Mike Collier in Riga -
With Russia vowing to protect its "compatriots" – a vaguely defined term that seems to include anyone with Russian as their mother tongue – from danger and discrimination both at home and abroad, the status of Latvia's 280,000 "non-citizens" was already a hot topic when on March 27 the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) decided to wade into the debate.
That's the day the UNHRC published its reaction to Latvia's latest report on its implementation on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While Riga was keen to play up the fact it had been generally commended for its efforts, attention inevitably focused on the issues of non-citizens and the status of the Russian language.
The existence of non-citizens – permanent residents of the country who do not have full citizenship rights – has long been the stick with which Moscow can choose to beat Riga (and Tallinn, where a similar situation exists) at a moment's notice.
Non-citizens, consisting mainly of Russian-speaking Soviet-era immigrants (plus some Ukrainians and Belarusians) and their descendants, still total 13% of Latvia's population two decades after the restoration of independence in 1991. Though the number of non-citizens has fallen markedly from the roughly 700,000 present when independence was restored 23 years ago, the number of non-citizens naturalising has slowed to around 2,000 a year, suggesting the problem could be here to stay.
Riga argues that citizenship is open to anyone who cares to make the effort to obtain it (which involves some basic Latvian language tests). And the government has made the process even easier in recent years with non-citizen parents of new-borns now having to say if they don't want their kids to have automatic citizenship.
But such measures frequently get lost amid the easy outrage generated by the existence of "second class citizens" within EU borders – even if they have chosen to remain non-citizens.
The UNHRC had said as much at the presentation of Latvia's report until its experts "noted with concern that former citizens of the USSR without Latvian citizenship had permanent residence rights but were excluded from certain parts of the public life... and efforts to naturalize them seemed to decrease."
"The Committee calls on Latvia to facilitate the integration of non-citizens [and] to evaluate the Official Language Law and its enforcement, making sure that restrictions on communication in other languages are reasonable, necessary and non-discriminatory," the UNHRC said, adding for good measure a clear hint that the office of the State Ombudsman, another key human rights safeguard, was seriously underfunded.
But in some ways the instruction to look again at the language law is even more provocative than the issue of non-citizens.
On February 18, 2012 a referendum was held in Latvia where a large majority of voters rejected constitutional amendments that would have made Russian the second state language. 71% of Latvia's eligible voters participated in the referendum and the result was clear: only 17% of eligible voters voted in favour of adopting Russian as the second state language. No substantive complaints about the conduct of referendum were received.
Admittedly, Russia responded by pointing out that non-citizens weren't entitled to vote. But even if they had, the referendum would still never have passed in a country where only 27% of the population is ethnically Russian.
Artis Pabriks, a former defence minister and MP for the party Unity in the ruling coalition, tells bne he suspects that Russian pressure might be behind the revival of the language question in the UNHRC report. "I believe this is really because of Russian influence in the UN… as far as I know every country has the right to a state language."
"The Russian minority here is partly traditional and partly immigrant… On what grounds can you say that the minority language must have the same representation and rights as the main language? We can guarantee equal right for individuals, but not for collectives," he says.
Ojars Kalnins, a respected senior MP for Unity and chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee was equally perplexed. "This decision [by the UNHRC] surprises me because this is an issue that has been looked at for 20 years. As far as I know, every country has the right to have a state language – I don't see that as discriminatory," he tells bne.
And even though Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, leader of the opposition Harmony Centre party (which has a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia) had controversially supported the attempt two years ago to give Russian official status, the party was careful not to make too much of the UNHRC's findings on March 27.
Harmony Centre MP Nikita Nikiforovs said: "It's a pity the UN committee spotted this after the situation in Crimea, as I don't like seeing comparisons between Crimea and Latvia. I don't think what happened there could happen here. Nevertheless, the main problem we face is clearly that of non-citizens, though unfortunately I don't believe the government or the parliament will take much notice of this criticism from the UN."
But most worrying of all is that while non-citizens still exist in Latvia and neighbouring Estonia, Russia will still feel it has "compatriots" scattered across the Baltic states – and who knows where that could lead.
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