Julia Babahina, MRG’s former Fundraising Intern who was born into a Russian family from Latvia, reports from a very personal perspective on the current situation of the Russian minority in her country. Almost a third of Latvian Russians are given non-citizen/alien status, which has drawn widespread criticism from international organisations. The rejection of a referendum in February 2012 to amend the Latvian Constitution to include Russian as an official language proved once again the ethnic split in the country.
Latvia’s citizenship policy, which assigns almost a third of Latvian Russians non-citizen/alien status, prohibits non-citizens from taking part in many aspects of society, such as seeking employment, travelling abroad, or voting during national elections. Even though the Latvian government ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on 6 June 2005, there is still a considerable part of the Russian population who cannot freely participate in Latvian economic, political and cultural life.
The policy has been severely criticised by the Council of Europe, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Knut Vollebekk, OSCE’s High Commissioner for National Minorities, recently said that all children of non-citizens who were born after Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, must be granted citizenship automatically.
According to data from the Population Register of the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs in Latvia, as of 2011, 27.3 per cent of the Latvian population are Russian and 34.6 per cent of these are designated as ‘non-citizens’ or given ‘alien’ status. According to the Citizenship Law of Latvia, a non-citizen ‘is a person who, in accordance with the Law on the Status of those Former U.S.S.R. Citizens, do not have the Citizenship of Latvia or that of any Other State, has the right to a non-citizen passport issued by the Republic of Latvia.’
Being born into a Russian family from Latvia myself, I have been granted citizenship through my father, whereas my mother was a non-citizen until 2006. My uncle and my grandmother are still non-citizens. I asked my grandmother how it feels.
‘It is heartbreaking and unfair. It is like you have been born into a family and they don’t accept you as their child. The state, the government, and society is the family, and we, non-citizens, are unwanted and alienated children.’
Though all the members of my family were born in Latvia and have lived there for most of their lives, they have no right to vote or work in many state-employed organisations and often have trouble crossing the border. For many Russians in Latvia it is a matter of principle not to apply for citizenship as they think it is absurd given the fact they were born in the country.
Tatjana Zdanoka, one of Latvia’s nine members of the European Parliament and a Latvian Russian, argues that if the Russian community is under-represented in society it is discriminated against, and has urged the international community to support Baltic Russians to claim their rights. Thanks to Zdanoka’s and others’ hard work, in 2007 non-citizens were allowed to benefit from the Schengen Agreement.
On May 2011, 122 recommendations were made to Latvia during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UNHRC in Geneva. The Latvian government rejected seven of these recommendations, including Russia’s recommendation to eliminate the system of non-citizenship. Russia claimed that Latvia’s refusal proved that it does not recognise the severe human rights problem in the country and stated that it violated international human rights law. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia replied that Latvia meets its international obligations in terms of minority rights and held that the non-citizen system is purely an internal affair.
The Russian government then suggested Latvia accept the human rights recommendations laid out during the UPR so that the call for a referendum, initiated by the Russian speakers’ movement in February 2012 to make Russian language a second official language, would be avoided. The referendum was an unsurprising consequence of people’s dissatisfaction with minority rights in Latvia. Even though 75 per cent of citizens voted against introducing Russian as an official language, it showed the existence of an ethnic divide in Latvian society.
According to Rita Izsak, the UN independent expert on minority issues, the referendum did not prove the superiority of one community over another, but demonstrated that the Latvian government should bring the two communities together and assist them in overcoming fear, mistrust and historical prejudices. However, Latvian nationalists claimed that the referendum was Russia’s attempt to weaken Latvia’s independence.
Today, when Latvian integration issues threaten to polarise the country even further along political and ethnic lines, it is time for the Latvian government to realise that the country’s ethnic diversity does not weaken, but strengthens the country. Latvian integration policies should bring Latvians and Latvian Russians together for a brighter future.