On June 5, the Latvian government amended some of the procedures for the acquisition of Latvian citizenship, with a view to accelerating the naturalization of Russian/”Russian-speaking” noncitizens. Russia has demanded constantly that these procedures be eased. Latvia’s Western partners also favor the idea.
Under the amendments, graduates of Russian-language medium schools, who have passed the standard Latvian language exam at graduation, will automatically be considered as having passed the Latvian language proficiency test that forms a centerpiece of the naturalization procedure. Although the passing rate of the test stands at some 95 percent, the majority of noncitizens choose not to take it. In doing so, they forfeit their opportunity to become naturalized Latvians.
The amendments, furthermore, reduce the standard naturalization fee, by one-third to 20 Lats (US$32) across the board, and greatly expand the range of partial or total exemptions from it. Categories of applicants exempted fee range from medium school and university students to old-age pensioners, the disabled and low-income people in general. The second group are either entirely exempted or pay as little as 3 Lats (the average wage in Latvia is 150 Lats, some US$240).
These are only the latest in a series of changes which have, cumulatively, made it possible for Soviet-era settlers and their offspring to obtain Latvian naturalization quickly and easily. The naturalization rate is indeed on the rise. It is, however, still far from reflecting the naturalization opportunities available to the noncitizen population, which now numbers to the order of 550,000. Some 15,000 became Latvian citizens last year, and some 3,700 did so in the first quarter of this year. Both figures are records for annual and quarterly naturalization rates since the beginning of the naturalization process in 1995.
Sociological studies and poll data suggest that the reluctance to naturalize stems from a mix of specific mentality factors and practical calculations. The first includes psychological difficulty in accepting the post-Soviet changes and of identifying with the Latvian state. This attitude often and unexpectedly coexists with the sentiment of having been “left stranded” by Russia. The second, on the other hand, includes the avoidance of military service in Latvia and the desire to qualify for travel to Russia without having to pay the visa fees, which Russia now requires of Latvia’s citizens. Fundamentally, the majority of the noncitizen population seems to have concluded that to naturalize has no real advantages.
One that does come with citizenship, however, is the right to vote. To the frustration of left-wing politicians, the noncitizen population shows little interest in obtaining that right. At present, the Russian government is trying to pressure Latvia into granting voting rights to the noncitizen population for municipal elections. Inasmuch as occupation-era policies created Russian/”Russian-speaking” majorities in Latvia’s six largest cities, Moscow apparently calculates that the noncitizen vote would be instrumental in electing Russia-oriented mayoralties. At the same time, the Russian government is trying to blame the low naturalization rate of the noncitizen population on Latvian policies.
Latvia’s government and most of the political establishment have–after considerable hesitation, and with Western advice–concluded that an accelerated naturalization best serves the internal stability and European integration of Latvia. Policy, as illustrated by the government’s June 5 decisions, is geared to that goal (BNS, LETA, June 5-7).
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