On Oct. 1, the recently adopted law on dual citizenship came into effect in Latvia.This law has the potential to affect thousands of people, including many readers of Latvians Online.
Practically, the law affects two categories of people:
- For exiles from Latvia or their successors, it means they can have dual citizenship of both Latvia and their host county; this replaces the earlier arrangement where Latvia in general did not recognize dual citizenship and one had to renounce one’s other citizenship in order to take up Latvian citizenship.
- For those who already have Latvian citizenship, it makes it legal to obtain dual citizenship with a wide range of countries, without giving up Latvian citizenship.
Some history is in order, to understand why this has come about.
Traditionally Latvia, like many other countries still around the world, did not recognize dual citizenship. Its basic citizenship law dates from that adopted in 1919, when dual citizenship was prohibited.
This policy line was followed when Latvian citizenship became an issue again after regaining independence in 1991, when dual citizenship continued to not be allowed, with one major exception.
The exception was for those who had gone into exile in the West during World War II, and were outside Latvia during the long years of Soviet occupation. The basis of Latvian citizenship law post-USSR was that Latvia, like Estonia, counted as citizens all those who had been citizens in 1940, at the time of Soviet takeover, plus their descendants. Exiles thus were theoretically Latvian citizens, but many had taken up citizenship in other countries. Thus, to make this a limited and controllable exception, the 1994 adopted Citizenship Law allowed exiles to renew Latvian citizenship provided they registered by July 1995, thus making them the only ones with dual citizenship. After this time, to gain Latvian citizenship they had to give up any other citizenship they had obtained.
For many reasons – lack of knowledge, lack of information and publicity, lack of administrative arrangements – many exiles however did not take up the opportunity to renew their citizenship, and the closing of this opportunity in July 1995 was widely criticised. Moreover, it led to significant contradiction in the way Latvian citizenship was granted. When the Soviets took over the Baltic States in 1940 through a process of threats and blackmail, many Western countries including the US, Britain and most Western European countries did not recognize their incorporation into the Soviet Union. And Latvian embassies and consulates, albeit with vastly reduced capacity, continued to operate and issue Latvian passports in many countries, so that we had a paradoxical situation where some held these ‘old’ Latvian passports but if for whatever reason they had not applied for renewed citizenship in 1995, they were not now recognised as Latvian citizens.
The reason for restricting citizenship to those who had been citizens in 1940 was that during the Soviet period, vast numbers of settlers came to the Baltic States; many never learnt the local languages nor in many cases did they know anything about the history, culture or background of these countries, as the Soviet Union repressed any expression of national history. On regaining independence, Latvia did not recognise these settlers as citizens, though it did provide a means of naturalisation, dependent on passing a language and history test. This has been a controversial policy, and even today is particularly criticised by Russia and by some elements within Latvia, but it shows how sensitive the issue of citizenship can be.
However, it was perhaps not the pressure from former exiles that led to the eventual change, but to another striking circumstance affecting Latvia: the now hundreds of thousands of Latvians who have left Latvia in the last 20 years or so to work elsewhere, many of whom have taken up citizenship in countries where they settled. As Latvia’s population had fallen from 2.5 to 2 million in this time, Latvia was faced with a huge brain drain and flight of the economically able. And, precisely a flight of citizens: if Latvia had stuck to its policy of not allowing dual citizenship, many would have given up their Latvian citizenship to take up that of their host country, and their children – in many cases granted citizenship of their host country at birth – would never have been able to become Latvian citizens.
But there was one more complication. Not all countries in which Latvians live and work are necessarily, let us say, friendly towards Latvia. So, for those already with Latvian citizenship, Latvia limited the range of countries where dual citizenship is allowed, limiting it to the European Union, NATO and European Free Trade Association countries, as well as countries where many Latvians had settled – Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.
For those without Latvian citizenship however, but who do have Latvian exile roots, they can apply for Latvian dual citizenship regardless of which other country has given them existing citizenship, provided that other country does allow dual citizenship.
So, the pressure to change the citizenship law grew from two directions – exiles and the more recent largely economic emigrants.
For those who are former Latvian citizens or their descendants, you can apply for Latvian citizenship now at any embassy or consulate (see the list of diplomatic and consular representations on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website) presenting relevant documentation as prescribed by the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (Pilsonības un migrācijas lietu pārvalde – PMLP), which details how you can apply (Admissibility of Dual Citizenship). There is no language or history test for such applicants.
The extraordinary thing is that no-one knows how many potential Latvian citizens there could be to take advantage of these changes in the law. Thousands certainly. Hundreds of thousands? Maybe. For some, Latvian citizenship may mean no more than an ability to have a passport that allows one to travel and stay (not necessarily work) in any EU country and perhaps easier access to other countries. For others who simply missed out in 1995, it brings them back to a citizenship that they deserve. And for children of Latvians born outside Latvia, it means that Latvian citizenship is guaranteed and many will make use of this to deepen their connection to Latvia.