Latvia and the issue of double citizenship

  • 2004-06-10
  • By Karlis Streips
I was born in the United States and thus automatically became a citizen thereof. In 1989 I moved to Latvia for what turned out to be permanent residency, and when it was announced that anyone who was a citizen of Latvia before the Soviet occupation and all direct descendants of that anyone could receive Latvian citizenship automatically, I didn't hesitate.

I got Latvian citizenship, too. Now I am a double citizen. Latvia revoked the possibility of people of other citizenship to gain Latvian citizenship without renouncing their first citizenship in 1995. I got there before then.
Recently a group of MPs from the People's Party, led by Anta Rugate, proposed to ban people with double citizenship from a series of high-ranking and not-so-high-ranking government positions. The Latvian constitution already prohibits the president of the country from being a double citizen, which is why Vaira Vike-Freiberga had to give up her Canadian citizenship very quickly on the day that she was elected in 1999. (There was even a bit of a kerfuffle after her election as to whether the renunciation had or had not officially taken effect.) Now the MPs (their proposal has already been sent to committee by the Saeima, which is the first step in the legislative process) want to extend this ban to a number of other offices - prime minister, director or deputy director of the Bureau to Protect the Constitution, any member of the National Radio and Television Council, etc.
It is no coincidence that we are about to vote in a European Parliament election. No matter how good the stated intentions, the fact is that this is an entirely populist proposal on the part of the People's Party. In debate in the Saeima, the famously voluble MP Aleksandrs Kirsteins asked whether an imagined double citizen who serves as the country's justice minister would support Latvia's interests or Sweden's in the ongoing tussle over Latvia's phone company and its part ownership by the Swedish-Finnish joint venture TeliaSonera. Mr. Kirsteins might instead have asked whether those single citizenship people who are currently in power always work entirely on behalf of the Latvian state and its people, as opposed to, say, Russian oil interests, the financial interests of the port town of Ventspils, etc. The answer to that question would clearly be "no."
The answer to the question about the potential justice minister is entirely one of good conscience. I am absolutely convinced that even if she were still a double citizen, Vaira Vike-Freiberga would never place Canada's interests ahead of Latvia's.
I can't say that I necessarily agree or disagree with the New Era party that the People's Party's move is a direct slap against the chairman of New Era's parliamentary faction, Krisjanis Karins (citizen of Latvia and the United States) and against the New Era-nominated director of the Bureau to Protect the Constitution, Janis Kazocins (Latvia and the United Kingdom). I do, however, find myself in rare agreement with former Prime Minister Einars Repse, who said of the People's Party proposal that apparently People's Party MPs don't have anything better to do with their time.
Why on earth should a double citizen not be allowed to serve on the National Radio and Television Council? Surely the Prosecutor General's office would find experience in legal affairs more important than double citizenship if an experienced Latvian prosecutor from the West were to sign up to help, but the People's Party proposal would keep that from happening. The presidency, the diplomatic corps, okay, but this is a proposal which goes way too far in an attempt to demonstrate that the People's Party are greater nationalists than anyone else. It is not an attempt which befits a normally serious political party.
I have no intention of giving up my American passport. It is a document for which people all over the world would sell their mothers. It is a document which, yes, makes it much, much easier to travel the world. Luckily, I also have no intention of running for Parliament or for serving on the Finance and Capital Markets Commission, so the Saeima can go ahead and adopt this proposal if it so chooses, it will not affect me. But by bowing toward the gods of nationalism, MPs are ensuring that people with significant experience from the rest of the world will not be able to serve in high-ranking positions unless they make a major decision about where they do and where they do not need visas and permits to travel. That experience is not as important today as it was 15 years ago, but it is important nevertheless. Double citizenship is not something that an honest person would allow to stand in the way of honesty. The proposal should be rejected. o

Karlis Streips
is a leading journalist
and commentator in Latvia.