Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

Baltic States Faulted for Discriminating Against Minorities

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Mar 16 2011 (IPS) - A large ethnic Russian minority population in Latvia and Estonia, which joined the European Union (EU) along with Lithuania in 2004, has repeatedly complained of discrimination and denial of political and social rights by the three Baltic governments.

This includes denial of citizenship, which in practice entails denial of employment, because those who do not possess Latvian or Estonian citizenship are not considered eligible for employment – a situation which both Russia and international organisations fault.

Heiko Pääbo, head of the Centre for Baltic Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia, explained that Estonian and Latvian governments categorised people who came to their territories after the Soviet occupation in 1940 as ‘immigrants’, and that only after 1991 could they be naturalised as citizens of Estonia or Latvia.

The two republics attained full independence after the 1991 failed coup attempt in the Soviet Union which fragmented into the Russian Federation and 10 other independent republics that constitute a loose Commonwealth of Independent States.

Russian authorities have done little to promote social integration in Estonia and Latvia. On the contrary they have been an impediment, often advancing ungrounded statements and facts, and reiterating that the Russian minority faces discrimination, Pääbo believes.

Instead of reiterating complaints, Russian authorities should encourage their citizens to learn the Baltic languages and to apply for citizenship, he says, regretting that policies directed at solving the problem have been rather counterproductive.

“For example,” added Pääbo, “some years ago Russia stopped requesting visas from ‘non-citizens’ of Baltic States travelling to Russia. As much as they can also travel inside the EU without visas, this policy has decreased motivation to apply for Estonian or Latvian citizenship because Estonians and Latvians should apply for Russian visas but without that citizenship they shouldn’t.

“Considering that many of them have relatives in Russia, their motivation to visit Russia is relatively high. Therefore, I consider that the Russian attitude towards this issue is a crucial factor that impedes integration in the Estonian and Latvian societies,” Pääbo stated.

Victor Ivanovich Gushchin, coordinator of the Association of Non-governmental Organisations of Latvia, said the core factor in this situation was that Latvian aliens were not non-citizens (citizens of third states) in the European concept, but stateless persons.

“No doubt that creation of such alien institutions leads to developing a legislation which discriminates against minorities,” he said.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, thousands of members of the Russian minority in the Baltics, especially in Latvia where the problem is getting worse, have launched a united campaign to be recognised as citizens and also for the Russian language to be adopted as a second national language in the region, but with few positive results.

Vadim Poleshchuk, a human rights expert with the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, told IPS that there is a significant difference between the terms “ethnic Russians”, “citizens of Russia” and “Russian-speakers”, which the media and academic institutions often use interchangeably.

For instance in Estonia there are ethnic Russians (about 25 percent), Russian citizens (some seven percent) and Russian-speakers (about 30 percent of the entire population). In Latvia Russians comprise about 28 percent of the population and Russian-speakers some 32 percent. Lithuania hosts about six percent Russians, Poleshchuk said in an email response.

“In Estonia and Latvia people who settled there during the Soviet period were not recognised automatically as citizens of Estonia or citizens of Latvia. In 1992 these people were about one-third of all population. They were permitted to naturalise (with some exceptions),” he explained.

“But many people could not naturalise mostly because they did not speak good Estonian or Latvian which is one of the requirements. In both republics, language tests need to be passed before naturalisation and this is a great problem for older generations. Nevertheless, half of all minorities in Estonia and Latvia are now citizens of the country of residence,” he added.

The High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ambassador Knut Vollebaek, told IPS in an email response from Vienna that non-discrimination and protection of rights of persons belonging to national minorities is an important commitment undertaken by the OSCE member states.

There is definitely a lot of work to be done all over the OSCE region, including in the Baltic states and in Russia, to implement the political commitments undertaken within the OSCE framework and to ensure that the situation involving national minorities does not lead to tensions and/or escalate to a wider conflict, he said.

“My goal is to develop a process of exchange and cooperation between all the stakeholders, including the authorities and civil society. My predecessors and I have been engaged on issues involving national minorities in Latvia and Estonia,” Vollebaek added.

An official statement by Russia’s Foreign Ministry reflects Moscow’s insistence that Estonia and Latvia comply with international resolutions against racial and ethnic discrimination, and stop denying nationality rights to many of their ethnic Russians. Moscow is seeking help on the issue from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the statement informed.

In addition, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had urged the European Union to review the human rights implications of its current policy in the Baltic States, and warned against “double standards,” the statement pointed out.

Putin had urged the EU to ensure that Riga and Tallinn follow the recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, to ensure equal rights to minorities who have been living in the country for a long time, and for those who arrived within the last decade, the statement said.

He had also called for compliance with the EU Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Discrimination against Russian minorities has been discussed repeatedly by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or PACE, the OSCE, the European Parliament and even by the UN Commission on Racial Discrimination. All of them have stressed the need to make the Baltic laws commensurate with international standards and human rights provisions in the European Union.

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