Russians Find Becoming A Latvian Isn't Easy

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.

A few Western diplomats go as far as to forgive the elevated status of local veterans of the Nazi SS. About 80 percent of the Latvians who served in the SS were conscripted. Although war criminals were among the veterans, they are generally viewed sympathetically by Latvians as liberators from Soviet rule.

"It's not like there are rampant human rights abuses or that this is a state seething with Nazis," says one Western diplomat. "But having moved toward free market democracy and accountable government, Riga now has to prove that it can resolve the citizenship problem to be a full-fledged member of Europe."

Western observers have less sympathy for Russian politicians, who have whipped up anti-Latvian sentiment at home. The Russian press exaggerated incidents last month in which elderly ethnic Russian pensioners were pushed - but not hurt - by police during an illegal march and Latvian officials participated in an annual SS veterans' parade.

The Russian government's threat of sanctions was a useful distraction, after President Boris Yeltsin sacked his entire government March 23. "It's a great diversionary tactic in Russia, to whip up nationalist sentiment," says the Western diplomat.

Concerned about defusing the crisis before it blows up further, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent a special envoy to Latvia twice in as many weeks.

In addition, President Clinton wrote to his Latvian counterpart, Guntis Ulmanis, April 10. Mr. Clinton indicated that US sympathies lie with Latvia, although noting "work remains to be done" on the citizenship question.

"The disruption of normal commercial and political relations in northern Europe is in no one's interest," Clinton wrote. "We stress with Russia that intemperate talk of threats or sanctions creates a environment that can frustrate progress."

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