Latvia Gives Russians Cold Shoulder ; A Decade after the Republic Won Independence, Many of Its Soviet- Era Immigrants Remain Outsiders

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Latvia Gives Russians Cold Shoulder ; A Decade after the Republic Won Independence, Many of Its Soviet- Era Immigrants Remain Outsiders


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


Alena Gausche carries an "Alien Passport," possibly the oddest official document in existence. Issued by the Latvian government, it affirms that the bearer is not a citizen of Latvia.

Ms. Gausche is among more than half a million Russian speakers - nearly a quarter of this tiny former Soviet republic's population - who have spent most of their lives here and do not plan to leave, yet still have not become citizens. They cannot vote, run for public office, or hold a state-sector job.

The citizenship issue, along with Latvia's tough single-language law, has roiled relations with neighboring Russia, drawn charges that Latvia is using strong-arm tactics to assimilate its minorities, and divided the country's politics along ethnic lines.

Pressured by Western governments, Latvia in 1998 eased its formerly draconian citizenship law enough to satisfy many critics. Last week, Latvia was invited to join the Western military alliance NATO, and the Baltic state hopes to be admitted into the European Union in a couple of years.

Yet most agree that Russian speakers here remain in an abnormal situation.

"What we have here is a conflict of two just causes," says Grigory Krupnikov, general secretary of the New Era Party, which won the most votes in last month's general election. "Latvia was occupied by another state for half a century, and we had the right to restore our independence. On the other hand, we know most of these people are not individually guilty. It's not a normal situation by European standards, but Latvia is not a normal country given our history."

Laws require most public information, street signs, broadcasting and all state services to be in Latvian only. "We didn't want to make another Brighton Beach here," says the legislation's main author, Dzintars Abikis, referring to New York's colorful Russian quarter. "We have eliminated the bilingual situation here, and it would be unpleasant for Latvians to bring it back."

Higher education is in Latvian only, and use of Russian in secondary schools will be halted in 2004. Mr. Abikis, of the centrist Peoples' Party, acknowledges that the country's language policies will be a problem when it comes to joining the EU, but defends the measures: "Latvian is the language of a small people, and we had to make sure it would survive."

When Latvia broke free from the USSR a decade ago, it offered documents immediately to all who had been citizens of independent Latvia before it was swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1939, and their descendants. But hundreds of thousands of Soviet-era immigrants, mainly Russian-speaking factory workers and their Latvian-born children, were left in legal limbo.

Latvia's neighbor, Lithuania, simply gave citizenship to its permanent residents and now finds itself on a faster track to EU membership. The third Baltic state, Estonia, has moved more swiftly than Latvia to grant municipal voting rights and other concessions to its noncitizens.

Many Latvians resent Moscow's occasional efforts to stir up noncitizens against NATO membership and integration with the West.

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