Opinion on Latvia’s Application for Membership of the European Union (excerpts), 1997

A. INTRODUCTION

[..]

b) Relations between the European Union and Latvia

Historical and Geopolitical Context

[..]

After the war Soviet rule was re-established, though not recognised by most Western States. It was accompanied by mass deportations and settlement of Russians.

[..]

B. CRITERIA FOR MEMBERSHIP

[..]

1. Political Criteria

The European Council in Copenhagen decided on a number of “political” criteria for accession to be met by the candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe. These countries must have achieved “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”.

[..]

1.1 Democracy and the Rule of Law

[..]

Parliament and Legislative Powers: Structure

[..]

The existence of numerous political groupings (38 officially registered to date) bears witness to the fact that Latvia is genuinely a multiparty State. While the creation of parties may appear straightforward, “non-nationals” have no right to form parties (for example the formation of a party called the “Latvia Stateless League” was banned).

[..]

Functioning of the Judiciary

[..]

The National Human Rights Office plays an essential role in ensuring respect for fundamental rights in Latvia. It enjoys real independence from the other public authorities as illustrated for example by its investigation of the differences in status between citizens and non-citizens in Latvia (December 1996).

1.2 Human Rights and the Protection of Minorities

[..]

Civil and Political Rights

[..]

There are many associations devoted to protecting the rights and interests of non-nationals despite the fact that non-nationals may not form political parties.

[..]

The right of ownership is guaranteed in Latvia except for non-nationals. Properly registered foreigners have the right to acquire land if the States of which they are nationals have concluded agreements on the mutual protection of investments.

[..]

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

All inhabitants of Latvia, whether they have Latvian nationality or not, have the right to the minimum means of subsistence.

[..]

Freedom of religion is based on the 1995 Act laying down the separation of Church and State. It provides that only registered denominations are entitled to various benefits and rights. So far, 800 have completed the registration formalities with the Ministry of Justice. Only the Jehovah’s Witnesses were refused registration because of the rules which the members of this religion follow in the field of health care. This decision has been attacked in the courts. The investigation of the 1995 bomb outrage against the Riga synagogue has still not produced any significant results.

Minority Rights and the Protection of Minorities

In any assessment of the situation of the minorities in Latvia, a distinction has to be made between rights and safeguards connected with membership of an ethnic and cultural community regardless of the nationality held and differences in personal status arising from non-possession of Latvian nationality.

In Latvia, minorities, including non-citizens, account for nearly 44% of the population, including 30% Russians, 4% Belarusians and 3% Ukrainians. Latvians are a minority in 7 of the country’s 8 largest towns. Within that 44%, 28% of the population, i.e. some 685 000 people, do not have Latvian citizenship and a large proportion of that group, consisting of former citizens of the USSR, have no citizenship at all. The present situation is largely attributable to the Soviet Union’s post-1945 policy of encouraging the settlement of Russian-speakers (1935 census: 75.5% Latvians and 12% Russians; 1959: 62% Latvians and 26.6% Russians; 1979: 53.7% Latvians and 32.8% Russians).

The Act of August 1994 laid down various conditions for the acquisition of Latvian citizenship:

1. The right to apply for naturalisation is governed by a criterion of age. More precisely, the population is divided up into various age brackets, each of which is entitled to apply during a specific year, applications from persons in the last of these brackets only being accepted in 2003.

2. The acquisition of citizenship depends on passing an examination where the applicant must demonstrate his/her knowledge of the Latvian language and a certain knowledge of the country’s history, its national anthem and its institutions.

3. Far, this system has not served to grant Latvian nationality to very many people, a fact which suggests that a large proportion of the country’s population may remain foreigners for a long time to come. Since the start of the naturalisation procedure in February 1995, around 4700 people have acquired Latvian nationality. (April 1997).

In 1995-1996, some 93 000 people could have applied for it under the age-brackets arrangement. 7170 did so during those two years. The National Human Rights Office has been instructed to carry out an inquiry into the reasons for this phenomenon.

This situation may be attributable to a variety of factors. The relative difficulty of the tests may be one of the reasons and the Latvian authorities have already taken steps to lower the level of knowledge required. This factor could well explain the difficulties encountered particularly by the elderly. However, Latvia has introduced languagetraining programmes for Russian-speakers to help them prepare for the examination. The Phare programme has been providing support for these activities since 1996.

The system of age brackets, initially devised as a way of preventing the administration from being overwhelmed by a flood of applications, has had an inhibiting effect. Given this “shortage” of applications for naturalisation, such a system no longer appears warranted. Furthermore, the examination enrolment fees are still high.

In some cases, non-possession of Latvian citizenship may have appeared as an advantage, which may also help to explain the low number of naturalisation applications: no military service obligation, ease of travel to the countries of the former USSR thanks to the old Soviet passport etc.

Faced with this situation, the present government has undertaken to increase the number of naturalisations in the years to come so as to reduce the foreign portion of the Latvian population but without changing the existing law on citizenship.

The Latvian authorities must consider ways to make it easier for stateless children born in Latvia to become naturalised, so that the European Convention on Nationality concluded by the Council of Europe can be applied as soon as possible.

As regards the position of “non-citizens”, the 1995 Act conferred a clearer status on stateless people, and the issue of special passports to them, which should be completed by the end of 1997, already represents a considerable step forward, particularly from the point of view of their freedom of movement.

Nonetheless, “non-citizens” continue to be affected by various types of discrimination. They are barred from certain occupations. While some of these bars are not unusual (for example in the case of civil service posts where duties have a bearing on national sovereignty), others are far less comprehensible (private detectives, lawyers, airline crews, fire-fighters, pharmacists). In its above-mentioned study of December 1996, the National Human Rights Office observes that 10 of the differences in status between citizens and foreigners are contrary to the Latvian Constitution and the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights. However, the Latvian Government has undertaken to abolish these instances of discrimination and a first legislative step in this direction was taken at the beginning of 1997.

In addition, “non-citizens” cannot directly acquire ownership of land and have no right to vote, even in local elections, even though that would be a powerful factor for encouraging integration. Lastly, some of their fundamental rights are less well protected; they are, for example, excluded from the scope of the 1995 amnesty law. These differences will have to be reduced, particularly while the foreign portion of the population of Latvia remains so large.

As regards the more general situation of the Russian-speaking minority (regardless of whether they possess Latvian citizenship or not), their rights are respected and protected even if some problems still have to be resolved. Moreover, there are no major problems in relations between the Latvians and the Russian minority.

The minorities have no special parliamentary representation. However, a Consultative Council of the Nationalities set up in July 1996 brings together representatives of 11 ethnic minorities and is responsible for monitoring the situation and proposing necessary reforms. On the cultural level, the Association of National Cultural Societies, which spans some twenty organisations, strives to promote tolerance and good relations between the various communities.

As regards the use of national languages, this is permitted in the courts if all the parties agree. Otherwise, the party concerned is entitled to the services of an interpreter. However, some obstacles exist for those who have no command of Latvian: need to know Latvian to receive unemployment benefit, obligation to pass a high-level language test to be able to stand for election.

In the education field, Latvia has two parallel education systems, one in Latvian and one in Russian, both financed by the State. Eight other minorities have state-aided schools in their national language. The 1995 amendment of the Education Act introduced the obligation for schools to increase the number of lessons taught in Latvian. However, its implementation is being hampered by the lack of teaching staff with the qualifications necessary to give such courses in schools serving the minorities. In higher education, students have to pass a test in Latvian before being admitted. However, a number of private establishments provide high-quality teaching in Russian.

In this area, the main criticism concerns the fact that Latvia has not yet introduced legislation on education for the minorities which would provide a solid framework for approaching this matter and planning for the medium term. This sort of situation provokes some fears amongst the minorities concerning the permanence of the measures currently taken by the public authorities to promote their educational establishments.

1.3 General Evaluation

[..]

There are no major problems over respect for fundamental rights. But Latvia needs to take measures to accelerate naturalisation procedures to enable the Russian-speaking non-citizens to become better integrated into Latvian society. It should also pursue its efforts to ensure general equality of treatment for non-citizens and minorities, in particular for access to professions and participation in the democratic process.

With the reservation that steps need to be taken to enable the Russian-speaking minority to become better integrated into society, Latvia demonstrates the characteristics of a democracy, with stable institutions guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights.


Document data: 15.07.1997. COM (97) 2005 final Link: http://aei.pitt.edu/43457/1/Latvia.pdf (there, number DOC/97/14 appears as well)

Tagged: Tags