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11 September 1997

H.E. Mr. Max van der Stoel
OSCE High Commissioner
on National Minorities
Prinsessegracht 22
2514 AP - The Hague
P.O. Box 200 62
2500 EB The Hague
The Netherlands


I have the honour to refer to your letter of 23 May 1997. 1 am certain that during your visit to Latvia on 7-8 April you obtained the latest information on the developments in the field of human rights. I would like to take this opportunity to inform you about several important developments in Latvia which have taken place since your last letter.

The Saeima (Parliament) adopted the Law on Refugees and Asylum Seekers on 19 June 1997. On the same day, the Law on the Ratification of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees was adopted.

On 4 June 1997 the Saeima adopted the law on the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and its Additional Protocols 1, 2, 4, 7 and 11. Latvia has accepted the Convention's control mechanism, i.e. the right to individual complaint and the compulsory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

A change of Government has also taken place meanwhile. The new Government continues a commitment to promoting the integration of society in Latvia.

Turning to the recommendations contained in your letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs consulted the relevant ministries and Standing Committees of the Saeima when preparing its reply, therefore it has taken some time.

With regard to the possibility of reducing the naturalisation fee, I am pleased to inform you that significant changes are to take place which follow the general line of your recommendations. On 22 July 1997 the Cabinet of Ministers accepted conceptually the proposal that the naturalisation fee be reduced as follows:

1) the naturalisation fee shall be 15 Lats for high school students and university students from indigent families;

2) the naturalisation fee shall be abolished for orphans and children whose parents' rights have been taken away;

3) the Head of the Naturalisation Board shall have the right to exempt from the naturalisation fee persons who are recognised as indigent.

Such a reduction should eliminate or at least diminish significantly applicants' problems with covering the naturalisation fee. It should be stressed that this is currently a conceptual decision which provides a framework for the contents of the final decision. According to the existing procedures, a corresponding draft decision shall be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers and voted on at a later stage. The draft decision is currently being reviewed by the ministries.

I would like to comment your suggestion that naturalisation tests should be further simplified. The existing history test has been designed in accordance with the Law on Citizenship which prescribes that an applicant has to know the history of Latvia. Therefore, the essential issues of the history of Latvia have been included in the test. It should also be stressed that all questions that are included in the test are covered by a book by J.Taurçns, "The Main Questions of the History of Latvia and the Constitutional Principles of the State". The history part of the exams has been simplified - the number of required correct answers has been reduced significantly. Initially, the applicants had to prepare 300 possible questions, which were unknown beforehand; now there are only 150 questions which have been published. The number of required correct answers has been reduced from 12 out to 18 to 11 out of 18. The Latvian language test has been redesigned so that it is less connected with remembering large portions of text. I would also like to stress that the tests have been designed in collaboration with experts from the Council of Europe. Given all these simplifications, it is unlikely that the tests will be reformatted significantly. The high percentage of applicants that pass the test - 93,7% in Latvian language and 90.5% in the history and Constitution - does provide an indication that the tests are not too difficult. At the same time, the Naturalisation Board has indicated its readiness to continue optimisation of the tests.

I fully agree with you on the crucial importance that the National Programme for Latvian language training plays on the integration of society in general and in preparing the residents of Latvia for Latvian language tests in particular. According to available information, the implementation of this Programme is being carried out as planned and in accordance with the agreed schedule. By September 1997 the core body of teachers for Latvian language education had received the necessary training; several new textbooks for students and handbooks for teachers have been published. New TV materials for learning Latvian have also been developed.

A conceptual decision of the Cabinet of Ministers was taken on 22 July 1997 to reduce the time limit which determines the interval after which an applicant may re-take the naturalisation test. The Ministry of Justice will prepare the corresponding draft decision and submit it to the Cabinet.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has informed the Saeima about your views on the socalled "window" system. There is an ongoing discussion of this and other questions related to naturalisation.

I would also like to stress that the abolishing of the "window" system is not a long-term solution. Currently 5804 out of some 125,000 eligible persons have naturalised. If such a proportion were to remain without the "window" system, it is likely that no more than 33,000 persons would have naturalised by now. Such a low figure indicates that the long-term solution lies elsewhere - most importantly, a change in the attitudes of non-citizens towards the country in which they live. This is one of the directions where I think the Government of Latvia could work together with you, developing among non-citizens an understanding of civil society and the need for integration.

The Naturalisation Board together with the Latvian National Human Rights Office is currently conducting a comprehensive sociological survey both among citizens and non-citizens of Latvia in order to obtain more accurate information on the reasons for the slow pace of naturalisation and to develop suggestions on how to accelerate the processes of integration and establishment of a civil society. The full results of the study will be known before the end of this year and will serve as a basis for further action with regard to naturalisation.

With regard to the situation of children of non-citizens who have been born in the Republic of Latvia since the renewal of independence, I would like to inform you of the following. The existing Law on Citizenship does not directly contradict Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, since the children born in Latvia have the right to the citizenship of Latvia, which they can exercise together with their parents or independently at the age of 16. I can only agree with you on the importance of Article 28 of the Law on Citizenship on the supremacy of international instruments over the Law. However, it is the view of the Government of Latvia that the provisions of the mentioned instruments have been observed. It should also be noted that in practice the rights of children of non-citizens born in Latvia are not affected, since they would not be affected by the restriction to certain professions or the right to vote due to their young age. In accordance with the relevant national legislation they enjoy their rights, including protection by law, possibilities for education, medical care, the right to travel and protection by the Republic of Latvia while abroad.

I would like to note that the practice of the participating states of the OSCE with regard to the application of the above-mentioned international human rights documents differs from country to country. I would also like to note that Latvia is not a signatory to the European Convention on Nationality, to which you have referred.

I recognise that there may be different interpretations of the above-mentioned human rights documents; however, it should be stressed that the decision to change or not to change the Law on Citizenship with regard to this and other matters is beyond the competence of the Government and can only be taken by the legislative body - the Saeima.

I would like to thank you for your continuous active involvement and genuine interest in the issues related to naturalisation in Latvia. I am convinced that your efforts have contributed to increased awareness of the process of naturalisation by the general public in Latvia.

I hope that my answers have clarified the position of the Latvian Government on the issues of interest to you. I look forward to further constructive co-operation and remain,

Yours sincerely,

Valdis Birkavs

Minister for Foreign Affairs