Monday

27th Jan 2020

Latvian non-citizens excluded from voting

Latvia faces a looming political problem as one fifth of the country's inhabitants are legally labelled 'non-citizens' and are not entitled to vote in the European Parliament elections next year.

Latvia is one of the ten accession countries set to officially join the EU on May 1, 2004 and will be electing nine MEPs to be sent to Brussels next June.

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  • Latvian non-citizens may not participate in municipal and general elections or referenda (Photo: EUobserver)

However, approximately one fifth of the country’s 2.32 million inhabitants, being Latvia’s so-called non-citizens, enjoy no political rights and so cannot vote in the elections.

Today, approximately 21 percent or 495,000 of Latvia’s residents are non-citizens - of these around 400,000 would be entitled to vote because they are over 18.

Non-citizens

Non-citizens, the vast majority of which are Russian, are legally considered as people without Latvian citizenship or citizenship of any other country.

This legal status was created as a transitional measure for those permanent non-Latvian residents who had arrived in Latvia during the Soviet-era and lost their Soviet Union citizenship in 1991 - when the Baltic country regained its independence.

Latvian leaders then decided not to grant automatic citizenship to all permanent residents and introduced a naturalisation procedure according to which a person has to pass language and Latvian history exams in order to receive Latvian citizenship.

Over 65,000 people have successfully undergone this procedure from 1995, according to the latest information from the Latvian Naturalisation Board. But several international bodies, including the EU, have expressed their concern over this slow process.

Many ethnic Russians do not apply for Latvian citizenship or cannot speak the country’s only state language, Latvian. As a result they are excluded from voting in municipal and general elections, as well as referendums and European Parliament elections.

A problem

This could become a problem when Latvia officially joins the EU, said Alvaro Gil-Robles, Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe during his visit to Riga on 8 October.

Mr Gil-Robles recommended making naturalisation exams easier and consider giving non-citizens the right to participate in municipal elections.

These people live and work here, they pay taxes, so they should gain some responsibility in the decision-making process, he said.

Mr Gil-Robles stressed that it was the practice in many EU countries to allow non-nationals residing in the country to take part in municipal elections.

Following these statements, the Latvian government once again repeated the official position that in order to fully participate in the country’s political life, non-citizens are urged to pass the naturalisation exams and become citizens.

If non-citizens had the right to vote in local elections, they would lose a great deal of motivation to become Latvian citizens, the argument goes.

The right to participate in municipal elections would slow down the naturalisation process, Latvian Social integration minister Nils Muiznieks said on 8 October.

A fair referendum?

In the meantime, Latvia’s non-citizens can look forward to a gloomy future because they will not be able to fully enjoy the benefits of Latvia’s EU membership.

They also did not express their opinion on Latvia’s bid to join the EU in the membership referendum on 20 September.

This led to heavy criticism from some marginal political parties that traditionally promote the interests of the biggest national minority (ethnic Russians) in Latvia. The most influential of them is Latvia’s Socialist Party that has 5 seats in the 100-seat parliament - the Latvian Saeima.

Shortly after the referendum votes were counted, the Latvian Socialist Party leader Alfreds Rubiks announced that he will appeal the result before the Constitutional Court because non-citizens were excluded from the electoral process.

His party would first turn to the Constitutional Court and then to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, Mr Rubiks said.

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