Noncitizens of Latvia (I): The origins of the issue

This June 17th marked the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union occupation of the Republic of Latvia, and followed the anniversary of the creation of the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic on the 21st of July 1940. More than fifty years of Soviet domination had severe socio-economic and cultural implications for Latvians but also for those ethnic Russians that were forced to move into the former Soviet Latvia. This first paper on the topic of Latvian noncitizens aims to analyse the historical evolution of Soviet Latvia and the complicate relations in between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians and how fifty years of Soviet domination shaped the current policies towards citizenship acquisition.


Author: Luís Vilachá


After Latvia restored its independence in 1991 and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, more that 700 thousand people were excluded from receiving Latvian citizenship following the Citizenship Law from 1995. According to this law, a strong connection with the country was necessary in order to hold Latvian citizenship. One of the main requirements was and still is to be descendent from someone with Latvian origin before the Soviet occupation of the country in June 1940. The ones remaining were regrouped under the title of noncitizens. According to the law that regulates former USSR Citizens who do not have the Citizenship of Latvia or any other State, those noncitizens were entitled with almost the same rights and duties as those people holding Latvian citizenship. However, they did not have the right to vote or participating in elections, nor could they work for the public administration (Likumi, 2013:nd; Likumi, 2007a:nd).

Almost twenty years after the Citizenship law was introduced, the number of noncitizens have fallen considerably. In 2014 a report from the Latvian government showed that 276,797 noncitizens still live in the country. The are several reasons behind this, old generations passing away have had a considerable influence, but it is not the only one. Migration outside Latvia due to Visa-free travel to the Russian Federation since 2008 has been also an important factor to be considered. For those who have remained, some of them have decided to pass the naturalisation test. Others are non willing to acquire Latvian citizenship due to their elderly or they just oppose the process, arguing ideological issues concerning the content of the naturalisation test (ISI, 2014:99; Pandeia, 2014:nd).

Soviet internal migration

According to the Citizenship Law you can only claim Latvian citizenship if you are able to prove that your ancestors held Latvian citizenship before the 17th of June 1940. This date represents the day of the occupation of what it is called these days the Republic of Latvia by the Soviet Union, and it followed the creation of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Latvia (LSSR, from now on) the 21st of July 1940, which last until the 4th of May 1990. During this time period the balance in between ethnic Latvians in comparison with several other ethnicities, but specially ethnic Russians has changed substantially. According to Prikulis, before 1940 a total amount of 170 thousands ethnic Russians lived in Latvia following the historical bounds in between the Russian Empire and what is now called the Republic of Latvia throughout the centuries. In 1989, after more than 40 years since the creation of the LSSR, the amount of ethnic Russians increased to 906 thousand, which represented a general increase of 433% (1997:4-5).

Migration flows varied from the initial period in comparison with the last decades of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, several factors can be argued when analysing internal migration within the Soviet Union. During the period in between 1940-1950 around half a million people arrived in the LSSR, as this Baltic republic represented one of the most urban and industrialised areas in the Soviet Union (ibid:4-5). This economic advantage enjoyed by the Baltic area (mainly current Estonia and Latvia) led to rapid growth of their urban areas as citizens from other parts of the Soviet Union associated industrial employment with high social benefits that were lacking in other areas such as Siberia, the Urals or the North Caucasus region (Ball & Demko, 1978:102-6). This internal migration flows came together with an increase in the housing construction following the aftermath of World War II. Parallel to this, the city of Riga became the headquarters of the Baltic military district which foster the arrival of over 150 thousand military personnel from other parts of the Soviet Union. These large migration flows came along with several changes in the existent cultural and linguistic balance within the LSSR. During this time period, the amount of ethnic Russians increased from being less than 10% before 1940 to 34% in 1989. At the same time, Belarusians and Ukrainians together barely reached 2% in the 1940 to almost 10% combined in 1989 (Heleniak, 2006:n.d; Prikulis, 1997: 6-8; Russians of Latvia, 2017:nd).

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Besides these significant demographic changes, several education laws were introduced during the time Stalin (a russified Georgian), and especially Nikita Khrushchev, were the leaders of the Soviet Union. One of the main objectives behind the education laws was to elevate the status of the Russian language. The purpose behind, was to unify a very divided mosaic of different ethnicities and nationalities at the expenses of the other spoken languages in the Soviet Union (Silver, 1974:28-40; Zembergs, 1980,n.d). In order to do so, different policies were implemented to russifie the daily life of the Soviet republics, such as the standardization of Cyrillic as common alphabet within the different languages inside Soviet Union, to upgrade the status of the Russian language into the status of mother tongue, among others. These ‘cultural corrections’, together with the above mentioned massive migration from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (from now on, RSFSR) helped fostering ethnic and social tensions among ethnic Latvians as many of the policies implemented both from the governments of Moscow and Riga, favoured ethnic Russians (Silver, 1974:30; Prikulis, 1997:6-8; Muzergues, 2004:14-6).

The fact that around 9 million Russians lived outside the RSFSR during the existence of the Soviet Union had large historical, cultural and demographic implications for the territories they migrated to, both during the existence of the Soviet Union but also once it collapsed in 1991. Once these internal migrants started to arrive into the former LSSR significant changes affected the previous demographic balance of the republic. Only ten years after the creation of the LSSR the amount of ethnics Latvians decreased from being 77% in 1940 to become 63% in 1950 (Prikulis, 1997:8,17). It is important to mention though, that at the same time the total population of the LSSR dramatically increased from being less that 2 million in 1935 to become almost 2,7 million in 1989 due to the internal migration flows mentioned above. It was not only due to the massive arrival of ethnic Russians, but also due to deportations and forced migration of ethnic Latvians that the balance changed (Lazda, 2009:522).

Since the end of the LSSR and together with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the demographic balance of the current Republic of Latvia has changed again. In fact the amount of ethnic Russians has decreased in comparison with the traditional mounting during Soviet times (ibid.:522). As Prikulis explains, in between 1991-1997 more people fled from Latvia to the Russian Federation that in the other way as it has taken place before (1997:18-9). For those ethnic Russians and in a minor way ethnic Slavs staying in the Republic of Latvia after it regained its independence, it became considerably harder, especially regarding the access to equal rights as ethnic Latvians. In fact during the first years after regaining its independence, the Republic of Latvia did not have any specific law to grant Latvian citizenship to non-ethnic Latvians until 1995 when the Citizenship Law was finally introduced. The main reason behind the slow process on whether citizenship was meant to be granted to ethnic Russians or not, was the discussions around whether the newly independent Republic of Latvia was or was not the heir of the former LSSR. In fact it was considered that this new Republic had its direct ancestor in the previous Republic of Latvia before the Soviet occupation of 1940 and therefore, strong discussions took place to decide whether these nearly million ethnic Russians should be accommodated it within the new legislation or just deported back to the Russian Federation (Heleniak, 2006:n.d).

Two sides of the same coin: Are they citizens?

Once the first draft of the Citizenship law was being discussed, ethnic Russians were facing two options regarding their immediate future in the country. They could stay and fight for their political rights or leave Latvia forever. Many of those ethnic Slavs who chose to leave the country, they started leaving the Republic of Latvia once the former LSSR disappeared and Latvia regained its independence, especially as many of them were military personnel. Retaliation from ethnic Latvians but most importanly familiar ties in other former Soviet republics were also important for those who decided to leave Latvia once the LSSR disappeared (Jubilis, 2001:163-189; Prikulis, 1997:18-19).

What does the concept of citizenship stands for?

According to Pocock (1995), citizenship is a ‘legal status, carrying with it with rights to certain things’ (in Joppke, 2010:7). According to Roger Brubaker, to hold a citizenship from one country is internally inclusive and externally exclusive, meaning that for those who hold any citizenship, being a citizen entitles them with several rights that are not just linked to be part of the nation in itself. It implies group membership. When referring to externally exclusive it means that for those lacking the citizenship of the nation they reside or are intending to reside in the near future, they find themselves outside the boundary-dimension that holding a citizenship entitles them (Brubaker, 1996:21; Joppke, 2010:6). Citizenship is then, connected with national-identity, which is determined following the interpretation of jus sanguinis (acquisition from blood/descendent) or jus soli (acquisition by place of birth), and therefore once a person holds the citizenship from a state, this person is entitled among other things with the ‘unconditional right’ to remain and reside in the territory of the state that person belongs to (Brubaker, 1996:23-4; Shevel, 2009:275). Even though as Shevel explains, Brubaker’s approach on citizenship based on national-identity is widely accepted, there are some critics that argue that other factors such the economy, traditions, or the military among others are also bound to citizenship (2009:276).

Within the case of the Post-Soviet area, and more specifically to noncitizens in Latvia, we see how national-identity and more specifically ethnic grouping is bound to citizenship, which is key to understand the Citizenship Law from 1995 and the previous exclusion of ethnic Russians from citizenship acquisition once the Republic of Latvia regained its independence. As Shevel explains, it is important when approaching this issue, to take into account the lack of useful guidance the citizenship law from the Soviet Union provided for the lawmakers of the Post-Soviet republics. Most of the new republics followed Soviet citizenship laws, nevertheless the Baltic republics decided to take their own path and only recognise as citizenship those with legal documentation prior 1940. (ibid.:276-7).

A Transethnic country

In 1989 two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union the Soviet census showed that 34% of the inhabitants of the LSSR where ethnic Russians, while 52% where ethnic Latvians and the rest was spread among different ethnic Slavs (mainly Ukrainians and Belarusians), and then Jews, Germans and Estonians. The LSSR and its chronological successor the Republic of Latvia since 1991 was partially divided into two big ethnic groups. As Lazda explains, even though there was an obvious ethnic division and there was also a clear fear among ethnic Latvians that ethnic Russians would end up taking over the country due to the Russification policies I have explained above. There was a truly believe that ethnic Latvians will vanish. However, even considering this social threat among ethnic Latvians, it is significant to mention that demonstrations pro freedom and democracy in between 1989 and 1991 were transethnic. This means that both ethnic Latvians and Russians were fighting against the same rival, which it was not the RSFSR, but the Soviet Union (2009:519). Those ethnic Russians who fought for independence together with ethnic Latvians, believed in democratic values and were against both the LSSR and the Soviet Union. They gather around the Latvian Popular Front (LTF acronym in Latvian) which had the magazine Awakening (Atmoda in Latvian) as a platform to defend, among other things, an inclusive Latvian nation (ibid.:524-8).

‘Everyone has the right to a nationality’ (UN, 1948:nd).

The sentence above can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. Within the Latvian context, it applies to those who were claiming for rights and continued with their claim once the Republic of Latvia was officially reborn. As Batchelor argues, difficulties can exist when the right to have a nationality collides with state succession and/or restoration. In fact, being national and therefore holding citizenship from a state brings the membership obligation Brubaker defends when arguing than territory and membership are closely related (Batchelor, 1998:157-9; Brubaker 1996:22). Within the Latvian context, transethnic interests towards the common goal of overcoming the Soviet Union united both ethnicities until 1991. The situation began to deteriorate after Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. Latvian independence was followed by an initial absence of leadership in a country that was firmly ruled by one party for decades. Together with this lack of political leadership, but also corruption, economic pressure and ethnic tensions among Latvians and Russians, the LFT which strongly advocated for a transnational Latvia lost all its previous support and failed to be nominated for Parliament in the elections of 1993 (King, 2012:139-140; Lazda, 2009:530-1).

Once the existence of this ‘power vacuum’ (King, 2012:140) became decisive at all political and social levels, the race to get into power started and tensions over the sensitive topic of ethnicity became more visible. The drafting of two sensitive laws contributed into the escalation of tension among the two largest ethnic groups. The language and the citizenship law. In 1989 the LFT had proposed to grant citizenship to all residents of the former LSSR no matter their ethnicity. The only requirement was to prove residence in the country during the last 10 years. However, once Latvia regained its independence, the Parliament openly proclaimed the illegal 50 year occupation of the Soviet Union and stated that the newly regained Republic was not a democratic continuation of the LSSR but of the previous Latvian Republic from 1940. This implied, among other things, that the requirements for citizenship acquisition were severely harden, as it was required to have Latvian ancestors before 1940 in order to be a Latvian citizen. Once the first Citizenship Law was approved, more than 700 thousand ethnic Russians were excluded from citizenship acquisition. They became officially noncitizens (Lazda, 2009:530-1).