B. Background information on Latvia
7. The issue of citizenship
According to Article 5 of the Law on the Election of the Town/City “Dome“, Regional Council and Rural Municipality Council, ‘The rights to elect the Dome (Council) are granted to the citizens of the Republic of Latvia…’. Such a norm is not unusual in Europe, where most countries grant the right to vote only to their citizens; however in Latvia, the issue of citizenship is very delicate. In the recent history of the country mass deportation of the native population occured, while a large number of immigrants settled in the country.
The composition of the registered residents in Latvia, according to the latest available figures, is as follows:
|Latvians citizens||1,715,938||(72.0 %)|
There is no direct link between citizenship and belonging to an ethnic group, and criteria relating to residence in the country at different periods of Latvian history also have to be taken into account. Due to these criteria, 277,352 ethnic Russians out of the 709,952 registered Russians living in Latvia have citizens’ rights. This leaves 432,600 members of the Russian minority without Latvian citizenship; a few ethnic Latvians are also denied citizenship according to these criteria. There are also 86,714 citizens of Latvia who are neither Latvian ethnics nor Russian ethnics.
At the national level, some 28 % of the residents are non-citizens and are therefore denied the right to take part in local elections. The issues is much more acute in large towns, where minorities sometimes account for more than half of the resident population. In towns like Jurmala or Riga, some 50 % of the residents have no citizens’ rights. In towns like Liepaja or Daugavpils, the proportion of citizens to the total resident population is respectively 38% and 25%. In rural areas, the very large majority of the resident population are citizens.
From these figures, it clearly appears that the issue of representation of non-citizens, which in some local authorities represents a substantial share or even the majority of the population is a very serious one. Two solutions to this question are foreseen. First, a new law on citizenship (the existing law on citizenship was adopted in 1919 and has only received some amendments) is being prepared and should be adopted in the near future. Second, provisions exist for local elected representatives to constitute consultative bodies to represent the interests of non-citizens in local authorities where they make up a substantial share of the population.
For these reasons, even though the issue of citizenship was not clearly settled at the time of the local elections, all the communities and political forces met by the delegation accepted the holding of these elections, and even when requesting another definition of theright to vote, did not challenge their validity.
C. Organisation of the elections
11. Registration of candidates
Article 8 of the Electoral Law [..] Article 9 [..] This article also disqualifies those “who do not know the state language to the highest (third) level of the knowledge of the state language”.
D. Visit of the observer delegation
14. Meeting with representatives of political parties
The representatives from “Fatherland and Freedom” – the most “right wing” party – and from the “Equality and Right Party” – the most “left wing” which claims equal citizenship rights for Latvians and Russians – had an argument about citizenship and the right to vote. The delegation however noted that the representative from Equality and Right, despite his requests about the right to vote, did not contest the legality and the validity of the election according to the Law passed on 26 January 1994.
In general, all the Parties agreed that the law provided sufficient guarantees for the elections to be fair and democratic, and none foresaw major difficulties.
15. Meeting with representatives of local government
The Union of Local Authorities Associations groups several associations representing the interests of different types of local and regional authorities. The delegation met with six representatives of different types of local and regional authorities, all holding an electoral mandate on at the local or regional level. One of these persons did not, according to the new election law, have citizens’ rights and was therefore not allowed to vote, not to mention run for a mandate. She was interested in the political campaign in her municipal rural district and showed understanding for the fact that she could not participate in the vote. It is however hard to say whether such behaviour is representative of the non-citizens in Latvia,
Representatives from cities showed concern that a large part of the population in their constituencies had no right to vote. They were already considering ways to give some sort of representation in local decisions to the population that had not taken part in the election of the local council.
16. Organisation of the polling stations
Old or disabled persons have the right, according to the Electoral Law, to be helped in the voting booth by a person of their choice, provided he/she is a Latvian citizen and not a member of the electoral commision.
[..] In some polling stations Russian citizens were allowed to walk in to accompany voters, in others they were denied access to the polling station.
17. Interviews with voters and non-citizens
[..] Several of the persons interviewed preferred to express themselves in the Russian language, and the interpreters diligently agreed to use Russian. These persons had no problem in understanding the instructions, even though they were only printed in Latvian.
In several cases, persons from a same family included citizens and non-citizens. They had come together to the polling station, and they all showed understanding about the existing situation, considering it as a necessary transitonry period. Non-citizens did not express resentment, and said they would consider the result of the elections as validly appointing the government of their local authority.
18. Use of the Russian language
As mentioned above, official information about the local and regional elections were only provided in Latvian. A significant number of residents, including citizens, still prefer using the Russian language. They did not, however, have any difficulty in understanding the explanations.
Furthermore, we witnessed cases of Chairpersons of the electoral commissions answering requests for explanations from voters in Russian. Most electoral commissions visited by the delegation were asked if they were ready to provide information to voters in the Russian language. They all answered affirmatively.
The delegation understands and respects the motives for using only the national language in the official publications, but welcomes the flexibility of members of local electoral commissions which did everything in their capacity to make sure that citizens could cast their votes without confusion.
Document data: 02.08.1994. CG/Bur (1) 13. Link: https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=090000168071887c