Basic facts about Latvia

02.12.2014. 19:09

Basic facts about citizenship and language policy of Latvia and some sensitive history-related issues

CITIZENSHIP POLICY IN LATVIA

The Republic of Latvia continues the legal personality of the state that lost its independence in 1940 following its illegal occupation by the USSR, followed by Nazi Germany, and then again by the USSR in 1945. The Baltic States were the only three countries, members of the League of Nations, which did not regain independence immediately after the Second World War.

The illegality of occupation and continuation of de iure independent Republic of Latvia throughout the Soviet occupation was recognized by our Western partners, and was accepted by other states, international organizations, and tribunals, among them, the European Court of Human Rights.

On 4 May 1990 the Republic of Latvia declared the restoration of its independence with all legal consequences - restoring the body of law (including the Constitution, Civil code, property law, citizenship, etc.) and democratic institutions. On 17 September 1991 the Baltic States became members of the United Nations. The USSR collapsed on 26 December 1991.

Thus, Latvia restored the status and rights of those persons who were recognized as citizens under 1919 Law, as well their descendants.

At the same time, Latvian authorities faced the reality that there was a large group of persons permanently residing in Latvia who had immigrated during the period of Soviet occupation and who lost their USSR citizenship after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union but who had never been citizens of the Republic of Latvia or their descendants.

As these individuals were not eligible to automatically acquire Latvia's citizenship, a special temporary status was established to these former USSR citizens: the status of “former citizens of the USSR without the citizenship of the Republic of Latvia or any other country” (hereinafter “non-citizens”).

Non-citizens of Latvia are not stateless persons. The protection provided to non-citizens in Latvia extends beyond to what is required by the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

Non-citizens enjoy the protection of state in Latvia and abroad, along with most other rights. It is the only group of persons, in addition to citizens, who are granted permanent residence in Latvia ex lege.  They can freely reside on a permanent basis in a foreign country while retaining all rights and privileges of Latvian non-citizen, inter alia, to move freely and return back to Latvia at any time.  Non-citizens have the same social guarantees as Latvian citizens and enjoy most political rights. The only substantive difference between Latvian citizens and non-citizens is the right to vote and to work in the civil service or occupy posts linked to national security.

Non-citizens are able to become citizens of Latvia through a simple naturalization procedure, and currently almost 142,000 persons have done so. Latvia's authorities stress that the status of non-citizens is considered temporary in nature.

Naturalization

The percentage of non-citizens has dropped to 13.0 % (282 876) in January 2014 compared to 29% (approximately 730 000) in 1995, when the naturalization process began. 83,6 % of Latvia's residents are now citizens. By 1 January 2014, 141 618 persons have been granted Latvian citizenship through the naturalization procedure.

Close to 99% of children born in Latvia are born as Latvian citizens or are registered as Latvian citizens at birth. This number is expected to rise furthermore, taking into account the amendments to the Citizenship Law, that have been in force only since 1 October 2013 (see below).

Latvia continues to encourage non-citizens to apply for citizenship both by adopting legislative measures facilitating naturalization and by carrying out information campaigns.

The Latvian language and history exams have been simplified. The naturalization fee has been reduced for low-income, unemployed, retired and other socially vulnerable categories and abolished for politically repressed and disabled persons, orphans and persons from social care institutions.

Amendments to the Citizenship Law, 9 May 2013                           

On 9 May 2013, after more than two years of meticulous work the Saeima (Parliament) adopted Amendments to the Citizenship Law (hereinafter – Amendments). The Amendments were endorsed by the President of Latvia on 23 May 2013 and came into effect on 1 October 2013.

The overall aim of the Amendments is twofold – to adjust the Citizenship Law to developments since 1998 and to further simplify citizenship acquisition and naturalization process.

Regarding the first aim, increased mobility of Latvia's population after joining the EU and, consequently, the need to sustain ties with citizens all over the world determined the need to significantly extend the scope for dual citizenship.

Regarding the second aim, several measures have been agreed upon.

According to the Amendments, Latvian citizenship to children of stateless persons and non-citizens is granted automatically. According to the Amendments, one parent’s consent is sufficient to register a new born child whose parents are stateless or non-citizens as Latvia’s citizen together with birth registration at the Civil Registry Office.

A child under the age of 15 who have not been registered as Latvia’s citizen at the time of the birth registration can be registered as a citizen upon an application submitted by one of the parents. Between 15-18 years of age a child can be registered as a citizen upon his/her own application. The Amendments also abolish the pledge of parents when registering citizenship of a stateless or non-citizen child.

Furthermore, the Amendments provide that pupils who have acquired more than a half of the basic educational program in Latvian language are exempted from all naturalization examinations and are registered as citizens upon submitting a naturalization application and meeting requirements provided by law.

The Amendments also simplify requirements regarding permanent residence period for the naturalization applicants, removing requirement of uninterrupted residence in Latvia. A specific paragraph of the Amendments deals with Latvian language test requirements and exemptions therefrom. Namely, the requirements of the Latvian language naturalisation test have been standardised and equated with the requirements of the centralised language tests in educational institutions, be it Latvian or national minority educational institutions. Furthermore, the Amendments provide for the possibility to acquire Latvian citizenship through naturalization procedure also to former military personnel of USSR (Russia) who have opted for residence in Latvia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Amendments to the Citizenship Law attest to yet another expression of a good will on the part of Latvia to further consolidation and integration of society. Since restoration of independence in 1991 Latvia has advanced on a long and challenging way towards society integration. Every step has contributed to this overall aim and we can acknowledge what we have reached.  

LATVIA’S LANGUAGE POLICY

The Latvian Constitution and laws guarantee and protect the rights of persons belonging to national minorities to preserve and develop their language and their ethnic and cultural identity.

State Language Law is aimed at preservation, protection and development of the Latvian language, but at the same time provides for the integration of national minorities in the society of Latvia by observing their rights to use their native or any other language.

Latvia continues to develop and finance its liberal education model providing state-funded education in seven minority languages: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian. Currently (academic year 2013/2014) state finances 99 schools with instruction in Russian, and 65 bilingual (Latvian and minority language programmes) schools. Every school is entitled to determine by itself which subjects are taught in Latvian, but the total should be 60% of all subjects.

On 18 February 2012 a referendum was held in Latvia where a large majority of voters rejected constitutional amendments that would make Russian the second state language.

The referendum prompted a high turnout: 71.1% of Latvia's eligible voters participated in the referendum. Results were clear: only 17 % of eligible voters voted in favor of adopting Russian as the second state language. No substantive complaints about the conduct of referendum were received.

As regards Russia's claim that part of population (non-citizens) was not allowed to vote in referendum - the Latvian Government's position is that the right to vote is an integral part of citizenship. Non-citizens are ensured easy access to naturalization and citizenship. 

The referendum reaffirmed that sensitive issues can be addressed through democratic means, and that work will continue towards developing an open and consolidated society on the basis of European democratic values and Latvian as the only state language.

SENSITIVE HISTORY RELATED ISSUES IN LATVIA

During and after the Second World War Latvia suffered under the occupation of two totalitarian regimes - Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Using repressions and terror the occupying Nazi and Soviet powers forcibly drafted many people in Latvia to join military units on one or other side of the battle-front.

During the Second World War more than 100,000 Latvian citizens were mobilized into various formations of German armed forces and about the same number in Soviet armed forces. 

Nazi Germany formed the Latvian Legion in 1943 thus breaching the Hague Convention of 1907 which prohibits occupying powers to draft inhabitants of the occupied territories for military service. The conscripts were labeled "volunteers" to circumvent the Convention. Those who attempted to avoid conscription into the Legion risked imprisonment and later - death penalty.  The Latvian Legion was a frontline unit, one third of its soldiers died in the front. No member of the Legion was ever convicted of war crimes as a member of the Legion.

Former soldiers who fought on one or other side of the battlefront during the Second World War remember their fallen comrades on different dates. 16 March is not an official day of commemoration of war dead in Latvia, however, some former soldiers, purely by their private initiative, choose to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers. They attend church services, gather in cemeteries and lay flowers at the Monument of Freedom without any ideological pretext. There is no marching in order to express support to any totalitarian ideology. No Nazi uniforms, symbols or slogans appear on this or other days in Latvia - they are banned by law.

Latvia's Government or any other State institution does not provide support or participate in the private activities mentioned above. Latvia honours its fallen soldiers on Lāčplēsis Day on 11 November  – the Heroes' Remembrance Day.

In recent years some radical groups have tried to disrupt the private commemorative events to call attention to themselves and their agenda. Russian Federation has attempted to conduct a smear campaign against Latvia's government to allege Nazi sympathies of Latvian government or Latvian population.

Latvian authorities have consistently condemned all crimes against humanity committed by both totalitarian regimes.  Latvia categorically denounces the Holocaust, mourns its victims and is strongly committed to education, remembrance and research of it.

Latvia is a democratic country with all the freedom guarantees provided for in the Constitution, and as a party to the European Convention for Human Rights provides the right of everyone to a peaceful assembly.