In contrast to Western Europe, in the East immigration is considered something of the Soviet past, rather than the European future. For example, since independence, Latvia - expected to join the EU in May 2004 - has been struggling to integrate its massive immigrant population. Today, as a result of huge inflows during the Soviet period, the situation here and in neighbouring Estonia could be seen as unique in Europe. In 2003, ethnic Latvians and Estonians made up only 58% and 65.2% of their respective populations. Furthermore, 31% of the population in Estonia, and some 494'319 (out of a population of 2'324'183) in Latvia do not have citizenship.
Successive political elites, composed primarily of ethnic Latvians, perceived the need to 'protect' the ethnos from its unfavourable demographic situation. As a result, tough citizenship laws were implemented in the early 1990s, leaving great swathes of the population without the right to participate in political life. Those who had arrived in the 1970s and had been living in these countries ever since felt unjustly treated.
Latvian political elites fear their status
Advocates of minority rights aspire to reinstate the right to participate in political life - at the very least, through municipal elections - and thus have a say in decisions that directly affect their lives. For example, the current education reform replaces the Russian language in schools by having the majority of subjects taught in Latvian. More radical reformers ask for ‘zero variant’ citizenship, granted to everyone who has lived in Latvia since 1990, along with the recognition of Russian as a second state language. Latvia has greatly facilitated the naturalization process, but the pace has not been as fast as many hoped.
Similar ideas have recently been expressed in Italy, such as the proposition of Gianfranco Fini - from the National Alliance no less - for a bill that could extend voting rights in administrative elections to all legal immigrants who have resided in Italy for at least six years. However Fini’s statement that “the time has come to discuss giving immigrants who live, work and pay taxes in Italy... the right of administrative voting" has met with strong opposition, not least within his own post-Fascist party.
This change of policy, however, should be looked at from a realist's perspective, as well from the perspective of social justice. Italy has recently adopted a far stricter immigration law: granting voting rights to existing immigrants is needed to keep silent and consolidate those who have already arrived, but it does not mean opening up to the millions of immigrants who still queue at the borders.
It is the same in Latvia, where the roots of the current situation are not only historical, but also political. As Latvia’s minister of integration Nils Muiznieks puts it, "many Latvians fear that if you gave all non-citizens the vote, there would be a reorientation of policy toward the East". As he continues: "There is also the concern that if they had more political influence, Russian would receive the status of a state language and that would remove any incentive for them to learn Latvian".
Recently the conservative 'Fatherland and Freedom' party in Latvia almost succeeded in recalling the (Russian speaking) Martijan Bekasovs from the post of observer in the European Parliament, because of allegedly "telling sheer lies [and] discrediting the Latvian state" by circulating a statement in the European Parliament about discrimination against ethnic minorities in Latvia. Luckily the European Parliament rules do not allow such a motion from the part of national governments, but the incident showed the differences and tensions between the so called Latvian and Russian parties.
Who wants European Union?
Excluding long-term residents from political rights may undermine the legitimacy of our democracy. As the statistics show, contrary to the 67% vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum on Latvia’s joining EU, the largely Russian-speaking populated regions voted massively against membership. This disparity of attitudes may be a protest against the elite that leaves the Russian-speaking population out of the political community, but conclusion remains that the outcome of the referendum was a decision made by only half of the population.
Recently both the Council of Europe and EU representatives have advised Latvia to find a way of granting non-citizens the right to vote in local elections - but it is just a recommendation. The government has already said that this recommendation cannot be taken into account as it is contrary to Latvia’s integration policy.
Voting rights have become an even more heated topic with respect to Latvia’s functioning in the EU. Latvia’s non-citizens will have less rights in the enlarged EU than the rest of the population. The citizens of EU member states will enjoy the right to vote in local and European Parliamentary elections in Latvia, but Latvia's Russian community will not. Thus Fini is right in saying that state needs to embrace the people that already live in the country, pay taxes, obey the law and contribute to the development of the country. Because a problem that is ignored does not disappear: it grows.