Home / Articles / Amendments in Immigration Law: What Awaits Russian Citizens Living in Latvia
Does Latvia intend to expel Russian citizens who currently live in Latvia but do not speak Latvian? What do recent amendments to Latvia’s Immigration Law, which were adopted last autumn, provide with regard to language acquisition, and what is their intended purpose? This article explores the changes brought about by these amendments, their impact on Russian citizens residing in Latvia, and provides insight into why this issue has become so sensitive in Latvian society.
New regulations for Russian and Belarusian citizens
On September 22, 2022, the Latvian Saeima (parliament), referring to the need to strengthen national security after Russia’s February invasion in Ukraine, adopted amendments to the state Immigration Law. The amendments provide that existing permanent residence permits issued to citizens of Russia and Belarus will be void after September 1, 2023. Further, the amendments halt the issuance of temporary residence permits. These changes came into force two days after they were adopted.
The adopted amendments delete a clause in the Immigration Law that previously granted (without any preconditions or requirements) permanent residence permits to Latvian citizens and non-citizens who have become citizens of another country, but have chosen to stay in Latvia.
Secondly, the transitional provisions of the law are supplemented with a clause specifically stating that permanent residence permits issued to citizens of Russia or Belarus on the basis of the deleted clause will become void on September 2, 2023. However, this does not apply to those residence permit holders who have obtained citizenship of other states. For Russians and Belarusians, the only way to obtain a new permanent residence permit is to follow the general procedure set for obtaining EU permanent residence status in Latvia, which includes passing a Latvian language exam. This has become a point of contention, as only those over 75 years old, those with long-term or unavoidable health disorders, and those who have acquired education in Latvian are exempt from the exam.
Thirdly, the law has been supplemented by an explicit list of the exceptional conditions under which a Russian or Belarusian citizen has the right to apply for temporary residence permit, such as family reunification, international protection, employment (in exceptional cases), national interests, or humanitarian considerations. There are 12 situations listed for Russians and 29 situations for Belarusians, so the list is long, but exhaustive.
To summarize, the new regulation means that the requirement to know basic Latvian now applies to anyone who wants to obtain permanent residence permit, including those who renounce Latvian citizenship (or non-citizen/alien status) but want to remain in Latvia. However, only Russian and Belarusian citizens who have used the now-deleted clause — that is, renounced Latvian citizenship or non-citizen (alien) status, but stayed in Latvia — will have to prove Latvian language knowledge; citizens of other countries who have already obtained permanent residence permits in accordance with the clause are not subject to a language test.
Origins of the original clause
The now-deleted Paragraph 8 of Article 24 of the Immigration Law has been in effect since adoption of the law in 2002. It was added to address issues encountered by the previous law — “On the entry and residence of foreigners and stateless persons” — which provided permanent residence permits for those who were permanently registered in Latvia on July 1, 1992, but could not claim Latvian citizenship. This provision was added at the end of 1996 and had retroactive force. Its purpose was to address the issue of ex-USSR citizens who chose to become Russian citizens but remained living in Latvia after the collapse of the USSR, specifically granting them the right to remain in the country. When the Immigration Law was adopted in 2002, the clause was transferred to this new law. While adding Latvian language requirement was considered at the time, it was ultimately not included.
To whom do the new amendments apply?
The new amendments to the Immigration Law mainly impact Russian-speaking non-citizens of Latvia who have applied for Russian citizenship. In 2014, the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences conducted research showing that after 2000, many non-citizens, particularly women at the age of preretirement, had considered obtaining Russian citizenship as a means of accessing a pension from the Russian Federation. Russian compatriot protection policy encouraged Russian-speakers living in Latvia to apply for citizenship, stressing the possibility of receiving a Russian pension. This was an attractive option for those who were eligible and had already reached Russia’s retirement age of 55. In contrast, the retirement age in Latvia was higher and set to increase to 65 by 2025. Further increasing the appeal, Latvian pensions only consider periods of work in Latvia when calculating pensions benefits for non-citizens, excluding periods worked in other republics of the former USSR.
The changes to the Immigration Law that now require proof of knowledge of Latvian may apply to at least 17,000 citizens of the Russian Federation living in Latvia, many of whom do not have a basic understanding of the Latvian language. The new amendments present them with a choice: either learn Latvian or leave the country. Alternatively, individuals may claim long-term or unavoidable health disorders that prevent them from learning the language. However, it is worth noting that the law only requires an A2-level knowledge of Latvian — i.e. understanding very basic personal, family, and job-related language, and short, simple texts on familiar matters. Since the new amendments came into force, around 8,000 Russian citizens have applied to take the examination.
According to the explanatory memorandum prepared by the Ministry of the Interior and supported by the Cabinet of Ministers, the amendments to the Immigration Law aim to strengthen national security and reduce potential threats by promoting the cessation of international crimes and human rights violations resulting from the war initiated by the Russian Federation in Ukraine and supported by the Republic of Belarus. The explanatory memorandum drawn up by the Defense, Internal Affairs and Corruption Prevention Commission of the Saeima reiterates that the Saeima has already decided to temporarily suspend the first-time issuance of temporary residence permits to citizens of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. It further states: “Taking into account the seriousness of the situation, as well as taking into account the inevitable increased risks associated with the immigration of citizens of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus to the Republic of Latvia, it is unacceptable that the extension of temporary residence permits already issued is carried out in the usual manner.”
Is this an appropriate and proportionate measure to strengthen national security and reduce potential threats? Opinions in society and among academics vary greatly. Some argue that Russian-speaking individuals who have lived in Latvia for 30 years without learning the national language are demonstrating their reluctance to integrate into Latvian society, and therefore, they should be encouraged to leave the state. Some add that individuals who do not understand Latvian are a threat to Latvia’s national security, as they live in Russia’s information bubble. Others suggest that requiring people to take language tests “through clenched teeth” will create anger and resentment toward Latvia, rather than loyalty.
Academics also point out that Latvia has not done enough to integrate Russian citizens who have been living in the country for a long time. A transitional justice scholar would note that Latvia’s integration policy has never aimed for reconciliation and has only included top-down integration of Russian-speakers. This is largely due to Latvia’s post-colonial situation and lasting threat perceptions stemming from Soviet occupation. Any concessions made at the beginning of the post-Soviet transition or any discourse that envisaged reconciliation were interpreted by some as a sign of weakness and a threat to national security. The war in Ukraine has reinforced this threat perception, leading to an aggressive protection of language as part of the culture and the central axis of Latvian self-confidence and modern national identity.
The transitional provisions of the Immigration Law stipulate that permanent residence permits for Russian citizens are valid until September 1, 2023 (or December 31, if the person submits proof they tried to pass the language exam and failed in the first attempt). To obtain a permanent residence permit, Russian citizens must submit all the necessary documents to claim EU permanent resident status in Latvia, including a certificate of having passed the Latvian exam. Those who fail to apply for EU permanent resident status can either apply for a temporary residence permit (if they fall into any of the restricted categories eligible for temporary residence permit) or apply for a long-term visa. If an individual does not obtain permanent residence permit and their status is reclassified to temporary, they will have reduced access to state-funded benefits. Alternatively, they can move to another place of permanent residence.
It’s no surprise that some Russian citizens living in Latvia are protesting these changes, particularly the requirement to pass a language exam. However, this situation illustrates the reality in Latvia: Although Latvian has been the only official state language since independence, Russian-speaking individuals have been able to live in Latvia for 30 years without the need to learn the national language, even at a basic conversational level.
Minister of the Interior Māris Kučinskis (United List), whose ministry is responsible for enforcing the law, has evaded the question of whether or not the state will seek to deport those who won’t be able to pass the exam. Rather, Kučinskis has suggested that actual expulsion would be both unenforceable and damaging to Latvia’s reputation. Meanwhile, politicians from the National Alliance party argue that Russians living in Latvia have long been shown hospitality and that other European countries, e.g. France, commonly issue deportation orders. The debates within the parliament emphasize a need to establish and follow a legal procedure to enforce the law and the need to preserve the rights of the people impacted, while also highlighting the duty of any person who intends to continue residing in Latvia to know the basics of the Latvian language.
From an academic perspective, the introduction of the requirement to know the state language for citizens of a former occupying colonizer state, 30 years after the end of the occupation, presents an interesting case for scholars of transitional justice. The post-colonial context requires consideration of various legal and political aspects, particularly through the lens of national security and the self-protecting democracy during the war in Ukraine. Also, critical legal studies may find this example particularly relevant. It is important to consider the proportionality of applied measures, the legitimate expectations of Russian citizens, who currently have a permanent residence permit, and the timing of the law, which asks for the justification of harsh measures so long after the transition.
There are already four cases in the Constitutional Court of Latvia that challenge the validity of the amendments, claiming discrimination against Russian citizens. The applicants argue that the deprivation of permanent status granted by the state would infringe on their right to the inviolability of private life and the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations. It remains to be seen whether the parliament will respond to the demands from those protesting the changes, for example, lowering the age threshold for exemption from the exam. The number of Russian citizens who will apply for the exam also remains to be seen. It is uncertain how far the Constitutional Court of Latvia will follow the argumentation of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which ruled in 2022 that Latvian citizenship had been accessible to plaintiffs claiming discriminatory treatment and stressed the long timeframe given to permanent residents of Latvia to obtain citizenship or learn the language. This ruling could strengthen the Latvian government’s position if a new case goes to the ECtHR.
As society becomes more polarized, the government must balance national security interests with the interests of individuals and ensure that measures applied are proportional and justified. The cases initiated in the Constitutional Court of Latvia will determine the validity of the amendments to the Immigration Law and their compliance with human rights standards. Ultimately, the resolution of this issue will depend on the government’s response to the demands of those protesting the changes and the court’s decision on the matter.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.