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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latvia's Russians Find a Voice

RIGA, Latvia — Yevgeny Kopytov has lived in Latvia for almost all of the 53 years of his life, although for the last decade he has not been a citizen of this or any other country. That is about to change.

"I passed the exams, signed an oath and in about a month I should get my citizenship," Kopytov, a computer science professor, told reporters.

Kopytov's story is similar to those of many people who emigrated to Latvia from other parts of the Soviet Union during the five decades of Soviet rule, which ended 10 years ago this month when a coup launched by hard-liners in Moscow failed.

Kopytov moved to Latvia from Belarus with his parents in 1956. Others came from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Latvia regained its independence, he and about 650,000 other Russian-speaking immigrants suddenly found themselves without a country.

Latvia decided to award citizenship only to those who had held it before Moscow invaded in 1940 and to their descendants, in an attempt to reverse decades of "Russification," even though many Russian speakers supported Latvia's independence drive.

Starting in 1995, Latvia let noncitizens gain citizenship if they passed a language and history exam. But only a few at a time were allowed to apply, beginning with the younger ones, which left out Kopytov and many others.

Under Western pressure — especially from the European Union, which Latvia wants to join — and following a national referendum in 1998, this system was liberalized.

The "windows system," as it became known due to the age limits, led to criticism by Russia that Latvia discriminated against the Russian speakers. It left many people bitter.

Although he disagreed with the first system, Kopytov feels Latvia is home, and he was eager to become a naturalized Latvian once he could.

"I think the first law was wrong, but I'm not the kind of person who can just stay here [without citizenship]," he said.

Under the windows system and its successor, Kopytov and about 45,000 Russian-speakers have taken up citizenship in the last six years, leaving about 535,000 of Latvia's 2.4 million population still stateless.

Some are unlikely ever to become citizens, either because they find naturalization humiliating or because they will never speak the language.

According to a naturalization department survey carried out last year, about 11 percent of noncitizens were considering leaving Latvia, while 71 percent had decided to stay.

Economic factors have kept a lot of Russian speakers in Latvia, where the average monthly salary is small by European standards at $240 a month, but still better than Russia's $113.

Many Russian speakers are not just getting by according to local standards — they are prospering. One of them is Valery Kargin, president of Parex Bank, Latvia's largest bank.

"There is a feeling that people on average are wealthier in Latvia," said Kargin.

Kargin, 40, ranks among the country's few millionaires. He says he feels a cultural connection to Russia but considers himself a Latvian patriot because he was born here. For him, the country has been a land of opportunity.

However, not everyone can get ahead as an entrepreneur, and many local Russian speakers face a disadvantage on the labor market, where lack of local language skills means many cannot compete for some jobs.

While there are no regulations for most of the private sector, proficiency in Latvian is required to hold public-sector jobs.

Still, many Russian speakers are staying and are betting that their prospects will be brighter when the country joins the European Union, which it stands a realistic chance of doing in about 2004, if all goes according to plan.

The EU has already been a positive influence on policies toward minorities.

Many local Russians think their Baltic background — on top of a "Baltic" accent in their mother tongue — makes them different from Russia's Russians, even though they share cultural ties.

"When I go to Russia I feel like a guest. In Latvia I am at home despite all the problems we face here," said Boris Tsilevich, a Russian-speaking member of Latvia's parliament.