Mr. V. BIRKAVS
Minister for Foreign Affairs
of the Republic of Latvia
Republic of Latvia
14 March 1996
Dear Mr Minister,
May I first of all express my thanks for the way your Ministry organized the visit I made to your country on 21-23 January 1996. This assistance was very valuable indeed.
During my visit I have tried especially to make an assessment of the naturalization process in Latvia, where, according to official figures, the number of registered aliens and stateless persons totalled 731,078 by 10 October 1995. Permit me to say in this connection that I was impressed by the way the Naturalization Board is performing its far from easy task.
The basic concept underlying the Law on Citizenship is clearly that a person who wants to be naturalized must demonstrate willingness to integrate into Latvian society. Against this background requirements have been formulated on the knowledge of the Latvian language and the history and constitutional system of Latvia. Other states have done the same, but as far as the extent of the requirements is concerned, there are considerable differences between various states.
The advantage of this approach is that persons interested in acquiring the citizenship of a country are thus stimulated to make an effort to integrate - an effort which they might otherwise not be willing to make. If the requirements are too heavy, however, this advantage will disappear. When potential applicants conclude that they might not be able to meet the requirements, they will be far less motivated to learn the language and to get acquainted with the history and the constitutional system of the country they are living in.
In Latvia the number of registered aliens and stateless persons is far higher than in most other states of the world: more than 28% of the total population. It is therefore especially important to promote their integration and to avoid a situation in which a high percentage of aliens will not be motivated to try to integrate.
It is against this background that I have again studied the requirements for acquiring citizenship, as formulated in Article 12 of the Law on Citizenship and the various regulations on the implementation of this law. The barriers which applicants have to overcome are numerous. To begin with, many of them will have to follow a language training course in order to be able to pass the language test. Assuming that a language training course is available in the vicinity, the applicant has to pay a fee. Especially for persons from lower income groups, this constitutes a considerable burden. The same applies for the application fee to be paid on acquiring citizenship: 30 Lats (55 US dollars). In addition, the applicant has to see to it that, in the course of the naturalization process, he produces no less than 25 documents (some of which require notarization). The language test requires more than a simple conversational knowledge of the Latvian language. And even though a history book in Latvian is being produced to help them, the questions which can potentially be asked necessitate the knowledge of more than the basic facts of Latvian history.
Polls taken in 1994 showed that an overwhelming majority of the non-citizens of Latvia were interested in acquiring Latvian citizenship. A survey carried out by the Naturalization Board at the end of 1995 amongst 1,378 pupils between the ages of 13 and 20 showed that 62.4% of them wished to become citizens of Latvia; 11% showed no interest, while 24.5% of the pupils replied that they had not thought about it (this relatively high percentage can probably be largely explained by the fact that about 85% of the correspondents had not yet reached the age of 18). A parallel survey by the Naturalization Board of 1,064 non-citizens showed that 79.4% held an interest in acquiring Latvian citizenship; 19.1% gave a negative reply. However, in stark contrast to these figures, the number of applicants of the 16-20 year age groups of non-citizens of Latvia born in Latvia which may apply for Latvian citizenship as of January 1st of this year, is very low. While the number of persons of this category which could theoretically apply since January 1st was, according to the Naturalization Board, 33,327, only 69 applied in January and 173 in February. If the number of applications from this category would remain at the level of February for the rest of the year, the total number of applications for 1996 would not exceed 2,000.
Of course I am aware that a number of non-citizens are not interested in acquiring Latvian citizenship because they want to avoid consequences such as being called up for Latvian military service or having to apply for a visa in order to visit Russia. In fact half of the minority of 11% of the pupils who showed no interest in citizenship in the survey of the Naturalization Board mentioned these reasons. But this cannot explain the wide discrepancy between the high percentage of young people interested in acquiring Latvian citizenship and the small number of them who do actually apply. In my view the number and difficulty of the barriers to be overcome in order to acquire Latvian citizenship can be the only explanation. This is confirmed by the poll conducted by the Naturalization Board. Asked about circumstances which hindered them in acquiring the citizenship of Latvia, virtually all respondents referred to one or more requirements for citizenship mentioned in the relevant law. My conclusion is, therefore, that quite a large number of non-citizens, who show in principle an interest in integrating into Latvian society in order to get Latvian citizenship, are at present deterred from making such an effort because their perception is that they might not be able to meet the requirements.
Taking this into account, I have been wondering what practical steps could be taken to increase the number of applications for citizenship, and, as a consequence, to stimulate the process of integration of non-citizens in Latvian society. I came to the conclusion that a number of practical steps which would not even require changes in the existing Law on Citizenship could produce such a result.
I suggest the following:
1. A change is desirable in the procedure for the language test. At present applicants must score sufficient marks both for the written (writing and reading) section and the oral section of the language test. In conformity with the opinion of the experts on the subject I would recommend that the total score for the written and the oral sections of the test ought to determine whether a candidate has passed the test.
2. A change is also desirable in the history and constitutional tests. Several of the questions which could potentially be asked in this field require a detailed knowledge of the history and constitution of Latvia. I would recommend a reduction of these requirements to the basic facts of Latvian history and the main elements of the constitutional system.
3. A reduction of the fee to be paid on receiving citizenship is also advisable. According to the two parallel polls conducted by the Naturalization Board, 18.7% and 17.5%, respectively, of the respondents stated that they could not afford to pay 30 Lats. I therefore suggest that, apart from the reductions granted to special categories, a 50% reduction of the fee for all applicants be introduced as soon as possible.
I also should like to make one recommendation regarding the Law on Citizenship. Article 21 of the law exempts from taking the Latvian language test persons who have acquired a general education in a school with the Latvian language as a language of instruction and persons with category I invalid status, if such status has been permanently conferred upon them. I would make a plea to extend these exceptions to include persons over the age of 65. It is a well-known fact that elderly persons find it extremely difficult to acquire a basic knowledge of a language they were not familiar with previously.
Finally, please allow me to express my concerns about the cuts foreseen in the 1996 budget for the Naturalization Board, including a reduction of Lats 87,000 in the salary fund. One of the likely consequences is the closure of a number of branches of the Naturalization Board in various parts of Latvia. The resulting complications for potential applicants might lead to a further drop of the number of persons actually applying. I express the hope, therefore, that ways can be found in the near future to restore the old budget.
These were the suggestions I wanted to submit to your Government, Mr Minister. I am looking forward with great interest to your reply.
Max van der Stoel
OSCE High Commissioner
on National Minorities