Nationalistic feelings are
widespread in all post-communist countries. In the Baltic states, historical factors make
the problem particularly acute. Annexation in 1940 by the USSR and drastic changes in the
demographic situation caused by a large-scale in-migration after the World War II cause
fears of "ethnic extinction" among the titular groups and thus strengthen
nationalistic emotions. Not surprisingly, political, legislative and administrative
measures taken in the course of this "ethno-national self-defence" are often
questioned for being discriminatory towards ethnic and linguistic minorities.
Despite a very shaky ethnic balance (62% ethnic Estonians in
Estonia, 52% ethnic Latvians in Latvia and 80% ethnic Lithuanians in Lithuania when
independence was restored, the overwhelming majority of non-balts are Russian-speakers),
the Baltic states managed to avoid violent inter-ethnic clashes. However, legitimization
of ethnic domination through citizenship, language policies, cadre politics, etc. creates
long-term obstacles to the development of inclusive democracy.
Three major aspects can be singled out. First, deeply rooted and
historically predetermined stereotypes of the Baltic nations: Ethnic Estonians, Latvians
and Lithuanians are striving to develop nation-building started in 1918 and violently
terminated in 1940 by Soviet annexation. In this view, treatment of Russian-speakers as
equal co-citizens is perceived as a threat. Second, the role of the political elites in
the Baltic states: "Recirculated" members of the former Communist elites
where, in accordance with the Soviet system of "ethnic hierarchy", the titular
groups made up a majority -- constitute a considerable share also in the current ruling
groups . Emphasis on the ethnic factor allows them to justify their "communist
past" - sticking to ethnic values is the issue of power. The third aspect is related
to the reactions and attitudes on the part of "the new minorities". "In
spite of the growth of a culture of minority rights in society as a whole, there is
virtually no minority rights-based political culture within the minorities
themselves" . Indeed, claims of the "post-communist minorities" are rarely
expressed in terms of non-discrimination or a modern approach to minority rights.
The citizenship issue is the key to understanding the peculiarity of
the minority problem in the Baltics. This solution was based on the so called concept of
legal continuity, i.e. that independence of the Baltic states was restored, not
established anew and so was the entity of citizens. Latvia and Estonia were the
only post-Soviet states which did not adopt the "zero option" after the
restoration of independence in 1990: only those individuals who were citizens of these
states before annexation in 1940 and their descendants were recognized as
"initial" citizens of the reestablished states.
The problem of citizenship provoked lively debates among
international human rights experts. The opinions of the authorities differed significantly
. The "restored citizenship" approach has never been officially deemed contrary
to human rights principles. However, international organizations have been urging Estonia
and Latvia to resolve the problem of resident non-citizens by granting them citizenship in
a non-discriminatory way and as soon as possible.
In Estonia, the status of those Baltic residents who were not
granted initial citizenship was defined by the Law on Aliens adopted in the summer of
1993: resident non-citizens were declared aliens who had to apply for residence permits in
order to stay in Estonia. Complaints about bureaucratic abuses connected with the
cumbersome procedures of obtaining the residence permits were frequent. The right to
freedom of movement for non-citizens appeared restricted because of the considerable delay
with issuing internationally recognized travel documents.
In Latvia, prior to the adoption of the corresponding law, the
Parliament decided it was necessary to compile the Registry of Residents. Systematic
administrative violations were perpetrated by officials in the Department of Citizenship
and Immigration. Any person who was denied entry into this registry, often contrary to the
law, was barred from legal employment, social benefits, marriage registration, etc .
Adopted in April 1995, a law "on the status of former citizens of the
" legalized the continued abode of non-citizens in the country. Also in
Latvia, issuing of the so called 'non-citizens' passports which were to provide freedom of
movement, was substantially delayed.
The issue of the non-discrimination against non-citizens in the
field of social and economic rights remains of particular importance. A number of laws,
regulations, and ad-ministrative decisions were adopted both in Estonia and Latvia. They
limited property rights, the right to work in certain professions, the right to receive
social benefits, the right of self-defence, freedom of conscience, and a number of other
rights to non-citizens.
Language policies were also controversial. Baltic legislatures tend
to increase limitations on usage of other languages, and requirements of mandatory
knowledge of the state language. New Estonian and Latvian language law drafts discussed in
national parliaments in 1996-1999, were evaluated as problematic from the point of view of
human rights standards by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities as well as
experts from the Council of Europe and the European Union:
The draft Latvian State Language Law presents a host of problematic
provisions, in particular in so far as it provides for the regulation of the use of
languages in all enterprises (companies), institutions, civil institutions and
organizations (including private cultural and religious organizations)
addition to the no doubt violative nature of the proposed regulation of the substantive
use of language, the draft law proposes a regime of regulation, monitoring and enforcement
which would no doubt interfere with other internationally protected human rights, in
particular the right to privacy and freedom of association. The Draft Latvian State
Language Law proposes a regime of regulation which in large measure contradicts
internationally protected fundamental human rights, in particular with regard to freedom
of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, the right to privacy, freedom
from discrimination, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities .
Language regulations currently in force are already controversial.
Estonian and Latvian language legislation provides that the unified rules of using
languages be applied also in areas which are inhabited by predominantly minority
populations. Usage of minority languages in public information along with the state
language is allowed only in some specified cases (eg, safety and security information). In
order to be registered by the Electoral Commission, candidates to both the national
parliament and municipal councils must present evidence of their perfect proficiency in
the state language. To be hired for most jobs, it is necessary to prove a certain level of
fluency in the state language; detailed lists of professions and corresponding levels of
the language requirements are established by departmental regulations. Minorities claim
that these demands are often excessive. According to the regulations adopted by the
Latvian Government in October 1996, a person who has lost his/her job must present a
language proficiency certificate to be registered as unemployed, even if his/her former
job did not require language proficiency. No unemployment benefits are available to those
persons who fail to meet this requirement. The regulations were evaluated as
discriminatory by several experts of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and were finally
revoked in the spring of 1998.
Gradual "nativization" through the school system is a
matter of major concern for many people belonging to minorities. Both in Latvia and
Estonia, the laws relating to education stipulate that after a transitional period of five
years, only secondary schools with the state language of instruction will be financed from
the state and municipal budgets. In addition, only private schools with the state language
of instruction, and not minority schools, are eligible for budgetary subsidies. As to
primary education, there is a definite trend to introduce mandatory teaching of an
increasing number of subjects in the state language in minority schools. Bilingual
education is merely seen as a transitional stage on the way to complete elimination of
state-funded education in minority languages. In fact, training of teachers for minority
schools has already been abolished.
Unlike Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia retained the Soviet practice of
mandatory ascription of ethnic origin in personal Ids. In addition, the ethnicity of
inhabitants of Latvia, including newborn babies, is recorded in the Registry of Residents.
A special law, adopted in 1994, established the procedure by which the ethnicity records
can be changed (i.e. by "blood" only and not according to self-identification).
Groups which are included in the Registry are very under-represented
among the new political elites of the Baltic states . This is particularly true with
respect to the ethnic composition of the elected bodies (parliaments and municipal
governments) This can be explained by the relatively low level of ethnic mobilization of
the Russian speakers in the Baltics compared with the titular groups. The picture is even
gloomier in the state bureaucracy and public administration; this reflects, rather, the
cadre policies implemented and encouraged by the central government.
Effective and fair integration of minorities is the major challenge
which the Baltic states face. All three Baltic states declared integration a priority in
the development of their societies, and special national programs are being developed to
this end. It remains to be seen, however, how successful these declared efforts to build a
society based on tolerance, participation, and non-ethnically based solidarity, will be.
Boris Tsilevich is a
Member of Parliament of Latvia
1. On recirculation and expulsion processes in formation of the
Baltic elites, see Anton Steen. "Cleavage Structures, Elite Configurations and
Democracy in Post Communist Countries - the Case of the Baltic States". In: A.Steen
(ed.): Ethnicity and Politics in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. University of Oslo,
Research Report 02/97, pp.1-22
2. Panayote Elias Dimitras. "The Minority Rights Paradox".
War Report, 1998, No.58, pp.64-66
3. For detailed overview of differing expert evaluations of
Estonias and Latvias citizenship legislation, see: Hanne-Margret Birckenbach.
Preventive Diplomacy through Fact-Finding: How International Organizations Review the
Conflict over Citizenship in Estonia and Latvia. Hamburg: Lit verlag, 1997, 424 p.
4. Helsinki Watch report "Violations by the Latvian Department
of Citizenship and Immigration". 1993, vol.5, issue 19.
5. Office of the OSCE HCNM. Opinion on the compatibility of the
draft Latvian State Language Law with international standards. 22 September 1997.
6. See eg Anton Steen. Recirculation and expulsion: The new elites
in the Baltic states. University of Oslo, department of political science, working paper
7. Pal Kolsto and Boris Tsilevich. Patterns of nation-building and
political integration in a bifurcated postcommunist state: Ethnic aspects of parliamentary
elections in Latvia. East European Politics and Societies, 1997, Vol.11, No.2, pp.366-391.