Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September 2014, 13:07 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1993
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, 1 January 1993, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca6e23.html [accessed 30 September 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 1992

Human Rights Developments

The Soviet legacy continues to create human rights problems for the governments of the Baltic states. These problems are difficult to solve because they pit the needs of numerically small nations that suffered a tragic fate under the Soviet regime against the rights of individuals associated with that regime. In 1992 the citizenship status and rights of minorities – primarily Russians – who moved to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the Soviet occupation became an increasingly divisive issue. Lithuania and Latvia, for example, have taken measures to exclude individuals from elected office based on their political behavior during the Soviet period.

The Baltic countries are aware of the problems concerning minority rights in their state. The Latvian government has consistently recommended that the United Nations Human Rights Commission establish a permanent office in Latvia to monitor minority rights. In August, the Latvian government met with a jointdelegation from the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Moscow Helsinki Group, which resulted in a six-page report on the situation of Russians in that state. In Estonia, non-citizens have the right, guaranteed by the Estonian constitution, to vote in local elections. In October, Estonia invited a fact-finding mission from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to examine that country's citizenship and minority rights legislation.

Yet the main problem – who shall have the right to become a citizen automatically – remains. Although international human rights law does not directly address the issue of citizenship in countries emerging from foreign rule, international standards can and should be used to guide citizenship regulations. The fairness of such regulations may be evaluated by two sets of criteria. The first is whether they refrain from treating as immigrants individuals who lived on the state's territory before the declaration or reestablishment of independence (excepting those who lived in the Baltic states only as part of their military duty); this approach is embodied in the so-called zero-option citizenship laws. The second, if the law treats such individuals as immigrants, is whether the language and residence qualifications are reasonable.

In addition, citizenship regulations should not deny eligibility to individuals who, while they were living in the republic during the Soviet period, were convicted of a serious crime, who received treatment for alcoholism or drug addiction, or belonged to the Communist Party or the Soviet security apparatus. Denying citizenship to previously convicted criminals effectively adds an additional, ex post facto penalty to the convicted person's punishment, which violates Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); excluding persons who have received treatment for alcoholism or drug addiction violates Article 7 of the same Covenant, which prohibits "inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment," since it serves as a deterrent to needed medical treatment. Denying citizenship to the third category of individuals violates the freedom of association guaranteed in the Covenant's Article 22. Citizenship should be denied only to those former KGB or other security agents who are individually proven culpable in a court of law for specific crimes that were outlawed at the time of the acts in question.

Lithuania's zero-option citizenship law, which categorically excluded certain kinds of criminals, alcoholics and drug addicts, was in force through the end of 1991. A new citizenship law which then came into effect is aimed mainly at regulating citizenship for individuals who moved to Lithuania after independence.

On February 26, 1992, the Estonian Supreme Council issued a decree re-establishing the Estonian Citizenship Law of 1938. Under the law, which rejects the zero option, all individuals who were not Estonian citizens (or their direct descendants) as of June 16, 1940 (the date when Soviet troops took control of Estonia), or who did not appeal for citizenship to, and gain approval from, the Congress of Estonia in 1990 and 1991, must apply for citizenship. Requirements include two years of permanent residence (beginning March 30, 1990), a one-year waiting period, and knowledge of 1,000 words in the Estonian language. The law prohibits dual citizenship and categorically denies citizenship to, among others, military personnel currently serving in foreign armies, and former Soviet intelligence and security officers.

The new Estonian government is to be credited for seeking ways to liberalize the citizenship law. On October 19, it issued a program that suggested allowing dual citizenship, giving children born and educated in Estonia the opportunity to apply for citizenship one year before coming of age, and increasing access to Estonian language training. However, the same program, according to The Baltic Independent, also advocated "the voluntary re-migration of non-Estonians to their historic homelands."

The first post-Soviet parliamentary elections in Estonia, held on September 20, 1992, brought on a dispute concerning the voting rights of some 5,000 individuals who had applied for, but had not yet received, Estonian citizenship. In a public referendum 53 percent voted against granting them the right to vote in these elections. A popular referendum, however, is not an appropriate forum for resolving issues of individual rights, which should be handled in courts of law or legislative bodies.

Latvia has not yet adopted a law on citizenship. In October 1991, the Latvian Supreme Council issued guidelines for citizenship legislation that, amongother things, propose excessively lengthy residence requirements for individuals who were not Latvian citizens in 1940 (or their direct descendants) and would deny citizenship to these individuals if they have been convicted of criminal acts or are under criminal investigation while their citizenship applications are being considered; have been convicted of "spreading chauvinism, fascism, communism, or other totalitarian as well as social class dictatorial ideas, or inflaming national disorder and hatred"; have served as Communist Party or Komsomol (Communist Youth Party) personnel; are registered in institutions that treat alcoholism and drug addiction; or are living without legal financial resources.

It is widely believed that the Latvian draft law will not be adopted with all of these restrictions. In a letter to Helsinki Watch, the chair of the committee on Human Rights and Nationality Issues of the Latvian parliament stated that the committee would reconsider the categorical exclusion of previously convicted individuals, alcoholics, and drug addicts.

The treatment of Russians in Estonia and Latvia has become an extremely controversial issue in relations between these countries and the Russian government, which has been a vociferous champion of the rights of Russians in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. The Russian government has twice invoked the need to protect the rights of local Russians as a requirement for the withdrawal of Russian troops from these countries. It reached an agreement on troop withdrawal with Lithuania, which has a less significant Russian minority than the other Baltic states and, as noted, has adopted a zero-option citizenship law.

In Lithuania, the rights of the Polish minority, which constitutes about 8 percent of that country's population, are cause for some concern. In 1992, the Lithuanian government began considering reorganizing administrative districts near Vilnius that have significant numbers of ethnic Poles. Poles fear that this action will have the effect of diminishing their political representation.

A Lithuanian law adopted on December 17, 1991 authorizes the annulment of parliamentary status for any deputy who can be shown to have collaborated with the Soviet KGB and other secret security agencies. A person can be deemed a collaborator if, among other things, he or she is listed on a KGB roster or if there is "evidence of recruitment as a resident, agent, confidential person, or informer." Several aspects of this provision are troublesome: it takes at face value the truthfulness of Soviet KGB records, which are unreliable at best; it does not take into account the circumstances under which a person may have been recruited as an informer, such as possible coercion; and it does not define a standard of proof.

If accusations are made against deputies to the Supreme Council of Lithuania, or against deputies to city and district councils, the legislative body in question must form a commission to investigate the charges. The accused deputy has the right to appeal the commission's conclusions to a court of law, and local electors have the opportunity to reinstate a deputy by majority vote. This procedure was invoked in 1992 against four deputies, including former Prime Minister Kazimera Prunskiene. Premier Prunskiene has so far denied the charges and has not sought re-election as a deputy; Virgilus Cepaitis was stripped of his parliamentary status; Jokubas Minkevicius resigned his seat; and Vladimir Berezov's case has not yet been decided. Despite the antipathy to the communist past that lies behind this legislation, Lithuanian voters, on October 26, in their first elections since independence, brought to power the Democratic Labor Party, which is composed of former communists.

On July 9, the Latvian Supreme Council voted to remove the parliamentary mandates of 15 deputies who had campaigned actively against Latvia's independence from May 1990 through August 1991. The vote was based not on decommunization legislation, but on the recommendation of a parliamentary commission formed especially to examine the case. The way this decision was made raises questions about both its fairness and the free speech and association rights of these individuals.

In the spring of 1992, the Latvian procuracy conducted an investigation into possible criminal activities of the deputies in question, but did not find sufficient evidence of criminal activity. The special parliamentary commission used only the information given to it by the procuracy, gathered no additional information, and held no special hearings on the matter. Although the accuseddeputies had an opportunity to speak for themselves in parliament, they apparently were never called to appear before the commission. Since there is as yet no Constitutional Court in Latvia (indeed, there is as yet no constitution in Latvia) that could rule on the parliament's actions, there was no avenue for appeal.

Over the course of 1992 legislation barring government posts to individuals on the basis of their political behavior prior to August 1991 was debated but not adopted. The Latvian election law, adopted October 20, 1992 requires candidates for public office to sign a document avowing that they were never agents of the Soviet security apparatus.

Estonia has neither considered nor adopted decommunization legislation.

A wide range of publications in the Baltic languages and in Russian, and representing diverse political views, are available in the Baltic states. However, a few incidents suggest lingering restrictions on freedom of the press. In July, Izvestia reported that the Lithuanian prosecutor general had demanded that the Justice Ministry halt the publication of Jura ir Krantas, an ultra-nationalist newspaper. The Lithuanian procuracy issued two warnings to the newspaper after the latter had published articles stating that people who moved to Lithuania during the Soviet period are colonists who should not be granted citizenship. In July, the paper lost its registration rights, and has ceased to publish. Criminal charges have been brought against its publisher, who is not, according to the procuracy, being held in detention while he awaits trial.

The Right to Monitor

Throughout 1992, government and nongovernmental organizations traveled to the Baltic states to investigate human rights conditions, in many cases at the invitation of Baltic authorities. No known restrictions were imposed on them.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. government in 1992 encouraged economic and social development in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and expressed concern over the stalemated issue of withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.

The administration has issued no public statements on citizenship and the Russian minority issue. Both the State Department and the Congressional CSCE Commission generally maintain that citizenship laws are internal matters for individual states to decide, that citizenship is a matter of political privilege and not a human right (positions shared by their Baltic counterparts), and that the Estonian citizenship law meets most European norms. The State Department does not consider excessive the 16-year residence requirement proposed by the Latvian government, since other European governments, such as Switzerland, have lengthy residence requirements.

No one denies that governments have the right to adopt citizenship laws, yet special consideration should be given to Russians and others who moved to the Baltic states at a time when the Soviet republics were all one country. Therefore, comparing Baltic citizenship laws that apply to established residents with European or American laws on new immigrants is misleading because it equates two groups that are dissimilar. The first category of people had no way of foreseeing a change in their political status, whereas the latter consciously make this change.

The CSCE Commission of the U.S. Congress is to be credited for hosting a meeting in the summer in Washington that brought together Russian and Baltic officials to discuss the rights of Russians in the Baltic states and the issue of citizenship. The meeting generated no concrete results, but provided an opportunity for a mediated dialogue.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Helsinki Watch in 1992 continued to pursue the issue of overly restrictive citizenship requirements in the Baltic states. As part of its ongoing correspondence with the Latvian government, Helsinki Watch wrote to the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Nationality Issues explaining why it believed citizenship in Latvia was a human rights concern, and renewed its request that the Latvian parliament reconsider its October 1991 resolution on citizenship.

In 1992, the board of Human Rights Watch, of which Helsinki Watch is adivision, discussed and adopted a policy position identifying principles to be embodied in new citizenship laws. The policy position was included in an April Helsinki Watch newsletter, "New Citizenship Laws of the Republics of the Former USSR," which also provided an overview of citizenship laws not only in the Baltic states but also in other new states that were once part of the Soviet Union.

A letter addressed to Estonian interim president Arnold Ruutel on July 30 objected to the referendum held in June that determined the voting rights of people who had applied for, but not yet received, Estonian citizenship. The letter expressed Helsinki Watch's belief that a popular referendum was an inappropriate way to resolve questions that should be decided in a court of law, and asked the Estonian government to approach the problem in the same spirit of fairness embodied in Estonia's minority rights legislation.

In September, Helsinki Watch joined the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in a roundtable discussion on citizenship and minority issues with Estonian Foreign Minister Jan Mannitsky.

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