The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Soviet Occupation Legacy: Latvian Citizenship Policy

Soviet Occupation Legacy: Latvian Citizenship Policy

Author: Ivars Ījabs

Determining policy on the granting of citizenship is traditionally the sovereign decision of any country. The position taken on citizenship is the one element of Latvian democracy that has earned the greatest attention internationally. This was especially true in the 1990s when development of a democratic citizenship policy was one of the prerequisites for Latvia’s integration into the European Union and NATO. Firstly, this policy related to the legal status of the large numbers of people who had migrated to Latvia during the Soviet era and their opportunities to gain Latvian citizenship. The “non-citizen” question has lost much of its original intensity, but continues to be frequently cited as a problem in Latvian democracy. This is most notable in Latvia’s relationship with the Russian Federation, which has adopted, both formally and informally, the status of “protector” of Latvia’s non-citizens. Simultaneously, the politicization of this question has impeded development of a detailed and clear understanding of the historical roots and evolution of Latvia’s citizenship policies.


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.


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).


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.

Recommended reading

N. Muižnieks, ‘Government Policy and the Russian Minority’, in N. Muižnieks (ed.), Latvian-Russian Relations. Domestic and International Dimensions, Riga, University of Latvia Press, 2006

J. Rozenvalds, ‘The Soviet Heritage and Integration Policy Development since the Restoration of Independence’, in N. Muižnieks (ed.), How Integrated Is Latvian Society? An Audit of Achievements, Failures, and Challenges, Riga, University of Latvia Press, 2010

N.M. Gelazis, ‘The Effect of EU Conditionality on Citizenship Policies and the Protection of National Minorities in the Baltic States’, in V. Pettai and J. Zielonka (ed.), The Road to the European Union: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Manchester University Press, 2003

  • 1939 - 1940 Okupācijas priekšvēsture
    1939 - 1940
    Occupation prehistory
    • 23 August 1939
      The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sign a non-aggression treaty.
    • 1 September 1939
      Germany attacks Poland – World War II begins; Latvia declares neutrality.
    • 17 September 1939
      USSR attacks Poland.
    • 5 October 1939
      As a result of military and political pressure, Latvia signs a “bilateral assistance” agreement with the USSR, allowing military army bases to be placed on Latvian territory.
    • 30 October 1939
      Nazi Germany signs an agreement with the Latvian government to transfer ethnic Germans living in Latvia to Germany.
    • 15 June 1940
      USSR attacks several border guard posts on the eastern border of Latvia.
    • 16 June 1940
      USSR presents Latvia with an ultimatum demanding Latvia allow unlimited Soviet troops to enter Latvian territory.
  • 1940-1941 Padomju okupācija
    Soviet occupation
    • 17 June 1940
      USSR occupies Latvia.
    • 20 June 1940
      A new government, created by Moscow and led by Augusts Kirhenšteins, is installed in Latvia.
    • 14-15 July 1940
      Rigged, non-democratic elections, which contravene Latvian election laws and the Latvian Constitution, take place; only one party participates – Latvijas Darba Tautas bloks [Latvian Workers’ Bloc].
    • 21 July 1940
      The illegally elected Parliament declares Latvia a Soviet Socialist Republic and requests that the USSR admit it to its Union. Kārlis Ulmanis steps down as president; he is arrested and deported to Russia the following day.
    • 5 August 1940
      Latvia is admitted to the USSR.
    • 13 August 1940
      The All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik) (AUCP(b)) Central Committee ratifies the constitution of the Latvian SSR.
    • November 1940
      The Soviet Russian Criminal Code officially becomes law in Latvia.
    • 14 May 1941
      The Soviet government and the AUCP(b) begins planning mass deportations and repressions of Latvian citizens by adopting the secret decision "On the deportation of foreign elements from the Baltic republics, Western Ukraine, and Moldavia ".
    • 13-14 June 1941
      The Soviet Union deports 15 443 inhabitants of Latvia.
  • 1941-1944/45 Nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas okupācija
    Nazi German occupation
    • 22 June 1941
      Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union. Hostilities begin on Latvian territory along with Nazi occupation.
    • 16 July 1941
      Berlin creates the administrative region Ostland – Latvia is one of the four regions that make up Ostland.
    • July 1941
      The first mass annihilation of Jews begins – the largest actions take place in Riga, Daugavpils, and Liepāja, as well as in other smaller towns.
    • 30 November 1941
      Killing of Jews in the Riga Ghetto begins. In total, 70 000 Latvian Jews were killed. Thanks to the efforts of local citizens, 400 Latvian Jews were saved.
    • 5 December 1941
      The German army is defeated at Moscow.
    • 7 March 1942
      Nazi occupiers create the Landesselbstverwaltung – local administrative rule.
    • 29 января 1943 года
      Nazi occupiers adopt regulations for the arrest of Latvia’s Roma population and their incarceration in concentration camps.
    • 11 February 1943
      Orders are passed for the creation of a “voluntary” Latvian legion under the auspices of the SS; mobilization is often involuntary.
    • 13 August 1943
      Representatives of the four largest parties from the last Latvian Parliament found the Latvian Central Council (Latvijas Centrālā Padome – LCP) in Riga, which calls for the renewal of Latvian independence. Konstantīns Čakste is named head of the LCP.
    • 28 November 1943
      USA president Franklin Roosevelt, Great Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meet at the Teheran Conference. Stalin succeeds in gaining permission to have a free hand in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe after the war.
    • 22 March 1944
      189 Latvian politicians submit a resolution to the Nazi occupiers for the renewal of Latvian independence, which is denied.
    • 18 July 1944
      The Soviet army defeats German troops and crosses the Latvian border at Šķaune in Ludza county. The second Soviet occupation begins.
    • End of July – beginning of August 1944
      German occupiers allow General Jānis Kurelis and the chief of his headquarters, Captain Kristaps Upelnieks, to create a separate military unit. It cooperates with the LCP in the hopes of becoming the nucleus of the army of independent Latvia.
    • 8 September 1944
      The last LCP meeting to occur on Latvian soil takes place at which a declaration for the renewal of Latvian independence is adopted.
    • 20 November 1944
      Unable to control troops under the command of Kurelis, German SD units arrest all military personal at his headquarters. Eight officers are convicted and shot. The remaining military personnel are imprisoned in concentration camps.
    • 5 February 1945
      Leaders of the USA, GB, and the USSR meet at Yalta. During discussions, Soviet demands are met, and the Soviets occupy Latvia once again.
  • 1944/45-1953 Staļinisma terors. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    Stalinist terror
    • 8 May 1945
      WWII ends on Latvian territory; German forces in Kurzeme surrender, including the 19th Latvian Legionnaire division.
    • 3 October 1945
      The first meeting of members of the LCP who have escaped to Germany takes place in Lustenau, Austria. Latvian citizens in exile continue the struggle for Latvian statehood.
    • 6 October 1945
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council members accept Moscow’s decision to annex the city of Abrene and six neighbouring townships to the Russian SSR.
    • 10 February 1946
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council elections take place.
    • 17 February 1947
      In order to weaken communist rule in Eastern Europe, the USA begins transmission of the Voice of America, which is listened to in Latvian territory illegally.
    • 29 January 1949
      USSR Council of Ministers decide to deport members of the National Partisans and their supporters, as well as wealthy farmers (kulaks) from Latvia to Siberia.
    • 25 March 1949
      Soviet occupiers carry out the second mass deportation of Latvian inhabitants to Siberia – in total 42 322 people.
    • July 1949
      As a result of repressive Soviet occupation politics, the number of collective farms (kolkhozes) triples, creating 3857 kolkhozes.
    • 17 January 1953
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council adopts the decree creating a new Latvian SSR flag.
    • 5 March 1953
      Stalin dies.
  • 1953-1959 “Atkusnis”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 12 September 1953
      Nikita Khrushchev becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee (CPSU CC).
    • 14 May 1955
      Creation of the Warsaw Pact.
    • 25 February 1956
      At the CPSU 20th Congress, Khrushchev openly speaks of crimes committed by Stalin and condemns the Stalin “personality cult”.
    • 23 August 1956
      The uprising by the people in Hungary is put down by Soviet forces.
  • 1959-1985 “Stagnācija”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 7–8 July 1959
      Latvian CP plenum condemns the national communists.
    • 13 August 1961
      The GDR closes the border to West Berlin; building of the Berlin Wall begins.
    • 10 October 1964
      Khrushchev is forced to resign as First Secretary of the CPSU CK; Leonid Brezhnev takes his place.
    • December 1965
      The Hydroelectric Station at Pļaviņas begins operation.
    • 27 May 1968
      Calls for ending censorship and freeing political prisoners in Czechoslovakia initiates the “Prague Spring” demonstrations.
    • 20 August 1968
      Soviet troops put down the “Prague Spring”.
    • 25 December 1979
      Soviet forces invade Afghanistan.
    • 10 November 1982
      Leonid Brezhnev dies; Yuri Andropov becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 9 February 1984
      Yuri Andropov dies. Konstantin Chernenko becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 10 March 1985
      Konstantin Chernenko dies.
    • 11 March 1985
      Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the CPSU CK and the Soviet Union.
  • 1985-1990/91 “Perestroika”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 10 July 1986
      The first Latvian human rights organization Helsinki-86 is founded in Liepāja.
    • October 1986
      Widespread public support for the environmental protection of the Daugava River begins.
    • 28 February 1987
      The Environment Protection Club (Vides aizsardzības klubs – VAK) is founded.
    • 14 June 1987
      Helsinki-86 invites people to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the deportations in 1941.
    • 23 August 1987
      A protest takes place by the Freedom Monument to commemorate the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
    • 27 April 1988
      VAK organizes protests against the proposed construction of a metro in Riga.
    • 1–2 June 1988
      The Latvian Creative Society organizes a plenum. Journalist, Art Academy professor, and member of the Supreme Council Mavriks Vulfsons publicly declares that Latvia was occupied in 1940.
    • 10 July 1988
      The Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības kustība – LNNK) is founded.
    • 16 July 1988
      VAK organizes a protest in Mežaparks at which the Latvian national flag is flown.
    • 8-9 October 1988
      Latvian National Front (Latvijas tautas fronte – LTF) founding congress. Dainis Īvāns is elected leader.
    • February 1989
      The pro-communist supporters of Moscow Interfront organize protests – they oppose proposed policies to stop migration to Latvia from other Soviet republics and to give the Latvian language official national status.
    • 5 May 1989
      Latvian SSR SC adopts a law granting Latvian national language status.
    • 23 August 1989
      The Baltic Way – a human chain over 660 km long is formed through all three Baltic countries to commemorate the 1939 Hitler- Stalin Pact.
    • 9 November 1989
      The Berlin Wall falls.
    • 18 November 1989
      Mass demonstrations for an independent Latvia on the banks of the Daugava with over 500,000 participants.
    • 18 March 1990
      Latvian SSR parliamentary elections.
  • Neatkarīga Latvija
    Independent Latvia
    • 4 May 1990
      Latvian SSR SC adopts the resolution for the restoration of Latvian independence.
    • 2 January 1991
      Soviet special forces OMON occupy the press building in Riga; there are armed attacks by OMON against other strategic government sites.
    • 13–27 January 1991
      Residents of Latvia create barricades in Riga to protect key locations from forces loyal to Moscow.
    • 3 March 1991
      Inhabitants of Latvia participate in a referendum on declaring an independent democratic state – two-thirds vote for restoring independence.
    • 12 June 1991
      Boris Yeltsin is elected president of Russia.
    • 19 August 1991
      Radical communist attempt a coup in Moscow – the August Putsch.
    • 21 August 1991
      Republic of Latvia Supreme Council declares the Republic of Latvia as an independent democratic state.
    • 22 August 1991
      Iceland is the first nation to recognize Latvian independence.
    • 24 August 1991
      The Russian Federation officially recognizes Latvian independence.
    • 17 September 1991
      Latvia joins the United Nations.
    • 30 December 1991
      The Soviet Union officially ceases to exist.
    • 14 February 1994
      Latvia joins the NATO program “Partnership for Peace”.
    • 12 March 1999
      The first post-Soviet nations join NATO – Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
    • November 2002
      Prague summit. NATO leaders decide to invite Latvia to begin negotiations for admittance.
    • 20 September 2003
      Referendum on joining the European Union.
    • 29 March 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of NATO.
    • 1 May 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of the European Union along with 10 other nations.