Latvian citizenship changes: “Exceptions do not make the rule”

Dace Akule, Centre for Public Policy PROVIDUS, MIPEX national partner for Latvia

Thomas Huddleston, Migration Policy Group

On 6 September, the Latvian parliament adopted amendments in second reading to the Citizenship law that has been unchanged since 1998. The amendments include limited dual citizenship and easing procedures for the naturalisation of children born to Latvia’s non-citizens. If approved in final reading, the new law should be in force as of January 2013. However, it includes only minor improvements for the integration of third country nationals.

Dual citizenship

Until now, people had to renounce their original citizenship to become Latvian citizens, unless the person received citizenship for special merits. According to the amendments, dual citizenship will be allowed to persons acquiring Latvian citizenship via naturalisation, if they come from:

  • the member states of the EU, European Free Trade Area and NATO,
  • countries having signed an agreement with Latvia on recognizing dual citizenship.

The person will also be able to keep dual citizenship if the other citizenship is acquired as a result of adoption or marriage, or if a special permission is given by the government.

Exemptions for dual citizenship are important and exist in several Central European countries, according to MIPEX. Still, dual nationality is allowed for naturalising foreign residents in other half the EU countries, in countries ranging from Finland and Sweden in the North, the Mediterranean countries in the South, and Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia in Central Europe.

The exemptions to be approved in the Latvian Citizenship law are a very small step towards dual nationality for most third country nationals living in the country because neither the citizens of Russia, nor Ukraine or Belarus (top countries that immigrants come from) are covered by them (e.g. approximately 1.4% of Latvia’s population or over 36 thousand persons are Russian citizens). The situation could improve if the parliament was to support the suggestion of the opposition Harmony Centre – allowing dual citizenship with member states of the Council of Europe, or if Latvian government would include signing special agreements on dual citizenship with these countries among its priorities for immigrant integration policy.

 

Non-citizens’ children

According to the amendments, in order to register Latvian citizenship of an infant child born to Latvian non-citizens, a request of only one parent would be necessary (at the moment, a request by both parents is required). In the future the agreement to register the infant child for Latvian citizenship will take place at the same time when the fact of birth is registered (this was not specified in the current law), or until the child has reached the age of 15. In the age of 15-18 the person can apply by him/herself, after proving Latvian language knowledge; after the age of 18 the normal naturalisation procedure applies.

Discussions are continuing on the requirement that the parent would have to confirm his/her commitment to help the child learn Latvian and develop respect for Latvia, when registering the child for Latvian citizenship. Even though a very similar request is already included in the Citizenship law, Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs suggests erasing this point in the final reading.

Provisions regarding the citizenship of infants born to Latvia’s non-citizens are no doubt a major improvement to avoid the long-term democratic exclusion of these children. However, this provision will not have an effect on the Latvian-born children of people who immigrated to Latvia after it regained independence in 1991. If this amendment were simply applied to the children of permanent residents living in Latvia, then it would make a substantial improvement for future immigrant integration.

As European countries recognise themselves as countries of immigration, the reform trend in naturalisation is to introduce some form of conditional ius soli (birthright citizenship) to all children born on the territory, either at birth based on the legal status of the parents or after birth based on the child’s years of residence or school attendance. According to MIPEX, such a reform would mean that eligibility for access to Latvian nationality would no longer be wholly unfavourable for immigrant integration:

Withdrawal of citizenship

 In the third reading coalition party Nationalistic alliance has proposed adding another reason why a citizenship may be subtracted – if a person “knowingly and significantly violates the promise to be faithful to the Republic of Latvia that he/ she made when becoming a Latvian citizen”. In addition, Nationalistic alliance suggests tripling the ‘trial period’ for citizens, increasing the time when a state can ‘take away’ citizenship after a person becomes Latvian citizen from 10 years to 30 years. If this amendment would be approved, it would have no effect on Latvia’s evaluation in MIPEX because Latvia already scores zero points in terms of the security of citizenship status. The procedure already allows the government a very wide discretion in the acquisition and loss of citizenship in cases of naturalisation:

The security of citizenship status would also not be improved if Latvia passes the proposal for the Cabinet of Ministers to refuse granting citizenship to a person who could with his/ her behaviour or action cause threat to the security of the state, public order or constitutional values included in country’s constitution. Parliamentarians seem determined to pass these norms despite the fact that several security institutions have expressed their doubts whether they would be able to conduct these checks of the naturalisation candidates.

 

Naturalisation procedure

In the third reading one parliamentarian proposes to double the residence time requirement for naturalisation candidates – the person would have to live in Latvia on a permanent residence permit at least 10 years (instead of the 5 years requirement currently in place) to be an eligible candidate for citizenship. Should this proposal be passed, Latvia would impose the longest residence requirement of all major countries of immigration, even Switzerland. It would not improve Latvia’s evaluation in MIPEX as Latvia already scores 0 points in terms of the eligibility for first generation immigrants and their Latvian-born children. The current requirement of 5 years of permanent residence in practice already means at least 10 years of residence in the country before a person is eligible to naturalise (because the person needs to live in Latvia for at least 5 years to be eligible for a permanent residence permit, and then needs to wait another 5 years to qualify for naturalisation).

Latvia’s evaluation in MIPEX would improve with regard to the eligibility for first generation immigrants and their Latvian-born children, if the parliament would support the proposal of Harmony Centre to grant the right of citizenship to high school graduates – persons with permanent residence in Latvia, without the citizenship of another country, if he/ she has after May 1990 acquired a diploma of primary or secondary school (after no less than 8 years of studies).

 

Easing the naturalisation tests

Proposals supported in the second reading also include several groups of people who will no longer have to undergo naturalisation tests. In addition to the groups already exempted from these tests (e.g. people with special needs and people over the age of 65), tests on Latvian constitution, anthem, history and Latvian language knowledge will be waived for permanent residents having acquired basic education in Latvian language (with at least 50% of the school courses in Latvian), high school or professional high school (secondary) education in Latvian.

According to the supported proposals, the Latvian language tests will also be waived for persons who have acquired:

  • A certificate acknowledging Latvian language knowledge for specific professions, the acquisition of permanent residence permit or EU permanent resident status (B and C levels of language knowledge),
  • A proof of having passed (after June 2012) centralized exams in Latvian language (for accredited bilingual schools for exams for 9th grade) with no less than 50% of correct answers; or centralized exams in Latvian language (for accredited bilingual high schools for exams at the final 12th grade) with no less than 40% of correct answers.
  • A diploma of a university education in Latvian.

These exemptions introduce a necessary flexibility to the naturalisation test, but they will not improve the test itself, which could be re-examined and administered purely by language specialists.

Discussions are ongoing on the language level required to acquire Latvian citizenship, with some parliamentarians suggesting stricter requirements. However, the current level (B1) is one the highest in Europe (only Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Germany also have such high requirements). In contrast, A2, a more realistic level, is sufficient in a wide variety of MIPEX countries across Europe (e.g. Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands and Portugal), while the UK provides two options: either a test (at B1 level) or a course where only progress is required from one level to another.

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