Noncitizens of Latvia (II): deniezenship or statelessness?

The 21st of July 1940, marks the 77th anniversary of the creation of the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic. More than fifty years of Soviet domination had severe socio-economic and cultural repercussions for Latvians but also for those ethnic Russians that were forced to move into the former Soviet Latvia. This second paper on the topic of Latvian noncitizens aims to analyse the socio-cultural but specially the political implications of those ethnic Russians that lost all political rights once Latvia restored its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and how the course of time has helped easing their access to Latvian citizenship and therefore gaining political rights in the current Republic of Latvia.

Author: Luís Vilachá

Noncitizens or Stateless people?

‘They are excluded not because of what they are but because of what they are not’ (Brubaker, 1996:29).

This is how Brubaker defines noncitizens, as outsiders of the nation. According to the Latvian Citizenship Law, noncitizens are ‘such citizens of the former USSR who resided in the Republic of Latvia [..] on 1 July 1992 [and] [..] were registered in the territory of Latvia regardless of the status of the living space indicated in the registration of residence [..]’ (Likumi, 2007a:nd). Therefore noncitizens are those internal migrants, and its descendants, who migrated from different areas within the Soviet Union, but especially from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (from now on, RSFSR), to the former Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (from now on, LSSR) following the economic opportunities the LSSR offered as being one of the most urbanised areas of the Soviet Union.

Tonkiss & Bloom present noncitizenship as the concept that defines the absence of citizenship. Besides this simplistic definition, these authors defines noncitizenship as a ‘membership category in its own right’, meaning that being deprived from citizenship does not imply of being outside society. This is the case of the approximate 900 thousand ethnic Russians living in Latvia after the end of the LSSR, and in a lesser way Ukrainians and Belarusians. They represented and still represent a category by themselves, they are noncitizens. Both Brubaker and Tonkiss & Bloom definition on the concept of noncitizens can be encircled around the concepts of Denizen and Denizenship. A Denizen in society is represented by those people living among us but they are illegible to be one of us, and thus be a citizen. At the same time, Denizienship represent according to Donaldson & Kymlicka, a loose relationship that should be ruled by norms of justice in order to avoid discrimination and stigmatization to those ‘who don’t belong’ and therefore are not protect by the rule of law . Tonkiss & Bloom continue explaining that the status of noncitizenship is embedded in the context where citizenship is denied. This means that it can differ from country to country and therefore the complexity of the society in itself can also determine the legal status of those deprived of citizenship, as this status is built to ‘navigate laws, policies and procedures’ and categorised them as a group of noncitizens (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2013:214-5; Tonkiss & Bloom, 2015:840-4). Once the LSSR disappeared, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Republic of Latvia regained its independence they got caught up in the middle. The main issue was that ‘Latvia did not view itself as a new state but as a continuation of a Latvian state that existed between the two World Wars’ (Tonkiss & Bloom, 2015: 838-9; Heleniak, 2006:n.d; Prikulis, 1997:4-5). This means that for those citizens of the Soviet state, once this state ceased to exist they ended up being citizens from nowhere. In other words, stateless.

Hannah Arendt explained that stateless persons are those who has lost protection from their government and are in need of international agreements to safeguard their status (1976:279). According to the UN, a Stateless person is ‘a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law’ (UNHCR, 2017:nd). The Republic of Latvia has ratified both the Convention on the Status of Stateless people from 1954 and the Convention on the reduction of Statelessness from 1961. As a matter of fact, even though according to the definition given by the UN Convention on Statelessness that defines noncitizens as a Stateless group in Latvia, the Republic of Latvia defends than noncitizens and Stateless people are two different groups following Section 3.2 on the Law on Stateless People, and that is the reason they are specifically covered by the Law on the Status of Former USSR Citizens (UNHCR, 2017b:nd; Reine, 2007:1-6; Likumi, 2007a:n.d; Likumi, 2013:n.d; Likumi, 2007b:n.d). According to Section 7.2 on the Law on Stateless People, those who find themselves in a Stateless situation in Latvia are entitled with the rights specified in the Convention on the Status of Stateless people from 1954. This means, that Stateless people have the right to education, employment, housing and travel documents, among other things. (Likumi, 2007b:n.d).

The Latvian Citizenship law from 1995 follows the same definition given by the UN regarding Statelessness but specified that former USSR citizens were not covered by the Law on Stateless people but by the Law on the status of former USSR citizens (Likumi, 2013:nd). In the Final Provisions (Section 8) of the Law on the Status of former USSR citizens, the law states that both noncitizens and Stateless people have the same rights (Sections 2 to 7 of the same law). In other words, this law equalised their social and economic rights even though they were legally considered two different groups under Latvian law (Section 1 on the law of former USSR Citizens) (Likumi, 2007a:nd).

The implications of being noncitizen: Citizenship acquisition or political ostracism

For those ethnic Russians who decided to stay in the Republic of Latvia, after the collapse of the LSSR, they had to go through the process of naturalisation and apply for Latvian citizenship once they discovered they did not fulfil the initial requirements to become Latvian citizens. This process generated several implications for them, but also at the same time for those that chose to not naturalise and live in Latvia with no political rights.

Noncitizens enjoy these days several social and economic rights within Latvian society. They still lack political rights and that is the reason they are still consider as a Stateless group under the UN Conventions. In 1991 after the Republic of Latvia regained independence, a draft for a new Citizenship Law was being discussed. Within this new law, ethnic Russians were deprived from all sorts of political, social and economic rights becoming then Stateless. It is important to mention that naturalisation requirements ‘[are] a purely discretionary decision of the state’. In this sense the state is free to impose certain conditions according to its needs and its internal situation and therefore to make certain restrictions if necessary (Brubaker, 1996:33). This initial restrictions that targeted citizenship acquisition for noncitizens were severely criticised by different Human Rights organisations, the OSCE[1], the European Union and countries such the United States or the Russian Federation. They requested Latvia to soften its policy regarding noncitizens and citizenship acquisition, which resulted in the Citizenship Law from 1995 (King, 2012:141-2). When the 1995 Citizenship law was introduced there were almost 142 thousand people that were granted Latvian citizenship thanks to the changes in the new law (Djackova, 2014: n.d). The main changes stated that all children born in Latvia after 1991 will automatically become Latvians citizens if the parents applied for it before they turned 15 years old, according to Section 3 on the Citizenship Law (Likumi, 2013:n.d; Lazda, 2009:533). Paradoxically, these new requirements influenced both noncitizens but also Stateless people as the law on the status of former USSR citizens clearly stated regarding their rights within the Latvian Republic (Likumi, 2007a:n.d). The amendments from 2013 made the citizenship acquisition for children easier, as only one parent needed it for children to receive Latvian citizenship (Djacokva, 2014: n.d; Sukonova, 2016: n.d).

It is somehow more complicated with regard of the situation of adults as the naturalisation test from 1995 has been considered by many old generations as too complicated, but also too politically biased. According to Sukonova, since 2005 the total amount of noncitizens that have passed the naturalisation tests have dropped considerably. The reasons behind this are varied. 25% have argued that they should become Latvian automatically because they were born in the country. 21% argue difficulties in learning the language due to their elderly, 14% consider better to maintain this status and be able to travel to the CIS[2]. The rest are either satisfied with their current status as noncitizens or do not find it as a priority to apply for it (Sukonova, 2016: n.d; Pandeia, 2014: n.d).

The implications that affect those noncitizens that have chosen to not naturalise have been socio-political exclusion from the political arena. When the Republic of Latvia was negotiating its accession into the EU prior 2004, one of the conditions demanded from Brussels was to ease the requirements for adult noncitizens to naturalise but also to facilitate children’s naturalisation in order to eliminate their lack of political rights (Heleniak, 2006:n.d). After Latvia became an EU Member State in 2004, the amount of noncitizens has considerably dropped (Sukonova, 2016: n.d). The reasons behind this have been the different measures implemented from the government for those willing to become Latvian citizens, but more specifically new generations are substituting elder ones. As imagined, elderly people represent the group in society among noncitizens less prone to ever become citizens of Latvia these days. Predictions on the evolution in the amount of noncitizens according to the current naturalisation policies suggest that in 2024 there will be approximately 130 thousands noncitizens in Latvia. This will represent in itself a massive difference of nearly a million people in 34 years period if it becomes a reality as Šūpule et al. have suggested. (2014:77-8).

[1] OSCE, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

[2] CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States