Mr. V. BIRKAVS
Minister for Foreign Affairs
of the Republic of Latvia
Republic of Latvia
28 October 1996
Dear Mr Minister,
May I first of all thank you once again for the kind reception you accorded to me during my last visit and for the excellent help provided by the staff of your Ministry in arranging a great number of appointments.
My visit enabled me to become better acquainted with the work of the National Human Rights Office. This independent state body can in my view play a very important role in promoting human rights, especially also by making recommendations on legislative questions which are related to human rights. I was also glad to note that the national programme for promoting training and education in the Latvian language is now coming into effect. It can be of special value for non-citizens who want to acquire the Latvian citizenship and who have to pass i.a. a language test in order to obtain it.
Regarding the naturalization process as a whole, I have noted that few persons who were born in Latvia and are now between 16 and 20 years old (who have the right to apply for citizenship from 1 January on the basis of article 14 para. 1 sub. 1 of the Law on Citizenship) have actually applied. On the basis of the data available for the first nine months of 1996, the conclusion seems to be justified that by the end of 1996 less than 1,000 of this group of about 33,000 persons will actually have applied. Though reluctance to be called up for military service can be a factor, this can only be part of the explanation, because the number of female applicants is also very low.
In my letter to you of 14 March I have tried to analyse, on the basis of opinion polls amongst non-citizens conducted by the Naturalization Board, why there is such a striking discrepancy between the interest shown by more than 2/3 of the group of non-citizens in Latvia to acquire Latvian citizenship, and the remarkably low number of applicants for citizenship. The most recent figures I just quoted clearly confirm this trend. The practical consequence is that, unless steps will be taken to stimulate the naturalization process, the percentage of the population of Latvia which does not have citizenship, presently above 28%, will remain well above 20% for many years to come. This is even more likely because the overwhelming majority of non-citizens clearly want to stay in Latvia.
I am aware of the political difficulties standing in the way of major changes in the Law on Citizenship. But I do express the hope that a debate will develop on the stagnation of the naturalization process, especially also in various Standing Committees of the Saeima. The opinion polls conducted by the Naturalization Board do in my view provide very relevant information about this stagnation.
When the Law on Citizenship was being debated, fears that Latvia would not be able to absorb a great number of new citizens at the same time were clearly predominant. This also led to the introduction, apart from special categories of applicants, of the so-called "window system" which did not allow all those interested in citizenship to apply at the same time, but which gave priority to those born in Latvia over those born outside Latvia, and priority to the younger age groups in each category over the older ones. Thus, the right to apply for naturalization was spread over 7 years, beginning in 1996.
As so few applicants have made use of the "window" opened in 1996, it is clear that the problem confronting Latvia now is not the danger of being swamped by a great number of applicants at the same time, but the risk that the process of naturalization - an essential element of the process of integrating non-Latvians into Latvian society - is moving much too slowly. I hope therefore that due consideration will be given to the abolishment of the "window" system.
I learned from your letter to me of 22 April that the question of the reduction of the naturalization fee for several categories of residents might be discussed again in the Cabinet of Ministers in 1997. I hope very much that it will be possible to take a positive decision on that occasion. I also hope that the recommendation of the Naturalization Board to exempt persons over the age of 65 from at least the written part of the language test, which would require an amendment to article 21 of the Law on Citizenship, will be received favourably by the Saeima.
The Naturalization Board informed me that there is still insufficient knowledge amongst non-citizens regarding the naturalization process and the various procedures related to it. I have asked the Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations in The Hague to provide funds for production of an information brochure to be distributed amongst non-citizens. They have replied positively.
Finally, Mr Minister, allow me to say how much I welcome the initiative of President Ulmanis to establish a Consultative Council on Nationalities. In my view this could be an important forum to discuss the moral and human aspects of the integration process, which, in my view, requires effort on both sides, i.e. non-Latvians actively seeking to integrate, and Latvians trying to extend a helping hand. It is my hope that the Consultative Council will be used, as you formulated it in your letter to me of 20 August, "to gain comprehensive information concerning various ethnic groups in Latvia, and to discuss their most essential problems so as to promote their solution at the level of legislative or executive powers". In my view, a discussion on ways to remove the causes of the stagnation in the naturalization process could also be of great value in this context.
These were the recommendations I wanted to submit to you, Mr Minister. I am looking forward with great interest to your reply.
Max van der Stoel, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities