Controversial citizenship case heard in Brussels

  • 2005-04-27
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The European Parliament last week lent a helping hand to Jurijs Petropavlovskis, a radical activist who was denied Latvian citizenship last year, after its petition committee heard his case last week.

With a little help from Tatjana Zdanoka, a MEP with For Human Rights in a United Latvia, the committee agreed to hear the case, which began when the Cabinet of Ministers, in an unprecedented move, decided to deny Petropavlovskis citizenship without giving justification.

Petropavlovskis spoke before the petition committee on April 19, with a Latvian state representative answering his accusations. The committee has no power over Latvian domestic issues, though its willingness to hear the case gave a venue to critics of the state and put the government on the defensive.

An outspoken anti-education reform activist, Petropavlovskis was barred from receiving citizenship after ministers voted unanimously to cross his name off the list, even though a year earlier he had passed the exam. He has since appealed to the administrative court for redress, something his legal council Aleksejs Dimitrovs said would likely result in victory.

Zdanoka brought up the complaint in Brussels, claiming Petropavlovksis was denied citizenship solely on the basis of ethnic discrimination.

Observers said the petition committee hearing didn't reflect well on Latvia, as some committee members became visibly agitated after listening to state representative Inga Reina explain that they lacked jurisdiction to examine the case.

"It was correct legally but not wise politically," said a Western diplomat at the hearing who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some committee members even took the statement as an insult.

Michael Cashman, a MEP from England representing the socialists, said that Latvia could be in violation of treaty agreements with the EU that forbid political discrimination and the violation of human rights. "The government has not explained its reasoning for refusing to grant citizenship. The notion of a 'political decision' is unacceptable and needs to be explained," he commented via e-mail.

The case was "kept open because the decision goes beyond 'citizenship' and infringes on treaty obligations [Article 6 of the accession treaty 's ed.] and on fundamental human rights," he argued. "Our role is to ensure fairness and the implementation of rules and obligations that member states have under the treaties, especially concerning non-discrimination."

"Citizenship is solely in the domain of the state," said Inga Reina, the state's representative to all Human Rights institutions. She added that case details were not discussed at the committee hearing since a trial is pending and the government did not want to be seen as influencing the proceedings.

She also said that the legal representative of the European Commission agreed with the state's defense, although they spoke unofficially. The petition committee has requested in writing the commission's official position.

The result of the hearing may well draw more attention to Latvia's noncitizen population, which is poorly understood in Europe due in part to proximity and the fact that this category doesn't exist outside Estonia and Latvia.

Shortly after the hearing, the European Greens issued a press release saying, "The European Parliament could now decide to hold a special hearing to investigate the issue or organize an investigative mission in Latvia looking into the situation at hand."

Zdanoka is a member of the Greens at the European Parliament.

Petropavlovskis said he was sure he would win his case, adding that the European Parliament would force Latvian domestic courts to examine it.

During the hearing, the committee also heard complaints from the International Council of Russian Compatriots, a British citizen, and from the Society of Russian speakers of Ireland, who prefaced their letter by saying that none of the following signatures were fake. The letter referred to the Latvian population as "aboriginal" and claimed that their status of noncitizen, which requires them to obtain travel visas to nearly all EU countries, violated their right to free movement. The committee, however, focused mainly on the plight of Petropavlovskis.

In addition to appearing before the petition committee, Petropavlovskis has filed suit in the domestic arena as well. The case was filed in December 2004, and has yet to be heard. Dimitrovs said the case could be heard by December this year.

"He has good prospects of winning his case in domestic court," said Martins Mits, a lecturer in human rights law.

He added, however, that the case depended on whether the Cabinet of Ministers' decision was interpreted as a political or administrative act. An administrative act could be examined by an administrative court, although a political one could not. In fact, it remains unclear if even the state's constitutional court could evaluate a political decision.

The use of a loyalty clause in citizenship applications may continue to appear, since some politicians have proposed including it as a future criteria for the citizenship law.