Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russians Find Becoming A Latvian Isn't Easy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russians Find Becoming A Latvian Isn't Easy

Article excerpt

Dmitri carries a 9-mm pistol issued to him by the state to help maintain law and order. The veteran police officer, who declined to be identified further, was born in Latvia, and his father was an official in the first independent government in 1991.

Dmitri, however, is not a citizen, and therein lies a bitter tale. Like 661,000 other members of the Russian-speaking ethnic minority of this tiny Baltic nation, he was not automatically naturalized when the country broke free of Soviet rule. He can take a tough test to become Latvian - one try only - but worries about losing his job if he fails.

"I've worked eight years in the police. I voted in the referendum for independence. So for goodness sake, why do I have to ask for citizenship?" he wonders. Dmitri's quandary is not just one man's problem. Latvia's insistence on creating obstacles for one-third of its population to become citizens has provoked threats of Russian economic sanctions - and blocks its bid to join the European Union (EU). But for the first time, there are signs that the government has realized it must accommodate its giant neighbor Russia and the West. Under threats by Moscow to cease the key transport of oil through Latvia and stop buying its agricultural products, Latvia's Cabinet last week approved proposals to ease the citizenship process and cancel age limits for aliens seeking to be naturalized. Government officials expect parliament to approve the plan and for more changes to follow. "Citizenship is a sensitive point in any country. But now, even the nationalists realize that the time is ripe for changes," says foreign affairs spokesman Andrejs Pildegovics. Although they say even more changes are needed if Latvia wants to join the EU, Western diplomats have a certain degree of sympathy for Latvia's obsession with protecting the cultural identity of its 2.6 million citizens. It has existed as a sovereign state for only 30 of the past 700 years, due to successive occupations by Teutonic knights, Swedes, Poles, the Soviets in 1940, the Nazis from 1941 to '44, and then by the Soviets again. …

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