Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

Granting Local Voting Rights to Non-Citizens in Estonia and Latvia: The Conundrum of Minority Representation in Two Divided Democracies

Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

Granting Local Voting Rights to Non-Citizens in Estonia and Latvia: The Conundrum of Minority Representation in Two Divided Democracies

Article excerpt

The Estonian and Latvian post-1991 citizenship laws that granted citizenship only to those who had been citizens of the inter-war republics of Estonia and Latvia and their descendants created a new category of permanent residents in these two countries: the non-citizens.1 These are former Soviet Union citizens who did not qualify for Latvian or Estonian citizenship by birth and, over the years, were neither naturalized nor acquired the citizenship of a third country. Non-citizens are almost exclusively Russian-speakers and, largely because of pre-accession pressures from the EU, they were issued special "alien passports" by the Estonian and Latvian governments (Roots, 2012). In 2012 there were 93,006 and 280,584 permanent residents who fell under this category in Estonia and Latvia respectively.2 In both countries, non-citizens enjoy a restricted set of rights compared to citizens, including restricted political rights. The question of voting rights is particularly controversial as it determines the degree to which a substantial portion of the minority population can take part in the democratic process of their country of residence.

Interestingly, despite their relatively similar historical contexts, Estonia and Latvia have followed different paths in addressing this issue. While in Estonia the right of all permanent residents to vote in local elections was already enshrined in the 1992 constitution, in Latvia non-citizens are to this day totally disenfranchised and this remains a hotly-debated question.

In this article I analyze the decision-making processes that brought these different outcomes and their implications for minority political representation in Estonia and Latvia and for the academic debate about the democratic representation of ethnic minorities. I use the issue of non-citizen voting rights as an entry-point into broader questions of minority representation, and argue that the comparison of the policy-processes in Estonia and Latvia testifies to its complex nature. My analysis shows how minority voice and ethnic polarization stand in a contradictory relationship, what I call the voice/polarization dilemma. Indeed, the case of Estonia demonstrates that the de-ethnicization of politics can mean both more favourable policies for the minority and minority political marginalization. The case of Latvia shows how ethnicized politics can lead to ethnic polarization and higher legitimacy and independence of the minority voice in the political arena.

These findings suggest that evaluating the openness of a country's minority policies is not enough to understand minority representation: more attention must be paid to the extent to which minorities and their representatives can effectively take part in the policy-making process. This paper builds on the existing debate on minority representation and is informed by Iris Marion Young's insights on democratic quality and inclusion (Young, 2000). It suggests that a methodological and theoretical shift from an outcome-centred to a process-centred understanding of minority representation allows for a deeper debate on the way inclusion/exclusion mechanisms can operate within the democratic processes of ethnically-divided democracies.

In this article, I will first set the theoretical framework of my analysis, making a case for focusing on the policy-making process in order to better understand minority representation. Then I will proceed to closely analyze the policy-making process on non-citizens' voting rights in Estonia and in Latvia and to show how these two cases illustrate two faces of the same voice/polarization dilemma. Third, I will discuss the implications of my findings. Finally, the conclusions provide a summary of the main arguments of the paper.

1. Minority representation: from descriptive representation and conflict management to substantive representation and quality of democracy

In her seminal book on political representation Hanna Pitkin (1967) introduced the distinction between the number and role of elected representatives who belong to a defined group (descriptive representation) and the extent to which this group has a voice in the policy-making process and an impact on actual policies (substantive representation). …

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