RIGA - "Congratulations, you've passed the exam," the young Latvian official told me after I had completed the history part of my citizenship test. I had earlier passed the writing and oral part, and was told that I should call and find out when I would be able to get my passport in the next six months. At long last I was on the way to becoming a Latvian citizen, along with 20,000 other non-citizens since the EU referendum last Sept.
I started the naturalization process in July, somewhat by chance, as I just happened to be around the Vidzeme naturalization department in Riga.
I decided on the off chance to find out what documents were necessary for applying for citizenship. I was shocked, however, when the secretary told me that I could only submit my documents in the middle of October due to the incredibly long waiting lists.
At least the long wait gave me time to decide when I wanted to take the exam, which is a mandatory part of the naturalization process. The choice was mine: I could have done it that week, in two weeks or in a month. The naturalization department provides all the necessary literature to prepare for the exam.
The exam consists of two main parts. The first part is a language test that includes writing, listening, reading and speaking skills. The second part is about Latvian history and the constitution, as well as having to reel off the words for the Latvian national anthem.
Although I eventually passed the test when I took it in November, there are many people for whom the controversial exam has proved to be a real obstacle in their bid to become citizens.
According to Latvian legislation, applicants who don't pass the first part of the exam can come back in three months and try again. Those who didn't pass the Latvian history can come back and try again after just a month.
An article on the noncitizen issue in the Latvian daily Diena showed that a significant number of people in places with a large Russian-speaking population, such as Daugavpils, found the part of the exam about the Latvian language especially difficult. Just 14 percent of people who took the exam in Riga failed the first part of the test, compared with 25 percent - 30 percent in Daugavpils. The difference is all the more when you consider the fact that the number of applicants in Daugavpils is much less than in Riga.
More than 50 people are taking the test on the same day in Riga, while in Daugavpils no more than 10 people a day take it. The exam can be especially daunting for older people, or those who have been away from education for a long time.
"It's my third time that I've tried to pass the Latvian language exam," Daugavpils resident Natalija Zeile told Diena. "To my mind the Latvian history part is much easier."
Like most people applying for Latvian citizenship, Zeile is looking for a stable social and legal status. "A lot of people think that getting citizenship will make you to feel more secure," she explained.
I was one of the approximately 470,000 noncitizens in Latvia until I passed my exam, even though I was born here, as were both my parents. My grandparents came to Latvia during the Soviet occupation and settled here to live. And when the Soviet system finally collapsed in 1991, my family, along with some 550,000 other people, suddenly became noncitizens. We were quite literally aliens in a country that was all we knew.
Whereas Lithuania, which had a far lower Russian-speaking minority than Latvia and Estonia, granted automatic citizenship to its non-Lithuanian population after independence, the system devised to deal with the huge ethnic Russian-speaking populations in Latvia and Estonia has few counterparts anywhere else in the world. While most Western European countries have a so-called stateless category, none has the category of noncitizen. Non-citizens have most of the same legal rights as full citizens, except they can't vote and they can't hold government positions. They also have a purple noncitizen's passport - as opposed to the blue passport of full citizenship - which is subject to a different range of travel and visa conditions.
There can be little doubt that the recent upsurge in the number of people applying for naturalization is due to Latvia's accession to the EU.
"EU accession was critical psychologicaly for naturalization. Many noncitizens were waiting to see where Latvia would end up," Special Task Minister for Integration Nils Muiznieks told The Baltic Times. "But others hoped that the EU would force Latvia to change its citizenship laws," he added.
Despite widespread hostility in the Russian media toward the EU, it would seem that the connotations of EU membership have sunk in with many noncitizens, judging by the precipitous rise in people applying for naturalization. But people's motives for applying for Latvian citizenship would seem to be pragmatic rather than out of any sense of patriotism. One 64-year-old man who took the citizenship exam on the same day that I did told me he only wanted to get a Latvian passport so that he could visit his daughter in the U.S.A.
Noncitizens can currently travel without a visa to Estonia, Lithuania, and Denmark although travel restrictions to EU member states will largely be done away with for noncitizens when the Schengen accords are finally implemented in 2007 or 2008.
However, there are still a great many people who don't want Latvian citizenship and refuse to undergo the process to obtain it. Some young Russian men don't want Latvian citizenship in order to avoid doing military service, while others simply feel indignant that they are not granted automatic citizenship of a country they were born in.
"I don't understand why I have to take any exams, or go through this process if I was born here and have lived here for 20 years," said Vladimir, a local university student. Vladimir speaks Latvian fluently and could easily pass the exam, but refuses to take the test.
Few issues have been more divisive in Latvian society than this. But at least people are starting to apply en masse for Latvian citizenship, and that's no bad thing, whatever their reason for doing it. Being Latvian, they might start to feel a bit more Latvian.