsion” policy, a significant part of the Russian-speaking population would only have a residence permit, which they have had to prolong and could lose if they didn’t have a steady source of income, not to mention administrative and criminal violations.
The fact that our non-citizens are not a threat of illegal immigration to other countries, because Latvia is obliged to unconditionally accept them as they return, has allowed for the right of safe border passage within the united visa policy among member-states. This included EU member-states, excluding the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as Switzerland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Island. One of the categories of people with this right, except for EU citizens, are refugees. But after the 2006 changes to the EU corresponding document, which I initiated, the right of free transportation was also given to people, who are not citizens of a specific country, but have documents issued by European Union member-states. This clever wording refers to Latvian and Estonian non-citizens.
This is the main change in non-citizens’ position that we managed to secure. During these years, certain differences in rights between citizens and non-citizens were removed from Latvian internal laws, but at the same time – new ones appear. First of all, this concerns new bilateral agreements between Latvia and other states, where traditionally they only affect citizens. For example, agreements on protecting intellectual property abroad or preventing double taxation.
In order to include our non-citizens into these agreements, as well as corresponding European Union documents we have to do a lot of work, because Latvian officials always “forget” about them.
During the twenty five years of independence, the number of non-citizens has decreased by two thirds – to approximately 260 thousand people. But this is happening mainly not via naturalization, which has now almost completely stopped, but due to natural demographic reasons. Also recently, many non-citizens have adopted Russian citizenship. Foreigners, who have a permanent residence permit in Latvia have both the freedom to move within the Schengen Area while Russian citizenship gives them benefits upon retirement.
- You are a Member of the European Parliament. How do you think the European Union can resolve this issue?
- No, it can’t. During the 2009 European Parliament elections, one of the candidates gave these empty promises. Said he knew how to fix the problem if he gets elected, then all non-citizens would receive citizenship after some time. He was elected into the European Parliament, but during the five years of his mandate nothing changed. His words were outright lies. The question of attaining or losing citizenship is not within the European Union’s jurisdiction. So the European Parliament can only resolve issues that the state has delegated to the EU, such as visa policy, where I managed to break through. I knew that this issue could be resolved. It was not easy to do though. I had to act in complete secrecy in order to not alarm the “nationally obsessed” Latvian and Estonian MEPs. It helped that none of them worked in the committee where I was, which handled documents for visas, so they missed the whole big procedure.
I managed to include non-citizens into a few other regulations on the visa policy. Our state officials once again “forgot” about them, as they worked on these documents. For example. The ability to apply to consul office of any other EU state. Say, a Latvian non-citizen is in a faraway country, while some natural disaster occurs. There is no Latvian consulate, but there is a German one. Now our non-citizen can apply there for help as well. The document draft spoke only of citizens having this right.
All issues outside of direct EU jurisdiction can be addressed, but only by making various political resolutions, which act as a recommendation.
I can name a few documents, which were adopted during my mandate, so from 2004, where we managed give recommendations in one way or another on lessening differences, accelerating naturalization, giving non-citizens voting rights. For example, in September of this year, the European Parliament adopted a unique document, the Report on the Situation of Fundamental Rights in the European Union (2013-2014) which touched upon the issue of non-citizens. During the vote, there was an opportunity to make a crucial amendment from my “green” group, which would call for EU countries to give non-citizens the right to vote on local and European elections. Sadly, the amendment didn’t make it through, we came short only 16 votes. But I reiterate, it was a purely recommendational resolution, as the European Parliament can’t interfere with state jurisdiction on this issue.
- Your party proposed giving Latvian citizenship to all non-citizens automatically. Tell, what are these words based on?
- First of all, we have always spoken out against segregating people based on their origin. We spoke about citizenship for all even back as part of the Equal Rights faction in Latvia’s Supreme Soviet. When in 15 October 1991 they adopted the decision which was to reconstruct citizenship for all who had it before June 1940 and a requirement to naturalize everyone else, we made a statement that this would cause long-term negative consequences. And that is exactly what happened. And in 2010, our part along with a number of popular movements organized a referendum on citizenship for all. But the Central Electoral Commission banned the referendum’s second stage. When we appealed to the Constitutional Court, they said that giving citizenship to all residents would contradict the “continuation principle” of the State. But in that case, Lithuania’s decision in 1991 on giving citizenship to every willing resident must also be anticonstitutional. Because the 1990 declarations of independence of all three Baltic countries stated that they were the continuations of Republics that existed before 1940, and not new states.
We believe that Latvia should have went along the same path as Lithuania.
Curiously, the Latvian elite’s interests, which made them segregate the people, are no longer relevant. Privatization, which the non-citizens couldn’t participate in, is now over. This process ended and the crooked privatization made sure that a specific circle of people who occupied high post at the time, got the most of it. Aside from that, it is clear that the additional amount of citizens, which you get from the non-citizens, wouldn’t be able to influence the results of the elections. But in local elections in certain regions the power balance would shift. When the non-citizens would get the right to vote, they probably wouldn’t vote for those who called to stop naturalization or send them out of the country.
But the fears, which the ruling elite feeds its voters, the ones going “if all of the Russians had the right to vote, then they would vote for Latvia to join Russia” are completely baseless. And that is why I think, that for the Latvian government it would easier to solve this issue by making all non-citizens into citizens and freeing themselves from the constant criticism in various international organizations.
- How much longer will this issue be relevant for Latvia in your opinion? And can it ever be resolved?
- I believe that now is the best moment to resolve this issue. Myself, as well two co-presidents of our party, have been approached by various Western journalists and asked about parallels with the situation on Ukraine’s South-West, about separatist tensions in Latvia’s East, in Latgalia and in Estonia’s North-East, among the disenfranchised Russian residents there. While answering their questions, we say that we need to eliminate the source of their dissatisfaction and reach out to the Russians of Latvia. So we will use the current geopolitical situation in order to help abolish the non-citizen institute as soon as possible and the “bosses in Washington” would stress the Latvian government to find a quick solution to this issue.
Translated by Pavel Shamshiev