Questioning a rule that bars exiles from becoming dual citizens after 1995, Latvia’s Supreme Court is turning to the country’s Constitutional Court to help decide a case involving a family in Germany.
Calling them an unfair restriction on human rights, the Supreme Court’s Department of Administrative Cases decided Aug. 25 to seek an opinion on whether parts of Latvia’s citizenship law are unconstitutional.
An opinion by the Constitutional Court would have bearing on the case of Baiba Lapiņa-Strunska and Viktors Strunskis and their daughter Rauna, who live in Germany. They want the Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (Pilsonības un migrācijas lietu pārvalde, or PMLP) that they cannot be dual citizens under Latvian law. The Strunskis family maintains that the Latvian passports issued to them by exile Latvian legations are proof that they were Latvian citizens before 1995 and that they should not have to give up their German citizenship.
When Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union, a transitional rule in the citizenship law was added that allowed exile Latvians and their descendants to register as citizens without renouncing their citizenship in another country. The window on registration closed in July 1995 and since then dual citizenship has not been allowed.
The case could also have bearing on other Latvian exiles and descendants who have expressed a desire to register as citizens but have been stymied by the restriction. About 30,000 exiles and their descendants did become dual citizens before the window closed.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, spokeswoman Linda Priedīte told Latvians Online in an e-mail, is significant in that it points to shortcomings in the citizenship law and gives the Constitutional Court grounds to take on the case.
Assuming that they were German as well as Latvian citizens, and that by birth their daughter also was a dual citizen, Lapiņa-Strunska and Strunskis sought to get a Latvian passport for Rauna. But the PMLP turned them down, saying that the passports issued by the exile legations only gave them the right to apply for Latvian citizenship. And to do that, they would have to renounce their German citizenship, in accordance with the citizenship law.
The Strunskis family sued but lost their case in the district and regional courts, so they appealed to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court justices Jānis Neimanis, Andris Guļāns and Vēsma Kakste stopped short of ruling on the case, opting instead to seek the advice of the Constitutional Court. In their opinion, the justices wrote, the transitional rules of the citizenship law violate the constitution as well as the Latvian Supreme Council’s 1990 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
The justices based their opinion in part on the principle of state continuity, which in this case argues that despite the Soviet occupation, Latvia as a country remained in existence. Because the country remained in existence, those Latvians who fled the occupation—and their descendants—retained Latvian citizenship. During the occupation, the justices wrote, legations abroad continued their work and their decisions and actions remain valid.
Based on these facts, the Supreme Court said, the Strunskis family are Latvian citizens. The justices also wrote that while nations have a right to determine who may be a citizen, whether a person is a citizen of another country in general is irrelevant.
In language that might have particular significance for those exiles wanting to become Latvian citizens, the justices wrote that the 1995 deadline to apply for Latvian citizenship and the prohibition on dual citizenship are unconstitutional.
In writing the transitional rules, lawmakers failed to address the point that dual citizens became such as a result of the occupation. And, the justices added, “during the time of Latvia’s occupation, these people as Latvian citizens abroad made up one of the Latvian state’s most essential elements—the constitutive people.”
Because the Strunskis family are German citizens and both Germany and Latvia are members of the European Union, the transitional rule also runs counter to the EU’s anti-discrimination law, according to the Supreme Court’s opinion.
Lapiņa-Strunska, in a statement distributed online and to media, applauded the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We are close to the point,” she wrote, “where at a minimum 500,000 Latvian citizens in Western countries will have the right to renew and receive their Latvian citizenship!”
Lapiņa-Strunska also slammed the PMLP, saying that a lid has finally been put on the agency’s understanding of the law.
The Supreme Court has forwarded the matter to the Constitutional Court, Priedīte told Latvians Online. The Constitutional Court must now decide if it will take up the matter.
A final ruling by the Supreme Court on the Strunskis family’s case would be expected after a decision by the Constitutional Court.
The World Federation of Free Latvians (Pasaules brīvo latviešu apvienība, or PBLA) has been informed about the Strunskis case but is not competent to speak about all its consequences, Jānis Andersons, head of the PBLA’s representative office in Rīga said by e-mail.
However, PBLA Chairman Mārtiņš Sausiņš said in a statement that if the Latvian government sees itself as continuation of the state founded in November 1918, then it should acknowledge as legal the citizenship documents issued by Latvian legations in exile.
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