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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ulmanis Sees Multinational Latvia in Future

RIGA, Latvia -- Kristina Miller, Yulia Grudneva and Marina Pospelova are all 19, all second-year students at Latvian University majoring in English. All three are friends and all were born and raised in Latvia.

But Kristina and Marina were automatically awarded citizenship - and Yulia was not.

The question of who is a Latvian citizen and who isn't continues to bedevil this tiny Baltic Sea nation. Some 30 percent of Latvia's 2.5 million people hold the official status of "noncitizens," which means they cannot vote, cannot own land and cannot work in certain professions, such as law.

That law has been defended by Latvian politicians who argue that ethnic Latvians are demographically losing out to ethnic Russians in their own country - only because the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Latvia in 1940.

But the law has been criticized by human rights groups and Russian politicians for denying basic rights to residents. For years, this disagreement has kept political anger simmering, both within Riga and between Moscow and Riga.

Last spring, police in Riga violently dispersed a crowd of Russian protesters, many of them pensioners, demanding their rights. Weeks later, the commander of Latvia's armed forces joined other government officials in a downtown march with Latvia's SS legion, which fought alongside Nazis against the Soviet Union and has been accused of participating in the extermination of Latvia's Jewish community. Bomb attacks against a Riga synagogue and the Russian Embassy ratcheted tensions even higher.

Now things are slowly changing. Last month, Latvians voted in a referendum to ease citizenship requirements. And in a series of interviews this month, top Latvian officials, human rights activists and representatives of the Russian-speaking community, as well as people interviewed on the street, all expressed optimism that the country's different peoples were succeeding at putting differences behind them.

"Certainly, my vision of Latvia in the future is Latvia as a multinational country," said President Guntis Ulmanis in an interview.

Noting that 90 percent of the so-called noncitizens intend to remain in Latvia, where economic conditions are better than in most other regions of the former Soviet Union, Ulmanis said, "We have to give these people an opportunity to become citizens of our country."

Like almost everyone in Latvia, moreover, Ulmanis said that what has been ignored behind the headlines is that most citizens and noncitizens have always gotten along well. "The population is far ahead of the politicians," he said. "The people solve issues among themselves much better than the politicians do."

A case in point are the three friends Grudneva, Miller and Pospelova. Miller's father is ethnic Latvian and she automatically became a citizen of the country in 1991. Pospelova's ethnic Russian parents had lived in Latvia before the occupation and so she also qualified for automatic citizenship. But Grudneva's parents moved to the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic after the war.

Grudneva, moreover, also received her Latvian passport last month. Her parents had to pay for a private Latvian language tutor, which cost the not inconsiderable sum of 4 lats ($7) an hour. She also had to pay a 30 lat ($52) naturalization processing fee and pass a difficult examination on the language, history and constitution of Latvia.

Ulmanis predicts that within seven to 10 years, only 2 percent or 3 percent of the Latvian population will be noncitizens. Those who remain will be people like Grudneva's parents, who don't speak Latvian and aren't that worried about being noncitizens.

A large reason why the Grudnevs might be comfortable without the vote is that the Oct. 3 referendum not only eased citizenship requirements, it also eased tensions. Middle-age residents no longer have to wait several years until they can apply for naturalization, and citizenship is now granted to stateless children born in Latvia since 1991.

"The atmosphere is a lot different before and after the referendum," Valdis Birkavs, the Latvian foreign minister, said in an interview.

Now the front line has moved to related issues: the law on education and the law on language.

The outgoing parliament adopted a vague law that is to change the educational system into Latvian-language instruction by the year 2005. At present, about 200 of Latvia's 1,050 secondary schools have Russian as the main language of instruction, while another 149 schools have both Latvian and Russian groups of students.

The law makes some allowance for minority schools, but ultimately this is at the discretion of the Education Ministry - which is a traditional stronghold of radical Latvian nationalists, according to Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

Tatyana Liguta, president of the Latvian Association of Teachers of Russian, said that insistence on Latvian-only schooling could backfire.

"We understand integration not as the assimilation of non-Latvians into an all-Latvian environment, but as the integration of the entire Latvian society," she said.

Russian-speaking activists said that international pressure brought to bear on Latvia had helped the nation broaden its definition of citizens.

Latvian leaders were visibly disappointed by a European Union decision last month that said Latvia could only hope to be invited to even discuss EU membership sometime next year.

Additional pressure of this sort might also help with other areas of assimilation, said Boris Cilevics, a Russian-speaking parliament member. Cilevics characterized Russia's policy toward Latvia as "aggressive, inconsistent and clumsy," but added that it nevertheless helped by convincing Western politicians to pressure the Latvian government to liberalize its policies - even if under the pretextof saying, "fellows, don't poke the Russian bear."