A European without a Country - Minorities in the Baltics

By Aleksejs Ivashuk


I am European, but not a citizen of the country of where I was born or of any other. I was born in Riga, Latvia, USSR, to parents who spent all their life in Latvia. My grandparents, on my mother’s side, had relatives in Latvia and came to the country via their help, to start a new life and for opportunity to fill labour shortages. My father came to Latvia at a young age for the country’s esteemed marine education, completing his studies in marine mechanics.


Many of the former Soviet migrants have similar stories as my family, being comprised of a mixture of ethnicities, having migrated for professional callings. These migrations were not illegal during the Soviet regime, although, given the Soviet sensitivity on ethnic imbalances and each Soviet Republic’s reluctance to lose its people, the migrations were not always easy to accomplish. The Baltics, namely Estonia and Latvia, were an exception to strict migratory controls because they lacked excess labour power and had to draw it from the east (both countries continue this practice in the post-Soviet space, but now with very strict controls on who can stay). These Soviet migrants enlarged the minority groups in the Baltics, which have already been in the Baltics for centuries.


Popular Front, a movement that came to power to promote independent Latvia, recognized that in order to achieve independence from USSR, they needed support from the minorities. Official promises were made by the Popular Front that there would be continued equality and coexistence between people in the post-Soviet order, that everyone who lived in Latvia at least ten years would gain equal citizenship. These promises assuaged any fears that the minorities had of discrimination. By in large, the minorities came out to support the independence and the democratic ideals.


After the USSR collapsed, the ethnic minorities in Latvia were shocked to find out that the political promises of equality and non-discrimination made during the independence movement were not to be fulfilled. Instead of the promised equality, a “non-citizen” status was given to those who could not prove that they or their ancestors had Latvian citizenship from the country’s first independence (1918-1940). The new policies effectively made void and vilified everything that occurred in the Soviet period, aside from the successful democratic movement and referendums. To give an idea of how strict these policies were: even those who were victims of Nazi-established concentration camps, who were brought to Latvia against their will and had nowhere to go after liberation of those camps, were not spared the humiliation of being branded non-citizens. The policies were so restrictive that it even produced some cases of ethnic Latvians deprived of citizenship.


Seeing how little chance of a fair future her children had, my mother took me and my brother to the United States. But, as happens so often with refugee and migrant families, after all the years my family was never able to fully feel at home, psychologically and culturally. We felt at home in Latvia, but that was taken away from us. That deep strain is impossible to explain in proper detail to people who never had to flee their homes. People tend to assume that migrants immediately integrate or assimilate (“melt”), but it is never as simple as that. As one philosopher put it, we are all a product of centuries-old cultural vivisection. What we are is the most invaluable aspect of our life. As Europe learned the hard way, it is better to tap into that diversity to learn from each other rather than ignorantly act like your own culture is superior.


Return to Europe


To put it very briefly, after many years in the U.S. and Canada, I found myself returning to Europe on a more frequent basis, realizing that I belonged in Europe rather than North America. Then, in early 2016, I made one of the most difficult choices in my life: to move back to Europe for good and start from scratch, despite my ominous status of being a stateless European. In part, I was naïve and optimistic, underestimating the discrimination that I would face, overestimating Europe’s dedication to the values of non-discrimination and minority rights.


I moved back to Europe in May of 2016, initially to Latvia to see my relatives, but soon after to Poland, where I found a job with Thomson Reuters. When I arrived for my job, right away I experienced people’s confusion about my Latvian non-citizen’s passport. The Reuters’ HR department, as well as the Polish immigration officials that they were in touch with, were baffled by such an anomaly. After some suspense, I was asked if I was born in Latvia. I replied in an affirmative, indicating that this information is also in my passport. My European nativity was sufficient for my employment and I did not have to resort to another part of the Polish labour law that was relevant in my case––of being a close family member of an EU citizen (my father is a Latvian citizen). But the concern that I can be deported from the country, such as by an alternative interpretation of my status, was always with me throughout my stay in Poland. Whenever I would receive a letter, I would feel a chill running through my spine, thinking that the letter may be a deportation order or worse. I have met other non-citizens of Latvia who moved abroad who were not so lucky in how authorities changed their interpretations.


After finishing my contract with Reuters in Poland, I was upbeat about having an established precedent of having worked in another EU country. I successfully reached out to numerous employers throughout the EU, but after explaining my status during interviews I found that many of these potential employers would suddenly and unprofessionally disappear. Some, at least, withdrew their offers and were frank in explaining that they did not understand my status and were therefore no longer interested. Whenever I would come across any employer’s recruitment non-discrimination policy, with mention of how the employer hires “without regard to gender, race, colour, religion and beliefs nor to ethnic or social origin or to nationality,” I could not help feeling a tinge of cynicism. There are reasons why only 0.7% of Latvian non-citizens were able to move abroad, despite the heavy disadvantages at home.


Non-citizen status


The root of the problem is with how the minorities in the Baltics are defined. Latvia and Estonia are the only two countries in the world that connect the definition of a “minority” with citizenship. In other words, those who do not have citizenship are not considered as minorities, legally speaking. Accordingly, no minority rights are accorded to such people. In effect, under such a circumstance, any form of integration boils down to assimilation, with the minorities in Estonia and Latvia not allowed existence as a people until they go through naturalization process that they find demeaning for historical and moral reasons. It is a catch-22 situation that limits naturalization and reinforces the ethnic divide. In my view, the refusal of minority rights is disturbing and has no place in Europe that is home to so many minorities and cultures. Although Brussels has been officially dismissive of such definitions and displeased with the situation, at the same time, in practice these definitions are tacitly accepted within the EU regulatory framework, contrary to principles of non-discrimination.


Another key issue with having a non-citizen’s status, particularly abroad, is how unprecedented the status itself is, and how it is laden with Kafkaesque contradictions. According to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of the Stateless Persons, stateless people are “individuals who are not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws of any country.” By that reading, those who received a non-citizen’s passport in the Baltics fit this definition. However, Latvia and Estonia adamantly deny that they are responsible for making people stateless, arguing that the non-citizen’s status gives some advantages that stateless people tend to lack. There is nonetheless a problem with this logic, as a provision of limited perks to a stateless person does not make the person any less stateless (not to mention that these perks are there for economic rather than egalitarian or humane reasons).


A non-citizen may declare a nationality, which is then noted in the non-citizen’s passport, but the declared nationality in a non-citizen’s passport is a mere formality, providing no rights to the holder. For example, if a person declared “Ukrainian” as his nationality in his non-citizen’s passport, this does not mean that the person enjoys any additional rights. Indeed, such a person will still need a visa to visit Ukraine––while a Latvian citizen will not!


The conflicting interpretations revolving around the non-citizen’s status generates a lot of confusion, even for the authorities that are in charge of the status. A good example is how, back in 2005, the Constitutional Court of Latvia has ruled that the Latvian non-citizens are not to be regarded as citizens, aliens or stateless persons, but as people with a “specific legal status.” Aside from how such a clarification failed to clarify anything, terms such as “alien” are still in the passports of non-citizens. It seems easier for authorities to tell us what we are not rather than what we are.


Conclusion


Perhaps this may sound strange, but after all the problems that my status has given me––I do not regret having experienced it. It has taught me many things about human beings, about our values and about our failings therein. It has forced me to learn from every people and culture, not just rely on one place and way. It has built invisible barricades, but at the same time it has taught me that no barricades in life are impossible to climb. It has developed my character and driven my motivation in life like nothing else. At the same time, I would not wish this status on anyone. I was lucky in that I had support from family, friends and strangers; that my own character developed in such a way as to be encouraged by a challenge rather than be crushed by it; that, with the good guidance of others, I picked up books and philosophy for answers rather than the bottle and the needle. Walking through the streets of Riga, seeing Latvian minorities disproportionately represented among destitute people, I know that I am a lucky exception. It is one of the central reasons why I have not relinquished this status when I had the chance, until other less fortunate souls that share this status are free from it.

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