Chamber of Local Authorities
31 October 2008
Local democracy in Latvia:
the participation of non-citizens in public and political life at local level
Jean-Claude Frécon, France (L, SOC)
The subject of the present report is the participation of non-citizens in public and political life at local level in Latvia. In the absence of any information on progress from the Latvian Government since 2005, the rapporteur undertook a fact-finding mission to the country in April 2008. The unusual situation where 16% of the country’s population does not possess Latvian citizenship, together with the fact that these non-citizens cannot participate in elections at the local level emphasizes the Congress’ concern. The vast majority of non-citizens are long-term residents, often born in the country and largely integrated within the society, but nevertheless excluded from electing representatives in their municipalities of residence. Although the Latvian government undertakes serious efforts to further integrate non-citizens, it neither intends to grant non-citizens voting rights at local level nor to open a large political debate on the subject. Naturalisation is regarded by the Latvian government as a sufficient way to obtain voting rights, while many non-citizens for various reasons (in particular related to the history of the country) do not wish to go through the naturalization procedure. The report concludes by recommending that the Latvian authorities grant voting rights at local level to non-citizens.
R : Chamber of Regions / L : Chamber of Local Authorities
ILDG : Independent and Liberal Democrat Group of the Congress
EPP/CD : Group European People’s Party – Christian Democrats of the Congress
SOC : Socialist Group of the Congress
NR : Member not belonging to a Political Group of the Congress
1. Pursuant to Article 2.3 of Statutory Resolution (2000) 1 of the Committee of Ministers, the Congress prepares regular reports on the state of local and regional democracy in the member states and states which have applied for membership.
2. Latvia has been a member of the Council of Europe since 10 February 1995. On 5 December 1996 it signed and ratified the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which came into force in Latvia on 1 April 1997. It also signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on 11 May 1995 and ratified it on 6 June 2005.
3. The situation of local democracy and the participation of non-citizens in public and political life in Latvia was already the subject of a Congress report in 2005, and a number of the articles of a Congress recommendation in 19981.
4. This report follows up on a number of others prepared by Council of Europe bodies including the Parliamentary Assembly, the Human Rights Commissioner and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).
5. In the absence of any information from the government since 2005, the Bureau decided to send a fact-finding mission to Latvia to look into developments in the participation of non-citizens in public and political life at local level since the Congress’s previous report on the subject.
6. For the mission, the Bureau appointed the rapporteur of the Institutional Committee for Latvia, Jean-Claude Frécon (France) and Anders Knape (Sweden). The latter had to withdraw because of other commitments. The delegation was assisted by Jean-Marie Woehrling (France), who is a member of the Group of Independent Experts on the European Charter of Local Self-Government and whom we thank for his contribution.
7. During the visit, the delegation talked to a number of Latvian government representatives including the minister with special responsibility for social integration and other representatives of government institutions in charge of integration issues, a member of the Latvian parliament and a representative of the Ministry of Regional Development and Local Government, as well as representatives of the Latvian delegation to the Congress and the Latvian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (LALRG).
8. This report was drawn up on the basis of information collected during the visit and an analysis of all the relevant pieces of legislation and other information, and documents provided by the representatives of the Latvian authorities and the experts as well as the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
9. The Rapporteur would like to thank the Latvian authorities and the Latvian Association of Local and Regional Authorities for their hospitality and their assistance with the organisation of the visit as well as all those who helped to gather the information presented in the report.
II. The demographic situation in Latvia2
10. Latvia has 2.3 million inhabitants, of whom 1 342 215 are of Latvian origin, 367 035 of Russian origin and 40 635 of Polish origin; the rest of the population is of various origins including, in particular, Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian. It is estimated that citizens of Latvian origin account for about 59.1% of the population while those of Russian origin amount to some 28%.
11. Of the 2.3 million inhabitants, only 1 857 508 are Latvian citizens and the others are residents without citizenship. A total of 372 421 people have no nationality: 245 665 of these are of Russian origin, 50 008 Belarusian, 35 290 Ukrainian and 12 693 Polish.
12. Latvia’s demographic situation is unusual, firstly because of its multi-ethnic make-up and secondly because over 16% of the people living in the country do not have Latvian nationality, possessing a so-called non-citizen status.
13. The non-citizens are made up mostly, though not exclusively, of people of Russian origin, whose presence is often regarded by the Latvian population as a legacy of the Soviet era. As a result they are not considered to be an integrated part of the community on an equal footing with Latvian citizens
14. There is no need go into any detail about the historical background3 to this situation, but it should be briefly called to mind that during the 20th century, major population changes occurred including the disappearance of some of the native population (as a result of deportation, the Nazi invasion and large-scale exile) and the arrival of Russian, or Russian-speaking, immigrants.
15. It should also be emphasised that a large proportion of the Russian-speakers living in Latvia are Latvian citizens, whether they are of Russian or of another origin. Accordingly, Russian-speakers should not be equated, as they sometimes are, to non-citizens.
III. The status of non-citizens and their political rights
16. Non-citizens have a legal status which is governed by the Act on the status of citizens of the former USSR who are citizens neither of Latvia or any other state. As they have a “status”, they cannot be legally classified as “stateless persons”. They are also entitled to a passport called the "Alien’s passport”.
17. Their status as permanent residents entitles them to all citizens’ rights apart from voting and entry into the civil service. They are prohibited from taking part in local political life as voters or candidates.
18. Permanent residence status also entitles non-citizens to a passport, which enables them to travel abroad and, since Latvia has been a member of the European Union, to move around within the Union without a visa; furthermore, both Russia and other east European countries have simplified visa procedures for them.
19. The Rapporteur noted on his visit that the Latvian government is well aware of the situation and has been making considerable efforts to integrate non-citizens into Latvian society. The Ministry set up to deal specifically with social integration issues has been implementing various integration policies intended, among other things, to enable non-citizens to take part in local public life. The Congress delegation were also told that in the daily work of municipalities, flexible solutions are often found to get non-citizens involved in local life and address them in their own language if necessary.
20. However, while at national level, 16% of Latvia’s inhabitants are non-citizens, there are some municipalities where they account for over 25% of the population.
21. Another factor that has to be taken into account is that some of the people concerned regarded the decision to refuse them automatic citizenship as a rejection or even as an insult, and refuse out of principle to go through the naturalisation procedure
22. Conversely, some Latvians suspect the people in question of lacking loyalty to Latvia and rejecting Latvian as the national language, with the result that any proposal to make further simplifications is met with a hostile reaction, the sceptics’ argument being that access to citizenship is easy for anyone who is prepared to make at least some effort.
IV. A naturalisation procedure in trouble
23. Under the Citizenship Act of 22 July 1994, as amended on 22 June 1998, automatic citizenship is granted to all persons residing in Latvia on 17 June 1940 and their descendants. To obtain citizenship, other inhabitants who have been living in Latvia for at least five years must make an application for naturalisation, for which they are required to swear an oath of allegiance and sit an examination testing their knowledge of the Latvian language and Latvian institutions and symbols. In 1994, after the adoption of the Citizenship Act, 735 000 people living in Latvia suddenly became non-citizens.
24. However, since 1999, the conditions for obtaining citizenship (including the arrangements for the examination and the amount of the fee to be paid) have been significantly relaxed. According to everyone we spoke to on the subject, application processing times have been reduced, the examination is relatively easy (fewer than 10% fail) and the authorities make an effort to help people to pass and to encourage non-citizens to apply for naturalisation. Information campaigns have been held, persons over 65 years of age are exempt from the written part of the examination, special arrangements are made for persons with disabilities and applications may now be made from the age of 15 onwards. Under a separate naturalisation procedure, children born in Latvia after 21 August 1991 who have been to school in Latvia may be registered as citizens without any other requirement.
25. Despite all these measures, naturalisations are still relatively rare. Since 1995, there have been about 12 000 a year on average, and there has been a significant decline since 2007 (3200). In total 121 000 people were naturalised over the last ten years. Although the number of non-citizens has substantially decreased for other reasons (deaths, emigration), in March 2008 there were still about 370 000 people living in Latvia with non-citizen status.
26. From an international legal standpoint, the situation is still complex. On the one hand, the criteria adopted in the Nationality Act are not unreasonable or discriminatory bearing in mind the situation Latvia was in when it became independent (as a result of the major influx of Russian immigrants after World War II, the weakness of the Latvian language, the fact that in some cases the native Latvian population was even in a minority position, the fear that a part of the population would not be loyal to the new state, etc.). At the time (1994), it seemed logical for the new independent government not to grant automatic citizenship to all inhabitants of Latvia. The requirement to have been resident in Latvia in 1940 is an objective criterion, which benefited many Russian-speaking inhabitants. Consequently, in itself, the legislation adopted by Latvia does not infringe any international standards4 and is not in breach of any of Latvia’s international undertakings.
On the other hand, its ultimate effect is to disenfranchise a large part of the population who cannot be regarded as foreign.
27. The government’s stance on the matter is still very guarded, as it continues to deny political rights to non-citizens. The automatic, official response is that residents do have the option of naturalisation, which entitles them to take part in elections.
28. Although a significant number of non-citizens have been naturalised in recent years, most have failed or refused to take this step, for complex reasons which are often psychological in nature (non-citizens who have been residing in Latvia for years are part of society and do not see why they should have to sit an examination; they refuse to do so on principle). The plain fact is that a part of the population is deprived de facto of its political rights.
29. Bearing in mind that this reluctance on the part of non-citizens to begin the naturalisation procedure is likely to continue, this situation may well persist for many years, especially as some of the people in question have been “depoliticised” and are now resigned to not being able to vote. Furthermore, their status as permanent residents gives them access to all the other rights and advantages enjoyed by inhabitants of Latvia.
V. The Rapporteur’s recommendations
30. The Rapporteur believes that the question of political rights should be separated from that of naturalisation, and that political rights should be granted to all non-citizens irrespective of whether they have been naturalised. Most non-citizens are long-term residents or were even born in the country and are totally integrated into Latvian society.
31. In this connection, the Rapporteur points out that participation in local political life is a means of fostering integration. Excluding non-citizens from this process does not help them to integrate. It is hardly an incentive for them to apply for naturalisation, and may even reinforce the psychological barriers which already inhibit their attempts to integrate.
32. Interestingly, Latvia’s neighbour, Estonia, which has encountered much the same problems and adopted more or less the same legislation on nationality, has agreed to grant non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. This measure has not given rise to any particular problems. Various international bodies have asked Latvia repeatedly to introduce a measure of this type. Moreover, it is likely that a measure granting them the right to vote would be seen as a conciliatory gesture of good will on the part of the authorities towards Latvia’s non-citizens.
33. In a Memorandum to the Latvian Government of 16 May 20075 following a monitoring visit by his Bureau, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights also dealt with these questions. In his report it is noted that although progress has been made on naturalisation, other measures need to be taken as “the core problem does remain: the continued existence of the status of non-citizen, which is mainly held by representatives of the national minorities. This is deeply problematic in terms of real or perceived equality and social cohesion”.
34. Following the Congress visit and the talks between the Congress delegation and the representatives of the Latvian authorities, two contrasting comments are called for: Firstly, it is quite clear from the visit that the authorities are genuinely committed to finding a means of improving the integration of non-citizens. Secondly, however, it still holds true that the current situation is not in keeping with the spirit of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, particularly its preamble, because non-citizens are not entitled to vote.
35. For legal, political and practical reasons, the situation is still more questionable where it comes to access to local elections. As was pointed out in the Congress’s report of 1998, the European Charter of Local Self-Government can be considered to imply in principle that the entire local population should be able to take part in local political life by electing local representatives.
36. At the same time, the Rapporteur welcomes the ratification by Latvia, on 6 June 2005, of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. He congratulates the authorities on this decision, which is a major step forward and reflects the government’s commitment to promoting the rights of national minorities. However, he would draw the Latvian authorities’ attention to Article 15 of the Convention6 and invites them to take the necessary measures to comply fully with this article, including measures with regard to non-citizens, irrespective of naturalisation.
37. The Rapporteur can only reiterate the recommendations made to Latvia previously by the Congress, pointing to the importance of getting these residents involved in the country’s democratic processes and emphasising that participation in local democracy is an ideal means of fostering integration. Consequently, it is now for the Latvian authorities to make a positive move and enact new legislation or amend existing laws, granting non-citizens the right to vote so as to foster their increased involvement in political life and hence, their integration into Latvian society.
38. Lastly, the Rapporteur calls on the Latvian authorities to think initially about the possibility of granting automatic naturalisation to the elderly and those born in Latvia so as to rekindle the naturalisation process. This would create a spirit of reconciliation with people who might not live to see a fully reconciled Latvian society.
39. In addition to the points raised above and the solutions that are recommended to bring the situation in Latvia fully into line with the Charter, the Rapporteur also considers it crucial for the Latvian authorities to reconsider the ratification of Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which establishes a general ban on discrimination (ETS No. 177), as well as the signature and ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ETS No. 148).
40. He also recommends that Latvia should accede to the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level (ETS No. 144).
41. The implementation of the measures cited above by the Latvian authorities, who can rely on the support of the Congress in this, would be a sign of their good will and, still more, of the vitality of Latvian democracy.
42 The government has an opportunity to defuse the situation in Latvian society with regard to its composition, its origins and its history. It is the government’s responsibility to turn the page on a painful episode in Latvia’s history and look to a future in which Latvian society will be reconciled with itself.
43. Maintaining a strict line on naturalisation has no obvious advantages. Non-citizens are entitled to practically everything to which citizens are entitled except the title “citizen”. Given this, the refusal to grant them the right to vote is short-sighted. Whether exercised or not, the right to vote would be a factor conducive to integration and send out a strong coherent signal.
44. The Rapporteur urges the government to open another debate between the political parties in the government coalition, taking a courageous approach combined with a will to succeed, in an effort to build a cohesive society in a fledgling state which deserves no less.
Visit of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Latvia
April 14 – 15, 2008
1) Jean-Philippe Bozouls, Executive Secretary of the Chamber of Local Authorities of the Congress;
2) Almut Schroeder , Secretary a.i. of the Institutional Committee, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe;
3) Jean-Claude Frecon, the Rapporteur;
4) Jean-Marie Woehrling, member of the Group of Independent Experts on the European Charter of Local Self-Government.