Looking out for human rights in Latvia

  • 2004-11-10
Ilze Brands Kehris is an expert in human rights who works in the thick of it in Latvia. She met with Aaron Eglitis to talk about increasing naturalization of the state's non-citizens, racism, and the work of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, the NGO she has directed since 2002.

How did you come to Latvia and end up as head the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies?

I came to Latvia in 1991, with a work group that the Swedish Foreign Ministry was organizing, although at the time I was living in the United States. I ended up gradually getting involved in the work here. I am a Sovietologist by education. I was specializing in Soviet foreign policy so I was really Moscow orientated at the time. I ended up staying on from 1993. I made a reorientation to human rights, which a lot of political scientists did during the 1990s.

What areas is your center most concerned with, and what are its responsibilities?

We actually have two main fields of interest. One is the real human rights issues in the region, and that is human rights in closed institutions. There we deal with issues concerning prisons, psychiatric institution, the illegal migrants camp, and work with police isolation cells, and police brutality. The other main field is social integration and minority rights. There are of course problems in all fields. Over the last two years or so we have been increasingly working on other issues, such as racism, and xenophobia, giving seminars, conducting research, and participating in work groups. We also have two lawyers who work with human rights issues free of charge.

Naturalization numbers have been increasing steadily, even though some elements of society refuse to apply for citizenship. Can we expect the rate to continue to increase?

The problem is that despite the positive developments that everyone is so happy about, if we look at the figures, even if it is over 15,000 people naturalizing, which would be a lot compared to previous years, or even 20,000, compared to the fact that there are still 470,000 non-citizens in this country, it is still very slow. There are a certain percentage of non-citizens who are not likely to ever naturalize. I think the important thing to remember is in the past you could frequently hear politicians saying that it wasn't really a problem because it was the elderly people who weren't naturalizing and that natural demographic changes would eventually solve the citizenship issue, but this turned out not to be true. There's also an increased resistance by certain groups of younger people. This is the big issue. How to get people motivated to naturalize? Since 1998 non-citizen children who were born after 1991 could be registered as citizens, but very few were. There was a recent campaign by Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks and Ainars Bastiks, the Minister for Children and Social Affairs who sent targeted letters to parents of eligible children to register, and that led to a small increase. Clearly here we have to deal with motivation. I think the major problem is that one out of five permanent residents in Latvia is not a citizen and does not participate in the political processes in the country.

You said, among other things, that there is not much dialogue between the two main communities. Do you think this is partly an outgrowth of our segregated school system, as well as self-segregation in terms of different ethnicities with different social venues?

On the one hand, these state people always point out that there is a very high rate of intermarriage, which is true. About 20 percent of Latvians marry outside of their ethnic group, and it's even higher with the minorities. You frequently also have these opinion polls where people often answer that they have friends across the ethnic barrier. But at the same time, I have seen research on close friends network, and it turns out to be far more segregated than it looks from the outside. I think we need more research on this. In some ways it reminds me of the time I used to live in New York. When you live there, you have these invisible barriers where one street is ok, and if you pass into another one, you could find yourself in a no-man´s land or dangerous area. There is a sort of an invisible signal. In some ways, the segregation here reminds me of that. There is no clear sign here that tells people whether a club is for Russians or for Latvians, but there is a natural way for selecting such things.

One of the main things is the schools. With all this talk about the education reform - which is not much of a reform other than increasing the amount of Latvian taught - few have tried to bring up the issue of segregated schools. Do we really want to continue to have this type of segregation? How could you possibly expect that, when students are 18 or 20, they will suddenly form these networks if they are so tied down to their communities. I think this is a major problem for the future.

Has discontent over the education reform hardened some of the already disillusioned non-citizens? Shtab seems to have vanished, replaced by OKROL an organization that has stated it wants Russian as a second official language, and citizenship for all.

Naturalization cannot be seen separately from the other issues 's that has been a mistake in government policies. All of these issues are clearly interconnected. There clearly has been a lack of trust with state institutions, and this influences attitudes. In terms of integration I think one should have a policy of inclusion, and this is not what the state is doing. Last year we had a lot of recommendations from international bodies, from the Council of Europe, the UN, the OSCE, and others, saying we should provide voting rights for non-citizens in local elections. As we know, many of our politicians said that this was impossible. It's out of the question, and we won't even discuss it. The real issue is Riga, and the sense of who has power in the political institutions, and the fear of losing it.

Government figures have argued that allowing noncitizens to vote would reduce the incentive for them to naturalize.

This argument is really empty rhetoric. It has nothing to do with the way a human being functions even psychologically. If you have a passive group of people who are marginalized in society, or for other reasons are not participating, you can support the theory that, the moment you start getting them involved, they would be more likely to naturalize. The alternative is just barring them out until they take the big plunge and naturalize all at once. I think they thought of this argument because they didn't want to admit the real reason. It's a bit disingenuous.

There is little dialogue between the two main communities; do you think this is partly a result of our segregated school system, as well as self-segregation?

On the one hand people always point out that there is a very high rate of intermarriage, which is true. Some 20 percent of Latvians marry outside their ethnic group, and it's even higher with the minorities. Opinion polls also frequently show that people have friends across ethnic barriers. But at the same time I have seen research on close friends' networks and it turns out to be far more segregated than it looks from the outside. Do we really want to continue to have this type of segregation? How can you possibly expect that when people are 18 or 20 that they will suddenly form new networks when they are so tied into their communities? I think this is a major problem for the future.

It has been said that xenophobia is on the increase in Latvia.

The more we work on these issues, the more it becomes clear that these are very deep rooted, even they are usually latent since there is little exposure. Opinion polls have been contradictory. We did a recent study on the Roma that revealed a high level of intolerance towards them. I think that's also true for Africans, Asians and visibly different minorities. And increasingly Islamophobia has taken hold, which hasn't happened until now. The few people that are here could probably relate stories of harassment on the streets. We have to prepare society for an influx of visibly different minorities.

Some have implied that Latvia's elite still behave as if they are the minority, especially given the massive demographic change that was experienced during the Soviet period when the percentage of Latvians fell to the low 50s right after independence. How does this affect the relationship with the Russian community?

The psychological setting is understandable. You don't overcome that by looking at the objective data one day and conclude that we are not in danger anymore. I do believe that there is less of that then there was in the early 1990s, because the numbers are different, and the security situation has changed. It is also legitimate. Latvians are one of the smaller ethnic groups in the world .This certainly needs positive measures to protect language culture and national existence. Some behave as if they are a minority, and take on a defensive position.

Does this type of rhetoric move voters to more polarized positions? At the Europarliament elections, For Fatherland and Freedom and For Human Rights in a United Latvia, both polar opposites, took five out of eight seats.

I think there is a risk of polarization, but there are several factors involved. Partly it has to do with the education reform. Ethnic and national issues have become very salient again, after remaining in the shadows during the last Parliamentary elections, at least on the Latvian side. There has been an increasing direction where national issues have become less important, unfortunately, due to the education reform and various other developments. Now we are going back to the ethnicization of issues on both sides. On a slightly more positive note, I also think that a lot of people voting for For Fatherland and Freedom did it as a sort of compensation for joining the EU. Some people, who were afraid of being part of a bigger union, supported a group they thought would defend them.

While Latvia has a female president and other prominent women in politics, the country still lags behind its Nordic neighbors. How do you view the role of women in society here?

A lot of women are in middle-level positions, which is typical of the Soviet legacy. On the one hand, you don't have the pattern you had in Western or Southern Europe. In the Soviet system women worked, so you didn't have many women staying at home. Rather, the issue was which jobs were reserved for women. They were usually low prestige jobs, and also jobs for specialists who had opportunities to do what they wished. Very often women ended up in pro-forma leadership positions, or middle-level ones. This trend continues, although it is changing, especially in the big cities. It's a problem that people are not paying attention to. Opinion polls reveal that a lot of people don't think it's an issue. Many believe that we are all equal, until they see figures showing an income gap. The NGO sector is very interesting because it is dominated by women. In this situation we have a gender imbalance problem here. We are trying to get more men involved, but usually the applicants are all women.