Life in Limbo for Latvia’s non-citizens

Life in limbo for Latvia’s non-citizens
Damien McGuinness, BBC News, 04/21/2010

What is it like being a non-citizen in the country where you have lived all your life? That’s the experience of many ethnic Russians in the Baltic state of Latvia.

In a classroom in the Latvian capital, Riga, 23-year-old student Dmitrijs Afanasjevs takes a seat nervously. He is one of a dozen people about to sit a Latvian language exam, as part of a test to become a Latvian citizen.

But Dmitrijs is not an immigrant. Like most of the people in this room, he was born in Latvia. In fact, even his parents were born here.

But his family is ethnically Russian. And because they moved here while Latvia was part of the USSR, he is not automatically eligible for Latvian nationality.

Instead he is classed as a so-called resident alien. Only those born after Latvian independence in 1991 automatically receive citizenship.

‘Feel cheated’

The words in Latvian for “non-citizen” are printed in large bold letters on the cover of Dmitrijs’ passport.

This means he can’t vote, can’t work in many state-employed positions and often has trouble crossing borders.

“I can travel with my passport, but when I am in France in the airport, and I show my passport, they say, ‘Sorry, which country are you from? What is this?’ And I have to say I am not a citizen,” he said before sitting the test. “I need citizenship to be a human.”

In Latvia, a country of just over 2.2 million people, around a third of the population is defined as ethnically Russian – a category used to include Russian-speakers from all over the former Soviet Union.

More than 250,000 of these ethnic Russians are not Latvian citizens. But almost 90% of them do not have Russian citizenship either. They are in a limbo between states.

According to Riga’s first ethnically Russian mayor, Nils Usakovs, older ethnic Russians feel particularly let down by the Latvian state.

“Some of them feel that they were cheated. They voted for Latvian independence in 1990 and they didn’t get Latvian passports despite the fact they have lived here all their lives.”

Scars of history

Latvia’s ethnic mix is a legacy of almost half a century of Soviet rule, before the country achieved independence in 1991.

Until the 1980s, large numbers of Russian workers were sent to Latvia, ostensibly to provide manpower for Soviet factories.

But Latvian historians believe the Russian influx was a conscious decision by Moscow to dilute native Baltic culture.

Most settled in urban areas, and today in the capital, Riga, almost half of the population speaks Russian as a first language. In Latvia’s second-largest city, Daugavpils, 75% of residents are ethnically Russian.

“You have more daily newspapers in Russian than in Latvian,” says Roberts Zile, head of the Latvian nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom party, a partner in the country’s governing coalition.

“Our language survived decades of Soviet oppression. That’s why we are really worried now about the increase of Russian-language media in the public space here in Latvia.”

Mr Zile has launched a campaign for a referendum to ban Russian-language state schools, which account for about 14% of Latvia’s high schools.

But Russian-speakers say the ban would discriminate against their rights as an ethnic minority and Mr Zile’s political opponents accuse him of pandering to nationalist voters ahead of October’s general election.

‘Back door colonialism’

In any event, Mr Zile is unlikely to garner the 10% of public support needed to launch a referendum.

On the steps of the national parliament in Riga, Latvian nationalists, some of whom belong to Mr Zile’s party, are protesting against a new bill which they say is Russian colonialism by the back door.

The law would give wealthy foreigners residency rights in Latvia if they start a business or buy property. These protestors claim this would allow rich Russian oligarchs to take over Latvia. It is Russian imperialism all over again, they say, but this time with money instead of tanks.

Tensions are also likely to come to the surface on 9 May, when Russians from all over the country come to the Soviet Victory Monument in Riga to celebrate victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

For Latvians, the riotous celebrations are hard to stomach. For them this date marks the beginning of half a century of Soviet occupation.

Considering Latvia’s painful history, the two communities rub along remarkably well. There are no violent clashes and only a minority of extremists from either side express intolerant views.

But young people, like Dmitrijs, are still feeling the effects of the region’s tortured history.

Back at the exam centre, he has just collected his results for his citizenship test.

“It’s very funny… I didn’t pass,” he said. “They said my spoken Latvian was perfect, but I had some problems with writing.”

Dmitrijs now has to wait until September until he can re-take the test. Until then he remains a non-citizen in the country where he was born.

Such an interesting and yet sad story. I read this on the way into work and I couldn’t help but sympathize with this individual and the possibility of this happening to infinite other people in the world. It’s a little bit like sexual and/or gender identity, when one feels something and not really what they are. I defiantly don’t belong where I’m living, and it certainly makes me feel less of a human, and quite exploited and zombiesque.

Go home, Russia!

I’ve just read, thanks to my trusty RSS Feeds, that Russia is not happy with Melodifestivalen’s interpretation of the mid-act show. It’s really a silly article, that you see attached:

Russian disgust over Eurovision skit
David Landes, The Local, 16/03/2009

The Russian embassy in Stockholm has launched a scathing critique of Sveriges Television (SVT) for what it sees as a “disgusting” portrayal of Russia during the weekend’s Melodifestivalen finals.

“It makes no sense to me why Sweden would show such ignorance in misinterpreting this image of Russia,” embassy spokesperson Anatoly Kargapolov told The Local.

“If Russians could see what happened on the stage of Globen on Saturday, I’m fairly certain it will reduce the number of votes they give to the Swedish singer [Malena Ernman].”

Kargapolov’s comments come in reaction to a comedy interlude from the Melodifestivalen finals featuring two Swedes who travel to Moscow on a fictitious attempt to recruit a Russian singer to perform a “musical postcard from Moscow”.

The two are then ushered into the headquarters of the Russian “Schlager Mafia” where they meet a stereotypical Russian mobster, flanked by a beautiful woman and armed guards.

As the sketch proceeds, tempers flare when the Swedes refuse to hand over a teddy bear one of them is wearing in lieu of a traditional Russian fur hat.

The other Swede then says to the supposed-gangster, “You’re fucking worst!”, at which point the mobster’s henchmen (and the woman) all draw their weapons.

The taped comedy sketch ends with an agreement between the Swedes and the head of the Russian “Schlager Mafia” at which point the programme segues into a techno version of a tongue-in-cheek song entitled “Tingaling, tingaling” (‘Ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling’) performed live on the Globen stage and broadcast live across Sweden on SVT.

The live dance number included an array of Russian stereotypes, including Cossack dancers, matryoshka stacking dolls, and a chorus of men dressed like Russian soldiers. The choreography also featured several scantily clad woman wearing tight-fitting shorts with a single red star splaying their legs toward the camera in unison.

“I didn’t know how to react,” said Kargapolov.

He explained that many staff members at the embassy were bewildered by what they saw as an “offensive” and “disconnected” portrayal of Russia and Russian culture.

“I’m really upset that the Swedish people don’t bother to see beyond its own borders and sticks to such narrow-minded and outdated stereotypes of Russia,” he said.

Even the ambassador himself, Alexander M. Kadakin, has been informed of the matter, although he has chosen not to get involved personally at this point since he was out of town at the weekend and didn’t see the performance himself.

The embassy did issue an official statement however, condemning the piece:

“We do not react to eccentricity by some lunatics whose Russophobia should place them in an asylum rather than on Globen’s stage.”

SVT’s Ronnie Lans, an executive producer for Melodifestivalen, defended the comedy sketch and song as “satire”.

“The number was done with a lot of humour and affection,” he said.

“It wasn’t our intention at all to offend anyone. It was a comedy sketch.”

Lans explained that the satire was meant to poke fun more at Swedes’ views of Russia, rather than Russia itself.

“We’ve all been to Russia and know that’s not how it really is,” he said.

He clarified in particular that the so-called “Schlager Maffia” is actually a term applied in jest to a group of performers and artists surrounding Christer Björkman, a former Melodifestivalen winner from 1992 who now runs the Swedish contest.

“We thought it would be fun to include his Russian counterpart,” said Lans.

Lans said SVT has received nothing but positive reactions about the sketch from viewers, many of whom suggested that “Tingaling” should be Sweden’s Eurovision entry to the contest in Moscow.

“We apologize if what we did was considered insulting. That wasn’t our intent,” he said, but added that he didn’t think the number crossed over the line.

“Satire is what it is, and sometimes it can be edgy.”

He admitted that SVT could also do more to help counteract Swedes’ stereotypes about Russia, something that the embassy’s Kargapolov would welcome.

“These stereotypes sit so deeply in the Swedish psyche,” Kargapolov explained.

“Hopefully this will help ring some bells among Swedes and help them realize how disgusting some of the things are that they’ve shown.”

All I have to say is, get over yourself Russia. If you’re not going to want to host Eurovision and take some satire then don’t bother to even enter. Eurovision is, in it’s entirity, satrical, and you know that having your bloody singer have a dancer coming out of a panio, and winning the competition with a half naked singer, a violinist and a professional figure skater. Fuck off!

And to think that they actually, apart from almost promising that Sweden won’t get votes, would dare to say such things… If Sweden doesn’t get votes, I guess we know who caused that… Cause it’s not Sweden.