Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

In 1994, nearly three years after its August 1991 declaration of independence, two major events marked Latvia's democratization process: most Soviet troops left the country after a fifty-one-year occupation; and a naturalization law was passed, enabling some 700,000 non-citizens, roughly 34 percent of the population, to become Latvian citizens over a ten-year period. Adopting a naturalization law was an important step in building a fully democratic society in which all residents could eventually participate, and the Latvian government took several positive steps with regard to human rights. But there were still setbacks concerning the rights of Latvia's large non-citizen minority and its freedom of expression, especially when non-citizens interacted with the Latvian Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Sometimes human rights setbacks were the fault of local authorities, rather than of the central government.

Latvia's October 1991 Renewal of Citizenship resolution only restored citizenship to those who held Latvian citizenship (or their descendants) prior to the Soviet Union's 1940 invasion and annexation of the country. Consequently, some 700,000 individuals, mostly Russian-speakers who migrated to Latvia after 1940, in effect became stateless persons.

After rejecting an earlier naturalization bill in which strict quotas limited naturalization to some 2,000 non-citizens per year, on August 11, 1994 Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis signed Latvia's Citizenship Law – an amended naturalization bill that omitted quotas. According to this law, which gained the approval of an expert legal group of the Council of Europe, naturalization was set to commence on January 1, 1996 and to proceed in eight steps, with preference given to those born in Latvia. After January 1, 2001, all those born outside of Latvia would be eligible for naturalization. By January 1, 2003, the last group of non-citizens born outside of Latvia would be eligible for naturalization.

Articles 11 and 12 of the law set restrictions and requirements for naturalization. Some of the requirements and restrictions such as a "legal source of income" or "anti-constitutional" activity are rather broad, permitting arbitrariness and abuse in spite of the safeguard that most decisions regarding restricting naturalization must be through "court decree." Requirements for naturalization included a five-year residency in Latvia as of May 4, 1990, a command of Latvian, a legal source of income, and basic knowledge of Latvian history as well as the national anthem. Under the law, certain categories of non-citizens were not granted the right to naturalization. Among others, they include convicted criminals who had received sentences of one year or more, those who had acted "anti-constitutionally" against the Latvian state, individuals who remained members of certain organizations after January 13, 1991, and employees of foreign intelligence services.

Other human rights concerns in Latvia in 1994 also affected the country's non-citizen minority and Soviet past. Although the Latvian government fired the director of the Latvian Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Maris Plavnieks, who grossly abused his office and allowed discrimination against non-citizens, complaints of abuse still plagued the department. According to the Latvian State Minister for Human Rights, Olaf Bruvers, the majority of complaints his office received during 1994 concerned the Latvian Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki documented at least three cases in which non-citizens with the right to reside in Latvia were denied that right by the department and thus were no longer able to return to and live in the country.

On April 14, 1994, the Ministry of Justice refused to register the Latvian Union of Non-Citizens, ostensibly because the organization was pursuing political activities restricted solely to Latvian citizens, an accusation the Latvian Union of Non-Citizens refuted. On April 28, five deputies of the Saeima (parliament), including then Foreign Minister Georgs Andrejevs, were temporarily suspended from parliament because of accusations that they had collaborated in the past with the KGB. Four of the accused denied any collaboration with Soviet security forces.

Local government, meanwhile, has proved at times to be more restrictive than the central government concerning individual freedoms. In January, Andrejes Rucs, chairman of a local council in Riga, Latvia's capital, ordered the arrest of two Russian army generals. The men were released after the intervention of Latvian President Ulmanis. On September 20, 1994, the Riga City Council passed an ambiguously worded resolution banning several militant Russian-language newspapers. Reform Minister Vita Terauda vowed to overturn the resolution.

In spite of these problems, the Latvian government instituted several human rights measures. In February 1994, the government appointed a state minister for human rights in the Ministry of Justice. On August 12, 1994, former Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs announced a national program for the protection and promotion of human rights on the recommendation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In accord with the UNDP proprosals, as a first step the Latvian government plans to open a human rights institute that will conduct a public information campaign concerning human rights and citizen's rights and also create a review board for individual complaints.

The Right to Monitor

To our knowledge, there was no interference with human rights monitoring in Latvia.

The Role of the International Community

The international community played an active role in Latvia during 1994. An observer mission of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) observer mission based in Riga since late 1993 continued under a double mandate to deal with non-citizen issues and troop withdrawal. In July 1994, a mission from the United Nations Development Office (UNDP) visited Latvia and made several recommendations to the government concerning creation of a national human rights program. Most importantly, the Council of Europe played a crucial role in advising Latvia on its citizenship law, specifically against the inclusion of strict naturalization quotas.

U.S. Policy

On July 6, 1994, President Clinton paid a state visit to Latvia's capital Riga, where he met with all three Baltic presidents, the first such visit of a U.S. president to a Baltic state. Clinton reiterated U.S. support for Latvia and concern about Russian troop withdrawal, while underscoring the message that "a tolerant and inclusive approach is needed to integrate these groups [minorities] into the political and social life of all the countries." U.S. aid to Latvia during 1994 included funds from a $50-million Baltic American Enterprise Fund, a $10-million Baltic Peacekeeping Force, $4 million to help dismantle Russia's Skrunda radar station, and money to build 5,000 apartments in Russia for retired Russian officers from Latvia and Estonia.

The Latvia section of the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practice's for 1993, reported that there were no obstacles to freedom of movement within the country or to foreign travel for citizens and mentioned that non-citizens may need re-entry permits. The country report noted abuses by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, but failed to mention cases in which individuals with legal right to remain in Latvia were denied that right.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki continued to monitor developments in Latvia to ensure that non-citizen rights were respected. Encouraged by the Latvian Government's response in firing the Director of the Latvian Department of Citizenship and Immigration after the release of an Human Rights Watch/Helsinki report outlining abuses by the department, we remained in contact with the Latvian government concerning its citizenship law, press freedom, and non-citizen rights. In March 1994, we met with several Latvian parliamentarians in Washington, D.C. to discuss these issues.

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