The Russian minority in the Baltic States and the enlargement of the EU (excerpts), 1999

The views expressed in this document are not necessarily those held by the European Parliament as an institution.



In its Regular report on Latvia, the Commission noted that the developments in Latvia confirm the conclusion it reached in 1997: Latvia’s institutions continue to function smoothly and it fulfils the Copenhagen political criteria. The Commission recognised that major progress has been made on integrating non-citizens and that the latest amendments brought to the Citizen Act brings “Latvia into conformity with international standards and should facilitate the naturalisation process.” However, “continuing attention needs to be paid to[…] the promotion of Latvian language learning among non-citizens.”

With the adoption of the 1991 Citizen Act by the Latvian Supreme Council directly after independence, the Latvian government restored the citizenship of individuals who were citizens of Latvia in 1940 and to their descendants. Consequently, the Soviet immigrants and their Latvia-born descendants were excluded from the Latvian citizenry and, with the collapse of the USSR, often became stateless. ( 2) According to figures in the most recent Official Statistical Yearbook 72.72% of people resident in Latvia were classified as citizens. 26.56% were classed as citizens of the Former Soviet Union, but not having any current status. These figures compare with the 32.38% of the population that are ethnic Russians.

2 In early 1995 only an estimated 50,000 Latvian residents were citizens of the Russian Federation (National and Ethnic groups in Latvia, 1996, 42).

i. Legal Situation

After uncertain conditions regarding the naturalisation process had existed for three years, provisions on the acquisition of citizenship were finally laid down in the Law on Citizenship of 22 July 1994. Due to criticism from the Russian Federation and the international community, it has undergone significant changes since. It was amended in June 1998, but the amendments were the subject of a referendum held at the same time at the general election on 3 October 1998. In the event, the amendments were approved by 53% to 45%.

a. The Law on Citizenship
1. Citizens

Under the law the following groups are automatically citizens: people who were citizens of the independent Republic of Latvia on 17 June 1940 and their direct descendants; permanent residents, who are either Latvians or Livs; people with permanent residence who have completed full educational studies in general education schools where the instruction is given in Latvian. The regulation concerning this group was amended on 22 June 1998, granting the citizenship also to their children who are less than 15 years old and permanently resident in Latvia. The decisive factor for descendants of mixed marriages is the ius soli principle or, if the child is born outside Latvia, the permanent residence of the parents on the day of the child’s birth.

2. Naturalisation procedure

Up to 31 August 1998 about 10,260 of the 148,000 people eligible have been naturalised under the 1994 Citizenship Law. One limiting factor has been the “window system” which limited until 2003 the numbers of applicants for citizenship on the basis of age criteria, giving priority to younger age groups. The small number of naturalisations is also due to the relative difficulty of the citizenship test, high enrolment fees, the fact that young non-citizen men do not have to do the Latvian military service, and the ease with which one can travel to the countries of the former USSR with the old Soviet passport.

In response to recommendations in the Commission Opinion and based on assessments by international organisations such as the OSCE, the Latvian Parliament approved on 22 June 1998 the Government’s proposal to abolish the naturalisation windows and to simplify the naturalisation process for people over 65. These amendments were passed in the October referendum.

The law provides now for two types of naturalisation: ordinary and extraordinary. Among the persons that can naturalise on an extraordinary basis are spouses of Latvian citizens, former citizens of the USSR entitled to citizenship under the 1919 Act, people who, during the period 1941-45, were forcibly transferred to Latvia and stayed there after the end of the occupation regime, people educated in Latvian schools, and people who have an excellent command of the Latvian language in compliance with standards set by the Cabinet of Ministers.

The ordinary naturalisation procedure requires a permanent residence permit. The required period of residence is five years counting from 4 May 1990. For those who arrived in Latvia after 1 July 1992, the five-years term shall be counted from the date of issuance of their permanent residence permit. The applicant must also not have acted anti-constitutionally against the Republic of Latvia, if established by a court decree, have propagated, after 4 May 1990, fascist, chauvinist, national-socialist, communist or other totalitarian ideas or have stirred up ethnic or racial hatred or discord, if established by a court decree, have worked as an official of an institution under a foreign state’s authority, have served in the armed forces, internal forces, security service or the police (militia) of a foreign country, have been an employee, informer, agent or has been in charge of a safe house of the former USSR (LSSR) KGB or other foreign security service, intelligence service or other special service, if such a fact has been established according to the procedure set by law, have served a criminal sentence, or undertaken anti-constitutional activities as a member of an organisation hostile to Latvia. The applicant must have a legal source of income pass the Citizenship Exam. This consists of demonstrating a good level of proficiency in Latvian, in particular that one can completely understand information of an every day and official nature, is able to carry out a conversation and answer questions on topics of an everyday nature, can read freely and understand any instructions of an everyday nature, directions, and other texts of an everyday nature and can write an essay on a topic from everyday life given by the commission. Individuals who have acquired a primary, secondary and higher education in Latvian are exempt from taking the language test. Applicants with a disabled status are given a special procedure which is set up by the Cabinet of Ministers. To help the applicants prepare for the examination, Latvia has introduced language-training programmes for Russian speakers. Since 1996 these programmes are supported by Phare.

In addition, applicants are required to know the basic principles of the Republic of Latvia Satversme (Constitution) and the Constitutional Law on Rights and Obligations of a Citizen and a Person, to know the national anthem and history of Latvia and to take an oath of loyalty to the Republic of Latvia.

The citizenship tests are currently under supervision to make them simpler where possible in order to encourage more applications. Applications are received and reviewed by the Naturalisation Board. They must be reviewed and answered within one year after the submission date of all required documents. Reapplications are possible one year after refusal. In the case of refusal of an application, it is possible to appeal to the Latvian courts. All necessary information can be gathered at the regional offices of the Naturalisation Board. Unfortunately, many non-citizens are still hesitant to apply for citizenship because of lack of information on the procedures. As a result, dissemination of the citizenship requirements is still needed. The Latvian Naturalisation Board is currently setting up an information centre to ensure wider information on the citizenship requirements, for which the EU is providing assistance.

3. Stateless children

New amendments to the Citizenship law on 22 June 1998 grant citizenship to a child of stateless persons or non-citizens ( 3) born after 21 August 1991 whose permanent place of residence is Latvia, has not been convicted to a jail term of over five years, and has remained for that period a stateless person or a non-citizen.

3 According to the Citizenship law a non-citizen is a person who is entitled to the alien’s passport issued by the republic of Latvia according to the Law “On the Status of Former USSR Citizens Who Are Not Citizens of Latvia or Any other Country”, i.e. mainly the group of Soviet migrants.

The legal guardians shall apply for citizenship until the minor reaches the age of 15. In the case of failure of the legal guardians to do so, the juvenile has the right to apply himself if he submits a document confirming that the applicant has received special secondary or vocational education with the Latvian language as the language of instruction, and a document confirming the command of the Latvian language of the applicant. This procedure is to be conducted before reaching the age of 18.

4. Non-citizens

The legal status of members of the Russian-speaking minority who arrived in Latvia before July 1992 and who do not hold Latvian or any other citizenship is determined by the Law on the Status of the Former USSR Citizens who do not have the Citizenship of the Republic of Latvia or of another state (April 1995). Individuals who have a “propiska” (residence permit with no time restriction) are, with some exceptions, considered as permanently resident. The law grants them free choice of residence in Latvia, and freedom to leave and return to Latvia, the right to a family reunion, strengthened protection against expulsion, preservation of their native language and culture, assistance by an interpreter in court, the right to choose the language, in accordance with the Language law, of communication with state authorities and administrative institutions.

Furthermore, a non-citizen’s passport is issued to individuals over 16, certified by a former USSR passport containing the personal code of a Republic of Latvia resident or any other identification document issued by the Republic of Latvia containing such a personal code. With this, free leave and return to Latvia without any additional documents is possible.

If a person fails to exchange a former USSR passport for a non-citizen passport within the term determined by the Cabinet of Ministers without any valid reason, his /her status shall be determined by the Law on Foreigners and Stateless Persons – Entrance to and Stay in the Republic of Latvia (June 1992, amended 1994). This law determines the legal status of persons who have entered Latvia after 1 July 1992, setting out very strict conditions for receiving a permanent residence permit. The consequences for the Soviet immigrants (and descendants) who entered before July 1992 are quite severe, since a permanent residence permit is a prerequisite for the Latvian’s citizenship.

Until 20 August 1998, more than 40% of Latvia’s permanent non-citizen residents (270,000 people) have received special non-citizen passports. The expiration date of the old Soviet travel passport was 31 October 1998. However, using this passport until the end of 1998 for returning to Latvia will be possible. After that, about 380,000 people will be without valid a passport or other travel document.

ii. Current social issues

The exclusion of a large part of the Russian-speaking minorities from citizenship has had wide-ranging consequences in many areas. Non-citizens are not allowed to vote, even in local elections. Furthermore, only citizens have the right to submit their candidacy for public office. Non-citizens cannot directly acquire ownership of land. Nor are non-citizens are entitled to join political organisations. They may be elected for administrative positions in political organisations, but they cannot establish such organisations.

Professional restrictions. In the workplace, the Government committed itself to abolish the remaining professional restrictions for non-citizens in the private sector. Restrictions preventing non-citizens from working as fire-fighters, airline staff, pharmacists and veterinary pharmacists, have already been abolished. The restrictions on becoming a private detective, an armed guard or a pilot remain but will be phased out in accordance with a timetable yet to be established. The access of non-citizens to careers in the public sector remains very limited. Under article 4 of the Regulation on the procedure by which non-citizens can be designated as civil-persons, the Prime Minister has the right to set a quota for non-citizens working as civil servants in state institutions. It is presently set at 5%. These individuals have to be confirmed by a Minister, a State Minister or by the head of the institution. The confirmation is valid for two years, during which time the non-citizen must undergo naturalisation. 519 non-citizens have been employed as civil servants so far, 107 of them have already acquired the citizenship of Latvia, and at present, about 378 non-citizens are working in the civil-service.

Unemployment Benefits. In May 1998 the regulations concerning the status of the unemployed were amended. Job-seekers can now register with the State Employment Service (SES) without submitting a certificate verifying their knowledge of Latvian or an education certificate. Since it is no longer necessary to demonstrate proof of knowledge of Latvian language to obtain unemployment benefits, de-facto discrimination of non-citizens has ended.

Use of language. The use of one’s national language is permitted in the court proceedings if all parties agree, otherwise the requesting party is entitled to an interpreter. However, concerns have been raised recently by proposed amendments affecting the use of languages other then Latvian outside the private sphere. A proposed amendment to the Language law, if passed, would impose the use of Latvian in the private sector. Furthermore, the previous Saeima, in February 1998, amended Article 38 of the Labour law code to allow the State Language Inspectorate to ask for the termination of employment contracts with employees who did not meet language requirements as foreseen under Latvian law. The President vetoed it and returned the amendment to the Parliament for review. It has not yet been considered by the new Saeima.

Education. Latvia has two parallel education systems, one in Latvian and one in Russian, which the state finances. Eight other minorities have state-aided schools in their language. In 1995, amendment to the education act introduced the obligation for schools to increase the numbers of lessons taught in Latvian, but lack of qualified teachers has hindered its application. State-financed higher education is only given in Latvian, although higher education in Russian exists.

Integration policy. A Consultative Council of the Nationalities was set up in July 1996, which brings together representatives of eleven ethnic minorities and members of the Human Rights Committee of the Saeima. Its responsibility is to monitor the situation of the minorities and to propose the necessary reforms. On the cultural level, the Association of National Cultural Societies, made up of around twenty organisations, strives to promote tolerance and good relations between the various communities. Furthermore, several NGOs, actively supported by the EU’s initiative for democracy and human rights, are dealing with issues of concern to non-citizens and non-ethnic Latvians.

Recently, the government has adopted a law on Unrestricted Development and the Right to Cultural Autonomy of Latvia’s Nationalities and Ethnic Groups to further the creation of appropriate financial conditions for the development of education, language and culture for the national and ethnic groups living in Latvia.




On Latvia, the Parliament noted “the existence of a certain number of problems such as the status of the Russian minority […]”. Subsequently, the Parliament adopted a on Latvia’s application for accession to the European Union with a view to the Vienna European Council (A4-0430/98). The resolution welcomed “the outcome of the referendum of 3 October in which the Latvian people voted to amend the nationality law so as to abolish the much criticised ‘windows’ system and automatically to grant Latvian nationality to the children of stateless persons born in Latvia since independence”.





Belorussian97,036 3.95

Source: 1998 Statistical Yearbook of Latvia

Document data: Briefing No. 42 03.05.1999 Link: Also available in French

Publisher’s notes: the 1998 referendum was misrepresented in chapter VI. The decision “automatically to grant Latvian nationality to the children of stateless persons born in Latvia since independence” was only adopted in 2019. In 1998, a special procedure for receiving citizenship upon parental application was created for them.

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