RIGA - Foreign Latvians with dual citizenship holding high government positions became the unexpected target of legislation last week, as Parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill that would force them to "choose allegiance."
The bill, which was the initiative of Anta Rugate and her People's Party, was sent to the committees for further work, though it has received the backing of the prime minister, minority coalition parties and many leftist MPs.
If passed, the law would prohibit people with a citizenship in addition to Latvian from holding a host of positions, including cabinet offices, parliamentary seats and nonpolitical positions at the Bank of Latvia and the National Radio and Television Council.
Observers, however, were nearly unanimous in their assessment that the bill was aimed at Janis Kazocins, head of the Constitution Protection Bureau and a holder of a U.K. passport.
The bill's parliamentary critics, who predominantly hail from New Era, contend that the draft legislation was designed to earn short-term populist dividends and rankle members of the foreign Latvian community - many of whom were able to obtain Latvian citizenship when Latvia regained independence.
The ruling coalition, however, defended the measure as a necessary step to prevent conflict-of-interest incidents.
"If people want to hold high offices in the public administration, they have to make up their minds which country they belong to and serve without keeping open some way for retreat," Prime Minister Indulis Emsis told the Baltic New Service. "I disapprove of double citizenship as such and do not understand what it is."
Some legislators denied the Kazocins factor.
"It's not aimed at anyone. It's merely a way to show loyalty to a country," said Artis Pabriks, an MP from the People's Party.
Others, like former Prime Minister Einars Repse, whose New Era party has three MPs with dual citizenship, blasted the move. He brushed aside criticism of possible conflicts of interest, asking MPs if there had ever been a case when someone with dual citizenship acted inappropriately against Latvia, and said that such a bill was a result of "having nothing better to do."
Indeed, others have said the law targets New Era's Krisjanis Karins, who has Latvian and U.S. citizenships and was appointed the party's candidate prime minister during the government crisis earlier this year. Given the party's high popularity rating, the bill could be used to undercut New Era's plans for returning to power.
Rugate defended the law on duel citizenship - a topic she studied for her master's thesis - in a June 7 editorial in the Latvian daily Diena, writing that the law was aimed at positions and not people holding two passports. She listed a number of European countries that forbid duel citizenship in principle, including Estonia and Lithuania.
But the fact that Estonia and Lithuania both do not enforce the law and both have members from their emigre communities in government is something she failed to mention.
Foreign Latvians remained unconvinced by Rugate's argumentation.
"I haven't heard any convincing arguments for the law," Nils Muiznieks said. "Many of [foreign Latvians] have done a very good service to Latvia."
Holding both Latvian and American passports, Muiznieks is the special task minister for integration and therefore one of the most high-profile victims of the bill.
"This law is an attempt to turn against the emigre Latvian community," Karins said. "It's a bid to acquire political power and remove those that stand in their way."
Andris Mellakauls, a member of the People's Party and also possessor of dual citizenship, would lose his position on the board of Latvia's National Radio and Television.
"I've no idea why it's being brought up now," he said. "Citizenship is no guarantee for loyalty. Is Kazocins less loyal than, say, Tatyana Zhdanoka or Alfreds Rubiks, who openly worked against Latvian independence, simply because he has two passports?" he asked.
Many questioned the timing of the move. Latvia's membership in the European Union will allow European citizens to run for Europarliament in Latvia, even if they do not possess Latvian citizenship. This means that if Liene Liepina of New Era gave up her Latvian passport, she could still run using her Swedish one in the same European elections in Latvia.
Also, with the lowering of borders across the continent, the trend in Europe has been to allow for dual citizenship.
If the bill were to pass into law, few expect an exodus out of some of Latvia's most influential jobs. Those with two passports would simply give up one.
"It will be no problem for me at all to give up my U.K. passport," said Mellakauls.
"Janis Kazocins will give up his U.K. passport very shortly whether the law passes or not," Dainis Mikelsons, spokesperson for the Constitution Protection Bureau, told The Baltic Times.
Given the country's unique history, a number of prominent members of society come from the exile community, including President Vaira Vike-Frieberga and head of Latvia's Institute Ojars Kalnins. Vike-Freiberga, however, was forced to give up her Canadian passport when she became president in accordance with the constitution.
The law on citizenship changed in 1995. Although no longer permitting dual citizenship, the law did allow those having already acquired this status to maintain it. Today an estimated 30,000 people living abroad have a citizenship in addition to Latvian.