RIGA - After discussing Latvia's "special merit" naturalization policy last week, a number of nationalist leaning lawmakers agreed that the procedure needs revision. The decision was just one of several recent attempts by members of the For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party to heavily restrict citizenship possibilities. On Dec. 16, Peteris Tabuns, head of Parliament's committee for implementing Latvia's citizenship law, said more stringent criteria was needed for the naturalization process, especially when granting honorary citizenship.
"We often give citizenship to people without special merit, hoping they will eventually demonstrate some," Tabuns told the Baltic News Service. In an interview earlier this month with a daily paper, he said Latvia was suffering from "low quality of citizens."
Last week, Tabuns said that a broad debate on the subject, with the participation of representatives from the Naturalization Board and the Justice Ministry, was necessary.
Gunars Kusins, head of Parliament's legal office, voiced a similar opinion at the Dec. 16 committee meeting. Non-Latvians must meet clear, more strictly defined criteria before earning honorary citizenship, he said.
Kusins criticized Parliament's current methodology, where it invents a new, accommodating law every time somebody is granted Latvian citizenship for special merit. He pointed out that such decrees are essentially administrative acts, not laws.
The MP called for careful consideration of candidates up for honorary citizenship, saying that it should first be determined whether such individuals could naturalize through regular procedures.
Yet analysts argue that the suggestion is one more attempt by For Fatherland and Freedom to restrict noncitizens from naturalizing in general.
According to Ilze Brands Kehris, director of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights, the "special merit" naturalization issue carries little importance when compared with more pertinent debates on citizenship.
"In the years after Latvia regained its independence, it was good to have this [special merit legislation] for noncitizens who played an important political role during the independence movement," she told The Baltic Times. "But that period is gone. This specific form of granting citizenship no longer deserves priority attention."
She added that today the legislation is mostly used to grant talented athletes citizenship, which allows them to play on national teams.
Indeed, the recent discussion over special merit naturalization was raised after the sports sub-committee of Latvia's previous parliament proposed granting citizenship to three soccer players - Ivans Sputajs, Andrejs Kostjuks and Andrejs Pereplotkins. The decision ultimately comes down to Parliament's committee for the implementation of Latvia's citizenship law.
If Pereplotkins, currently a member of Riga's Skonto club, receives citizenship, he can then play for the national team. Last year Pereplotkins earned the title of best player in Latvia's premier league.
The merit issue is just one way nationalists want to slow down the naturalization process. Another measure being called for is a tougher language examination, as many Latvians believe the current test is too easy and not difficult to circumvent.
"For Fatherland and Freedom has come up with a number of laws aimed at restricting naturalization. This discussion over soccer players is just one more example. They are clearly guided by other motives," Brands Kehris said.
Such moves fly in the face of EU efforts to get Latvia to "step up" its nationalization process.
During his official visit to Latvia last spring, Rolf Ekeus, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, said that Latvia's main task should be to "step up the naturalization process," adding that the number of non-citizens in Latvia was still large.
In Brands Kehris' opinion, if the government is to discuss granting sportsmen citizenship, the talks should be held on an international level. A number of European countries have similar citizenship laws that favor talented athletes, she pointed out, "so perhaps we should discuss the issue with them."
Otherwise, the political scientist believes the topic deserves little domestic attention.
"It's merely a practical point that shouldn't preoccupy the minds of those dealing with other, more important citizenship issues," she said. "Members of Latvia's nationalist parties are clearly sending signals that they want to make it more difficult for noncitizens to naturalize. That's the real issue to pay attention to here."
Latvia currently has over 400,000 noncitizens.