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EU urged to "do more" to help tackle plight of Latvia´s non-citizens

They are dubbed as "aliens" and the European Union is now being urged to intervene to tackle the blight of Latvia´s non-citizens.

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2014

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The appeal to the EU comes just weeks after Latvia joined the eurozone. The small Baltic country of about 1.8m people will celebrate its 10th anniversary of EU membership in May and, in the 2nd half of the year, prepare for its six months EU presidency starting on 1 January 2015.
The appeal to the EU comes just weeks after Latvia joined the eurozone. The small Baltic country of about 1.8m people will celebrate its 10th anniversary of EU membership in May and, in the 2nd half of the year, prepare for its six months EU presidency starting on 1 January 2015.

MORE ON Europe

by Martin Banks
 
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has been asked to inject fresh impetus to the long-running saga of over 300,000 Latvians who are unable to vote in their own country. 

The reason is that the mostly Russian-speaking citizens, who are classed as a minority group, have not undergone a naturalisation process. 

Effectively classed as "stateless" this means they cannot vote in the upcoming elections to the European elections. They will also be denied the right to vote in Latvia´s parliamentary elections later this year or in municipal elections. 

It is not just voting rights they are denied - they also cannot freely buy land, face restrictions to use their own language and are banned from holding numerous jobs.

The letter appeals to  Barros to "draw attention" to the problem and also says, "There is strong necessity for mediation between civil society and state authorities." 
 
Speaking in Riga, the Latvian capital on Saturday, Elizabete Krivcova, head of the Latvian non-citizens congress, said, "This has the effect of diminishing their sense of belonging to a society that considers them as 2nd class citizens."
 
The congress, which held its third meeting at the weekend since being launched just over a year ago, has highlighted the plight of Latvia´s non-citizens in a letter to the Commission president.
 
The letter,also sent to European council president Hermann Van Rompuy, points out that 2013 was the Year of Citizens and that this year will see the European elections where 300,000 Latvian non-citizens "will have no opportunity to vote and consequently to take part in a common future of Europe."
 
It is particularly timely as the high court in Riga will later this week rule on an application to hold a public referendum on the non-citizen issue. 
 
The appeal to the EU comes just weeks after Latvia joined the eurozone. The small Baltic country of about 1.8m people will celebrate its 10th anniversary of EU membership in May and, in the 2nd half of the year, prepare for its six months EU presidency starting on 1 January 2015.
 
Some 40 per cent of all minorities in Latvia are classed as non-citizens and, overall, about 14 per cent of the country´s total population falls into this category.

In Riga - the European Capital of Culture for 2014 - the figure is even higher with an estimated four out of five its its residents non-citizens.

Ironically, anyone else moving to Latvia from an EU member state is allowed to vote in elections there after three months. After five years residency, they can also apply for Latvian citizenship.

Non-citizens, by contrast, are unable to get work in some 30 professions.

Critics of the current arrangement say that denying people who are born and raised in their own country - and pay taxation - is in flagrant breach of EU and international human rights legislation.

They aim to bring their campaign to Brussels in the coming weeks in a bid to raise awareness of the issue among MEP and policymakers.

The predicament facing its non-citizens dates back to Soviet days when the Communist Party deported masses of Latvians to Russia and to other republics and sent in a large number of Russians to Latvia at the request of the Latvian Communist Party to build industry and fill a labour gap.

In 1991, non-Latvians were promised citizenship based on their residency in Latvia but full status was still denied. They remained without official recognition and no rights until 1995 when they were given an unprecedented status of “non-citizen” and were delivered an “Alien’s” passport.

Despite some advances in the years since then,its non-citizens still have no political rights and are barred from entering certain professions such as law or the fire service, or from holding any military or security-related position.  Non-citizens also generally receive lower pensions than others.

Some 50.3% of all non-citizens live in Riga and 8% live in its surroundings. Latvians call non-citizens 'Russians' but the group, in fact, is also composed of Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other former Soviet nationalities.

In a bid to address the issue, the non-citizen´s congress was set up in 2012 and comprises 30 representatives, some of whom, like Krivcova, have gone through the naturalisation process.

The creation of the "parliament of unrepresented" had the backing of some 15,000 Latvian residents.

Speaking at a meeting on the eve of Saturday´s congress, the 34-year-old said she had done it in order to pursue a career in civil law.

Even so, the issue, she says, has caused her many personal problems, saying, "My parents explained to me that if I wanted to work in law I had to go through a naturalisation exam - I did it. In 1998 naturalization was open also for my parents. My mother and aunt did it, but my father not.

"He refused to accept the unfairness of dividing Latvian inhabitants on the grounds of their origin. He voted for Latvian independence and this should´ve been enough. In our family this caused problems because non-citizens needed visas to many EU countries and at that time not all countries accepted a non-citizens passport."

Others, like Aleksandrs Gaponenko, of the Institute of  European Studies in Riga, have refused to go through the process, which involves a history and language test, on a matter of principle.

He said, "I could have done it but have refused because it is simply not right."

Both agree that while the issue assumed higher importance in the run up to Latvia joining the EU in 2004, it has since largely dropped off the political radar.

But the continuing failure to respect "basic human rights" means the country will be allowed to take on the mantle of steering the EU´s agenda for the first six months of next year despite a "significant default" of the commitments it undertook by joining the EU.

Another congress member, Valery Komarov, has also passed the naturalisation process but is determined to champion the right of his fellow Latvians, many of them older people, who do not enjoy such statues.

He declared, "The UN, Council of Europe, OECD and EU have all issued recommendations to the Latvian authorities to allow non-citizens to participate in elections or to accelerate naturalisation.

"There was some progress when Latvia joined NATO and the EU but afterwards the recommendations were mainly ignored. The current view of the government is that lack of citizenship is a purely personal problem of non-citizens, but we, through the congress and other means, want to show that it is a public problem."

He accepts that, the absence of an agreement between the country´s Latvian and Russian speakers, a solution will be "difficult"  but remains optimistic.

He said, "My father came to this country from Russia when he was 29 years old to work in the shipyards.  I spent 26 years as a non-citizen before I took the naturalisation process. I did that for family reasons.

"I love my country but I do not love a government that continues to unfairly deny a large number of its citizens basic human rights, including the right to vote."

The EU, argues the 34-year-old, could do now do much more to help tackle the problem, adding, "It would be helpful if the problem were recognized as a European problem."

Naturalisation has declined in popularity. After reaching a peak in 2005, a year after EU accession, when 19,169 people applied for naturalisation, it has slumped over the years to a mere 2,213 in 2012.
  
Since 2007, the yearly naturalisation rate amoúnts to  less than 1 per cent of non citizens.
 
In addition, some 40 per cent of applicants fail the test on average and 38 per cent of non-citizens are aged 60 or over.

"You can see that it is clearly a particular problem for older people here," says Komarov, "but as well as a matter of principle and basic rights, this is an issue for young and old alike. The country is losing 10 per cent of its population to immigration and this could be one of the reasons."

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