The Last Prisoners of the Cold War. Foreword

Miroslav Mitrofanov

The stateless People of Latvia in their own Words


Twenty years have passed since the end of the Cold war. Fifteen years have passed since the USSR dissolved giving rise to either new or restored independent states. The years that followed contained a lot of both happy and tragic events, but the general outcome is not in doubt - the end of the Cold War opened the way for the reunification of Europe based on the common values of freedom, democracy and human rights.

The end of each war in history usually results in the redistribution of territory, property and punishment of the vanquished. The side defeated in the Cold war is more or less evident. But still the discussion continues on who personally is guilty for the policy of communist governments and how they should be punished. This discussion is not only encouraged by some politicians, but is the aspiration of a substantial part of society. The politicians respond to this by saying how Russia must apologise for the crimes of communism and compensate the losses and moral sufferings of the peoples of Eastern Europe. But Russia is too important for the West to become a scapegoat in the present situation. Some people think the former communist leaders should be punished depending on their level of personal guilt. But a long time has passed and the old generation of communists who were most closely engaged in the repressions has left the political stage. The new generation of European communists participated in democratic reforms and has become an integral part of the modern political system. So, who would be punished for the crimes of the past?

Some nations found a local solution. The most radical of them was invented in the Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia - the states punished their local Russian-speaking minorities. An MEP Rihards Piks (EPP-ED), asked by a journalist whether Latvians should forgive Russian-speakers for the mistakes committed by the USSR, replied, “the Bible says, children must pay for the sins of their parents”.[1]

After the restoration of  independence sixteen years ago, all permanent residents of Latvia and Estonia who were not descendants of citizens of the first period of independence (1918-1940), were deprived of political and some social rights. One third of the population of Latvia found themselves in the artificial status of “Latvian non-citizens”. This status means that a non-citizen doesn’t have citizenship of any country but at the same time cannot claim to be a stateless person. Replying to a Latvian Russian-speaking journalist who'd asked “What are we now in Latvia?”, Mr. Visvaldis Lācis, a former officer of the Latvian Waffen Division of the SS, but currently - publicist and ideological inspirer of nationalistic Latvian youts, said – “Now you are nothing”. The Russian-speaking minority of this country became the last prisoners of the Cold war.   

The solution of dividing people into citizens and “non-citizens” was purely political in nature. From a legal point of view another way was also possible - the neighbouring country of Lithuania at the moment its independence was restored adopted the “zero option” granting citizenship rights to all its residents.  The Latvian invention of non-citizen status provided for the exclusion of the minority from sharing in power and stabilized majority support for radical liberal reforms carried out by right wing governments. Due to reform Latvia has become the poorest country of the European Union, and has the highest rate of depopulation. But even the poorest Latvians are still voting in favour of right wing parties as a kind of revenge for communist repression.

Why is the Latvian approach to the local Russian minority so radical? This attitude is grounded in Latvia's dramatic history. Seven centuries of foreign domination was interrupted only in the beginning of the twentieth century when Latvia gained independence. During the First World War and the first independence period the share of ethnic minorities dropped from 40% in 1914[2] to 23% in 1935. At that time ethnic Russians made up one tenth of the population.

In 1940 the country was forcefully annexed by the Soviet Union. Several waves of communist repression as well as the Second World War caused the loss of more than 300,000 inhabitants.  The national resistance against the Soviets went on until the beginning of 1950s. Then both the repressions and the resistance drew to a close and the Latvian elite decided that the only way for the country's development was integration into the Soviet system. Latvia became a loyal republic of the Soviet Union. It had the highest share of scientists, developed agriculture and modern industry. Industrial development was performed by attracting labour from Russia and other territories of the USSR. Labour migration led to the growth of the Russian-speaking minority which reached 40% of the population at the end of the Soviet era.

The end of the Cold war which led to national independence for the Baltic countries also brought up the issue of guilt for the communist repressions of the 40s and early 50s, as well guilt for the discomfort caused by changes in ethnic proportions. Who would pay? There were not a lot of options for revenge for the past. The Soviet totalitarian empire had disappeared. The new democratic Russia supported the restoration of the independent states and could not become the main enemy at that time. The overwhelming majority of Latvian communists had moved successfully to liberal and right wing parties. It was not possible to punish all those who had collaborated with the Soviets because in this case the majority of the Latvian elite - its journalists, artists, scientists, managers and lawyers would have had to be punished too. In such circumstances the local Russian-speaking minority was chosen as a target group for avenging historic grievances. Those of them, who had arrived in Latvia during Soviet times became stateless, those Russians who were the descendents of citizens of the first independent state (up to 25% of the registered citizens of Latvia in 1993) were excluded from the decision-making process by unwritten laws of ethnic discrimination. The definition “you are nothing” affected both parts of the Latvian Russian-speaking community. 

What has changed in sixteen years of independence? The Russian-speaking citizens of Latvia became more active in politics, but their position is still not taken into consideration relating to issues of minority education or the use of languages. The problem of mass scale statelessness is still acute. The number of non-citizens declined from 700,000 to 400,000. Now they make up no more than 20% of the population. More than a hundred thousand of them became Latvian citizens; the rest of the “disappeared non-citizens” mostly died due to poor social conditions or left the country. 

The process of naturalisation started only in 1996. At present non-citizens do not have the right to participate in local elections (newcomers from EU countries enjoy this right). Non-citizens cannot travel without a visa within the EU. Restrictions relating to more than sixty professions are still in force concerning Latvian non-citizens, as well as discrimination in calculating pensions. After sixteen years of independence, after Latvia joined the EU and NATO it is still holding 400,000 Cold War prisoners “liberating” them slowly and reluctantly. The existing rate of naturalisation would only provide a solution for the problem over a period of 40 years. This means that the majority of non-citizens of the old generation will never enjoy equal rights with Latvian citizens. No exception from the rules is made even for the specific group of former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, persons forcibly moved to Latvia during World War II or the refugees of that war, who did not have homes to return to.

Why is the process of dealing with the problem of mass statelessness so slow? Launching the naturalisation process was not a goodwill gesture by the Latvian political elite but the result of heavy pressure by the EU and other foreign powers. The former Prime minister and leader of the “Latvian Way” party (ALDE) Mr. Ivars Godmanis gave a frank evaluation: “There is the Citizenship law that stipulates the order of naturalisation. And please don’t say the order is very easy. Why is it that so many people failed to gain citizenship within 15 years? This means the law is not so “soft”...  At the same time the law is supported by our Western allies and it is a good tool against Russian attacks. We can always say the law meets the requirements of universal standards”.[3] 

Latvian citizenship law is based on the same principles as similar laws in many other European countries (five year residency qualification, examinations in the state language and history, anthem and oath). But this law is not adapted to the specific conditions of modern Latvia where the main target group – the non-citizens clearly remember the time they had full citizen rights and participated in the democratic elections of 1989 and 1990. The majority of non-citizens do not see themselves to be real foreigners in Latvia for whom examinations and oath would be the appropriate way of integration. The older non-citizens are alienated from the state because of a combination of factors including age, health and poverty. When your monthly income is only 125 Euros (the average pension in Latvia) it is too difficult to think about examination, history or oaths. A significant portion of non-citizens have problems with the Latvian language because they have spent their working lives in predominantly Russian-speaking workplaces and are living in a Russian-language environment. In such circumstances only one third of recent non-citizens are going to pass through the naturalisation process[4]    

Any attempt to improve the law is opposed severely by the ruling parties. The chairman of the People's party of Latvia (EPP-ED) Mr. Atis Slakteris said: “The citizenship law is strong and there is no need to redraft it. If we open the law it gives an opportunity for enemies of Latvia to ask for a softening of the law[5]. But Mr. Slakteris didn’t express the most radical position - another part of the Latvian political elite campaigns to make the law more restrictive.

The party “For Fatherland and Freedom” (UEN) regularly tries to end the process of naturalisation. The leader of the party and vice-chairman of the Latvian parliament Mr. Jānis Straume expressed this wish: "I don’t see any obstacle as to why the departure of non-citizens must not be supported. They are still living in Russian speaking environments and belong to this country only by formal reasons. The majority of them do not hide their hatred for Latvians. It is not worth postponing this process in the name of integration.  People who were ready to join an ethnic Latvian environment passed the naturalisation process  a long time ago. Also I do not see why the naturalisation should not be stopped or restricted ".[6] The approach is supported by the former Minister of defence, the MEP Mr. Valdis Girts Kristovskis (“For Fatherland and Freedom”, UEN): „We cannot hope that people who found themselves in Latvia because of a political process, who live here and take part in the country’s economy will become conscientious helpers of the Latvian state[7]. In the first part of 2006 the party of Mr. Kristovskis and Mr. Straume three times tried to put forward bills supporting the suspension of naturalisation. The bills were not supported by the rest of the right wing parties because they are content with the slow rate of naturalisation which will take decades and will not affect the two thirds of today's stateless residents.

The Latvian non-citizens are not indifferent towards their own fate. They take part in protest actions as well in appealing to international organisations. The official position of the state towards the protests is expressed by Mr. Ojars Kalnins, the director of the Latvian state institute (the general establishment for state propaganda): "Journalists ask – what is the situation with your Russians? We reply – the problem is not in Latvia, the problem is in Moscow and it is a political, not a human problem”. [8]

So officially Latvia denies its responsibilities towards the situation facing twenty per cent of the country's people who do not possess any citizenship and blames neighbouring country for the problems. Some conservative politicians defend the current slow process of naturalisation, another part asks for its suspension and the "repatriation” of non-Latvians.  



[1] European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Council of Europe November 2005, Study on the use of racist, antisemitic and xenophobic elements in political discourse, Jean-Yves Camus.

[2] Balodis A. "Latvijas un latviesu tautas vesture", “Kabata” gramatu apgads, Riga, 1991

[3] “Latvijas avīze”, July 14, 2005

[4]  Survey Baltic Institute of Social Sciences, "Ethnopolitical Tension in Latvia: Looking for the Conflict Solution", Riga 2005

[5] “Latvijas avīze”, January 23, 2006

[6] ”Latvijas avīze”, December 05, 2005

[7] ”Latvijas avīze”, November 05, 2005

[8] ”Latvijas avīze”, January 12, 2006