Non-citizens permanently residing in one of the “old” EU Member States are mostly foreigners, i.e. people having nationality of another country. Their political rights in the country of residence may be different. Nevertheless, being nationals of a particular foreign country they enjoy the full scope of political rights of citizens of that country. They also have the right to freely return to the state of which they are nationals. On the other hand, the state of residence retains the right to deprive them of permanent residence under certain circumstances.
Non-citizens of Latvia have the right to freely return only to Latvia! No foreign country grants them this right. Moreover, they are under the legal protection of the Latvian state and have the right not to be expelled from Latvia. The only political right they enjoy is the right to be a member of a political party in Latvia.
There are about 400,000 non-citizens of Latvia forming 17% of the whole population. They account for 40% of the ethnic minority population of Latvia.
How did the non-citizens of Latvia come to be?
All adult bearers of the status “non-citizen of Latvia” were permanent residents of the country during the only nineties. In 13 out of 15 former USSR republics (Lithuania among them) registration of residence served as a sufficient basis to automatically receive citizenship of the independent state – via the so-called “zero option”. But it was not the case in Latvia and Estonia.
In the late eighties the leaders of Latvia’s independence movement promised citizenship to every permanent resident who wished to be a Latvian citizen (para. 2.4. of the pre-election program of the “Popular Front”, adopted in October, 1989). Many persons belonging to ethnic minorities believed this promise and voted in favour of an independent democratic Latvia in the referendum of 1991. However, these people were deceived.
On 15 October 1991, a month after recognition of Latvia by most of the UN member states, on the same day that the chairman of the Supreme Council of Latvia signed the 1975 Helsinki Act, the Supreme Council adopted the resolution entitled “On the Renewal of the Republic of Latvia Citizens’ Rights and Fundamental Principles of Naturalisation”. By this act, citizenship of Latvia was granted only to those residents who were citizens up to 17 June 1940 as well as their descendants.
One third of the population of Latvia were deprived of all political rights in spite of possessing these rights at the time of the previous elections. This is a unique case in parliamentary history: a parliament deprived its own voters of citizenship and, thus, voting rights.
The status of those residents who were not granted citizenship of Latvia after the adoption of the resolution mentioned above was not certain for a long time.
In June 1992 the Law “On Entry into and Residence in the Republic of Latvia of Aliens and Stateless Persons”, regulating the procedure for acquiring residence permits by its subjects, was adopted by the Supreme Council. Only skillful work by MPs from the opposition group “For Equal Rights” stopped attempts to make all residents not granted Latvian citizenship subject to this law. The Supreme Council announced that the status of those who prior to this law taking effect (namely, 1 July 1992) would have acquired permanent registration of residence would be subject to a special law.
The law in question entitled “On the Status of Former USSR Citizens, Who are not Citizens of Latvia or any Other State” was adopted on 25 April 1995. Subjects of this law called “non-citizens of Latvia” were issued special Latvian non-citizen’s/alien’s passports.
What kind of legal status do non-citizens of Latvia have?
The Constitutional Court of Latvia in its judgment of 7 March 2005 declared: “After the passing of the Non-Citizen Law a new, up to that time unknown category of persons appeared – Latvian non-citizens. Latvian non-citizens cannot be compared with any other status of a physical entity, which has been determined in international legal acts, as the rate of rights, established for non-citizens, which does not comply with any other status. Latvian non-citizens can be regarded neither as citizens, nor aliens or stateless persons but as persons with “a specific legal status“”.
What does “a specific legal status” mean?
The Constitutional Court of Latvia in its aforementioned judgment asserts: “The status of a non-citizens is not and cannot be regarded as a variety of Latvian citizenship”.
On the other hand, the Constitutional Court declares: “However, the rights and international liabilities, determined for the non-citizens testify that the legal ties of non-citizens with Latvia are to a certain extent recognized and mutual obligations and rights have been created on the basis of the above. It follows from Article 98 of the Satversme (Constitution of Latvia), which inter alia establishes that everyone having a Latvian passport shall be protected by the state and has the right to freely return to Latvia”.
But are protection by the state and the right to freely return to this state not essential characteristics of nationals? It is evident that judges of the Constitutional Court had to ask themselves this logical question. And they did give an answer in this judgment: “the fact, whether the Latvian non-citizens can be regarded as nationals in the understanding of international law is not only a juridical but mainly a political issue, which shall be reviewed within the framework of the democratic political process of the state”.