Cabinet Backs Citizenship Law Changes; Justice Minister Calls for Swift Passage

By Andris Straumanis (December 13, 2011)

The Latvian government has given its backing to a list of recommendations for proposed amendments to the country’s citizenship law, including allowing dual citizenship for World War II-era exiles and their descendants.

The Council of Ministers accepted the recommendations made by Justice Minister Gaidis B?rzi?š during a Dec. 13 meeting in R?ga. The recommendations, many of which offer technical corrections, will now go to the parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee (Juridisk? komisija), which is considering a bill to amend the citizenship law.

“We are hoping for the Saeima to proceed actively to accept the amendments to the law as quickly as possible, because a large part of society is waiting for them, both in Latvia and around the world,” B?rzi?š said in a government press release.

Before it was dissolved by July’s national referendum, the 10th Saeima was considering legislation sponsored by members of the Unity (Vienot?ba) party to change the citizenship law. The 11th Saeima’s Legal Affairs Committee reintroduced the bill (Nr. 52/Lp11) on Nov. 3. The committee now is waiting on recommendations for the legislation, which are due Jan. 1. The just-approved Justice Ministry recommendations are essentially the same as those made by the Interior Ministry in September.

Among the amendments would be one to lift the restriction on dual citizenship for exiles and their descendants. Under the current law, exiles and their descendants had until July 1995 to register as Latvian citizens without giving up the citizenship of their home country. The amendment defines exiles as those Latvian citizens who left their homeland between June 17, 1940, and May 4, 1990.

Dual citizenship also would be allowed for other groups, such as Latvian citizens who have become citizens of European Union or NATO defense alliance member states.

It is unacceptable, the justice minister said, that Latvians have been denied citizenship because of a formality: the restriction against dual citizenship.

“The Latvian state has a responsibility to keep in mind and to not lose its link to Latvians throughout the world,” B?rzi?š said in the press release.

Among other recommendations to the Legal Affairs committee is support for granting dual citizenship to children born outside of Latvia, even if just one of the parents is a Latvian citizen. This amendment to the Citizenship Law, according to B?rzi?š, is one of great interest to the tens of thousands of recent emigrants to Ireland and Great Britain.

Meanwhile, the Zatlers Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu partija) announced Dec. 13 that it will push for an amendment to the Citizenship Law that will automatically grant Latvian citizenship to children born of non-citizens. Under the current law, non-citizen parents can apply for citizenship for their newborn children. While he was still Latvia’s president, party leader Valdis Zatlers in February proposed to the 10th Saeima that the granting of citizenship be automatic, and instead that non-citizen parents could apply to renounce their child’s Latvian citizenship.

“At this time, when individual politicians because of their unrealized political ambitions are ready to split Latvian society, we need more than ever to try to reach mutual trust and understanding,” party spokeswoman Daiga Holma said in a press release. “The situation that more than 20 years after regaining independence we still have non-citizens giving birth to new non-citizens has fostered society’s mutual distrust and resentment.”

About 319,000 residents of Latvia are non-citizens, according to the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (Pilson?bas un migr?cijas lietu p?rvalde, or PMLP).
Support for the diaspora

In another matter, the Cabinet of Ministers in a letter to the Saeima’s Citizenship Law Implementation Committee (Pilson?bas likuma izpildes komisija) reiterated the government’s support for the Latvian diaspora, noting that it is one of the goals of the Principles of National Identity, Civil Society and Integration, 2012-2018 (Nacion?l?s identit?tes, pilsonisk?s sabiedr?bas un integr?cijas pamatnost?dnes 2012.-2018. gadam). The document, drafted by the Ministry of Culture, was approved by the cabinet in October.

Among goals for 2012-2013, according to the letter from Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, is resolving the dual citizenship question, creation of register of citizens, education programs about Latvian culture for children and youths, support for weekend schools, eliminating discrimination in the Latvian labor market against those who do not speak Russian, and organizing summer camps in Latvia.

The national identity document also foresees creation of a board of advisors that would be charged with overseeing progress toward the goals.

The letter from the prime minister also suggests that the diaspora could help foster export markets for Latvian businesses.

In addition, the letter notes, a new Law on Repatriation is being prepared. The current law dates from 1995. According to data from the PMLP, since the law was enacted a total of 5,936 persons have reptriated to Latvia. Under the new law, according to the letter, opportunities for repatriation would be broadened, both for persons who have emigrated, as well as those who were born abroad.

The Foreign Ministry is charged with developing concrete plans for cooperation with the diaspora. Those plans, the letter concludes, are to be submitted to the government by June.

(Updated 13 DEC 2011 with information about Zatlers Reform Party’s proposal.)