Russian citizens living in Latvia will have until autumn to pass a Latvian language exam or lose permanent residency rights in December. This, predictably, caused backlash from Moscow, but this time around Russians living in Latvia prefer to stick with their homeland, rather than the “Motherland”.
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Ethnic Russians make up about one-third of the country’s population of nearly 1,900,000. Of those, some 50,000 are Russian citizens living in Latvia.
The need to pass the exam will only apply to Russian citizens, and even then not all of them. It is obligatory for persons who previously renounced their citizenship, or “non-citizens”, i.e. persons who were never naturalized in the first place.
Latvian news outlet LSM reports that many people who abandoned their Latvian citizenship in favor of a Russian one have done so to retire early, as Latvia has been gradually raising its retirement age to 65, while Russia retained the retirement age of 55 for women and 60 for men.
Russia did raise its retirement slightly in 2018, but the move met with massive popular discontent and the increase was less than originally planned.
Now, according to LSM, some of those who have made the decision to switch citizenship report feeling like they are being “punished”. But the language law allows for exemption on the basis of old age or infirmity as well.
That means that the law ultimately applies to some 18,000 people, of whom about half have already signed up for the exams by the end of March. The exams were launched in April.
It is not like the exam is going to be particularly hard either for those who have bothered to at least try to learn Latvian. The exam must be passed at A2 level, one of two levels describing the language competence of a beginner learner.
A2 requires an individual to “understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance, “communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters”, and “describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need”.
Is failing the exam an option?
Russian citizens must submit proof of language competency by early September or otherwise lose a permanent residency permit and leave the country after December 2, unless they successfully apply for temporary residency.
Ingmārs Līdaka, who chairs the parliamentary commission for migration, expressed the hope that it will not be necessary to deport those who fail the exam, but at the same time appealed to the holders of Russian citizenship to accommodate the requirements of the Latvian state.
Veiko Spolītis, former deputy defense minister, was less diplomatic and sad that the Latvian state ought to care for Latvian citizens, and “matters pertaining to Russian citizens are a matter of Russia”.
“Citizenship is not underwear you can take off and put on a different pair,” Spolītis said, adding that those who abandoned their Latvian citizenship should face the consequences of their choice and “learn the language, and if they don’t, they should go to Russia”.
Latvian homeland over Russians “Motherland”
The State Duma of the Russian Federation made its opinion known, issuing a statement “on the inadmissibility of the repressive policy of the leadership of the Baltic States towards the Russian-speaking population”.
But after the “liberation” experienced by the Russophone population of eastern and southern Ukraine in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion, several dozens of Russian-speaking residents of Latvia held a rally near the Russian embassy in Riga on April 29, calling on Russia “not to protect” them.
Mūsu izvēle ir Eiropa, mūsu ceļš ir demokrātija, mūsu dzimtene ir Latvija. Dievs, svētī Latviju! 💙🇱🇻
📸 Sergejs Kaļiņins pic.twitter.com/u9e5A28Xt6
— Martins Levuškāns 🇱🇻🇺🇦 (@levuskans) April 29, 2023
The rally was organized by the Russian Voice for Latvia association. Those in attendance unfurled Latvian, EU, and Ukrainian flags, and as well as banners and posters in Russian reading “We need Europe, not the Russian peace/world” (the word “mir” has a double meaning in Russian), “Latvia is the motherland, Russia is the occupier”, “Don’t poke your nose into Latvia”, “Get your hands off our country”.
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Martins Levuškāns (Martin Levushkan in Russian), the head of the organization, explained that they want to present the position of those Russian-speaking Latvians who oppose Moscow’s policy towards the Baltic States and are outraged that the Kremlin is trying to use them for its own political purposes and sowing division in Latvian society.
“We don’t need to be protected, protect yourself in The Hague. Our homeland is Latvia,” Levuškāns said.
Surveys have shown that for the first time since polling on the matter began, Russian speakers in Latvia consider the country’s foreign policy orientation toward the West more desirable than toward the East.