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
"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. …