EU to open its visa doors to Baltic “aliens”

EU to open its visa doors to Baltic “aliens”


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The Council of the European Union is going to permit visa-free travel later this month to half a million “aliens” – stateless persons living in Estonia and Latvia.

“It’s great that we’ll be able to travel in the EU at last, but it’s still only a half-measure: we won’t be able to work there,” Estonian non-citizen Maxim Reva told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa.)

Estonia and Latvia were occupied by the Soviet Union 1940-91. During the occupation, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens flooded into their territory, materially altering the ethnic balance in the two states.

When the duo declared the renewal of their independence in 1991, they declared that those residents who had come there during the occupation, and their descendants, could only become citizens if they passed exams in the local language, history and culture.

Those unwilling to sit the exams were declared “resident aliens,” holding no citizenship and needing a visa to travel anywhere outside their homeland. Over 500,000 such non-citizens, mainly Russians, still live in the Baltics – 80 per cent of them in Latvia.

But as of early next year, the EU is expected to bring in new legislation allowing the non-citizens to travel visa-free throughout its territory. The move has been broadly welcomed.

“It’s a very logical decision by the EU, because if you live here, you should be able to enjoy the fundamental right to the freedom of movement, no matter what passport you hold,” Latvia’s Minister for Social Integration, Oskars Kastens, said.

“It’s great! I’ll be the first out of the country when the new law comes in,” agreed Oksana, a 22-year-old student from Riga and a Latvian non-citizen.

The new law could have unintended consequences, however. Many “new” citizens admit that the main reason they naturalised was the improved travel opportunities it would bring – leading some to predict a fall in naturalisation figures.

“Of course it will change (non-citizens’) attitudes. There will be a decrease in the number wanting to naturalise,” Reva said.

And although the new law will not permit non-citizens to work in the EU, some observers fear that it will nonetheless lead to a surge in emigration from countries already complaining of a lack of workers in key industries such as construction.

Latvia has one of the highest percentages of people leaving the country in the EU. One of the government’s main tasks is to tackle this issue,” said Kastens, whose ministry has been assigned the task of convincing emigres to return.

But other authorities doubt the new law will have much impact. “Those (non-citizens) for whom travel was a burning issue have naturalised already. Those who remain tend to be older people who are becoming more passive,” former Latvian integration minister Nils Muiznieks said.

“Those young people who haven’t naturalised are doing so out of principle, so the change won’t affect their choices,” he added.

The law has already won approval from the European Parliament and the EU’s 25 justice ministries. It only needed the approval of a formal session of the council to come into force.

But delays in translating the document into all the EU’s languages mean that it may be carried over into the new year, by which time Bulgaria and Romania will have joined the union.

“The text has been agreed politically – now it’s a question of formalities. As soon as we have the translations, it can be approved, and if it’s not done by December 31, we’ll just need two more translations," council press officer Jesus Carmona said.

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