RIGA - OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus brought Latvia's citizenship issue back into the spotlight when he called for the government to speed up the naturalization process last week. During his official visit to Riga April 20-21, Ekeus (above) met with Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks and Parliament speaker Ingrida Udre to discuss the minority issue and assess the country's progress in naturalizing its non-citizens. He also spoke with President Vaira Vike- Freiberga and several other distinguished state leaders.
After meeting with Pabriks, the high commissioner told the press that, since EU accession, Latvia has "taken a big step forward" in its naturalization process. But this does not mean, he emphasized, that such issues should be left without attention.
"The main task is to step up the naturalization process," said Ekeus, adding that the number of non-citizens in Latvia was still large.
He agreed that, while Latvia maintains a special position on naturalization, the Minorities Protection Convention ratified by Latvia must impose obligations.
Most of the country's non-citizens, Ekeus said, want to become naturalized, so the government should do everything to stimulate the process.
Pabriks was especially optimistic about the situation. Not only did Latvia have the highest GDP growth, he told reporters, but also the highest growth in naturalization. "It is a positive indicator," said Pabriks.
But Ekeus said there were still many areas that needed improvement. As an example, he pointed out the large number of non-citizens who, due to their age or education, struggle to meet the present requirements.
One way the government could achieve this, he said, was by establishing an advisory panel between state institutions and non-government organizations. "Sometimes there is no dialogue between the minority and the majority. And it would be good if such dialogue is promoted."
During his conversation with Udre, the high commissioner emphasized education as a national priority, while expressing his support for the language reform in minority schools.
According to Udre, the reform, which states that 60 percent of minority school classes must be taught in the Latvian language, is proceeding smoothly. The parliamentary speaker also informed Ekeus about state-financed Latvian language courses for noncitizens and opportunities for minority organizations to participate in legislative processes.
Both officials discussed the upcoming general elections in Latvia, the nation's current labor shortage due to an outflow of workers to the West and social integration challenges.
At the end of his two-day visit, the high commissioner praised Latvia for its contribution to integration problems abroad, specifically for "importing" its experience to Georgia and other countries.
Ekeus has visited Latvia each year since taking on the responsibility of OSCE High Commissioner in 2001