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Autumn Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (1-3 December 2008)
Chamber of Local Authorities
Statement by Jean-Claude FRECON, Vice-President of the Congress – fact-finding mission to Latvia on 14 and 15 April 2008
2 December 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues,
Before reporting on my visit to Latvia, I would like to give a special welcome to the special assignments Minister for Social Integration of Latvia, Mr Oskar KASTENS, who honours us with his presence at our autumn session and will speak on the question of the participation of non-citizens in political life at local level.
Mr Minister, we were very keen for your government to participate in the discussion of a topic of relevance to the quality of local democracy in Latvia, and I thank you for accepting our invitation.
On 19 November 2007, the Bureau of the Chamber of Local Authorities decided to send a fact-finding mission to Latvia as no information had been forthcoming from your government since 2005, particularly regarding the question of the participation of non-citizens in political life at local level, on which a recommendation had been made in 1998.
I travelled to Latvia, to Riga, on 14 and 15 April in the capacity of rapporteur. I was accompanied by a member of the Group of independent experts, Jean-Marie Woehrling, and two members of the Congress Secretariat, Jean-Philippe Bozouls, the Executive Secretary of our Chamber, and Almut Schröder, the Secretary of the Institutional Committee, whom I thank for their help and assistance on this mission.
During our visit, we met numerous representatives of the Latvian authorities. One of them was you, Mr Minister, and you were good enough to grant us some of your time and listen to what we had to say. I wish to express my personal gratitude for the quality of our dialogue. We also met a member of the Latvian Parliament, a representative of the Ministry of Regional development and local government, representatives of the Latvian delegation to the Congress of course, and representatives of the Latvian Association of local and regional Authorities.
I have to say that the subject which was the focal point of the mission had generated numerous reports and recommendations by various Council of Europe bodies. As we are all aware, it is a politically sensitive subject as it is a highly emotionally charged issue within Latvia's political class and more broadly within Latvian society itself and among the country's population, all categories combined, if you will excuse the expression.
I will not go into a lengthy presentation on the situation of the different communities in Latvia, which is detailed in the report.
To properly understand the situation, it is important to realise that Latvia is a small country of 2.3 million inhabitants, adjacent to a very big country, Russia, which has a population of 143 million. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-community country made up of Latvian citizens and a special population category, the famous "non-citizens", which are the subject of this report and our concern in the Congress.
These non-citizens, totalling 370,000, represent something like 16% of the population and are mostly Russian-speakers and of Russian origin. They are long-term residents in Latvia, many of them were born there! They are neither "stateless" in the legal sense of the term nor completely foreign and have so-called "non-citizen" status which even entitles them to a special passport: a "non-citizen" passport.
While they are fully part of Latvian society, working, consuming and paying taxes, they are not always treated on an equal footing with other citizens, and that is why, apart from this title theoretically excluding them, they do not have the same de facto political rights as Latvian citizens.
They cannot vote in national or local elections, nor can they stand as candidates. They can take part in political debates and express their views, but they are not allowed to vote.
In truth, for the population of Latvian origin, these "non-citizens" embody memories of the soviet era, and to better understand this situation with its complex historical roots, we questioned the different authorities we met during our visit. A frequent reply was that these non-citizens had the option of naturalisation to become Latvian citizens and thereby acquire political rights.
And it is here, Mr Minister, that our analysis differs.
I myself feel it necessary to draw a distinction between political rights and the naturalisation procedure and, in a manner of speaking, look at things the other way around. Where you say 'let them become naturalised and they will have the right to vote', we say: 'give them the right to vote at local level straight away', and I stress the word 'local' here, 'and you will foster a feeling of integration and, with it, their determination to be a stronger part of the national fabric'.
Mr Minister, we have seen that the conditions for applying for naturalisation have been made considerably less stringent and the Latvian authorities have spared no efforts in this respect. It is an undeniable fact which has to be emphasised and this political determination on the part of your government and yourself as Minister has to be lauded.
But the fact is that this policy has not brought in its wake a great wave of naturalisations. In 10 years, only 121,000 people have been naturalised, and today there are still 370,000 non-citizens in Latvia. That is a high figure, and there is little prospect of seeing it fall.
Mr Minister, I have read in the press only recently that, since 1991, only 1,000 of 18,000 Russian-speaking children have been registered as Latvians. The paradox is that these children may acquire Latvian nationality if their parents lodge an application, which points to a lack of confidence - that has to be restored.
It is not the conditions governing naturalisation as such that are the problem. There is clearly a psychological block on the part of non-citizens who have been resident in this country for a long time and refuse, out of principle, to submit to this procedure, which is not automatic and involves an examination and which they regard as a humiliation.
We believe that participation in political life at local level is a factor for facilitating the integration of these non-citizens. We believe that the solution for integrating non-citizens into Latvian society is different from the one envisaged by the government. We believe that giving them the right to vote in local elections will make them feel more involved in a society to which they already belong (even though they do not hold the title of citizen) and this is what will make them turn to the naturalisation procedure, not the contrary.
In our view, not allowing these Latvian residents to participate in local life goes against the spirit of the European Charter of local self-government, and particularly its preamble, which Latvia signed and ratified in 1996. It undermines the very essence of a principle of local democracy and indeed democracy full-stop, even though there are still many countries (including my own) which have not signed up to that principle.
In addition and along similar lines, I recommend that the Latvian authorities further relax the naturalisation procedure by granting automatic naturalisation to the elderly and all those born in Latvia.
I would like to stress here that Latvia has signed and ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, back in 2005. This clearly testifies to the commitment of the authorities to promoting the rights of minorities on their territory. The presence of Minister KASTENS at this session is a further pledge of the Latvian authorities' willing for dialogue and openness.
That willing was very clear to the delegation during the mission, but I believe it vital that the authorities now take another step forward by giving their non-citizens the right to vote, in order to reconcile Latvian society with itself and make it more cohesive.
We are not here to condemn or stigmatise. We understand the complexity of your history because it is the complexity of European history itself, but we are convinced that you must not miss this opportunity to reconcile communities that will have to live together in any case.
As difficult as this may be, it is the responsibility of your government to find the political strength to forge your national pact on a lasting and solid basis, and I am sure that you yourself have that ability.