They are known in Latvia as ´non-citizens´ – people who live, work and pay taxes in the country but enjoy few rights, including the right to vote.
There are 360,000 people living in Latvia in such a position, some 15% of the population.
Despite numerous recommendations from the EU, the UN and other international organisations, the Latvian government has been accused of doing little to address the issue of its ‘non-citizens.’
Now, though this blighted group of mostly Russian-speakers is starting to fight back against the discrimination of being branded a ‘non-citizen’ in your own country.
On 1 June Latvia will hold municipal elections and its small army of non-citizens are organising “alternative” elections to what is called the “Congress of non-citizens.”
Two decades after Latvia reasserted its independence over Soviet control, the aim is to make the international audience, not least the EU, more aware of this allegedly blatant abuse of human rights in an EU member state.
A quick rewind in history helps to put the issue into context.
During the Soviet Union, the Communist Party deported masses of Latvians to Russia and to other republics and sent in a large number of Russians to Latvia at the request of the Latvian Communist Party to build industry and fill a labour gap.In 1991, non-Latvians were promised citizenship based on their residency in Latvia but full status was still denied. They remained without official recognition and no rights until 1995 when they were given an unprecedented status of “non-citizen” and were delivered an “Alien’s” passport.
Despite some advances in the years since then, these non-citizens still have no political rights and are barred from entering certain professions such as law, or from holding any military or security-related position. There are restrictions on land owning as well.
It is claimed that the inability to vote either in parliamentary or local elections means non-citizens cannot determine their future.
Some 50.3% of all non-citizens live in Riga and 8% live in its surroundings. Latvians call non-citizens ‘Russians’ but the group, in fact, is also composed of Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other former Soviet nationalities.
One of the latest initiatives of the human rights movement in Latvia is to establish a “Parliament of non-citizens”.
The so-called “Congress of non-citizens” is organizing parallel elections on 1 June 2013 with the aim being to create some sort of official representation for those who have been effectively excluded from all political decisions.
There are 61 candidates in this ‘shadow’ election and all Latvians are welcome to vote.
Elizabete Krivcova, a Latvian lawyer who leads the election administration team in the non-citizens congress, said, “Some time ago I was member of the board of Latvian central election committee and now I have chance to use this experience for civil society activities. The polling stations will be situated in many Latvian cities and we will also have internet voting.”
Explaining what is meant by “alternative” elections and what they aim to achieve, she said, “Parallel elections are the only way towards solving the non-citizens problem. After many years of advocacy and communication with the authorities we fear there is no political will to solve the problem and eliminate this democracy deficit.
“The UN, Council of Europe, OECD and EU have all issued recommendations to the Latvian authorities to allow non-citizens to participate in the 1 June municipal election or to accelerate naturalisation. There was some progress when Latvia joined NATO and the EU but afterwards the recommendations were mainly ignored. The current view of the government is that lack of citizenship is a purely personal problem of non-citizens, but we want to show that it is a public problem. Naturalisation stopped because it is unfair and not because non-citizens are happy with this status.”
She adds, “We have now decided to create a representative body that will become an effective channel for civil participation of non-citizens and all inhabitants interested in creating a united Latvian political nation.
The issue, she says, has caused her many personal problems, saying, “My parents explained to me that if I wanted to work in law I had to go through a naturalisation exam – I did it. In 1998 naturalization was open also for my parents. My mother and aunt did it, but my father not. He refused to accept the unfairness of dividing Latvian inhabitants on the grounds of their origin. He voted for Latvian independence and this should´ve been enough. In our family this caused problems because non-citizens needed visas to many EU countries and at that time not all countries accepted a non-citizens passport.”
The EU, she argues, could do now do much more to help tackle the problem, adding, “It would be helpful if the problem were recognized as a European problem. I believe that a non-citizens’ institute is incompatible with high European standards for democracy and human rights. Inaction means the acceptance of statelessness or second class citizenship in Europe.
“The commission could discuss with Latvia the necessity to solve the problem before the country chairs the EU Council in 2015. During the EU enlargement negotiations this was an issue of special concern for both the commission and parliament. The Latvian government undertook a commitment to solve the problem but five years later it is necessary to return to the initial commission proposal: that participating in municipal elections is a very strong means of integration. It would be a powerful signal for Latvian non-citizens that they are welcome in their country and that dialogue and mutual understanding is possible.”
Defenders of Latvian non-citizens have won the support of several MEPs, including the GUE/NGL Group, whose leader Gabriele Zimmer said, “Deputies from our group fully support the fight for equal rights of the non-citizens of Latvia.”