MOSCOW (Tatyana Stanovaya, an expert at the Center of Political Technologies, for RIA Novosti) - Latvia has problems.
On the one hand, it has joined the EU, which requires respect for the rights of national minorities. On the other hand, since the 2002 elections the Latvian authorities have lurched significantly to the right. Society has started making greater demands for a harsher approach toward Russian speakers and nationalist sentiments have become more radical. But the new Latvian government has found a way out: The overwhelming majority of the Russian speakers will no longer qualify as part of a national minority now.
In the near future Latvia plans to ratify the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities with reservations. The convention was designed for the European Union, which has long called on Latvia to tone down its policy toward Russian speakers. The reservations are designed for the Latvian public and political elite, which has become much more rightwing since the 2002 election.
"The convention will be most probably ratified by June 23," said Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks. "The national minorities are citizens of Latvia who reside permanently in the republic and have a long-standing connection with it but differ from the indigenous population ethnically and culturally, and in religion and language." The long-standing connection should signify that "the ancestors of these national minorities have lived in Latvia for over 100 years," Pabriks said.
There are more than 600,000 Russian speakers in Latvia, half of whom are non-citizens. They face a simple choice: Either accept Russian citizenship and the status of aliens (which entails a certain curtailment of rights, including the right to vote and run in elections) or request Latvian citizenship. There are many obstacles, above all political ones, to the latter.
Under Latvian law, citizenship cannot be granted to persons convicted of illegal protests against the state and those who expressed the ideas of fascism, national-socialism, communism and totalitarianism after May 4, 1990, those who chose to reside in Latvia after demobilization from the Soviet armed forces after June 17, 1940, former KGB officers (there are about 20,000 of them in Latvia), and several other categories.
This means that war veterans and those who were sentenced for taking part in unwarranted protests against the state regime or were associated with the operation of the remaining elements of the communist regime in Latvia after 1991 cannot become Latvian citizens. In fact, citizenship is an impossible dream for all those whom the local authorities label "occupants" and collaborators with "the occupation regime." They make up the largest group of Russian speakers and will be discriminated against the hardest.
But even those Russian speakers who have been granted citizenship cannot be recognized as part of the national minority either. This right will be granted only to Old Believers, who have lived in Latvia for several centuries. All others, including the descendants of Russians who moved to Latvia during the first wave of emigration (1918-1920) and those who came to Latvia in the Soviet period to work at the republic's industrial facilities and on construction projects, cannot be termed a national minority. The trouble is that far from all of them were granted citizenship in the early 1990s.
Russian speakers in Latvia can be divided into three groups after the ratification of the convention.
The first is the Old Believers who have lived in Latvia for centuries and will be recognized as a national minority. They have long become assimilated and there are no special problems with their rights. This allows Latvia to create a positive picture of itself for the EU, which is led to believe that Latvia has solved the problem of national minorities.
The second category consists of Russian speakers who are not a national minority. It will be very difficult for Russia to protect their rights.
And lastly, those Russian speakers who are not citizens and not a national minority might be ordered to leave the country.
There are internal reasons for the radicalization of Latvian policy. Before joining the EU, Latvia's priority was a European identity and hence a desire to attain European standards. This is why the adjustment of the republic's legislation to European standards led to the abolition of a "window system" (age brackets that meant many people had to wait years to be naturalized) for naturalization quotas.
The idea of a Latvian identity came to prominence after Latvia joined the EU. A coalition of rightwing parties formed the government, while centrist parties were hardly represented in the system of power. The nationalist parties, such as All for Latvia and Fatherland and Freedom, have become noticeably more proactive in recent times. The bloc For Human Rights in United Latvia, which upholds the rights of Russian speakers, has almost disintegrated.
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who is an institutionally weak figure in the system of power, has to maneuver between the EU and the rightwing coalition. She has recently criticized the Cabinet for adding to the draft border treaty with Russia a reference to the 1920 treaty, under which the Pytalovo (formerly Abrene) district was incorporated into Latvia.
Making concessions to the EU on the nationalities issue would amount to increasing the chances of nationalist parties at the next election. As a result, the Latvian leadership has to work hard to justify the expectations of the voters without ceding the initiative to the more radical forces (since non-citizens cannot vote, the rivals are rightwing and ultra-rightwing parties).
This could create a situation where nobody apart from Russia will stand up for the rights of Russian speakers in Latvia. In the event of a confrontation between the moderately- and ultra-rightwing forces, the EU will support the former and the problem of national minorities will be formally solved, because there will be no "problem" Russians left in that category.