THE SITUATION OF THE RUSSIAN POPULATION IN LATVIA. A HISTORICAL SUMMARY FROM THE PERSPECTIVE FROM THE DOMESTIC POLITICS TO THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LEGISLATION
Author: Juan F. Dávila y Verdin, FRSA
Translated into Spanish by Silvana Gordillo González
Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in December 1948 expresses that ‘everyone has the right to a nationality, and that ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality. However, in 2021, thousands of people still living in the European Union without access to the recognition of this right. This essay focuses on the case of the Russian minority in Latvia.
According to official information published by the government of Latvia, there are approximately 520,000 Russian Latvians – this figure being recorded in 2014 – living in a country which are non-citizen. This means, for example, that, although they have been settled for several generations, they do not have access to a Latvian passport. More recently, in 2020, the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia has informed the European Union that the Russian Latvians are the most significant minority living in the country, representing 25.4% of the total population.
The government of Latvia acknowledges that this is a frequently raised and well-known issue. However, their counterargument lies in the fact that the figures had considerably changed since 1989 when the country became independent from the former Soviet Union. At that time, the Russian Latvian community was 42.5% more numerous, composed of 905.515 people, and it has continuously decreased since then. However, the government insists on the fact that “since the non-citizens enjoy the same rights as citizens in the social and economic plane, the naturalisation process has slowed down.”
To objectively contextualise some historical facts related to Latvian history, for the purpose of this essay, a first overview arises from information available in English, published for example in the reports of the United Nations Commissions for Human Rights (UNCHR), the European Union and the Government of Latvia. However, these sources must be mitigated with reports published by international non-governmental organisations specialised in human rights, editorials, academic research papers, and information published in the international press.
Furthermore, considering the case’s complexity, it is also necessary to highlight two critical concepts according to international law. Those concepts are citizenship and stateliness. Hence, an individual is considered a citizen under the terms outlined by the sovereign State’s legal instruments related to nationality, whether the State chooses to administratively adopt the principle of jus soli, jus sanguinis, or a combination of both. In any case, the procedures defining who is a citizen and who is not are defined following the law.
Since Ancient Greece, the concept of citizenship has been associated with the rights and obligations that an individual has concerning the State. Among those rights and obligations, one can mention the rights to vote, elect representatives in the government, access to quality education, health services or employment, and the obligations of paying taxes or enrolling in military service.
Moreover, who is unable to fulfill the pre-requisites to become a citizen of the country where it was born and is not in possession or is without access to the citizenship of another sovereign country is called stateless or alien. Article 1 of the 1954 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as one “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.
In the case of Latvia, the legislation designed and adopted after the independence from the USSR has left aside a critical portion of the population, including the Russian-speaking minority, which in the newly created Latvian State, became stateless.
According to the Minorities at Risk Project (MAR), after WWII, the Soviet Union promoted industrialisation in the Baltics – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – that activated a mass immigration process of Russian workers and their families. By the decade of 1980, many large cities in Latvia had in this way shifted to non-Latvian majorities.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Latvia managed to regain its independence and, in September 1991, joined the United Nations. In July 1992, the Latvian parliament reinstated the old constitution of 1922, adding a constitutional supplement.
During these first years of independence, the newly established government of Latvia had the double challenge of setting up and preserving its republican institutions while confronting the Russian Federation government – the successor state of the Soviet Union – concerning the withdraw of the Russian troops from the Latvian territory. The first national elections held in Latvia took place in this very particular context in July 1993. According to MAR, between 66% and 75% of the population living in Latvia at that time was qualified to vote. The great majority of those not able to vote were Russian Latvians.
Again, based on MAR sources, in 1994, the governments of Latvia and Russia reached an agreement to withdraw the remaining troops, which also covered the rights of the Russian minority living in the Baltic country. Later that same year, a new Latvian Citizenship Law passed, introducing quotas on the naturalisation of minorities. Those were set at 230,000 new citizens by the year 2000. In this context, the remaining non-citizens immigrants were prohibited from assuming civic rights and obligations, with the impossibility to vote, to assume political office, or to purchase property.
The following year, in February 1995, Latvia became the 34th member State of the Council of Europe. Moreover, it presented its application to join the European Union a few months later, in October 1995. The country was starting a long and complex process of technical assessment and institutional standardisation that concluded with a referendum in Latvia in 2003 to vote on incorporating the country into the European Union.
Although the European Commission was aware of the situation of the Russian Latvian minority, the fact that they were not recognised as Latvian citizens prevented them from participating in the referendum.. In any case, on 1 January 2004, Latvia became one of the ten countries that joined the European Bloc – of which sevens were previously part of the Eastern Bloc. In parallel, Latvia started the processes to join NATO, which finally also came to fruition in 2004.
Joining these three organisations represented a radical change for Latvia and a turn to the west for a country that only a few years before was part of the Soviet Union, in a world divided by a cold war. If the situation of the non-citizens was finally not a significant issue for Latvia to join these and other international organisations, the issue indeed started to take international visibility.
In more recent times, while the diplomatic confrontations between Latvia and Russia continue in international forums, Russia claims that Latvia does not respect the rights of the Russians living in the country.While Latvia accuses Russia of interventionism, the speech was given in September 2014, at the 69th United Nations General Assembly session, by Mr Andris Bÿrzinÿ, President of Latvia. Is an excellent example of such a claim.
It is, therefore, interesting to try to understand the collective fear triggered by the possibility that the Russian Latvian could access full citizenship. Latvia is not the only country experiencing these challenges, as the adjacent Baltic countries express the same worry. The most logical explanation could be found in avoiding a “Russification” of the country, in a community traditionality and historically marginalised under the influence of a very powerful neighbour.
The 2018 World Report published about the European Union by the international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch agreed with previous reports by UNCHR, which stated that Latvia “made little progress in reducing its stateless population (sic.).”.
Still, based on Human Rights Watch’s sources, it appears that the organisation reported that the Latvian parliament rejected a proposal submitted by the president to modify the current Latvian citizenship law. The proposal aimed to grant automatic Latvian citizenship to all children born in Latvia. Also, the Latvian State continues to impose sanction fines to individuals not using Latvian language in their professional communications..
Consequently, the Russian minority in Latvia, unsatisfied by its marginalised condition, has developed actions to gain visibility at the international level and create pressure on the Latvian government to obtain better rights.
A Brief Comparison with Other Similar Cases
When analysing the case of Latvia, one cannot forget that when the USSR collapsed, several other countries emerged and that some of these newly created or re-established states faced similar challenges in terms of the Russians living within their territories.
Referring to the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania faced very similar processes in parallel. The three countries became independent from the USSR almost simultaneously. The three states also joined the United Nations the same day, on 17 September 1991. They joined the European Union and NATO together in 2004. However, in terms of the naturalisation of non-citizens, the three countries have implemented different perspectives and practices.
In the specific situation of neighbouring Estonia – a case often compared with Latvia in terms of the condition of the non-citizens – the country has, according to MAR, reassumed its 1938 Citizenship Law in 1991. Citizenship was then granted to people living in Estonia before 1940 and to their descendants. This allowed 80,000 non-ethnic Estonians to be qualified as Estonian citizens. Also, since 1993, non-citizens in Estonia are entitled to vote and to take part in civic life at a local level (but not at the national or European levels).
Therefore, the percentage of non-citizens in Estonia is much lower than in Latvia. According to Amnesty International’s 2015 report, stating information from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately 6.8% of the population – 91,000 people – remain stateless, most of them being Russian speakers.. However, progress was made more recently in 2020, also according to the UNHCR. Although the interannual naturalisation rate is currently low in Estonia, the government has partially addressed the issue, especially about the naturalisation of children.
Meanwhile, according to MAR, Lithuania’s governments of Lithuania and Russia reached in 1991 an agreement that granted citizenship to all Russian residents who were settled before its signature. In practical and operative terms, the new Lithuanian citizenship law requested the immigrants who reached the territory since 1940 to demonstrate proficiency in the language, provide proof of residence for at least ten years, and renounce their former citizenship. This agreement benefited more than 90% of the Russian Lithuanian minority.
Keeping a stateless population within the border of a state is not a reasonable stable solution, as it generates trouble and exasperation in this population. Considering the consequences of the current global pandemic, which opened questions on the capacity of the State to follow and assist a population that is not officially recognised nor registered and does not have full access to health rights. Latvia has a new historic opportunity to make the necessary changes in its citizenship law to ensure nationality to all children born in Latvia. This is undoubtedly an essential step in the right direction to accelerate naturalisation processes for an important percentage of the population that remains marginalised.
To avoid any adverse reaction from the rest of the population fearing excessive Russian influence, it is undoubtedly necessary to articulate additional legal mechanisms ensuring the effective integration of the Russian-speaking population in the life of the country. After three decades of Latvian independence, a generational change can also create innovative solutions to the current situation.
For its part, the European Union is able to both grant attractive incentives and enforce corrective actions, to ensure that Latvia effectively improves its naturalisation figures.
In conclusion, since the State – like any other collective institution – is a human construction, the access, fulfilment, and protection of human rights is a permanent construction on which it must continuously focus. It cannot be obtained without collective support.
Author’s short Bio
Juan Francisco Dávila y Verdin, FRSA is currently taking part in the Master´s Program in International Law and Diplomacy jointly organised by the University for Peace – United Nations Mandated – (UPEACE) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).
In addition, of being the Founder and Managing Director of FuturED, an educational online platform created to contribute to the fulfilment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, he also serves as a Senior Consultant for TESH Invest S.A., where he is a Board Member of the company. He is also a Board member of the prestigious British San Martín Institute (BSMI), where he manages Communication and Events.
Multilingual, with a background in Finance and Administration and over ten years’ experience in Project Management, Juan worked in international environments with private, public companies, and non-governmental organizations. He has a deep understanding of organizational structure along with the breadth and depth of international experience, which proves his keen ability to navigate through extraordinary challenges.
He is MBA graduated with honours from the International University of Monaco. Juan is also BA (Hons.) in Global Politics and International Relations from Birkbeck, University of London, and is also Bachiller Universitario in History from the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL), in Argentina. In 2021 Juan was awarded Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (RSA), and was elected Member of the Royal Historical Society (RHS) in the United Kingdom.
Recently, Juan Dávila y Verdin represented the University for Peace – United Nations Mandated – (UPEACE) at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26, that took place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom.