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Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1992
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, 1 January 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca551e.html [accessed 26 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

After more than fifty years of rule by the Soviet government, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained international recognition as independent, sovereign states in late August 1991.4 The Kremlin followed suit on September 6. All three new nations were admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and participated in the Moscow CSCE conference in September. In October, they were admitted to the United Nations, and later that month they became associate members of NATO.

The Baltic states quickly made their presence felt on the international human rights scene. For example, Lithuania expressed its interest in ratifying the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Estonia acceded in December to the optional protocol of that covenant, thereby allowing reporting of individual violations to the U.N. Human Rights Committee. In May 1990, before international recognition of its independent status, the Latvian government acceded to some 50 international treaties, including those on human rights.

An important human rights issue in all three Baltic states is the status of national minorities who were Soviet citizens when the Soviet Union was a single political entity. Many of these minorities may have to fulfill new naturalization requirements to become citizens of the states in which they reside. Proposed new citizenship laws became the focus of intense debate. These questions reached a head in fall of 1991 when all three Baltic states issued new laws or official guidelines on citizenship.

The laws and principles on citizenship in the three Baltic states share certain features. They grant citizenship automatically to those who were citizens or residents of their respective states at the time of Soviet occupation – 1940 – and to their direct descendants. These laws and principles also establish certain residency and language requirements for naturalization, define criteria for ineligibility, and – with the exception of Latvia which changed its law on November 27 – forbid dual citizenship. The ban on dual citizenship has met a hostile reception from emigres who would like to return or take up citizenship in one of the Baltic states but do not want to give up their adopted citizenship in other countries.

Lithuania was the first to produce a law on citizenship, promulgating it in November 1989. (Subsequently, Lithuania issued a new citizenship law on December 10, 1991; at this writing Helsinki Watch has only obtained oral translations of some portions of its text by the Lithuanian Embassy.) The 1989 law automatically extends citizenship to those who can prove they were permanent residents, and were legally employed, in Lithuania for at least ten years before the law entered into force. Those who could meet this requirement, were given two years – until November 1991 – to opt for Lithuanian citizenship. The new law ends this "grace period" for selecting citizenship for those who do not meet the ten-year residency/employment requirement.

Other naturalization conditions state that individuals may be naturalized in the future if they have been permanent residents in Lithuania for ten years with legal employment or a source of legal support, know the Lithuanian language, and know the basic provisions of the Lithuanian Constitution. (The law thus distinguishes between two groups of people: those who had settled in Lithuania ten years before it became a sovereign state, and those who migrated to Lithuania more recently or after the law's adoption. (The preliminary information that Helsinki Watch has obtained on the 1991 Lithuanian citizenship law did not shed light on the key issue of the rights of permanent resident aliens.)

Two provisions in the Lithuanian law violate international human rights standards. Under its provisions on naturalization, citizenship would be denied to recent migrants who, among other things, have been sentenced to imprisonment for "a serious, deliberate crime" or who are alcoholics and drug addicts. Denying citizenship to persons whose criminal conviction took place before the law's adoption adds an additional, ex post facto penalty to their punishment, a condition forbidden by international standards set forth in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Excluding from naturalization permanent residents who are alcoholics and drug addicts is particularly pernicious because it would likely discourage them from seeking needed treatment. (These conditions still seem to stand in the 1991 Lithuanian citizenship law.)

On October 15, the Latvian Supreme Council (parliament) issued a conceptual framework to guide future legislation on citizenship in Latvia. This legal framework has been attacked by Latvian emigres, who eventually managed to reverse its initial ban on dual citizenship; by the Latvian radical right, who claim that the present Supreme Council lacks the needed legal authority to issue it; and by groups representing various segments of the non-Latvian half of the population. It is likely that these questions will be the subject of many more debates before the new Latvian citizenship law achieves its final shape.

The framework first affirms the validity of the 1919 Latvian citizenship law, in effect in pre-Soviet Latvia. The framework also states that many Soviet citizens settled in Latvia as a result of the long and illegal Soviet annexation of the republic. It points out that one purpose of this law is to "liquidate the consequences of the Soviet Union's occupation and annexation of Latvia" and renew the legal rights of citizens of the Republic of Latvia. Therefore, it revokes the 1940 Soviet law on citizenship for Latvia.

The Latvian government's desire to try to put right the wrongs of Soviet rule are understandable. Even so, some of the categories of those ruled ineligible for Latvian citizenship are overly broad: those convicted for attempting to undermine or overthrow by unconstitutional methods the independent and democratic Latvian republic, its parliamentary system or its government; those serving in the ranks of the Soviet military, MVD or KGB forces and those who settled in Latvia after 1940 upon retirement from these forces; common criminals and those convicted of crimes against humanity; those convicted of disseminating chauvinist, fascist, communist or totalitarian ideologies; those sent to Latvia after June 17, 1940, as Communist Party and Komsomol officials; and registered alcoholics, addicts and those without a legal source of income.

The legal framework states that those who were citizens or legal residents of Latvia before 1940 and their descendants must register for a Latvian passport by July 1, 1992. In general, anyone living in Latvia and wanting to become a citizen can expect to be naturalized if he or she submits an application by July 1, 1992. Such applicants must show: knowledge of spoken Latvian; proof that he or she is no longer a citizen of another country; proof of a minimum of sixteen years' residency in Latvia; acquaintance with the Latvian Constitution; and willingness to swear allegiance to the republic of Latvia.

While most non-Latvian residents of the republic can meet the sixteen-year residency requirement, some fear discriminatory application of the Latvian language competency exam. According to the 1989 census, only one-fourth of the non-Latvian population speaks Latvian. Protests from various segments of the non-Latvian community were loud.

The Estonian Supreme Council discussed a draft citizenship law on October 15 which would grant citizenship to those who had it before 1940 and to their descendants. It also offers Estonian citizenship to those who later moved to Estonia, can show knowledge of the Estonian language, and have lived in Estonia for at least three years. Language instruction free of charge would be offered to those who have applied for citizenship. The draft law also bars dual citizenship and sets a one-year deadline for Estonians living abroad to choose between renewing Estonian citizenship or retaining foreign citizenship.

The Estonian government issued a call to the republic's political parties to offer suggestions on the draft citizenship law. Conflicting views were expressed on such key points as whether permanent residents should be granted citizenship, the length of the minimum residence requirement, application of the language competence requirement, and whether to allow dual citizenship. Given the wide range of opinion, it seems likely that the debate in Estonia over the citizenship issue will be lengthy and heated.

On September 10, Lithuanian officials disbanded popularly elected local councils in the Salcininkai region and the town of Snieckus, both of which have large ethnic Polish populations, and in Polish-dominated parts of Vilnius. The Lithuanian government tried to justify the action by claiming that these councils had supported the August coup in Moscow. That other motives may have been at play is suggested by the government's replacement of the heads of the councils with Lithuanians.

The action raised renewed concern about the rights of Lithuania's Polish minority, which accounts for seven percent of Lithuania's population. The government responded to criticism by announcing its willingness to receive international experts to investigate the situation of its ethnic minorities. It claims that Poles enjoy the same rights and freedoms as Lithuanians, including the right to study in their native language.

In late August, the Estonian government stopped the activities of the city councils and city administrative units of Kohtla-Jarva, Sallamae and Narva in northeastern Estonia – all towns with large ethnic Russian populations. The councils were alleged to have expressed support for the coup in Moscow and a criminal investigation was begun against the council heads. The Estonian government set a date in October for new elections to the town councils. A Helsinki Watch inquiry of Estonian diplomats in the United States produced no further information on the subject.

After the adoption of the Lithuanian rehabilitation law in 1990, the Lithuanian Supreme Court issued more than 22,000 certificates rehabilitating people who had been convicted and deported by Soviet courts for a variety of political crimes. The purpose of the law was to exonerate those who had been arrested on false charges, denied due process or forced to confess. Although the law on rehabilitation prohibits exonerating war criminals, among those who were rehabilitated were people convicted by Soviet courts of crimes against humanity for, among other things, participating in Nazi crimes against Jews during World War II. The government denied rehabilitations to 450 applicants who "[had] blood on their hands."

Under intense pressure from the international community, the Lithuanian government in September admitted that it had not gathered adequate information on those who had been exonerated, but said that guilt would have to be proven on a case-by case basis before rehabilitation would be revoked. The Lithuanian government maintains that the mistaken rehabilitation of war criminals was inadvertent. Five such cases are currently being investigated. To facilitate the process of gathering information on possible war criminals, the Lithuanian government offered to collaborate with the Israeli Parliament and the U.S. Justice Department. In addition, on October 25, the Presidium of the Lithuanian Supreme Council adopted a resolution to create an Office of Special Investigations to collaborate with counterpart agencies around the world in the investigation of crimes against humanity. The Latvian government has also recently indicated its willingness to cooperate with the Office of Special Investigations on war crimes cases.

The Right to Monitor

Helsinki Watch is not aware of any instance in which human rights or other independent monitors have been hindered in their work by any of the new governments of the Baltic states. Political pluralism, certainly in public expression of various viewpoints, has, for the most part, prevailed in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1991.

U.S. Policy5

The United States formally recognized the Baltic republics on September 2, the thirty-second country to do so, and strongly endorsed membership of all three Baltic states in the CSCE process. President Bush supports extending Most Favored Nation trading status to the Baltic republics and exempting them from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which limits access to that status.

The Bush Administration reacted strongly to the rehabilitation of possible war criminals in Lithuania. At a September 5 press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed strong concern, and promised that the State Department would gather more information to follow up on the Lithuanian actions. Both President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker raised the issue of rehabilitation in their separate mid-September meetings with Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis. The U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigation is providing access to its archives to help ensure that questionable rehabilitations are handled correctly.

The Work of Helsinki Watch6

After the Baltic states gained wide international recognition of their independent status in the fall of 1991, Helsinki Watch continued its work on certain human rights issues. Helsinki Watch arranged a discussion at the Moscow CSCE conference in September of the January incidents of lethal force. Discussion participants included witnesses to the events and officials from the Baltic republics.

The new citizenship law of Latvia has been of particular concern to Helsinki Watch. The organization sent a detailed letter to Latvian officials with copies to Estonian and Lithuanian leaders setting forth its criticisms of the new law.

The rehabilitation by the Lithuanian government of Nazi war criminals was another focus of Helsinki Watch concern. The organization expressed its concerns about this issue to Lithuanian officials in writing and also discussed the problem with the Lithuanian procurator general who participated in the September Helsinki Watch conference in Moscow on lethal force.

As part of an annual Human Rights Watch series of events honoring human rights monitors from various countries, Helsinki Watch brought Latvian parliamentarian and veteran human rights activist Ints Calitis to the United States.


This chapter addresses human rights developments in the Baltic states following international and Soviet acceptance of their independence in late August and early September 1991. Events in these states earlier in the year are treated as part of the separate chapter on the Soviet Union.

On August 22, Iceland became the first country to recognize the independence of the Baltic states. Denmark followed on August 24; Argentina and Norway on August 25; Canada, Malta and Czechoslovakia on August 26; and the European Community, on August 27. The United States granted recognition on September 2, the thirty-second country to do so.

See the section on the Soviet Union for pre-August treatment of U.S. policy issues in the Baltic states.

See the section on the Soviet Union for description of Helsinki Watch activities in and on the Baltic states before August 1991.

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