Different exits – Different approaches
By Tatjana Zdanoka,
Strasbourg, 4 October 2017
The negotiations on Brexit are attracting a lot of attention. In particular, the possible erosion of the rights of around three million EU-27 citizens living in Britain is a major cause for concern.
The European Parliament resolution adopted on 3 October states that “the withdrawal agreement must incorporate the full set of rights citizens currently enjoy, such that there is no material change in their position”.
The main author of this text, Mr Guy Verhofstadt, the EP Brexit Coordinator, argues that such an approach – not to lower the level of citizens’ rights – is “the goal of democracy”. But why was the very same principle ignored when another “exit” took place in Europe? It was the exit of the Baltic states from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1990-1991 when a million and a half citizens who had arrived in Latvia and Estonia from other republics were deprived of the essential rights they enjoyed.
Theoretical substantiation for this legal action was found in the doctrine of restoring the pre-war republics. On October 15, 1991, a month after the recognition of Latvia by most UN Member States, on the very day when the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Latvia has solemnly signed the 1975 Helsinki act, the Supreme Council has adopted the resolution “On the Renewal of the Republic of Latvia Citizens’ Rights and Fundamental Principles of Naturalization”. By this act, Latvian citizenship was only granted to those residents who were in possession of it on 17 June 1940, as well as their descendants. This was a unique case in parliamentary history: a parliament deprived one third of its own voters of citizenship and, thus, of voting rights. A same decision was undertaken by the Estonian Supreme Council.
When comparing these British and Baltic’ “exits” we can see some similarities in the situation of those who moved from one Member State to another within one common Union before the decision to exit this Union took place. It is worth mentioning that sometimes these people were simply nominated to go to that another Member State: after graduating high school (in the case of the USSR) or to work in Union institutions (in the case of the EU). But there is also one essential difference. Those citizens of the EU-27 residing in Britain retain the very same Union’ citizenship after Brexit. Being nationals of a particular Member State, they enjoy the full scope of political rights of citizens of that state. In the case of Latvia and Estonia, people found themselves in an odd notion of “phantom” citizenship of a non-existent state – the USSR.
The status of those Latvian residents who were not granted citizenship of Latvia after an adoption of the resolution mentioned above was not certain for a long time.
In June 1992 the Law “On Entry into and Residence in the Republic of Latvia of Aliens and Stateless Persons”, regulating the procedure for acquiring residence permits by its subjects was adopted by the Supreme Council. The lawmaker had an intention to make all residents who had not been granted Latvian citizenship subject to this law. Here is another similarity with Brexit. As the European Parliament resolution of this Tuesday states, “the situation of the United Kingdom’s proposals set out in its position paper of 26 June 2017 fall short in that respect, not least as regards the proposal to create a new category of ‘settled status’ under United Kingdom immigration law; … the disclosed policy options on the future status of EU citizens are causing unnecessary hardship and anxiety for the citizens of the EU-27 living in the United Kingdom”.
In Latvia, the skilful work by MPs from the opposition group “For Equal Rights”, of which I was a member, stopped attempts to make all residents not granted Latvian citizenship subject to the law “On Entry into and Residence…”. The Supreme Council announced that the status of those who prior to this Law taking effect would have acquired permanent registration of residence would be subject to a special law.
The law in question entitled “On the Status of Former USSR Citizens, Who are not Citizens of Latvia or Any Other State” was adopted on 25 April 1995. Subjects of this law called “non-citizens of Latvia” were issued special Latvian non-citizen’s passports.
Who are non-citizens of Latvia by the sum of their legal attributes?
The Constitutional Court of Latvia in its judgment of 7 March 2005 declared: “After passing of the Non-Citizen Law a new, and hitherto unknown category of persons appeared – Latvian non-citizens. Latvian non-citizens cannot be compared with any other status of a physical entity, determined in international legal acts, as the rights, established for non-citizens, do not comply with any other status. Latvian non-citizens can be regarded neither as citizens, nor as aliens or stateless persons but as persons with ”a specific legal status”.
By stating that non-citizens are not stateless persons, the inventors of the “specific” status aimed to help Latvia evade fulfilment of a number of international obligations, in particular, under the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961) as well as under the European Convention on Nationality (1997). But in reality they have created nothing more than the entity of second-class citizens of the country. It is clear that the rights of persons to be protected by the state and to freely return to Latvia which non-citizens enjoy by Law are essential characteristics of citizens. On the other hand, non-citizens do not have the rights to participate either in national or local elections. Restrictions relating to more than thirty professions are in force for Latvian non-citizens.
I can imagine what the reaction of the EU institutions would be if a state like Russia or Belarus had an extremely high proportion of persons deprived of citizenship and, consequently, of the full scope of citizens’ rights. But in 2004 the Republic of Latvia successfully joined the EU bringing on board the 450.000 non-citizens (20% of the population).
Why was the problem ignored at the stage of EU accession? There were a lot of reasons, mainly geo-strategic in nature. In the mid 90s the strategic decision on the Baltic states’ integration was made by EU leaders. The majority of Latvia’s stateless population are ethnic Russians. So the problems of these persons were treated by the EU mostly from the point of view of competing with Russia for influence in the Baltic region. The feelings and needs of the stateless population of the Baltic States didn’t have any value in that game for regional dominance. The official position the EU on the problem of the stateless population was that the process of naturalization of non-citizens would be able to solve this problem completely. The European Parliament resolution of 11 March 2004 on the state of preparedness of Latvia for EU membership “welcomes the increase in the naturalisation rate in 2003 mainly due to the referendum campaign for the EU accession, even if the naturalisation process remains too slow; therefore invites the Latvian authorities to promote that process and considers that minimum language requirements for elderly people may contribute to it; encourages the Latvian authorities to overcome the existing split in society and to favour the genuine integration of “non-citizens”, ensuring an equal competitive chance in education and labour; proposes that the Latvian authorities envisage the possibility of allowing non-citizens who are long-time inhabitants to take part in local self-government elections”.
More than thirteen years have passed since then. The non-citizens are still deprived of voting rights, including self-government elections. Restrictions relating to more than thirty professions are still in force concerning Latvian non-citizens. Even when some of these restrictions are abolished, new ones appear, and the total has remained almost the same for past 22 years. Conditions for naturalisation were not facilitated. If the legislation on citizenship does not change, the problem of mass statelessness will remain an issue for a very long time. Today the number of Latvian non-citizens is still over 240,000 people (more than 12% of the population).
The European Parliament in our resolution of 3 October “Expresses concern about regrettable administrative practices against EU citizens living in the United Kingdom”.
I’m looking forward to the future solidarity of my colleagues with hundreds of thousands of second-class Latvian citizens (called “non-citizens”) living in Latvia.
Sometimes parallels in history help people begin to see clearly.
* Member of the European Parliament, Political Party “Latvian Russian Union”