Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Moscow Again Tries to Put the Issue of Non-Citizens in Latvia in Play

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 16 – Russians, both citizens and non-citizens in Latvia and Estonia, have had the unique right to travel both to other European Union countries and to the Russian Federation without a visa, something that has attracted some Russians to move there in order to have that advantage.

            But now Moscow appears to have changed the rules: On August 10, it blocked a young Russian without Latvian citizenship who was born after 1992 from entering the Russian Federation, with border guards declaring that such people could do so only if they had a Russian visa, something not hitherto required (rosbalt.ru/world/2016/08/16/1541216.html).

            The Latvian foreign ministry has issued an advisory to such people who may be planning to visit the Russian Federation to check with updated information on the site of the Russian embassy in Riga.  To date, however, neither the embassy nor the Russian Foreign ministry has confirmed this as Moscow’s new policy.

             As will be recalled, the three Baltic countries were occupied by the Soviet Union and thus under no legal obligation to offer citizenship to those moved onto their territories by the occupiers. That meant that in the early 1990s, the share of non-citizens was far higher than it is today: most Russians living there have chosen to take citizenship in their country of residence.

According to the most recent statistics, 84.13 percent of Latvia’s population are now citizens, with only 11.75 percent (252,017) being non-citizens and 2.61 percent citizens of Russia (pmlp.gov.lv/lv/assets/documents/statistika/IRD2016/ISVP_Latvija_pec_VPD.pdf). The situation in Estonia is similar.

There, 84.2 percent of the residents of Estonia are citizens of that country, with non-citizens forming only six percent (80,754) and citizens of the Russian Federation seven percent (90,657) (estonia.eu/about-estonia/society/citizenship.html). If these trends continue, this issue will disappear within a decade.

            Why then might the Russian government be taking this step now and is it an indicator of Moscow’s more general policies toward the Baltic countries? There appear to be at least three reasons for this action if it does in fact prove to be a new policy rather than a simple glitch and one additional reason for thinking it will backfire on its Russian authors.

            First of all, Moscow may be trying to call attention to the issue of non-citizenship both among younger ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia in the hopes for causing them to become more pro-Moscow than they have become in recent years and in the West where some commentators and politicians have sought to play up this issue against the Baltic states.

            Second, Moscow may have decided that it would prefer an “Estonian” rather than a “Latvian” outcome, one in which non-citizens increasingly choose to become citizens of the Russian Federation rather than citizens of their state of residence and thus give the Russian government additional leverage inside these countries.

            And third, Moscow may be uncomfortable with the ability of such people to move back and forth between Russia and the EU. While that is something many non-citizens and Russian citizens in the Baltic countries value, it is inconsistent with “the besieged fortress” that Vladimir Putin has portrayed Russia as now being.

            Those are all likely to be compelling reasons for some in the Russian capital, but ultimately Moscow may decide to back down because this policy is likely to backfire. On the one hand, more non-citizens in Latvia and Estonia are now likely to choose Latvian or Estonian citizenship rather than Russian citizenship given that the EU is far more attractive than the RF.

            And on the other, the introduction of such visa requirements will have the effect of reducing the ties between Russians living in Latvia and Estonia regardless of citizenship status and Russians in the Russian Federation, effectively cutting them off from Putin’s much-ballyhooed “Russian world.”

            Indeed, the Russian government may recognize that this step, which may seem desirable to them for some reasons, will end by helping both Riga and Tallinn to integrate ethnic Russians there, making them more Latvian or Estonian -- even if some of them retain many aspects of their Russian culture.

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