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17 September 2012


Latvia: Situation and treatment of Russian minority; state protection and support services

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Overview

Sources report that ethnic Russians make up between 27 and 29 percent of the population (Latvia 12 Aug. 2012; UN 5 Mar. 2008, para. 10; PHW 2011). Sources indicate that Russians are the country's largest minority (Latvia 12 Aug. 2012; PHW 2011; US 1 Aug. 2012).

The report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racist discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance explains that

[e]thnic Russians arrived in Latvia during different waves of migration that extended from the sixteenth century to the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution; only a part - albeit a large one - of the Russian community arrived during the Soviet occupation. (UN 5 Mar. 2008, para. 55)

The same source indicates that in Latvia, while Russian-speaking communities are mainly composed of ethnic Russians, they also comprise ethnic Belarusians and other minorities (ibid.).

2. Non-Citizens

According to the report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racist discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, "many" of the ethnic Russians who immigrated to Latvia during the Soviet occupation "are living under the status of non-citizens" (UN 5 Mar. 2008, 2). Sources report that "non-citizens" constitute between 14 and 16 percent of the population (ECRI 21 Feb. 2012 para. 121; US 24 May 2012, 1; Freedom House 13 Sept. 2011).

The US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011 explains that the majority of "non-citizens" are "persons of Slavic origin who either moved to the country during the Soviet occupation or are descended from those who did" (US 24 May 2012, 12). Refugees International indicates that only people who were Latvian citizens in 1940, as well as their descendants, could initially restore Latvian citizenship at the time of Latvia's independence (31 Jan. 2011). Refugees International further explains that

[a]t the time of independence, non-Latvians were promised citizenship based on their residency in Latvia, but the full rights of that status were then denied. In the confused aftermath of the regime change, five years passed before the Russian-speaking minority gained a second-rate, albeit official status of "non-citizen." This so-called status carries limited rights and seems to primarily serve the nonsensical purpose of emphasizing what the person lacks, namely citizenship (31 Jan. 2011)

2.1 Rights of Non-Citizens

The report of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for Latvia states that "[n]on-citizens enjoyed most of the rights of citizens" (UN 11 July 2011, para. 60). Country Reports 2011 indicates that non-citizens have permanent residency status and employment rights, except for some public and private sector positions related to national security (US 24 May 2012, 12). Similarly, Refugees International indicates that non-citizens are "barred from practicing certain professions" (31 Jan. 2011). For instance, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) reports that in March 2011, as per an amendment to the police legislation, non-citizens who were working in the municipal police had to resign, unless they had applied for naturalization (ECRI 21 Feb. 2012, para. 124). The ECRI also indicates that, according to an investigation conducted by the Latvian Ombudsman in 2008 on the rights of non-citizens, the latter cannot work as lawyers, patent attorneys, nor as members of the board of detective agencies (ibid.).

Sources state that non-citizens are entitled to the same social welfare benefits as nationals (US 24 May 2012, 12; Latvia 30 Mar. 2011, 14).

Sources note that rights of non-citizens include diplomatic protection (ibid.; US 24 May 2012, 12; Refugees International 31 Jan. 2011), and a "special" passport that allows entry into the Schengen area without a visa (ibid.). In 2008, Russia granted the ethnic Russian minority residing in Latvia the right to enter Russia without a visa (PHW 2011; Latvia 30 Mar. 2011, 24). Similarly, the UN Human Rights Council indicates that non-citizens may travel to Russia without a visa (UN 11 July 2011, para. 60).

2.2 Political Participation

Sources state that non-citizens are not entitled to vote at local (Latvia 21 Feb. 2012, 62; US 24 May 2012, 1) or national elections (ibid.). The government of Latvia argued that allowing non-citizens the right to vote at local elections would have a "negative effect" on Latvia's integration policy and would decrease the motivation of non-citizens to naturalize and integrate (Latvia 21 Feb. 2012, 62). Furthermore, the law prohibits non-citizens from organizing political parties "without the participation of an equal number of citizens in the party" (US 24 May 2012, 14). Some members of the Russian minority who were citizens served in different elected bodies (ibid.). For instance, the mayor of Riga is an ethnic Russian (ibid.; ECRI 21 Feb. 2012, para. 96; RIA Novosti 28 Aug. 2012). In the September 2011 elections, the Harmony Center Party won the largest number of seats in parliament (US 24 May 2012, 14; Robert Schuman Foundation 17 Sept. 2011; Election Guide 17 Sept. 2011). The US Department of State indicates that many ethnic Russians are members of the Harmony Center Party (US 24 May 2012, 14), while Election Guide presents the Harmony Center Party as a “pro-Russian” party (17 Sept. 2011).

2.3 Citizenship

Sources indicate that non-citizens could become Latvian citizens by passing Latvian language and history tests (US 24 May 2012, 13; Refugees International 31 Jan. 2011). People who have reached the age of 65 are only required to pass the oral part of the language test (ibid.; Latvia 30 Mar. 2011, 15). In 12 August correspondence with the Research Directorate, an official at the Embassy of Latvia in Ottawa indicated that children of non-citizens may obtain citizenship through the procedure of recognition (Latvia 12 Aug. 2012). According to ECRI, the children of non-citizens can be naturalized before their 15th birthday upon application by both parents (ECRI 21 Feb. 2012, para. 121). The ECRI report adds that minors between 15 and 18 years of age can also submit a citizenship application if they can “prove proficiency” in the Latvian language (ibid., note 62). Further information on the procedure for children of non-citizens to obtain citizenship could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response. In 2009, 3,221 persons acquired Latvian citizenship; 3,100 of these persons had non-citizen status (UN Nov. 2010, 5).

Country Reports 2011 indicates that, although non-citizens were eligible to apply for citizenship, most of them did not do it because of the "perceived 'unfairness' of the requirements, resentment at having to apply at all, and the lack of perceived benefits" (US 24 May 2012, 13). Freedom House also reports that some non-citizens "have cited resentment at not having been granted citizenship automatically as a reason for not applying" (13 Sept. 2011).

3. Language

Sources state that Latvian is the official language (PHW 2011; US 1 Aug. 2012; UN 5 Mar. 2008, para. 35) and that there are no specific provisions for minority languages in the legislation (ibid.). In a 2012 referendum, about 75 percent of Latvia's citizens voted against introducing Russian as a second official language (UN 22 Feb. 2012; BBC 18 Feb. 2012; AFP 19 Feb. 2012). Media sources report that the referendum on Russian language was called by a pro-Russian-language group in order to end discrimination against Russian speakers (RFE/RL 18 Feb. 2012; RT.com 6 Feb. 2012), which reportedly reached a "critical point" (ibid.). Further information on discrimination against Russian speakers could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

In response to the referendum, the Latvian president reportedly said that "voting 'yes' to giving Russian official language status would mean voting against Latvia" (ibid.). Corroboration on the above statement could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The UN rapporteur notes that the use of the Latvian language in public and in private institutions performing activities of public interest is "compulsory" (UN 5 Mar. 2008, para. 35). However, a report on national minorities submitted by the Latvian government to the Council of Europe explains that according to the State Language Law, "individuals have the right to turn to and address state institutions not using the Latvian language" in cases of emergency or when reporting violations of law, among others (Latvia 30 Mar. 2011, 29).

The official at the Embassy of Latvia in Ottawa stated that since 1995, free language classes are offered to anyone interested in learning Latvian (Latvia 12 Aug. 2012). In contrast, ECRI reports that language classes are no longer provided free of charge to those who wish to naturalize (21 Feb. 2012, para. 121). According to the Embassy official, Russian minority schools provide bilingual education (Latvia 12 Aug. 2012). ECRI indicates that elementary schools that include education programs dedicated to minorities are allowed to determine the number of subjects to be taught in the minority language and in Latvian, whereas in secondary schools, 60 percent of subjects must be taught in Latvian (ECRI 21 Feb. 2012, para. 71). Since 2007, secondary school final examinations can be taken in Latvian or in Russian (ibid.; Latvia 21 Feb. 2012, 57 ).

4. State Protection
4.1 Legislation

Country Reports 2011 states that the "law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status" (US 24 May 2012, 16). According to Article 78 of the Criminal Law, the penalty for committing acts "intentionally directed towards triggering national, ethnic or racial hatred or enmity” is “deprivation of liberty for a term not exceeding three years" (Latvia 21 Feb. 2012, 53). However,

[f]or a person who commits the same acts, if they are associated with violence, fraud or threats, or where they are committed by a group of persons, a State official, or a responsible employee of an undertaking (company) or organisation, or if it is committed utilising automated data processing system, the applicable punishment is deprivation of liberty for a term not exceeding ten years. (ibid.)

Article 78 also states that participation in a group that promotes racism is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment (ibid., 54). According to Country Reports 2011, laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language and social status are "generally enforced … effectively" (US 24 May 2012, 16). However, ECRI indicates that

[t]here is a low number of investigations and prosecutions of racially motivated offences and the article of the Criminal Code on racist motivation as an aggravating circumstance of an offence has never been applied. Incitement to hatred is interpreted narrowly. Civil and administrative anti-discrimination legislation remains deficient. (ECRI 21 Feb. 2012, 7)

Further information on the enforcement of the above-mentioned legislative provisions could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

4.2 Ombudsman

The Ombudsman's functions include monitoring the government's performance on human rights issues (US 24 May 2012, 16). The Ombudsman's office is also responsible for enhancing public awareness with respect to human rights and protection mechanisms (Latvia 30 Mar. 2011, 12). Country Reports 2011 reports that NGOs criticized the Ombudsman's office for "being reactive rather than proactive, advocating only a narrow range of rights, and suffering from serious internal conflicts and institutional weakness" (US 24 May 2012, 16). ECRI also reports that the "Ombudsman's office is perceived as weak and ineffective," and expressed the opinion that "the significant reduction of the complaints received on grounds of racial, linguistic and religious discrimination is also indicative of the Ombudsman's limited outreach capacity" (21 Feb. 2012, para. 40, 42). In 2010, the Ombudsman's office received 6 complaints on grounds of racial and ethnic discrimination and 3 complaints on grounds of language discrimination, while in 2007, the Ombudsman's office received 53 and 20 such complaints respectively (ibid., para. 40).

4.3 Programs

In 2009 and 2010, various educational activities were implemented as part of the Third Countries Nationals Integration Fund projects and the "Latvia-Equal in Diversity" project, which was co-financed by the European Commission (Latvia 21 Feb. 2012, 54). These activities included, among others, training on diversity for young politicians, as well as school lectures and workshops on multiculturalism and discrimination prevention for school pedagogues (ibid., 54-55). In 2010, the Ministry of Justice led a public awareness campaign to promote diversity and tolerance (ibid., 54-55). In October 2011, the government adopted the Action Plan of the Guidelines on National Identity, Civil Society and Integration Policy 2012-2018, which foresees various activities on the new integration policy, including language training courses (ibid., 56). Further information on the Action Plan could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

Sources report that police officers received training on racism and racial discrimination (ECRI 21 Feb. 2012, 42; Latvia 21 Feb. 2012, 66). According to the Latvian government, the State Police works in collaboration with the International Office on Migration and the Latvian Human Rights Centre in training police officers (ibid.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Agence France-Presse (AFP). 19 February 2012. Dmitry Zaks. "Russia Slams Latvia for Rejecting Second Language." (Factiva)

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 18 February 2012. "Latvia Rejects Making Russian an Official Language." <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17083397> [Accessed 20 Aug. 2012]

Election Guide. 17 September 2011. "Russian Minority Party Wins the Most Seats in Latvian Election." <http://www.electionguide.org/country-news.php?ID=119> [Accessed 13 Sept. 2012]

European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). 21 February 2012. ECRI Report on Latvia. <http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/Country-by-country/Latvia/LVA-CbC-IV-2012-003-ENG.pdf> [Accessed 13 Aug. 2012]

Freedom House. 13 September 2011. " Latvia." Freedom in the World 2011. <http://old.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&country=8073&year=201> [Accessed 13 Aug. 2012]

Latvia. 12 August 2012. Embassy of the Republic of Latvia in Ottawa. Correspondence sent by an official to the Research Directorate.

_____. 21 February 2012. "Comments of the Government of Latvia on the European Commission's Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) Fourth Report on Latvia." Attached to ECRI Report on Latvia, published by ECRI, 21 February 2012. <http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/Country-by-country/Latvia/LVA-CbC-IV-2012-003-ENG.pdf> [Accessed 13 Aug. 2012]

_____. 30 March 2011. Comments of the Government of Latvia on the First Opinion of the Advisory Committee on the Implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities by Latvia. (GVT/COM/I(2009)001) <http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refworld/rwmain?page=search&docid=4eddeb0b2&skip=0&query=latvia GVT/COM/I(2009)001> [Accessed 26 July 2012]

Political Handbook of the World (PHW) 2011. 2011. "Latvia." Edited by Thomas C. Muller, William R. Overstreet, Judith F. Isacoff and Tom Lansdorf. Washington, DC: CQ Press. <http://library.cqpress.com/phw/document.php?id=phw2011_Latvia> [Accessed 26 July 2012]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). 18 February 2012. "Latvia Holds Referendum on Russian Language." <http://www.rferl.org/articleprintview/24488274.html> [Accessed 24 Aug. 2012]

Refugees International. 31 January 2011. Latvia: the Perilous State of Nationality Rights. <http://www.refugeesinternational.org/sites/default/files/Latvia%20The%20Perilous%20State%20of%20Nationality%20Rights.pdf> [Accessed 26 July 2012]

RIA Novosti. 28 August 2012. "Russians Blast Latvian Minister over War Memorial Call." <http://en.rian.ru/society/20120828/175476336.html> [Accessed 13 Sept. 2012]

Robert Schuman Foundation. 17 September 2011. Corinne Deloy. The Opposition Party, Harmony Centre, Comes out Ahead in the General Elections. <http://www.robert-schuman.eu/doc/oee/oee-721-en.pdf> [Accessed 13 Sept. 2012]

RT.com. 6 February 2012. "Too Russian to Have Rights? Latvia to Vote on 'Alien' Language." <http://rt.com/news/russian-latvia-language-referendum-559> [Accessed 24 Aug. 2012]

United Nations (UN). 22 February 2012. UN News Centre. "UN Expert Urges Dialogue After Latvia Votes Against Russian as Official Language." <http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=41325&Cr=Minorities&Cr1> [Accessed 10 Aug. 2012]

_____. 11 July 2011. Human Rights Council. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Latvia. (A/HRC/18/9) <http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refworld/rwmain?page=topic&docid=4e72ea1a2&skip=0&tocid=459d17822&toid=485683562&querysi=report working group&searchin=title&display=50&sort=date> [Accessed 26 July 2012]

_____. November 2010. UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Submission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' Compilation Report - Universal Periodic Review: Latvia. <http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/publisher,UNHCR,,LVA,4cd8f3992,0.html> [Accessed 13 Aug. 2012]

_____. 5 March 2008. Human Rights Council. Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance, Follow-up to and Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Doudou Diène. Addendum: mission to Latvia. (A/HRC/7/19/Add.3) <http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G08/116/23/PDF/G0811623.pdf?OpenElement> [Accessed 26 July 2012]

United States (US). 1 August 2012. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "Latvia." The World Factbook. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/lg.html> [Accessed 20 Aug. 2012]

_____. 24 May 2012. Department of State. "Latvia." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011. <http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm?dynamic_load_id=186369> [Accessed 8 Aug. 2012]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Attempts to contact representatives of the following organizations were unsuccessful: Human Rights Institute, University of Latvia; Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies; Latvian Human Rights Committee.

Internet sites, including: Advocates for Human Rights; L’Aménagement linguistique dans le monde ; Amnesty International; Baltic Institute of Social Science; Associated Press; The Baltic Times; Council of Europe; Factiva; France 24; Freedom House; Human Rights Institute of the University of Latvia; Human Rights Watch; Interfax; International Crisis Group; Institute for War and Peace Reporting; International Federation for Human Rights; The Guardian; Latvia – Embassy of the Republic of Latvia in Ottawa, Latvijas Republikas Saeima, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs; Latvian Human Rights Committee; Latvian Centre for Human Rights; Minorities at Risk; Minority Rights Group International; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; Reporters Without Borders; Transitions Online; UN – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Development Program, UNHCR Refworld, UN Women.