World War II and the Soviet occupation significantly changed the ethnic make-up of the population of Latvia, as well as traditional relationships between various ethnic groups. In 1935, before Soviet occupation in 1940, 77% of the population were ethnic Latvians, but that proportion had dropped to 52% by 1989. This change occurred as a result of mass migration (primarily from the Russian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, and Byelorussian SSR), which reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, the percentage of Russians jumped from 8.8% in 1935 to 34% in 1989 and Byelorussians from 1.4% to 4.5%. It is significant that most Soviet immigrants had no connection to Latvia during its period of independence, nor with the Latvian language or culture.
Taking into consideration the changed ethno-demographic situation, discussions about granting Latvian citizenship began even before Latvia had regained its independence. Many members of the leadership of the Popular Front of Latvia (LTF) supported a pragmatic, liberal approach to granting citizenship, although it remains unclear if the LTF truly planned to grant citizen status to all inhabitants of the Latvian SSR. The Citizens’ Congress adopted an opposing opinion that called for a legally based approach to citizenship by renewing citizenship status only for those people, and their descendants, who were citizens according to Latvian law in 1940, i.e. those who had been citizens of an interwar independent Latvia and their descendants. The declaration that renewed Latvian independence, adopted by the Latvian SSR Supreme Council on 4 May 1990, stressed state continuity. Therefore, Latvian independence was viewed not as a new declaration, but rather a restoration of state status after the illegal occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union, which erased Latvia’s independence de facto, but not de iure.
ON THE ROAD TO A CITIZENSHIP LAW
When Latvia regained de facto independence in August 1991, citizenship policy was based on the doctrine of state continuity. On 15 October 1991, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia adopted a declaration renewing citizenship status to all who had been citizens in the interwar period and their immediate descendants. The remaining approximate 740 000 inhabitants had to wait several years, because final decisions about naturalization could only be adopted by a parliament that had been elected by legal citizens. This took place in 1993 and questions of citizenship began to be addressed in 1994. Nevertheless, the period between 1992 and 1995 was significant for another reason, e.g. the registration of inhabitants, which was administered by the Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (PID).
This process was complicated by a series of situations. Firstly, a large number of Russian military personnel, anticipating a bilateral agreement for the removal of the Russian army, attempted to legalize their status in Latvia by entering into marriages of convenience or obtaining falsified documents. Secondly, based on possible connections to the Russian army, the PID adopted a very strict interpretation of the citizenship law, resulting in international repercussions and lengthy legal proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights. By 1995, a total of 2 516 517 inhabitants had been registered, of whom 1 776 286 (approx. 70%) were citizens. Of the total of 740 231 non-citizens, 476 790 (64%) were Russians, 88 151 (12%) – Byelorussians, and 65 183 (9%) – Ukrainians. In 1995, similar to the situation in Estonia, a large number of registered citizens were Russians (289 106 or almost 21%), but among non-citizens, Russian-speakers clearly dominated. This was the basis for frequent rebukes against Latvia for an ethnically discriminatory citizenship policy.
In July 1994, the Latvian parliament adopted the Citizenship Law that determined naturalization policy. This law gave preference to specific categories among the inhabitants – ethnic Latvians, spouses of citizens, and those who had completed their education in the Latvian language. Concurrently, it denied citizenship opportunities to former Soviet or Russian military personnel, former KGB operatives, and those people who had actively acted against Latvian independence. The first version of the law included a quota system, or the “naturalization window” principle. This defined a specific time frame during which certain groups of non-citizens, who had been born in specific years, could become naturalized citizens. This allowed younger non-citizens to become citizens before older ones. At about the same time, the law was passed that legally defined the rights of non-citizens: they were entitled to all civil and social rights enjoyed by citizens, but not political rights. Non-citizens were given internationally-recognized travel documents, but they could not enjoy active or passive voting rights, nor could they work in a number of professions – mostly public sector jobs (such as public service) or various private sector professions (such as the legal profession and other positions connected to the legal system).
LATVIAN CITIZENSHIP POLICY IN THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT
It is important to note that in the 1990s, Latvian citizenship policy was developed in close cooperation with international organizations. The most important of these were EDSO and the European Council, who encouraged the liberalization of citizenship policies. Undeniably, during this period, it was very important for Latvia to return to the fold of the Western world, which was a powerful motivator for dialogue with international organizations. The most notable example of this was the change to the citizenship laws adopted in 1998, which removed the “naturalization window” principle, allowing children born after the renewal of Latvian independence to register for Latvian citizenship. Due to political pressure, these changes could only be adopted through a national referendum, which took place in large part because of international recommendations, as well as the fact that despite Latvia’s efforts, it was not invited to begin negotiations for joining the European Union in 1997.
Latvian citizenship policy has not experienced significant changes since this time. Certain adjustments were made in 2013 when changes to the law liberalized naturalization procedures for children of non-citizens, broadened the government’s power to grant citizenship through naturalization, and eased dual citizenship rights with specific countries – members of the EU, European Free Trade Association, and NATO, as well as Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand. In 2009, the Naturalization Board was joined with the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs.
Even though the citizenship question has lost its original politically contentious nature, it still cannot be considered resolved. The weakest aspect can be considered the relatively slow rate of naturalization. Although over 20 years have passed since the introduction of naturalization, about 280 000 non-citizens still exist, forming about 14% of the nation’s population. Two distinct waves of naturalization took place after the “naturalization window” policy was rescinded: the first from 1999–2000 and the second after Latvia joined the EU from 2004–2006 when annual naturalization requests reached 15 000–20 000. Today, the number has shrunk to about 1 000 annually.
Reasons for not requesting citizenship are varied. In a 2014 survey, proportionally the largest amount (22%) noted that they could not pass the required tests – primarily the Latvian language test. A significant percentage (14%) noted that they were satisfied with their current status, but 13% did not want to lose their right to visa-free travel to Russia and other CIS member states, a right they would lose automatically upon adopting Latvian citizenship. However, the group of non-citizens who choose to remain non-citizens cannot be ignored: 19% are of the opinion that they deserve automatic citizenship, but another 17% are waiting for some changes and easement in citizenship policy. Clearly, attitudes towards adopting Latvian citizenship are influenced not only by practical considerations, but also by a general attitude towards the Latvian state. This is often formed under the influence of the media, and in the case of the large portion of the Russian-speaking population, it is closely linked to Russian media, particularly TV, and its attitudes towards the Baltic States.
When viewing development of the Latvian citizenship law overall, two conclusions can be reached. The decision to adopt the principle of state continuity was not only an important legal decision, but also a key political commitment. Whether or not those people who migrated to Latvia during Soviet occupation and had a weak connection to Latvian statehood and culture were morally entitled to full political citizenship rights immediately after the renewal of independence is a debatable question. Hypothetically, it is possible to imagine what the consequences may have been, had these rights been granted. There is basis to the presumption that the exclusion of this group of people from the political competition of the time may have served as a stabilizing factor in the development of Latvia as a democracy. In addition, a number of political scientists have noted that, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, the concentration of power in the hands of the titular nation has served as guarantor for the swift integration of these nations into the European Union and NATO, which may have been much more difficult to achieve in the case of the adoption of the “zero-option” citizenship law. However, the fact that the citizenship policy adopted at that time was valid and necessary, does not free today’s Latvian policy makers from their responsibility to build relations, based on democratic principles of tolerance and mutual respect, between the inhabitants of the country, regardless of their historical or ethnic background.