Not just a simple twist of fate: statelessness in Lithuania and Latvia

Jo Venkov, Lawyer and writer on statelessness, identity, citizenship and belonging
/ 6 mins read

Statelessness seems to just happen to people, doesn’t it? Quirky circumstances of birth, unexpected conflict causing people to migrate, state boundaries changing: all contribute to the 10 million stateless individuals around the world. It is easy to forget that the decisions states make about how they treat those within their borders are a major cause of statelessness. In fact, the nationality laws of a state and the eligibility criteria for citizenship can have just as much of an impact, if not more, on the creation of stateless people as those twists of fate that are usually associated with statelessness.

One way to get a sense of the huge impact that a state can have on statelessness within its boundaries is to compare two states which share a similar history but which, when it comes to citizenship rights, have taken divergent paths.  As neighbours and as part of the Former Soviet Union, Lithuania and Latvia have much in common. But after independence from the Soviet Union, only one of those countries chose to use its nationality laws to prevent the unnecessary creation of stateless persons within their borders.

Reviving, not becoming - citizenship laws in Lithuania and Latvia

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, Lithuania and Latvia regained their independence.  Interestingly, both states argued they were not becoming independent from the Soviet Union, but rather they were returning to their former selves and re-asserting their dormant sovereignty following a fifty year-long illegal occupation. In other words, the independence originally achieved in 1918 at the end of the First World War had been suspended in 1940 by the actions of the Soviet Union and was subsequently returned to each country on the break-up of the Union.  Both Lithuania and Latvia argued that since each had regained its former independence, the citizenship laws in place at the time of the start of the occupation could be revived. 

Lithuania before independence

Since the 1940s Lithuania (like Latvia) had been subject to the assimilation practices of the Soviet Union.  To strengthen the Union, ethnic and regional languages were suppressed, and the Russian language promoted. Incentives were given to Russians to move to the Baltic States to start a new life there and to change permanently the demographic of the population.   Lithuania had the smaller number of ethnic Russian residents (at 9%) after breaking away from the Soviet Union, in comparison to 33% of the population in Latvia. 

Lithuania after independence

After independence, a Lithuanian resident could be naturalised and become a citizen on two reasonably straightforward conditions. The first is that the individual had been a resident of Lithuania for ten years. The second is that they were prepared to swear an oath of loyalty. As a result, 90% of the ethnic Russian population was eligible to take up Lithuanian citizenship using the revived original law.

One of the reasons that Lithuania, in contrast to Latvia, was able to resolve the citizenship issue more quickly is that it granted automatic citizenship to all persons who had been Lithuanian citizens at the start of the occupation in 1940. Their descendants, too, would be eligible.  A second reason was that a treaty with Russia was agreed dealing with Russian citizens. Under the Treaty, Russian citizens who came to Lithuania between the passage of the Citizenship Law in November 1989 and the signing of the treaty could also claim citizenship on the same terms as the pre-1989 residents. According to a 2016 UNHCR report mapping statelessness in Lithuania, as of July 2016 there were about 3,400 stateless people in the country. Many more would have found themselves in that situation if Lithuania had not taken steps to prevent more people becoming stateless.

Latvia’s nationality laws

In contrast to Lithuania, Latvia granted automatic citizenship only to those who were Latvian residents prior to the incorporation of their country into the Soviet Union.  For everyone else, Latvia applied the jus sanguinis principle under which citizenship is determined by whether one or both parents are/were citizens of that state (in contrast to the jus solis principle where citizenship is determined by place of birth).  Under Article 2 of the Citizenship Law of Latvia 1994, citizenship can be granted to those persons whose parents (or parent) are citizens of the Latvian state. As it stands, Latvian nationality law creates a situation where children that were born in Latvia, but whose parents are either stateless or (more commonly) Russian citizens, are not entitled to Latvian citizenship.

Latvia’s ‘non-citizens’

Latvia did create a special status of “non-citizens” which might allow stateless persons to become naturalised Latvian citizens.  Around 230,000 people (approximately 12% of Latvia's population) are classified as 'non-citizens'. Not only are non-citizens excluded from most political participation and have limited political rights, but there is also evidence that they face discrimination in the labour market, as well as being barred from applying for positions in government institutions and the civil service. Non-citizens also face strict conditions if they want to be naturalised as Latvian citizens. For example, they need to prove knowledge of the Latvian language and the country's history.  This is a particularly difficult condition to meet for ethnic Russians residing within Latvia’s borders. They often live in segregated communities using Russian as their everyday language. 

Some progress has been made in relation to the children of Latvia's non-citizens. Changes to the Citizenship Law of 2013 mean that all children born after August 1991 can be granted citizenship at birth registration if at least one of parent consents. However, this does not resolve the fate of children born between Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union and the changes in the Citizenship Law. UNHCR and OSCE pleaded with Latvia to find a way to grant citizenship to those who fall through the gap, but as the European Network on Statelessness reported, Latvia's parliament did not agree.

Citizenship for Russian military veterans and their families

Lithuania’s approach to citizenship entitlement reduced the number of individuals at risk of being stateless. The effect was especially felt as a result of the more relaxed approach to Russian military veterans and their families who remained in the state after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Military veterans and their families were not precluded from taking up Lithuanian citizenship on independence.

By contrast, many Russian military veterans and their families who remained in Latvia would have met the requirements for permanent resident status but were specifically treated as ineligible.  Latvian law refuses resident status to individuals who have "acted against the state". Members of the Russian armed forces who were posted to Latvia between 1940 and 1990 are considered to be such individuals. This treatment is also extended to their family members.  Latvia has even gone so far as removing to Russia a Latvian born family member of a Russian Military Officer, despite the European Court of Human Rights finding that this constitutes a breach of their human rights

Learn from thy neighbour?

The contrasting approach to naturalisation and citizenship taken by Latvia and Lithuania following the break-up of the Soviet Union shows that a shared history does not necessarily result in the same outcomes.  Where Lithuania used nationality laws to draw in those 'outsiders' that had chosen to remain on its territory, Latvia chose a different route. It closed off the option of citizenship to many and created a category of 'non-citizens' to keep at arm's length.   It is not too late for Latvia to emulate its Baltic neighbour and make the right choice to end the cycle of statelessness within its borders.

Jo regularly posts on legal aspect of identity such as statelessness, citizenship, documentation and belonging or not belonging on her blog The Torn Identity. You can also follow her on Twitter.
Related topics