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Stateless in Europe? The power of language

, by Jonas Botta , Translated by Dimitra Sarvani

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United in diversity: This is the motto of the European Union. In this sense, the European progress is measured against the degree of European integration. One of the essential components of such integration is the preservation, as well as the maintenance, of different cultural identities despite growing globalization. However, this does not seem to apply to the oriental frontiers of the Union: In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there is no equality of rights nor integration of minorities living there.

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The stateless: second rank citizens

During the municipal elections in Latvia on the 1st of June 2013, almost 280 000 people did not have the right to go to ballot boxes, that represents 14% of the entire population. Whereas the European immigrant citizens in Latvia have the active and passive right to vote in the municipal elections, this was not the case for the numerous aged people coming from the russian-speaking minority. Why? They do not detain the Latvian nationality, but only a “no-citizen” card.

Minority nationals are stateless and are thus downgraded as second-rank citizens in their own native country. Not only are they excluded from the electoral system, but they also cannot exercise a profession within the public service. According to the Latvian Human Rights Committee, in October 2011, eighty differences were enumerated in the legal status of non-citizens and Latvians.

Statelessness, a heritage from the Former USSR

The minority statelessness finds its roots in recent History. The Soviet Union, in which Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania, belonged to, counted numerous Russians installed in the territory of the actual Baltic countries. After the collapse of the USSR in 1990, and the declarations of independence of their ancient republics, minority nationals, often considered as enemies, did not receive national passports. The freshly acquired Liberty had to be protected by the ‘fifth cohort’ of Moscow.

However, the acquisition of different nationalities by the minorities is possible, in some cases. In Latvia for example, the non-nationals of the European Union have to pass a test for integration in Latvian. While this does not constitute an obstacle for the young generation, this linguistic test dissuades mostly the section of the population aged 45 and above. This prevents the integration of the older generation.

Languages, a power factor

Language is essential to exist within a cultural community, and controlling it makes one very powerful. Hence, it seems totally logical from the government’s point of view not to have Russian as an official language in Latvia, after Latvian. In reality, this puts at a serious disadvantage the non-native speakers when they for example need to access official information or use administrative services. In February, a referendum aimed at establishing Russian as an official language was organized. It failed.

The request for a ‘Congress of non-citizens’, a platform for the stateless in Latvia, to obtain more political influence during the last municipal elections, has not been accepted either. For the moment, this ‘Congress of non-citizens’ tends to draft a petition to the Latvian government with the view to establish a new right to nationality. However, the referendum and the municipal elections showed that the government can count on a large majority in favour of its discriminatory policy.

The ECJ legitimates this discriminatory policy

Just like in Latvia, the Russian and Polish speaking minorities in Estonia and Lithuania, enjoy equally limited rights. For example, the Lithuanian authorities refuse again and again to return to circa 250 000 Polish-speaking people the land properties expropriated during the communist period.

In both countries, the minorities fought in vain for equality of rights. Their representatives haven’t obtained anything at the European level either. For example, the complaint against forced lithuanisation of the polish names has been refused from the European Union Court of Justice, situated in Luxembourg. Moreover, until now, the Lithuanian government refuses to sign the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages aimed at protecting the cultural identity of minorities.

In the future, in view of its previous decision, the ECJ will equally authorize governments to use language as a means of power against minorities. The more the people concerned remain excluded from the political process, the easier their job will be.

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