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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latvia May Change Law on Citizenship

RIGA, Latvia -- Proposals for changing Latvia's citizenship law, the flashpoint of an escalating dispute with Russia, will be discussed by lawmakers next week, the Baltic News Service reported Friday.

Russia this week threatened to reduce oil exports through Latvia -- a key source of income for the small Baltic country -- and said it was ready to enact economic sanctions in protest at Latvia's treatment of its large ethnic Russian population.

About 450,000 ethnic Russians in Latvia do not have citizenship. The issue has been an irritant between Riga and Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and tensions have escalated sharply since last month when Latvian police forcefully dispersed a protest by ethnic Russian pensioners.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvia granted citizenship to residents who had lived there before the Soviet Union annexed Latvia and to small numbers of people on the basis of other criteria.

But about 688,000 people in the country of 2.6 million remain stateless. The current citizenship law says people seeking naturalization must demonstrate proficiency in the Latvia language -- which is unrelated to Russian. The law sets quotas for the annual number of applicants for naturalization.

It was unclear whether the new proposals, if approved, would mollify Russia. The requirement of proficiency in Latvian remains.

The proposals include an immediate removal of some of the quotas and dropping them entirely by 2001, BNS said, quoting Andris Ameriks, a parliament member who headed the group of representatives from the governing coalition parties that developed the proposals.

All people born in Latvia could become citizens by 2001 under the new proposals. It was not immediately clear whether regulations would be eased for people who moved to Latvia after World War II, when huge numbers of ethnic Russians under the Soviet Union's "russification" drive.

Also Friday, union officials said in a letter to Russia's ambassador that slashing oil exported via Latvia will make life worse for the ethnic Russian port workers whose jobs depend on the exports.

Some 60 percent of the workers in the Ventspils port where Russian oil is transferred to tankers are ethnic Russians, the letter said, BNS reported.

Russia announced the oil export cuts this week as a protest against Latvia's treatment of ethnic Russians, most of whom do not have citizenship. Russia also said it is considering other economic sanctions.

The cuts "would cause a sharp decline in the living conditions of the company's employees and their families," said the letter from officials of trade unions at the Ventspils Nafta oil terminal.

The prefecture of Moscow's central district said Friday that some of downtown's biggest stores are backing Mayor Yury Luzhkov's call for a boycott and withdrawing Latvian goods from sale.

The boycott was launched Thursday and includes the shopping centers as GUM, TsUM, Detsky Mir and Moskovsky, and the big markets Luzhniki and Tishinka.