“Non-Citizens” of the Baltics: Common Misconceptions explained

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By a Latvian non-citizen
/ 8 mins read

To this day, there are approximately 300,000 non-citizens in the Baltics, in Estonia and Latvia. In contrast to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania does not have any non-citizens of its own, as it did not renege on its political assurances to provide access to citizenship at the time of independence.

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The Freedom Monument, Riga, Latvia.
The Freedom Monument. Riga, Latvia.

In the following piece I will focus on four common misconceptions about non-citizens in the Baltics. Aside from how I have personally encountered these misconceptions along with other non-citizens, the misconceptions are also commonly presented by political commentators.  Unfortunately, even commentators who write in support of non-citizens and other stateless people are liable to propagate these misconceptions, such as discussed here.

Misconception #1: Non-citizens are ethnic Russians with a Russian nationality

It is true that many non-citizens in the Baltics identify as having Russian ethnicity, but in practice non-citizens do not have Russian nationality, do not have access to the rights associated with a Russian nationality and do not have any other nationality. Estonian and Latvian authorities have encouraged non-citizens to declare a nationality in their non-citizen passports, yet this is a blank formality devoid of any substance, granting no nationality rights whatsoever. Although this can allow the authorities to claim, misleadingly, that non-citizens enjoy a right to a nationality, as well as civil and political rights akin to those of other citizens.   

In terms of ethnicity, it is important to note that non-citizens in the Baltics are ethnically diverse. Besides people who identify as ethnic Russians, there are many who identify as ethnically Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, or with ethnic roots in the Caucasus. Even some ethnic Latvians are non-citizens; although today numbering only 470 by official statistics, approximately 40,000 ethnic Latvians were made stateless when the country became independent. Considering that many of the families in the Baltics are ethnically mixed, it is not surprising that about one-tenth of non-citizens do not consider having any specific ethnicity.

Misconception #2: The Soviet migrants that moved to the Baltics were forcibly relocated to the Baltics

Non-citizens in the Baltics are often labelled as occupiers or Soviet-era settlers—terms that non-citizens consider highly insulting and not reflective of accurate history.

I started to research this topic six years ago out of curiosity as to why the claims that Soviet migrants were forcefully relocated to the Baltics never included citations. As part of this research, I reached out to respected historians in the field and was surprised to learn that things are not as they are portrayed. Unlike the British Empire in Australia, the Soviet Union did not use the Baltics as an exile destination—they had Siberia for that.

Soviet authorities were very sensitive to ethnic imbalances, and none of the Soviet Republics were eager to lose their own people. The Baltics were an exception for encouraging migration policy, in how they were well positioned for capital investment but had one key issue: labour shortages.  This is an issue that continues to plague the region to this day, with Baltic countries continuing to draw the needed labour from the same countries as they did during the Soviet rule. The main difference today is the difficulty for migrants to stay on a permanent basis.

Just like today, historically Soviet migrants came to the Baltics largely due to labour opportunities. Other Soviet Republics directly cooperated with the migration, through the Soviet system of raspredelenye: when a graduate of higher education finished studies, he or she had a choice of where to go for initial employment. Those who had better grades chose first. The Baltics, with their appealing nature and notable capital investments from the USSR, were seen as a favourable destination and hence received the most promising graduates.

The raspredelenye migration was not planned as permanent, as this would have meant a brain drain for the country of origin.  In fact, the Soviet authorities were concerned about the opposite: that the migrants would not want to stay away from home and their families. Therefore there was a requirement that the migrant stay a minimum of three years. It was designed as a win-win situation:  the recipient country would alleviate its dire labour shortage while the sending country would gain back an experienced workforce.  What the authorities miscalculated is that if you make someone stay in another country for at least three years, some may decide to bring their family to join them rather than go back home. (Phenomenon many ethnic Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians are familiar with from own experience, as they have formed a notable diaspora in Western countries).

It is important to note that some people were indeed forcefully relocated to the Baltics, such as victims of Nazi Germany, particularly those sent to concentration camps. When the Soviet Union liberated the concentration camps, these victims usually had nowhere to go because their villages were razed and inhabitants brutally murdered. When the Baltic countries became independent, these people would also become non-citizens.

Misconception #3: It is not a problem for non-citizens to go through naturalisation

Authorities in the Baltics like to point out that non-citizens now have the chance to go through a naturalisation process and gain citizenship. This is a right that was not initially available to non-citizens, and in large part became available due to Baltic countriesaspirations to join the European Union. In order to properly understand this topic, one must understand its complex history as well as the non-citizen perspective itself.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the formation of independent governments, a central reason why non-citizens became non-citizens was the fear held by nationalists that these minorities would vote “for the ‘wrong’ parties or people.” That fear is still present today. Nationalists are not eager to give voting rights to people who will not vote for them. This has an influence on the naturalisation process, its requirements, and difficulty.

Statistically speaking, most people that do take the naturalisation exam are likely to fail it. Yet many non-citizens categorically refuse to even consider naturalisation in its current form as a matter of principle rather than difficulty. Lacking access to the perspective of non-citizens, this is something Western observers often fail to understand.

The key reasons for why non-citizens do not undergo naturalisation in the Baltics can be summarised in the following way (this list is by no means complete): 

  1. Prior to independence, Baltic countries encouraged minorities to vote for independence and made declarations that any long-term residents would gain equal access to citizenship. These promises are still remembered by non-citizens, who remain wary of the authorities and claim a vested right to citizenship by fact of birth, belonging, local upbringing and vocational contribution to the society.
  2. Naturalisation has certain politicized elements that deter non-citizens, such as requiring the naturalisation candidate to equate those involved with the Red Army with the Nazis. Given the sacrifices made by the Soviet people in WWII, which are still deeply rooted in collective memory, it is not easy for non-citizens to make an oath that their ancestors were as bad as the Nazis that they fought against. Non-citizens refuse to go through naturalisation due to such requirements, which they interpret as negatively oriented toward their community and perspectives therein. 
  3. Specific requirements like having a reliable source of income has always excluded non-citizens, particularly as non-citizens have been legally barred from numerous fields of work. In addition, there are restrictions on language that deter employment and retention of employment. The language police that do on-site compliance checks of the strict language regulations are much dreaded by minorities that are not native speakers.
  4. Young non-citizens often undergo the naturalisation process so that they can obtain the right to equal employment opportunities and be able to settle abroad. This requires learning a difficult language, passing the politicized naturalisation exam and overlooking historical injustices,—just so that they can leave the country! It is a paradox that requires serious cognitive dissonance to overcome.

Given its politicized nature, naturalisation in the Baltics should not be assumed to be similar to naturalisation in Western countries. The Council of Europe along with other EU institutions and international organisations have recognized this issue and has been encouraging Estonia and Latvia to adjust its naturalisation to make it reasonable and fair to minorities. Considering that the EU ascension process of the two countries has been completed,  this no longer holds much sway in practice.

Misconception #4: Non-citizens are not stateless, and they enjoy rights that are equal to citizens' rights

This misconception is propagated primarily by authorities in Latvia rather than Estonia. In Latvia, the official stance is that the country never made anybody stateless and that non-citizens are not stateless but are simply not citizens of this country or any other. In similar fashion, it is also stressed that non-citizens have essentially” the same rights as citizens, despite the numerous discriminatory laws in place. It is evident that the Latvian authorities feel embarrassed about the situation and therefore feel the need to sugar coat it in a Kafkaesque way.

Just because certain political elements refuse to recognize a spade as a spade does not mean that the spade is not a spade. A states denial of making its own people stateless is nothing new. Indeed, it is something shared across the world in the major cases of statelessness like Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, the Ivory Coast, Kuwait and Bahrain. Perhaps the problem is in political realism: in states lacking a higher authority, accordingly not having anyone to answer to for own misconduct.

It is long-term stability that should be sought. It is honourable when a state can face its mistakes and take responsibility, a quality that can only be found in mature democracies. To that end, states across the world have an obligation to recognize the denial of statelessness for what it is and not refuse aid to stateless individuals. There are a number of concrete steps that the international community can take:

  1. Raise awareness on statelessness and recognize the issue of state obscurement.
  2. Have states sign and ratify the relevant statelessness international conventions.
  3. Have states maintain functional Statelessness Determination Procedures to help those in plight.
  4. Support the stateless in their right to a voice and basic human rights.
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