By Indra Ekmanis*
(FPRI) — In 2016, twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 52 newborns in Latvia became former citizens of a country that no longer exists. They are Latvia’s “non-citizens”—a stop-gap status designed for people who moved to Latvia during the Soviet era, most of whom are Russian speakers, that has become a chronic blight on Latvia’s post-Soviet democratization.
Non-citizenship is not the same as statelessness. It affords most of the rights and privileges of citizenship, with the exceptions of voting and working in the civil and security services. Nor is it unavoidable. Non-citizen parents can simply opt-in to register their child as a Latvian citizen at birth. Naturalization or later registration is also an option for many. Today, about 238,000 individuals—11% of the country’s population—are Latvian non-citizens, compared to 29% in 1995. Still, newborn non-citizens are living relics of a system designed to temporarily cope with post-Soviet transition, not one designed to define children two generations into an independent, democratic Latvia.
Efforts to Change the Non-Citizen Policies
In September 2017, Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis introduced a legislative initiative to parliament (Saeima) that would chip away at this long-standing post-Soviet institution. Children born to non-citizen parents after June 1, 2018 would be automatically registered as Latvian citizens unless parents choose the citizenship of another country. Vējonis’ proposal simply removes the option of “non-citizen” for newborns, hastening the end to a status that is already well on its way towards resolving itself (less than 0.3% of births in 2016 resulted in non-citizenship). And yet, despite a broad spectrum of support, the president’s initiative failed in the Saeima, thanks to the veto power of National Alliance (NA), a right-wing alliance in the governing coalition, and the lack of political will to break the coalition over this issue.
Why is legislation affecting less than 100 people annually important? Its failure highlights the persistent and pernicious political focus on 25-year-old grievances that do much more harm to modern Latvia than they do to ease old wounds.
By any analytic standard, Latvia is a liberal democracy. It is a full member of the European Union and NATO, and has seen almost no ethnic violence as a result of post-Soviet independence. Still, ethnic identity plays a major role in shaping political discourse.
This is particularly evident on the far ends of the political spectrum. The leftist party, Harmony, which draws support from Latvia’s significant Russian-speaking population, until recently had a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. The right-wing National Alliance teeters on the edge of radical nationalism. Harmony is the largest party in the 100-member Saeima with 24 seats. NA has 17 seats, but is part of the center-right governing coalition. This political split is a legacy of 50 years of Soviet occupation, which brought with it Russification policies and a brutally executed demographic shift that shrunk the proportion of ethnic Latvians to barely half of the population. Efforts to restore a Latvian nation-state as the primary promoter of titular culture (as Germany promotes German culture or France, French culture) were heavy-handed and blunt; Russian speakers, after years of having considerable social advantages in the Soviet system, were left in limbo. External pressures from the United States, other European countries, and Russia on issues such citizenship and education policies exacerbated chaotic institutional change. Grievances of both ethnic Latvians and non-citizen Russian speakers were left ignored, leaving language and ethnicity as a convenient scapegoat in future politics.
A quarter of a century later, the dramatic problems of ethnic integration loom large in Latvia—both at home and abroad. Recent research argues that the narrative of ethnic conflict is overplayed, particularly when it comes to the experiences of daily life. Still, issues like the national language, minority education system, and citizenship remain favored fodder for parties who hope to capitalize on a politicized ethnic split. Even the term “nationality” (tautība) is unclear in Latvia—whether it is possible for ethnic minorities to become “Latvian” (as opposed to “of Latvia”) has been unclearly legislated. With 2018 parliamentary election campaigns ramping up, Vējonis’ proposal leaves an opening to double-down on “who” can really be “Latvian.”
The Continuing Debate over “Soviet” Millennials
The National Alliance’s forceful argument against extending automatic citizenship to the children of non-citizens cites the risk that it may inadvertently grow a voter bloc more loyal to Russia than to the Latvian state. This argument should be a familiar enough to Western analysts, who have oft-pointed to large Russian-speaking populations on Russia’s Western border (around 35% of Latvia’s total population) as a potential fifth columns. Nay-sayers also stress that parents should have the ultimate say in the citizenship of their child, and that “forcing” Latvian citizenship on the children of non-citizen parents infringes on that right.
But counterarguments are simple. The choice of non-citizenship infringes more on the political rights of the child than of the parents, and an argument that decades from now, the 50 “would-have-been-noncitizen” babies born per year will swing the country toward Russia stands on shaky ground. Right-wing lawmakers would be better served addressing the feeling of disenfranchisement among Russian speakers that contributes to pro-Russian sentiments, than denying basic rights of citizenship to these children.
The Debate Continues
The debate on the non-citizen topic has become symbolic, not quantitative. No longer do non-citizens make up nearly a third of the population as they did 25 years ago. Now, only 11% of the Latvian population have not become citizens of any state, and their reasons are often much more benign than hostile. For one, non-citizens can much more easily travel to Russia than Latvian citizens, while also having EU travel benefits. Many have plans to naturalize, but others see no real need to go through the process. Certainly, some post-Soviet holdouts, many of whom cannot speak a sentence in Latvian 25 years on, remain staunch in their opinion that citizenship should have been automatically granted in 1991. But barriers to becoming a citizen for youths and Latvian speakers have eased considerably. A 2013 change in citizenship law, which was geared toward retaining ties with Latvia’s growing diaspora, relaxed laws for citizenship acquisition. As a result, the number of children born as non-citizens is less than a quarter of what it was five years ago, even as the number of overall births increased.
The influence of Russian media and a large minority school system (nearly 40% of schools in Riga, the country’s capital, are minority schools) contributes far more to divisions between Russian speakers and ethnic Latvians than the type of passports they carry. Bridging such rhetorical and spatial divides—perhaps by reducing inadvertent segregation or increasing access to independent Russian-language media—are institutional issues that must be delicately handled to advance integration. Still, automatic, birthright citizenship could go a long way toward reducing the feeling of Russian-speaker disenfranchisement in the Latvian political system.
Despite persistent integration issues—and there certainly are many—the Latvian population would much rather politicians focus on broad-based issues like corruption or health care than provoking unnecessary ethnic divisions. Many studies have repeatedly confirmed that Russian-speakers in Latvia largely perceive the country as home, and a dramatically aging population means Latvia is in desperate need of young citizens. Continuing an archaic policy of bestowing “former Soviet citizenship” on Latvia’s newborns does little to move the nation forward, neither at home, nor in the eyes of the international community. It’s high time this status was put to bed.
About the author:
*Indra Ekmanis is a Title VIII Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute in the Woodrow Wilson Center
This article was published by FPRI.