“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

A European Without a Country

16 September 2020 | Aleksejs Ivashuk

Minorities in Latvia

I am European, but I am not a citizen of the country where I was born or of any other country.

I was born in Riga, Latvia in the former USSR. My mother’s parents had relatives there and moved to start a new life. My father came to Latvia at a young age for the country’s esteemed marine education, completing his studies in marine mechanics. Although migration within the USSR was not easy, the Baltics lacked labour power and had to draw workers from the east (a practice that is alive today, albeit with stricter restrictions on who can stay). Many former Soviet migrants have similar stories to my family, migrating to fill labour specializations, consequently becoming part of minority groups in the Baltics.

Popular Front, a movement that came to power to promote an independent Latvia, recognised that they needed support from minorities to achieve independence from the Soviet Union. Official promises were made by the Popular Front that there would be continued equality and coexistence between people in the post-Soviet order, and that everyone who lived in Latvia for at least ten years would gain equal citizenship. Overall, minorities came out in support of independence and were supportive of the democratic ideals proposed.

After independence, ethnic minorities in Latvia were shocked to find out that the promises of equality would not be fulfilled. Instead, a “non-citizen” status was given to those who could not prove that they or their ancestors had Latvian citizenship from the country’s first period of independence (1918-1940). This new approach was so restrictive that it even produced some cases of ethnic Latvians being deprived of citizenship.

Seeing how little chance of a fair future her children had, my mother took me and my brother to the United States. Although grateful for the land of opportunity, my family was never able to truly feel at home on the new continent. We had felt at home in Latvia, but this was taken away from us.

Return to Europe

After many years in the U.S. and Canada, I found myself returning to Europe on a more frequent basis, gradually realising that I belonged in Europe. In early 2016, I made one of the most difficult choices in my life: to move back to Europe for good and start from scratch, despite my ominous status of being a stateless European. In part, I was naïve and positive, underestimating the discrimination that I would face, and overestimating Europe’s dedication to the values of non-discrimination and minority rights.

I moved back initially to Latvia to see my relatives, but soon after to Poland, where I found a job with Thomson Reuters. Right away, I experienced people’s confusion about my Latvian non-citizen passport. The Reuters’ HR department, as well as the Polish immigration officials that they were in touch with, were baffled by such an anomaly. Eventually, I was asked if I was born in Latvia. This was deemed sufficient for my employment and I did not have to resort to another part of the Polish labour law that was relevant in my case – of being a close family member of an EU citizen (my father is a Latvian citizen). But the concern that I could be deported due to an alternative interpretation of my status was always with me. Whenever I received a letter, I would feel a chill running through my spine, thinking that the letter may be a deportation order or worse. I have met other non-citizens who moved abroad and were not so lucky with the authorities’ interpretation of their status.

After finishing my contract with Reuters in Poland, I was upbeat about having an established precedent of working in an EU country. I successfully reached out to numerous employers throughout the EU, but after explaining my status during interviews I found that many potential employers would suddenly disappear. Some withdrew their offers, explaining that they did not understand my status and were no longer interested. Whenever I read an employer’s recruitment non-discrimination policy claiming to hire “without regard to gender, race, colour, religion and beliefs nor to ethnic or social origin or to nationality,” I could not help feeling a tinge of cynicism. There are reasons why only 0.7% of Latvian non-citizens have moved abroad, despite the disadvantages faced at home.

Non-citizen status

The root of the problem lies in how minorities in the Baltics are legally defined. In Latvia and Estonia, those who do not have citizenship are not considered as national minorities. Accordingly, no national minority rights are afforded to them. In effect, non-citizens are not allowed an existence as a people until they go through a naturalisation procedure that they find demeaning for historical and moral reasons. It is a catch-22 situation that limits naturalisation and reinforces the ethnic divide. In my view, the refusal of minority rights is disturbing and has no place in Europe that is home to so many minorities and cultures. Although the EU has raised official concerns regarding this situation, in practice the definitions used by Latvia and Estonia are tacitly accepted within the EU regulatory framework, contrary to its principles of non-discrimination.

Another key issue with having a non-citizen’s status, particularly abroad, is how unprecedented this status is, and how it is laden with Kafkaesque contradictions. According to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of the Stateless Persons, stateless people are “individuals who are not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Those who received a non-citizen’s passport in the Baltics fit this definition. However, Latvia and Estonia adamantly deny that they are responsible for making people stateless, arguing that the non-citizen’s status gives some advantages that stateless people usually lack. There is nonetheless a problem with this logic, as a provision of limited perks to a stateless person does not make the person any less stateless (not to mention that these perks are there for economic rather than egalitarian or humane reasons). Although a non-citizen may declare a nationality, which is then noted in the non-citizen’s passport, in reality this declaration is a mere formality, providing no rights to the holder. If a person declared “Ukrainian” as their nationality in their non-citizen’s passport, this does not mean that the person enjoys any additional rights. This person would still need a visa to visit Ukraine, while a Latvian citizen does not.

The conflicting interpretations of non-citizen status generate confusion, even for the authorities in charge of the status. For example, in 2005, the Constitutional Court of Latvia ruled that Latvian non-citizens are not to be regarded as citizens, aliens or stateless persons, but as people with a “specific legal status.” Aside from how such a clarification failed to clarify anything, terms such as “alien” are still in the passports of non-citizens. It seems easier for authorities to tell us what we are not rather than what we are.

Conclusion

Perhaps this may sound strange, but after all the problems that my status has given me, I do not regret having experienced it. It has taught me many things about human beings, our values and failings therein. It has forced me to learn from different people and cultures rather than relying on one place and way. It has built invisible barricades, but at the same time it has taught me that no barricades in life are impossible to climb. It has developed my character and driven my motivation in life like nothing else. Still, I would not wish this status on anyone. I was lucky that I had support from family, friends and strangers; that my own character developed in such a way as to be encouraged by a challenge rather than be crushed by it. Walking through the streets of Riga, seeing Latvian minorities disproportionately represented among destitute people, I know that I am a lucky exception. It is one of the central reasons why I cannot revoke my status, until other less fortunate souls that share this status are also free from it.

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