Deadline to exchange Soviet passports expires

  • 2000-04-06
  • By Marta Kirse
RIGA – After the government previously extended the deadline three times, the Soviet passport finally became an invalid document in Latvia on April 1.

The Ministry of Interior's Citizenship and Migration Administration started its campaign to replace the passports in April 1997, but three years later, tens of thousands of non-citizens still have not complied with the regulation.

"Officially 38,500 non-citizens have not applied to exchange their old USSR passports for new non-citizen Latvian ones. Of these, 2,000 are elderly," said Diana Urtane, spokeswoman for the administration.

People without valid passports will not lose their non-citizen status, but they will not be able to enter into marriage, sign employment and rental agreements, receive pensions or other social guarantees.

If they apply to any state institution or are detained by the police, they will be fined between 1 lat and 25 lats ($42) for the offense, according to the citizenship and migration board.

The fine will be determined by the administration commission, who will analyze each case individually.

"There has been no violation of human rights throughout this process. We have been in continual contact with the administration and they have extended the deadline three times," said Olafs Bruvers, director of the Latvian Human Rights Office.

In an attempt to aid the passport replacement process, the citizenship and migration board began home visits to those who were unable to go to the regional offices and fill out an application form.

"Last year employees of the administration started visiting disabled persons and pensioners. On March 1 the government provided financial support to help the process," Urtane said. "The State Police has also been very helpful in the process. They have provided the cars for transport."

The citizenship and migration board will continue to organize these home visits, as well as accept applications of these people from relatives.

In certain cases, non-citizens will be able to turn in their old passports for a newly-issued Latvian one. Valid reasons include a long-term stay abroad, imprisonment, serious illness and old age.

"The administration has taken a very civilized approach [to exchanging passports]," said Bruvers, who noted the status of non-citizens remains the same.

He also cited the efforts of the government to visit the elderly and the poor to inform them about the deadline, help them with the application process, as well as the government's promise not to fine those poor and elderly who have missed the deadline.

However, this exchange of passports does not mean that non-citizens will be able to vote in municipal elections.

That issue emerged at a recent press conference with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga that was held exclusively for the Russian-language press.

Prior to the meeting, the Russian-language daily newspaper Chas asked readers to phone questions they wanted the president to answer: More than 100 questions were gathered on topics such as integration, naturalization and education.

"The president took great interest when I presented her with the questions from our readers. She realizes that this is the voice of the people," said Chas reporter Daria Zhdanova.

Chas readers voted Vike-Freiberga as Latvia's person of the year for 1999.

"This is the first time since Latvia's independence that the president has taken this initiative. It does not demonstrate that there is a separation within Latvian press, but that she has taken the time to pay special attention to this press," she said. "We are writing about different questions and it is not secret that Latvia is composed of a two-part society."

Yet Chas reported that Vike-Freiberga said that currently Latvia is not prepared to include non-citizen participation in local elections. She said she believes that as a result of the Soviet period, Latvia does not have a normal demographic situation.

"I hope that the number of non-citizens will diminish and they will use the opportunity to vote as a citizen. That would be the ideal solution."