Learning about Latvian history necessitates learning about the string of kingdoms and countries that occupied or fought proxy battles on Latvian soil over the past several centuries. Germany, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Russia and the USSR all took their turn in the Baltics. It is the most recent occupation, by the USSR from 1941 to 1991, that led to Latvia’s current citizenship crisis.
A series of maps showing the Baltics’ alternating independence and occupation between 1900 and 1991.
The Soviet Union claimed the Baltics from Nazi occupation thanks to a secret clause in a Soviet-German non-aggression treaty that cemented their sphere of influence over much of eastern Europe. The Soviet occupation was brutal, coming just two decades after Latvia became a modern, independent country in the wake of WWI. The Soviets carried out mass deportations and incarcerations. As many as 100,000 Latvians were deported to the Soviet Union, either in forced resettlement plans, labor camps, or prisons. Tens of thousands of Russians also moved into Latvia. During the occupation, Latvia suffered. Families lost their land, resources were scarce, shelves were empty and businesses fell apart.
Latvia gained independence in 1991. Overwhelmingly, I’ve been amazed at how thoroughly it has reinvented itself since throwing off the Soviet Union. It joined the EU in 2003, adopted the euro, and has its sights set firmly on Europe rather than Russia as the future of its country. Latvia is infinitely charming and amazingly wealthy, considering its wide-spread poverty less than 30 years ago. Almost everyone I’ve met – whether in interviews or on the street, in cafes or on buses – also speaks remarkably good English, especially if they’ve been educated since 1991.
Signs circa the 1980s, demanding independence from the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, re-establishing independence came with challenges, including the question of how to establish citizenship. Latvia granted citizenship to the families of anyone who had been expelled from the territory during the occupation, but denied citizenship rights to those who had settled in the borders during between 1941 and 1991. This applied primarily to ethnic Russians.
Estonia drafted similar citizenship laws, and consequently the two Baltic states are home to 97% of Europe’s stateless population. Latvia has almost 250,000 stateless people in a country of less than 2 million. Although it ratified the 1964 Convention on Statelessness and has formal protections in place for stateless people, it does not consider ethnic Russians stateless, instead using a specific legal designation called “non-citizen.” There are three primary differences between the rights of a citizen and a non-citizen of Latvia: non-citizens cannot vote, they cannot hold any form of government employment, and they cannot receive state benefits, particularly pensions.
In Latvia, I understand how and why these citizenship laws came about. Granting citizenship to your occupiers after they withdraw seems like a lot to ask, and it is certainly not my place to judge how a country re-establishes independence after a violent occupation. However, Lithuania – the third Baltic state, with a similar history of Soviet occupation – proves that it is possible to re-establish an independent nation and simultaneously create inclusive citizenship laws.
The non-citizen Latvians I’ve spoken to are all older and relatively uninterested in the possibility of agitating for increased citizenship rights. One woman described a feeling of misuse, because her Latvian passport calls her an alien in her own country. Another man mentioned the annoyance of being unable to become a notary to serve in his local courthouse. Interestingly, none mentioned the desire to vote.
A “non-citizen” passport — nepilsona means non-citizen.
Human rights experts explained that the issue is a tired one. It may seem like a harsh way of looking at things, but eventually all the non-citizens in Latvia will die, and the Baltics will be free of stateless people. Careful amendments in 1993 and 2013 ensure that almost all children of non-citizens are born with citizenship, and each year, fewer than 100 new stateless people are born in Latvia. However, they also mentioned a few ways to improve the situation. Granting voting rights in at least local elections would give non-citizens a voice, a move that Estonia has already taken. Lifting job restrictions would expand opportunities for non-citizens, although most are old enough that they have chosen another profession at this point. Finally, children of non-citizens could be automatically registered as citizens at birth (rather than only at the request of their parents), which would ensure that the number of non-citizens born each year drops to zero.
In the second-largest city, Daugavpils, around 50% of the population is ethnically Russian. Although signs in Russian are common around the city, Russian signage is often excluded in favor of English signage, demonstrating Latvia’s determination to turn towards Europe and away from Russian in its era of independence.