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Ethnic Discord : Latvia Playing Russian Roulette : Courting chaos, the new Baltic state may strip more than a million of their citizenship.

March 24, 1992|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIGA, Latvia — When the people of Latvia took to the streets to demand independence a year ago, Jana Rubinchik did not hesitate to chant the dangerous slogans or sing the defiant anthems in the face of Soviet troops. At 22, she relished the chance to play whatever part she could in winning freedom for the land where she was born.

In the end, Latvia did, indeed, win.

But Rubinchik lost.

For one of the first things Latvia's freely elected new government did was to draft a law that would, in effect, render nearly half its 2.7 million inhabitants illegal aliens--Rubinchik included.

"This problem touches everybody," said government spokesman Alexander Mirlins. "If we don't resolve this, we will have another Belfast or Beirut here, and no one wants that."

Behind the controversial citizenship act is a small, beleaguered country's desperate search for an identity lost half a century ago. But the so-called de-Russification, this determined attempt to undo 51 years of Soviet occupation and colonization, is fraught with emotion, and entire generations are finding, like Rubinchik, that the price of giving Latvia an identity may be to sacrifice their own.

In Latvia, ordinary citizenship would be granted to those who held it before the 1940s Soviet occupation and to their children and grandchildren. All others would have to apply for citizenship and meet requirements that critics insist are far too stringent.

Neighboring Lithuania, which has a much smaller Russian presence, gave blanket citizenship to permanent residents at the time of independence. Estonia, on the other hand, would require 37% of its population--mostly Russian--to apply for citizenship, but naturalization would take only two years.

Under the law Latvia is considering, applicants for citizenship would be required to have at least 16 years' permanent residence along with a basic grasp of Latvia's constitution and complicated language. They would also have to renounce any other citizenship and swear allegiance to Latvia. Non-citizens could be denied the right to vote, hold state office or own property.

All higher education would be in the Latvian language, a switch from the current bilingual university program. Non-citizens would be allowed to own property.

"I'll apply, of course, and I have a good chance of getting citizenship, but I doubt my mother will qualify, because her Latvian isn't very good," said Rubinchika, who has Russian, Polish and Jewish blood, but no Latvian.

"The most difficult question anyone can ask me is what my nationality is," the young journalist continued. "Growing up, I learned Latvian songs and fairy tales, and we celebrated Latvian holidays like Christmas and the summer solstice, which Russians don't. But on the other hand, my mother gave me Russian literature, and I have a deep love for classical Russian painting. And, of course, we speak Russian."

Still, Latvia is her birthplace and, for 23 years, the only homeland she has ever known.

"If I'm among Russians for any length of time, I start to feel uneasy because it is a different mentality," she said, "but the same thing happens if I'm with Latvians for long. I feel in between. It's very lonely. I cannot define myself."

Ironically, the profound sense of loss is something Latvians, especially older ones, understand all too well.

After being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and occupied by the Red Army, the three Baltic states were subjected to a long, painful process of "Russification."

Tens of thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were eventually deported from their homelands, while about 1.5 million ethnic Russians flooded in, most of them sent to work in the new Soviet factories. The mass migration was part of a deliberate plan by Moscow to prevent any republic in the U.S.S.R. from becoming self-sufficient.

In this process, Latvia became the most heavily industrialized Baltic state, as well as the command post for an estimated 120,000 Red Army troops in the region. With its higher standard of living, Latvia also became a choice retirement spot for the officers, and anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 are thought to have settled here.

By the time independence came last summer, amid the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russian was the dominant language, and Latvians felt themselves ignored in their own capital, Riga, where an estimated 70% of the city's 916,500 inhabitants are Russian.

"We are on the verge of ceasing to exist as a nation," declared Maris Grinblats, the 37-year-old leader of the far-right Latvian Citizen's Congress, which demands "the voluntary repatriation" of all Russians.

"The citizens of Latvia have worse living standards than Russian occupiers," Grinblats charged. "They got the best housing and the most prized jobs."

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