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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Citizenship Law Change Boosts Latvia's Minorities

RIGA, Latvia -- She speaks Latvian well enough to teach it. But for years, Olga Polushkina, like thousands of other ethnic Russians in this Baltic country, couldn't apply for citizenship.

With the easing of Latvia's widely criticized naturalization laws, Polushkina and other ethnic Russians are now streaming to submit applications.

"I have long waited for this opportunity," said Polushkina, 57. "As soon as it appeared, I decided to submit the naturalization documents."

The liberalized laws took effect Nov. 10 and within two weeks, officials said, about 2,000 people applied to be Latvian citizens - as many as had applied for the entire previous nine months.

With citizenship, they'll get practical advantages such as the right to vote in national elections and be eligible to hold jobs - ranging from airline pilots to judges - from which they had been shut out.

But just as important, they may get a sense of stability and relief from the ethnic tensions that have troubled the country since it became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart.

"These people want to have a sense of belonging or a sense of social status that maybe they feel they didn't have without citizenship," said Nils Muznieks of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, one of the strongest critics of the old laws.

"More than anything else, citizenship gives them this sense of psychological security," he said.

After independence, ethnic Latvians and those who could trace their roots to pre-Soviet Latvia were granted citizenship. But the Russians and other Slavic speakers who had moved in during the 50 years of Soviet rule, and their descendants, were not granted citizenship.

They could apply, but the old law's so-called windows system meant that the older a person was, the longer he'd have to wait to apply; some would have had to wait into the next century. The system was seen by many as a clear attempt to punish those who had been in the first wave of Stalin's drive to Russify Latvia.

Amendments that were narrowly approved in a referendum this fall eliminate the windows system and grant citizenship to children born of noncitizen parents after independence.

Because of the rule changes, around 20,000 ethnic Russians are expected to become citizens each year, naturalization officials estimate. That's in comparison with a total of just 10,000 naturalized citizens in the seven years after independence.

The new laws do not remove all the hurdles to citizenship. Applicants must show proficiency in Latvian - a tough task for many who lived and worked in all-Russian communities and were not educated in Latvian.

Muznieks estimated that only 250,000 of 650,000 noncitizens speak Latvian well enough to pass the test, and speculated many won't even try to learn.

Many young ethnic Russian men also say they don't want citizenship, because that would mean obligatory service in the national army.

Naturalization Board head Eizenija Aldermane also noted that some applicants could end up with long waits because the civil service is capable of handling only about 20,000 applications a year.

Mikhail Matveyev, a 54-year-old electrician, said he wants to avoid any delays for his daughter, so he lined up right away to file her applications, and said he and his wife would follow suit soon.

"If a person lives in a state, he should be a citizen," he said.