A decision taken over 25 years ago has left many in Latvia feeling rootless. When the country regained independence in 1991, the Russians who had arrived under Soviet rule were denied citizenship. This decision left 700,000 former citizens of the Soviet Union alienated by the country taking shape around them. That number is now thought to be 260,000.
Evgeny Drobat came to Soviet Latvia from St. Petersburg – then Leningrad – in 1947, when he was just a child. As a member of Latvia’s Communist Party in the years leading up to independence, he voted against the parliamentary law that would end up denying him and thousands of other ethnic Russia’s citizenship in an independent Latvia.
“Latvia is not a true democracy,” he told Vice News from Daugavpils, Latvia’s second city. “The country’s politics are not based on democratic rights, they are based on ethnic rights.”
The Soviet-era regalia in the Daugavpils non-citizens representative office is jarring at first. Portraits of the “marshals of victory” – including Josef Stalin – line the peach-pink walls. A bust of Lenin is half hidden behind a stereo.
These are icons which might irk the majority of Latvians who bitterly remember the decades-long Soviet occupation of their country. But for this Baltic country’s Russian speaking “non-citizens,” relics of communism like these are a reminder of a country and an era in which they felt they belonged.
It isn’t just his non-citizen passport, describing him as an “alien,” that sets Drobat apart from his Latvian counterparts. Non-citizens, who make up roughly 12 percent of the population, are subject to dozens of legal restrictions, which they say have pushed ethnic Russians to the fringes of modern Latvian society.
The legal restrictions, which have drawn criticism from the UN, OSCE and the EU, include clauses on property, firearm ownership, and holding public office.
The most controversial difference in legal rights between Latvians and non-citizens is the right to vote and to work in the civil service or occupy posts directly related to national security. “If non-citizens could vote,” Drobat told Vice News, “we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now. And neither would some politicians.”
For Drobat, who identifies as Russian but has no wish to leave Latvia, the solution to the non-citizen problem is easy. “Simply give everyone Latvian citizenship,” he shrugs.
His is a position that some right leaning Latvian politicians find untenable. Former Supreme Council MP Juris Bojārs told local media recently that the idea all non-citizens should be granted Latvian citizenship is: “Utter nonsense. Occupants shouldn’t be granted citizenship.”
“If you look at the demographic situation in Latvia in 1991, 54 percent were ethnic Latvians and 46 [percent] are the colonialists who arrived during the occupation,” says Veiko Spolitis, a Latvian parliamentarian. The government’s decision, Spolitis told Vice News, was about guaranteeing the survival of a “Latvia for Latvians.”
The government does offer a path to citizenship for non-citizens by way of a naturalization test. In the last 25 years, 150,000 non-citizens have used the program. But the figures have slowed in recent years, and the test throws up difficulties for many.
Elderly non-citizens who have spoken Russian their whole lives say they would struggle to learn the Latvian language – a prerequisite for naturalization – so late in life. For Russian hardliners, it’s the section of the exam that describes Latvia as having been occupied by the Soviet Union that they object to.
A younger generation of Russian-speaking non-citizens have a different attitude. Those born after 1991 have Latvian citizenship, but there are many young people born before that point who deal with their different status in society every day.
Though his parents are loyal to the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Aleksandrov describes himself as among the most integrated of non-citizens into Latvian society. Despite this, Aleksandr, who was born in Riga just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, is “used to being an alien by now.”
Russia looks on
The worry for some in Latvia is that Russia may be watching. In 2014, Moscow partly justified its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine by saying that they had an obligation to protect Russian speakers there. This caused some concern among several Baltic and European leaders that Moscow may apply the same logic in a possible takeover of the predominantly Russian speaking regions of the Baltic States. In 2015, the Lithuanian president reintroduced conscription in the face of growing Russian aggression.
Russia’s rhetoric on the issue of non-citizens has done little to assuage these concerns. The Kremlin’s envoy to NATO Alexander Grushko recently said that the Baltics should “pay special attention to the problem of respect of human rights and get rid of the phenomenon of non-citizens.”
The status of Russian language has consistently been a point of contention for Latvian lawmakers. In 2012, a referendum to recognise Russian as an official language was easily overturned.
In August last year, the Russian mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs – who was born a non-citizen but took the naturalization exam in 1999 – was fined by the State Language Center for writing in Russian on his official Facebook page.
“I believe this was probably the most dramatic mistake done by our country since 1991, that we introduced the whole idea of non-citizens,” Ušakovs told Vice News in Riga.
Latvia’s non-citizenship policy has raised eyebrows in Brussels too. In September, the European Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks strongly recommended that children born to non-citizen parents be given automatic citizenship. The Latvian Human Rights Committee has compiled a list of international rights groups’ recommendations, dating back to 1998, urging Riga to expedite a resolution.
The Latvian flag in the middle of the non-citizens bureau in Daugavpils is flanked by the Russian tricolor. The black and orange colors of St. George hang there too – an emblem now synonymous with Kremlin-backed rebels who declared a breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine back in 2014.
There is no appetite for all out conflict on either side of Latvia’s language and citizenship debacle, but the colors of St. George serve as a stark reminder that Russia has politicized similar issues in Ukraine in order to escalate armed conflict there.
Jonathan Brown is a print, radio, and video journalist working in the former Soviet Union. Twitter: @jonathaneebrown