Russian President Vladimir Putin aired some of his views on the Baltic states during his June 16 meeting with President George W. Bush in Ljubljana, Slovenia. At the concluding news conference, Putin misinformed the world by stating: “Human rights, primarily those of the Russian-speaking population, are violated in the Baltic countries. Russian-speakers, for example, account for 40 percent of Latvia’s population. There’s an immense proportion of noncitizens. Those people have still not been able to acquire citizenship.”
In fact, virtually all those wanting to gain Latvian citizenship can do so quickly and easily. In recent years, Latvia has made it possible for Soviet-era settlers and their offspring to become naturalized through a simplified procedure available to all. Its centerpiece is a language test, the passing rate for which stands currently at some 95 percent. Yet the majority of noncitizens thus far have chosen not to take the test. The root of the problem is that a majority of Russian/Russian-speakers show little interest in naturalization. Some prefer to take Russian citizenship while most keep the “noncitizen” status. Moscow, however, tries to hold the government responsible for this situation.
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. For several years already, policy has been geared to that goal. The government has gone all-out to accelerate the naturalization rate and is continually devising publicity campaigns and procedural shortcuts for the noncitizens to naturalize.
On June 5, for example, the cabinet of ministers eased those procedures further. Now, 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 for citizenship. The cabinet’s decisions, furthermore, reduced the standard naturalization fee, by one-third to 20 lats (US$32) across the board, and greatly expanded the range of partial or total exemptions from it. Categories of applicants exempted from the fee range from medium school and university students to old-age pensioners, the disabled and low-income people in general. Some of these groups are either entirely exempted or pay as little as 3 lats (the average wage in Latvia is 150 lats, some US$240).
The naturalization rate has recently been on the rise, but is still far from reflecting the naturalization opportunities available to the noncitizen population, which now numbers to the order of 550,000. Sociological studies and poll data suggest that the reluctance to naturalize stems from such factors as psychological difficulty in accepting the post-Soviet changes and of identifying with the Latvian state, and wanting to avoid military service in Latvia and 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 failure to naturalize has no real disadvantages and shows little interest in obtaining the right to vote, leaving the local pro-Moscow politicians frustrated.
On the other hand, the naturalization rate is higher and rising among better-educated and younger segments of the local Russian population. Those segments show a relatively greater disposition to identify with the Latvian state and to learn the language. Even those who do not, however, have evidently concluded that they are better off in Latvia than in Russia, and expect their situation to improve with Latvia’s accession to the European Union. Indeed, support for EU accession is slightly higher among the Russian/Russian-speaking population–both citizen and noncitizen–than it is among the indigenous Latvian citizen population.
On June 16 in Moscow, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko welcomed the Latvian government’s June 5 measures to further simplify the naturalization procedures. He spoke the same day on which Putin criticized Latvia before a world audience and failed to acknowledge any improvements in the situation, let alone its complexities stemming from the decades of forced de-Latvianization and Russification. Putin, moreover, seemed to ignore or to feign ignorance of the assessments of the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and other international bodies, which have rated favorably Latvia’s efforts to integrate the noncitizen population (Western news agencies, Itar-Tass, June 15-16; see the Monitor, June 11).
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