Latvia gives Russians cold shoulder

A decade after the republic won independence, many of its Soviet-era immigrants remain outsiders.

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. In 1998 Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov even compared the Latvian government to Pol Pot's genocidal regime in Cambodia after Riga police broke up a rally of mainly Russian pensioners.

"As long as the Latvian elite chooses confrontation and segregation to bar Russians from political life and the economy this will remain a serious problem in our relations," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, a liberal deputy of the Russian State Duma.

Car salesman Igor Orlov, a fluent Latvian speaker, says obtaining his citizenship in 1993 was "a most unpleasant experience" in which officials seemed to think the goal was to discourage Russians.

Nikolaj Neilands, a leader of the left-wing Harmony Party whose family has been Latvian for centuries, says he examined the citizenship test used in the mid-1990s and found many questions impossible. "There was a primitive brand of nationalism behind this. It was designed to make the Russian population feel unwelcome here."

Officials say that procedures have been liberalized since 1998, and that the main problem is noncitizens who lack motivation. "Any noncitizen can apply for citizenship, and it is not difficult to obtain," says Janis Kahanovics, deputy head of Latvia's naturalization board.

One reason for Latvia's foot-dragging may be political. The Party for Human Rights, which speaks for the Russian minority, is already the second-largest force in Latvia's parliament. "Many Latvians fear that if you gave all noncitizens the vote, there would be a reorientation of policy toward the East," says Nils Muiznieks, Latvia's new minister of integration. "There is also the concern that if they had more political influence, Russian would receive the status of a state language and that would remove any incentive for them to learn Latvian," he says.

Amid all these considerations, the fact remains that many noncitizens seem uninterested in changing their status. "Some feel offended, and think it unjust that they must apply for citizenship," while ethnic Latvians were simply granted it a decade ago, says Mr. Krupnikov. Many young men may be avoiding Latvia's compulsory military service. Others may have business or family interests in the East and prefer the visa-free entry Russia offers noncitizens to the hassles of traveling to the former USSR on a Latvian passport.

Some just haven't made up their minds. "I may go to university in Russia, in which case it's better to remain a noncitizen," says student Maria Chemm. "Or, I could decide to study in Paris, and then it would be better to have a Latvian passport."

Ms. Gausche, a Belarussian who married a Latvian in 1959, says citizenship is not her biggest concern. "My only real problem is that my pension is just 55 Lats (about $90) per month," she says, adding, "My Latvian neighbor's pension is the same as mine. She and I get along fine, and the question of citizenship never comes up."

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