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Latvia's 'non-citizens' demand to have their voice heard

23 March 2013, 21:41 CET
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(RIGA) - Residents of European Union member state Latvia classed as "non-citizens" formed a new political force Saturday in an effort to win full political rights.

Around 400 people gathered in Riga for the formation of a "Non-citizens Congress" with the stated purpose of representing the nearly 300,000 people - many of them born and raised in the country - who have non-citizen status and consequently have special passports and restrictions placed on their voting and employment rights.

Non-citizens currently comprise around 13 percent of Latvia's total 2 million population.

"The last time Latvian society was truly united was on the barricades in 1991," Elizabete Krivcova, a human rights activist and one of the organisers of the event told AFP, referring to the barricades on which Latvian and Russians stood side by side to regain independence from the Soviet Union.

"Despite numerous protests and the advice of many international organisations, very little progress has been made on this issue in more than 20 years. At the current rate of naturalisation it would take 100 years to remove the status of non-citizens," Krivcova said.

Representatives of the pro-Russian Harmony Centre party - the largest in the Latvian parliament, but which has never been invited into any government coalition - were among attendees lending their support.

Harmony Centre MP Boriss Cilevics told AFP his party supported any constructive attempt to address the non-citizen issue.

"We consider the presence of large numbers of non-citizens to be the biggest deficiency of Latvian democracy. What is going on today is non-citizens came together and decided who will represent them in dialogue with the government," Cilevics said.

Also present were Aleksandrs Gaponenko and Vladimirs Lindermans, the controversial driving forces behind a divisive 2012 referendum that attempted to give Russian the status of an official language in Latvia.

"We want to see a society in which your ethnic background is not the basis of everything else," Gaponenko told delegates to the congress, saying that the existence of non-citizens and an "ethnic hierarchy" was incompatible with Latvia's status as a European, western state.

Around one third of Latvians are classed as of Russian ethnicity and count Russian as their mother tongue, but only Latvian is used for all official purposes.

MEP Tatjana Zdanoka told AFP she had repeatedly raised the question of non-citizens at European level, but the congress had been founded because other means of democratic protest in Latvia had been blocked.

"We recently attempted to hold a referendum to resolve the issue but it was blocked by the Central Election Commission. It is not just Russian families who want to resolve this issue, many Latvian and mixed families do, too," she told AFP.

The status of non-citizen was created following the restoration of Latvian independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 when parliament decreed that only citizens and the descendants of citizens of the pre-war Latvian republic were eligible for citizenship, excluding thousands of Soviet-era immigrants and their families who became stateless.

Non-citizens currently have the opportunity to naturalise by taking language and other citizenship tests but many object to doing so on principle.

Human rights groups and organisations including the United Nations, the OSCE and the Council of Europe have repeatedly criticised the existence of non-citizens in Latvia and neighbouring Estonia and the Russian Federation regularly uses the issue to rebuff EU human rights criticism.

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