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Minorities anticipate changes, naturalization

  • 2002-12-19
  • J. Michael Lyons
RIGA

When Latvia joins the European Union in 2004, Latvian citizens will get an array of confusing new rights and privileges in Europe. But for Latvia's more than half-a-million non-citizens the picture is much clearer - they get virtually none.

EU legal experts have scratched their collective heads in recent years trying to decide how to treat non-citizens in Latvia, which has more residents per capita who are not citizens than any other country in Europe.

It's a complex situation that, for now at least, has a fairly simple answer.

"They will be non-citizens of the EU," said Andrew Rasbash, the European Commission representative in Latvia.

Non-citizens will not be able to vote in EU elections nor will they be able to work freely in other EU countries without special permission.

One benefit they are likely to get is visa-free travel in Schengen Treaty countries, which includes all EU countries - except Great Britain and Ireland - and also the non-EU member Norway.

Visa-free travel for non-citizens depends on the Latvian government issuing them identity cards that can be used as travel documents, which it tentatively said it would do.

But Latvia's non-citizens fall into a legal gray area when it comes to things like social security benefits. Most are not typical "third-party" immigrants that came to Latvia from another country but are considered permanent residents of Latvia and receive many benefits from the Latvian state afforded to citizens. But that status will not immediately follow them into the EU.

The best solution, according to newly appointed Special Task Minister for Social Integration Nils Muiznieks, is to step up naturalization.

But that process has been slow - less than 60,000 people have naturalized since 1997 - and Muiznieks admits EU membership is unlikely to immediately convince non-citizens to go through it. There simply aren't that many people among the non-citizen population, he said, that really want to vote in EU Parliament elections or work abroad.

"I think for the Western-oriented part of that population it will definitely provide an incentive," he said. "But I don't think that's a huge number of people."

The long-term effect of EU membership on naturalization, he quickly added, is that it will create favorable conditions inside the country that will make becoming a citizen worth the effort.

"It means Latvia's modernization, and a modernizing, European-oriented Latvia is one in which integration will go smoother and in which people will find it easier to identify with Latvia and that will be good for naturalization," he said.

EU membership will also highlight some ironies in Latvia's election laws, Muiznieks said.

In some countries Latvian non-citizens who establish permanent residency in other EU countries will be able to vote in that country's municipal elections, while they are currently barred from voting in municipal elections in Latvia.

Likewise, EU citizens who establish residency in Latvia will be eligible to vote in municipal elections here.

"After we're in the EU and a businessman from an EU country lives and works for six months can vote in municipal elections but local non-citizens will not, then people will begin to think that's bizarre," he said.