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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latvia Proceeds With Citizenship Changes

RIGA, Latvia -- Latvia's parliament has given preliminary approval to changes in the citizenship laws which have so angered Russia that it has threatened trade sanctions against the small Baltic state.

The Saeima passed the changes late Thursday by a vote of 57-16 after nine hours of often-heated debate. The bill must pass a final reading to become law.

Russia, which accounts for about 20 percent of Latvia's foreign trade, in April said it would impose sanctions against Latvia unless it took quick and substantial steps to improve the status of Latvia's ethnic Russians, about 400,000 of whom do not have citizenship.

"This vote was pivotal ... and we believe the decision to change the law will improve our relations with Russia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrejs Pildegovics said Friday.

Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis has called on the parliament take a final vote on the bill before the start of summer recess in two weeks.

When Latvia became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, it granted citizenship to people who had lived there before World War II and to their descendants. That left nearly a third of the country's residents stateless -- most of them ethnic Russians who had moved there under Josef Stalin's Russification drive and their descendants.

The proposed changes would grant citizenship to all children born in Latvia since independence and would eliminate the waits for other aspirants.