RIGA - Issues of discrimination and minority rights in the Baltic states fell under the spotlight Sept. 18 - 22 with the visit of Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. On a trip that covered all three Baltic capitals, Van der Linden criticized the minority situation in Estonia and Latvia.
Van der Linden said that Estonia was being too slow to grant full citizenship rights to the ethnic Russians that make up about a third of the population. "I expressed my concerns on this situation and I hope sincerely that the government will push this forward," he told journalists at the conclusion of his visit to Estonia.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet defended the government's work by pointing to legislation that the state has adopted easing the naturalization process. The Foreign minister said that the government could not force citizenship on people who did not want it.
The assembly president told Russia Today that he felt the highest-ranking members of the government understood the international pressure that was being put on them to resolve citizenship issues, and he acknowledged that they were aware of the importance of the issue. He noted that the non-citizens of Estonia were granted voting rights in local elections, but not in national ones 's remedying a mistake he made while visiting the country earlier this year.
Van der Linden continued on to Riga, where he met with Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks and Integration Minister Oskars Kastens.
During their meeting, Pabriks stressed the progress that the country has made since independence, noting that Latvia could even one day be a shining example of how a nation can be "turned from a country with a split community into a united and secure state."
Kastens tried to downplay the issue during his meeting with van der Linden, arguing that the issue of non-citizenship is primarily a political one, and that there are many non-Russian minorities that play into the equation as well.
"The access of non-citizens to elections is a purely political matter. I think we will need broad debates or maybe even a referendum for asking the public's opinion," the minister said. "One should not think that a non-citizen means a Russian, as a large majority of local Russians have become Latvian citizens," he said.
Van der Linden remained unconvinced, however, and said that Latvia also needs to do more to improve the situation with mostly Russian non-citizens. "The Council of Europe cannot accept that 16 percent of the population in a country is stateless," he said at a press conference during his stay.
The assembly president received widespread criticism from local Latvian media and nationalist parliamentarians for confusing stateless people with non-citizens. In Latvia, non-citizens are granted many more rights than stateless people.
Many Latvian politicians expressed surprise at the negative assessment, and pointed to the fact that Latvia has fully implemented all EU directives surrounding the topic.
Van der Linden completed his tour of the Baltic states with a visit to Lithuania, where he met with Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, Seimas Speaker Viktoras Muntianas and representatives of minorities, civil society and religious leaders.
He gave Lithuania the most positive assessment of the three Baltic states, and even said that the country should serve as an example to its neighbors.
He praised Lithuania for granting citizenship to all its residents after gaining independence, and expressed hope that the country would continue to work toward equal rights for all. "This positive trend must be maintained, especially as regards education, proposals for the introduction of double citizenship and the enjoyment of property rights," he told journalists at the end of his visit.
Van der Linden has been criticized in the past for taking a pro-Russian, anti-Baltic stance, most notably after the widespread riots and cyber attacks in Estonia. The Estonian language daily Eesti Paevaleht published an article accusing Van der Linden of having private business interests in Russia that influence his decisions and lead to complacency over blatant Russian human rights violations.
Van der Linden has responded to this criticism by saying that these sorts of attacks are only being used because his opponents lack "real" arguments.
Doudou Diene, a UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism and xenophobia, also came to visit the Baltic states at the same time as Van der Linden. Diene's comments during his tour indicated a more positive view of all three states than Van der Linden had taken, but the full UN report on the topic will not be available until March 2008.