15th Congress Autumn Session
Strasbourg, 2 December 2008
Address by Oskars Kastens, Special assignments Minister for Social Integration of Latvia
Dear Secretary General,
Dear Members of the Congress
I am proud to be here, for I am very well acquainted with the work of the Council of Europe, as I have been a long time member of the Parliamentary Assembly.
When regaining independence in 1991, we “inherited” a challenging situation. We set forth on a path of inclusion rather than exclusion. We have made great strides in facilitating the integration process through education reforms. By having state funded education in eight different languages. By adopting laws for support of cultural heritage, as well as adopting legislation for immigrants to integrate fully through naturalization.
Turning to the topic on the agenda, I would like to thank Mr. Frecon for the work done during the visit to Latvia and his report on Local democracy in Latvia. Report deals with a very complex issues and it is not easy to understand all of them in detail. In some cases, as in paragraph 43, it was correctly recognized that “Non-citizens are entitled to practically everything to which citizens are entitled except the title “citizen””. In fact, as correctly mentioned in paragraph 17, the only substantial difference between Latvian citizens and non-citizens is the right to vote and the right to work in the civil service, rights traditionally guaranteed only to citizens of a certain country.
I can also agree with paragraph 30 of Mr. Frecon’s report, where he states that: “Most non-citizens…are totally integrated into Latvian society”. After acknowledgement of these facts that non-citizens feel comfortable in Latvia and they are integrated as part of the society, it is not clear why Mr.Frecon in the end recommends changing substantially integration policy, laws and even the Constitution of Latvia. In this context I cannot agree with this part of the report.
Further, paragraph 25 says “…naturalisations are still relatively rare” I think it is a strong underestimation. We are talking about 130 000 persons who have been naturalized since 1995 and for country of 2.3 million it is a very big number. The percentage of non-citizens has decreased by a half. The government has done a lot to reach this result and continues the effort.
Also the conclusion that reasons for not naturalising “… are often psychological in nature” does not correspond to the results of recent surveys. They show that the main obstacle for non-citizens to obtain citizenship is a lack of practical motivation (44.4%), then follows time constraints to go through naturalisation procedures (29.1%), insufficient Latvian language (36.7%) or history (23.9%) knowledge and more than 20% of non-citizens clearly say that it is not important for them to participate in the elections. On the contrary 74% of non-citizens believe that it is even beneficial to be a non-citizen in Latvia, because, for example, it is possible to travel to Russia Federation without a visa, whereas citizens of Latvia need a visa1. These are not psychological aspects at all.
I shall also disagree with the Rapporteur’s view that the government “…continues to deny political rights to non-citizens”. The government of Latvia is encouraging non-citizens to have all political rights and has taken all the necessary measures (information campaigns, free language courses, naturalization exams have been simplified several times, naturalization fee has been lowered etc.) in order to make our integration and naturalization policies successful. Our aim is to ensure that all the inhabitants of Latvia can apply for the citizenship and enjoy their rights fully. Moreover, non-citizens enjoy a number of political rights and therefore have the opportunity to get engaged in political life at local level (and also at the country level), for example, by joining political parties and non-governmental organizations, exercising their freedom of assembly and expression. In Latvia, policy making and implementation process is open also to NGO involvement.
At the same time, I cannot agree with the Rapporteur (in paragraph 30) that “political rights should be separated from those of naturalisation” that is from citizenship. According to international law and practice, certain political rights – namely, the right to vote and to stand for election - are closely linked to citizenship. The position of the Latvian authorities has always remained unchanged - it is the sovereign right of a state to define the circle of its citizens. In turn, granting the right to vote and to stand for election to citizens only is regarded legitimate under international law. There are no international standards on voting rights to non-citizens and at present it is not a widely accepted practice between the Council of Europe Member States. This has been reiterated by the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council of Europe Secretary General and the Venice Commission.
In his report (paragraph 32) the Rapporteur uses the example of Estonia where the voting rights for non-citizens in local elections were granted in 1996. However, the report does not mention that as a result of this decision, there was a sharp decrease in the naturalization numbers. If around 23 000 persons acquired Estonian citizenship by naturalization in year 1996 (16 674 in 1995 and 22 474 in 1994), there were approximately only 5 000 persons in the following years. This is a decrease by more than 300% and Latvia does not want that.
The position of the Latvian authorities with regard to possibility to grant voting rights to non-citizens (paragraph 37) is firm and unchanged: the right to vote is an integral part of the citizenship. Aim of the integration policy of Latvia is to have citizens with full rights instead of non-citizens with many rights. Granting the right to vote to non-citizens at municipal elections would limit the incentive to naturalize and therefore will slow down the whole integration process. Therefore I urge honourable delegates to support deletion of this paragraph from the recommendation.
As a general comment I would like to remind you that the topic of this report was “local democracy and participation at local level”, however with disappointment I have to conclude that recommendations does not address how to involve non-citizens in the local public life, but instead asks the central government to change policy, laws and even Constitution of the country and I doubt if that completely coincides with the direct competence of the Congress.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that society integration issues are complicated and very sensitive. A step by step process which takes time. Different international organisations and experts (also within the Council of Europe) have approved the integration policy of Latvia. For these reasons, I call also upon the Congress to adopt recommendations that will facilitate integration and that would avoid polarization. I encourage you to support the amendments submitted by the delegation of Latvia.