Non-Citizens in Latvia and Estonia

During the Soviet era migrants from other parts of the USSR, mainly ethnic Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians migrated to Latvia and Estonia. These migrants were either forced to migrate in order to work in military-industrial complexes built to industrialize the countries or because they were bureaucrats from the Soviet regime or part of the military or KGB. Some other migrants came voluntarily such as “fortune hunters”, dissidents and intellectuals against the Soviet regime and members of the “mafia”. As a consequence of these migration flows, the portion of ethnic Latvians in the population of Latvia diminished significantly from 82% in 1945 to 52% in 1989 and the share of ethnic Estonians in Estonia fell from 93% in 1939 to 62% at the end of the Soviet occupation.



For hundreds of years, the Russian empire and the USSR followed the concept of jus sanguinis, or citizenship through blood. But in 1992, after the fall of the USSR, Russia adopted a new Citizenship Law based on jus soli (right of the soil). In line with its new orientation, Russia started pressuring the Baltic States to adopt the most radical form jus soli and recognize as citizens all migrants from the USSR present on their territory at the time of their independence. Of the Baltic States, only Lithuania agreed to adopt a Citizenship Law based on jus soli since the share of ethnic Lithuanians had not been meaningfully transformed by forced population transfer. However, Estonia and Latvia objected.


After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 Latvia and Estonia considered that their newly independent States were a continuation of the Latvian and Estonian States that existed before the Second World War and therefore only the citizens of the preexisting Latvian and Estonian States and their descendants could reclaim their nationality. This does not mean that only ethnic Latvians or Estonians would get their citizenship back. For example, in Latvia, 38% of the 722,486 ethnic Russians in Latvia after the independence were automatically granted Latvian citizenship because they already had Latvian citizenship before the Second World War or a descendant of former Latvian citizens. As a result, the immigrants from the Soviet Union and their children that arrived in Latvia and Estonia during the Soviet era, even those born in Latvia and Estonia, remained without a valid passport.


In 1995, Latvia introduced its new citizenship law, including the special status of non-citizens. Similarly, in Estonia, the notion of “undefined citizenship” was introduced in Estonian citizenship law in 1995. In Estonia it was foreseen that “non-citizens that had been active in the independence movement” as well as “any non-citizen who had been resident in Estonia on 30 March 1990 and who had filed an application as soon as possible” could rapidly obtain Estonian citizenship.


The status of non-citizen in both Latvia and Estonia is unique and has not existed before in international law. Non-citizens or people of “undefined citizenship” are neither citizens, nor foreigners, nor stateless persons. The EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights states that


... in Latvia, non-citizens under the 1995 Law on Status of citizens of the former USSR who are not citizens of Latvia or any other country are neither citizens, nor foreigners, nor stateless persons. A great proportion of the large Russian speaking population of the country falls within this category, unknown in public international law. The same applies to non-citizens in Estonia.


Non-citizens of Latvia and Estonia are not considered to be EU citizens and have no right to work in another EU Member State. They are also not permitted to work in government, police and civil service and are not allowed to participate in elections but do benefit from all other rights and benefits granted to Latvian and Estonian citizens. Non-citizens can however enjoy visa-free travel in the Schengen area but do not benefit from visa-free entry agreements with third countries unlike Latvian and Estonian citizens. Non-citizen also benefits from visa-free travel to Russia.


Double citizenship (non-citizenship of Latvia and citizenship of Russia for example) is not allowed in Latvia. The naturalization rate of non-citizens is however fairly low which can be explained by several factors such as ideological and emotional motives as well as the lack of proficiency in Latvian or Estonian. It should also be noted that in both countries some people are not allowed to be naturalized. This is the case of former members of the KGB, military forces, officials of a foreign government, opponents to the Latvian independence or people convicted of expressing totalitarian ideas.


Author: Dr Fanny Tittel-Mosser

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