IV. PROTECTION OF MINORITIES
23. As in most Council of Europe member countries, the population of Latvia includes several sizeable minorities. However, a large proportion of people belonging to minorities do not have Latvian citizenship, and that poses a real problem for Latvian society as a whole.
1. The citizenship issue
24. Building a post-independence society and Latvia’s integration into Europe are aspirations common to everyone living in the country, particularly affecting those born there and future Latvian-born generations. I therefore believe that Latvia must avoid excluding a large proportion of the population from that common project. All parties concerned must strive to give their children a future in which each individual’s specific characteristics are respected. It is important for the whole population to look to the future and collectively build a Latvian state, rather than dwell on the past, however painful.
a) Progress achieved to date
25. When Latvia regained its independence, only persons who had acquired Latvian nationality before 1940 and their descendents were automatically treated as citizens. All other persons, principally those who settled in Latvia after 1940, could obtain citizenship only through naturalisation. At the time these others numbered some 740,000, which was a very large figure relative to the total population. The state could not ignore the difficulties faced by such numbers on its territory and it therefore had no choice but to clarify the status of that very specific section of the population.
26. On 22 April 1995 a law was enacted on the status of former citizens of the Soviet Union not possessing Latvian or any other citizenship. It laid down that persons lawfully residing on Latvian territory and not entitled to Latvian citizenship could exchange their previous USSR passport or any other document proving that they were resident in Latvia for a Latvian “non-citizen” passport. This very unusual status thus made its appearance among identity documents circulating in Europe.
27. At present, according to official figures at 1 July 2003, non-citizens number 494,319, making up some 21% of the population. If these were foreigners resident in Latvia, it would be neither problematical nor even unusual in terms of the general position in Europe. However, the situation has a special feature that makes it exceptional: all non-citizens have no other citizenship, having lost citizenship of the Soviet Union.
28. Consequently a question arises as to the actual status of this section of the Latvian population and as to whether they are not in fact a classic case of stateless persons within the meaning of public international law: under Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons the term “stateless person” means a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law, and Latvian non-citizens indeed do not have any other citizenship.
29. As with any foreign resident, non-citizens in Latvia cannot stand or vote in elections, whether local or national. They are debarred from certain economic and social rights, as pointed out in the latest ECRI report. More generally, non-citizens are not allowed to carry on certain occupations in the private and public sectors.
30. The situation resulting from the existence of non-citizens came in for Council of Europe attention as soon as Latvia joined the Organisation, and it has been the subject of various recommendations. In particular, various Council of Europe bodies have urged the Latvian authorities to make it easier for non-citizens to gain citizenship so as to speed up their integration into the national community. The relevant recommendations were in line with international law, under which authorities in all countries concerned are strongly encouraged to reduce cases of statelessness as far as possible by facilitating naturalisation of persons who do not have citizenship.
31. It should be noted that Latvia has made great efforts in that direction. Since the 1994 Nationality Act the Latvian authorities have regularly expressed a desire to see noncitizens acquire citizenship. The 1994 act laid down the main naturalisation requirements for foreigners, including non-citizens. The main ones are five years’ lawful residence in the country, a lawful source of income, and knowledge of Latvian, the Constitution and Latvian history. These requirements are of course perfectly in line with European standards as adopted in a large majority of Council of Europe member states.
32. However, this assessment has to be qualified in the light of the fact that the situation with which Latvia is faced has an important special feature. This is that the vast majority of foreigners living in Latvia belong to the special category of non-citizens recognised by the authorities as a special group who cannot be regarded as foreign residents in the conventional sense. In our talks with representatives of the various authorities in the country, we were told repeatedly that non-citizens could certainly not be treated as either stateless persons or foreigners since Latvian law gave them status very similar to that of citizens, including a type of consular protection abroad. This, I think, is indicative of how very unusual their status is even though, given the definition in the 1954 convention, the main characteristics of their status as noncitizens match those of stateless persons.
33. As all of us are aware, Latvia’s 20th-century history was harsh, at times tragic, and the present situation is the result of it. However – and I am deeply convinced of this – that history must not prevent Latvian society from making headway towards democracy and prosperity, and such headway is impossible if the country is constantly looking back at its past, however traumatic.
34. The Soviet era in Latvia was brutal, and many Latvians continue to view it as a huge injustice that brought Stalinian repression and the purges typical of that inhuman totalitarian regime. That period radically altered the country’s demography, compounding the difficulties caused by the tragic Nazi occupation, which, as elsewhere, led to extermination of pre-second-war Latvia’s large Jewish and Roma communities. All that is part of a history which must on no account be forgotten or glossed over, but whose lessons must be learned if Latvia is to avoid making needless mistakes.
35. The vast majority of non-citizens either are Latvian-born or have lived in Latvia for most of their lives, and they must not be held responsible for past aberrations, of which they are themselves victims. For that reason I believe the state should do even more to bring those populations into its fold, as a forthright demonstration to them of their place in Latvian society. All who love the Latvia where they were born, where they have lived most of their lives, where their children have been born and where their family dead are buried, all who have a sense of belonging to the country they regard as their homeland, must be allowed full membership of the national community.
36. This is in the nature of a duty, but I am convinced that it is also overwhelmingly in Latvia’s interests. The fact is, however, that, despite progress, the process of naturalisation continues to be somewhat slow. The people undergoing it also frequently regard it as difficult and expensive, which raises uncertainties as to attainment of the objectives which the authorities proclaimed when they passed the Law on Citizenship.
37. Since naturalisations began, in February 1995, the number of non-citizens living in Latvia has fallen from around 740,000 to about 490,000 according to the statistics given us by the authorities. However, naturalisations account for only part of that fall (some 69,000 people have been naturalised so far), the other factors being deaths and emigration. In November 1998 Latvia amended the Citizenship Act to make it easier to gain Latvian citizenship. The amendments abolished the so-called “windows system” which imposed a naturalisation timetable on non-citizens. Henceforth noncitizens may request naturalisation at any time. They also allow Latvian citizenship to be conferred on all children born in Latvia since the return to independence, on 21 August 1991. The language tests have been simplified for older people and the number of questions in the test about history and other areas of knowledge has been reduced on several occasions.
38. In Resolution 1236 of 23 January 2001 the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in fact welcomed those changes.
b) The present naturalisation process
39. Other recent changes have further liberalised the arrangements: naturalisation fees have been reduced by a third, and this is additional to the reductions for certain categories (the elderly, unemployed people, people with disabilities, children of school age) and Latvian-language requirements have been simplified in that degree holders who have passed the general examination in Latvian language in minority language schools are exempted from the Latvian proficiency test which naturalisation applicants normally have to take. All these changes are to the credit of the Latvian Government and Parliament.
40. However, in my on-the-spot conversations, whether with representatives of civil society, NGOs or even officials of some government departments, both in Riga and Daugavpils, I was told that the communities concerned often perceive the positive changes as very slow and that there is a consequent danger that they may fail to achieve their purpose and thereby aggravate certain tensions between the minorities generally (non-citizens in particular) and those of Latvian stock, who frequently feel misunderstood despite all the efforts that have been made.
41. It is therefore of paramount importance to establish frank, open dialogue in the interests of social harmony, because without mutual understanding there cannot be mutual respect or mutual acceptance. But what in fact struck me most in my conversations with people, whether in the street, in schools or within other institutions, and this I was extremely pleased to see, was the harmonious relations between sections of the population, of whatever origin. That, in my view, is an extremely significant factor which I took away with me from my few days in Latvia. The picture I had was of close, friendly relations between people who had been through decades of adversity together, who had shared highs and lows, and who would on no account allow irresponsible elements of whatever persuasion to deflect them from their common course. And happily the vast majority of politicians I had the good fortune to talk to told me they wished to preserve and consolidate that spirit within the nation at all costs.
42. At the same time I believe there are a number of steps which should be taken to improve the present situation.
43. On the one hand, as is clear from the figures quoted, the naturalisations have not achieved their objective in that the numbers naturalised are still on the low side and the tendency in the last two years has been downwards. While in 2000 14,900 people were naturalised, the figure in 2001 was 10,637 and in 2002 9,844, a worrying trend which needs looking into. The Latvian authorities have since informed me that the number of naturalisation requests increased over the last three months of 2003.
44. According to the people I talked to, and on the strength of surveys, some of them by government bodies, the vast majority of respondents say they have not applied for naturalisation either because they think that citizenship should be granted to them automatically, or because they are apprehensive about the tests, particularly the language one, or because there are financial obstacles.
45. According to the Latvian authorities, the low number of naturalisation requests is due to the fact that non-citizens do not believe that naturalisation will significantly alter their current situation.
46. In addition, and this would also appear to be an important factor in attitudes to naturalisation, some people are deterred from going ahead with naturalisation because, as non-naturalised persons, they come under a more advantageous set of rules for travel to CIS countries in particular regarding entry visas.
47. I think that constructive answers are needed to these problems in order to lend fresh momentum to the naturalisation process. For instance, as I told my interlocutors, consideration should be given to making the tests easier for the most vulnerable groups, starting with the elderly. It is true that article 21 of the Law on Citizenship exempts persons aged 65 and over from the written Latvian language exam. It is to be hoped that additional measures will be implemented to facilitate the naturalisation of this particularly vulnerable group.
48. In addition, during my visit to the Naturalisation Department at Daugavpils, where officials fully explained the procedure and its various stages, I had the feeling that the language test remained complicated and could be made less demanding. For while it is important for everyone to know the country’s official language, it would be unfair to expect the older generation or the elderly to have the same command as is required of young people compulsorily taught Latvian at school. It seems to me that more flexibility is needed here – particularly as, according to the figures we were given at Daugavpils, the failure rate for the Constitution and history test is around 5% but in the 25-30% range for first attempts at the language test and around 50% for second attempts, which is too high a figure. The unfortunate fact is that some people have difficulty learning a new language, particularly in their later years, and the authorities should take this into account.
49. Similar considerations arose until recently in respect of the charge which people have to for naturalisation. According to the civil society representatives I met with, the charge represented a significant amount for lower earners and can be a real barrier to applying for naturalisation. Unfortunately the financial circumstances of a large proportion of the population are still far from ideal. I therefore welcome the government’s recent concession of lowering the charge from 20 Lats to 3 Lats for
pensioners. I nevertheless think that the naturalisation charge should gradually be abolished, starting with pensioners and children.
c) Children born after the restoration of independence
50. Among issues concerning access to citizenship, the case of children born after Latvia regained independence seems to me to be of particular importance.
51. As already stated, the 1998 amendments to the Citizenship Act gave non-citizen children born after 21 August 1991 entitlement to virtually automatic naturalisation. This was an important step forward and was very favourably received by the Council of Europe. During my visit, however, I learned from the statistics that, of over 20,000 children qualifying for naturalisation under Article 3.1 of the Citizenship Act, over 16,000 were still non-citizens. That state of affairs is extremely unsatisfactory.
52. Under Article 3.1, up to the 15th birthday of any child eligible for citizenship it is the parents who must apply for the naturalisation, and after that date it is the child who has to make the application. But in the latter case the child has to demonstrate knowledge of Latvian either by supplying proof of schooling in Latvian or by taking the state examination.
53. Clearly, therefore, while children are able to acquire Latvian citizenship virtually automatically up to age 15, subsequently they have to meet certain requirements. In addition, after age 18, children cease to have the benefit of Article 3.1 and come under the general procedure for naturalisation.
54. Article 3.1 seems to me to represent considerable progress. However, the fact that over 80% of children coming under Article 3.1 are not having it applied to them is of great concern. The existence of very large numbers of non-citizens in any democratic country cannot be regarded as normal and the problem must be tackled, as the national authorities in fact recognise. One of the first steps towards dealing with the problem should be to avoid creating any further non-citizens. That was the whole point of the 1998 amendments, yet five years on the problem persists.
55. It would appear that parents of eligible children are not very active in making applications – surprisingly, because it should be clear to parents that it is in children’s interests to be full citizens of the country where they live. At the same time some of the people we talked to said that many parents did not have sufficient information about what steps to take. That situation should not be allowed to continue.
56. I believe that the state has a responsibility to see to it that, within its boundaries, there are not numerous cases of children who do not possess any citizenship, regardless of whether they are categorised as stateless or non-citizen. To that end, the state should interpret the legislation in a manner which I would describe as incentive.
57. Ideally, in my view, the mere step of declaring to the national population register any child born in Latvia at least one of whose parents is a non-citizen should be treated as an application for Latvian citizenship within the meaning of Article 3.1.
58. If, however, such an interpretation recognising the legitimate entitlement of new-born children cannot be adopted, then I recommend that the form which all parents have to complete when registering their children have two special boxes added to it in which parents would indicate that they wished, or did not wish, to request Latvian citizenship for the new-born child. The mere indication at that point of their wish to apply would be treated as equivalent to an application for citizenship.
59. Some of the people I spoke to said that some parents might not wish their child to have Latvian citizenship because of wanting to apply for it to have citizenship of another state. That is certainly possible. I would repeat, however, that it is for each state to ensure that children born in its territory do not end up stateless. I accordingly suggest that if parents opt not to request Latvian citizenship for their child they should have to fill in a special box on the form indicating as much. And in that event they should be required to provide evidence to the national registration authorities that they have completed the appropriate formalities at a consulate of the foreign country whose citizenship they want their child to have. Only on that condition should it be possible for a child not to be registered as a citizen at birth, for otherwise the state risks creating even more non-citizens.
60. Really it seems to me that Latvian society as a whole needs alerting to the citizenship issue affecting the children with whom the country’s future lies. When I visited the Imanta orphanage at Riga, I was given to understand that non-citizen children born after 21 August 1991 and placed in the orphanage’s care did not routinely become citizens. In reply to my question on the subject, the lady director of the orphanage said that the orphanage did not apply for citizenship in all cases. A citizenship application was made from time to time, mainly so that a child could travel abroad to take part in sports events. In my view all specialist institutions having care of children should take the necessary steps to ensure that all their children are given citizenship, whether or not they have sporting ability. In the case of children who are in the state’s care, the duty to do so seems to me to be still greater since, having no family to look after them, they are doubly vulnerable and require all the more attentiveness from the people supervising them and exercising parental authority over them.
61. I therefore call on the Latvian authorities to resolve the matter as soon as possible, for it is unacceptable, to put it mildly, that in the citizens’ Europe we are building there should be huge numbers of people with no citizenship.
d) Exercise of political rights by non-citizens
62. As already pointed out, non-citizens are deprived of important political rights, starting with the right to vote and stand in elections. While that is perfectly understandable in the case of national elections or referenda, not being allowed to take part in local elections raises a number of issues.
63. The fact is that local elections are unconnected with exercise of national sovereignty and mainly have to do with the conduct of municipal affairs. It seems reasonable that people who for many years have lived in a locality, pay their local taxes and are bringing up their children there should have some say in purely local affairs. That is common sense and is currently advocated both by the Council of Europe and the European Union in the case of foreigners who are long-standing residents of their municipality.
64. As of 1 May 2004, when Latvia becomes a member of the European Union, all citizens of European Union countries residing in Latvia will have the right to vote in local elections there. I believe the authorities should give serious thought to granting the same right to people who have lived in Latvia for many years or, indeed, since birth.
65. Wherever I went in Latvia I heard much talk of the need to speed up integration of non-citizens into the national community. Integration necessitates giving non-citizens more reason to involve themselves in community life, and I believe that being allowed to take part in local elections would, for most non-citizens, be a first step towards naturalisation. It would also give them a guarantee of being listened to, a
consideration which is far from negligible for members of minorities.
VII. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
131. Latvia has taken significant strides in the construction of a democratic society. The completion of this process depends on its being perceived by the large majority of Latvians as a collective challenge leading to democratic development and European integration. This requires that Latvia close a chapter on the past, however painful it may have been, and fixes its attention firmly on the future.
132. In the light of the preceding findings, and with the aim of assisting Latvia in the promotion of the respect for human rights, the Commissioner makes the following recommendations in conformity with article 8 of Resolution (99)50:
4. Accelerate the naturalisation of non-citizens. In this context :
– facilitate the naturalisation of the particularly vulnerable, such as the elderly, the disabled and the young,
– examine the possibility of providing the naturalisation procedure free of charge,
– ensure the effective implementation of article 3.1 of the law on the nationality regarding infants born after 21 august 1991. To this end, modify the birth registration forms so as to include the requirement that parents express the desire for their child to acquire Latvian citizenship, or, alternatively, specify a preference for a different nationality;
5. With a view to encouraging non-citizens to naturalise and promoting their integration, increase their participation in the political life of the country, notably by examining the possibility of granting them, amongst others, the right to vote in local elections;
Document data: CommDH(2004)3, 12.02.2004 Link: https://rm.coe.int/16806db6c1