[by Kate Mrkvicka]

More than any other aspect of the Baltic independence movements, the formation of citizenship policy reveals the extent to which memory and the historical past are intertwined with national identity. The republics’ period of independence before the Soviet annexation in 1940, as well as the fact that most Western nations never recognized the annexation as legitimate, fed into the perception of Baltic states that their independence was not gained, but regained. The region’s history of Russian and Soviet domination is at the core of the formation of its post-Soviet identity. The combination of the memory of independence and a half century of Soviet rule gave the post-Soviet citizenship policies of the Baltic states a particularly defensive orientation and has led to accusations of discrimination by Baltic Russians and Russia proper.

The importance of the first period of Baltic independence to the second is monumental. Anatol Lievan states that, “the new Baltic States are modeling not just their political symbolism, but their political ideologies, parties and state institutions, on those of the period of independence between 1918 and 1940” (Lieven, 55). This process has involved the mythification of both periods of independence as well as a resurgence of ethnic consciousness in all three nations. Although Russians had inhabited the region for centuries, the period of Soviet rule resulted in a surge of immigration, so much so that the indigenous populations, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, felt that their cultural identity and very existence were threatened. Even in 1994, ethnic Latvians composed only 54% of the nation’s population (Chinn and Truex, 137). According to the 1989 census, ethnic Estonians composed 63% of the national population. In Lithuania, the non-native population represented a much smaller, and thus less threatening, percentage of the population as a whole. Ostensibly for this reason, Lithuanian post-Soviet citizenship policy is the most liberal of the three nations. All permanent residents of Lithuania before 1991 were granted citizenship, and the naturalization process to attain citizenship is relatively inclusive (ibid., 136).

In Latvia and Estonia, however, a sense of cultural and ethnic vulnerability greatly impacted citizenship policies formulated during the independence movements. The 1991 Estonian citizenship law granted automatic citizenship only to those pre-1940 nationals and their descendants. All other prospective citizens must fulfill a two-year residency requirement, pass an Estonian language and history exam, and take an oath of loyalty to the state (Lieven, 310). Because of these requirements, most non-Estonian residents were not included in the 1992 elections. Latvia adopted the harshest policy of the region, largely due to the general opinion in the nation of Russian residents as “colonists”, language used by the Congress itself (ibid., 307). In addition to granting automatic citizenship to pre-war inhabitants, the Latvian 1993 citizenship law required 10 years of residency for prospective citizens, knowledge of the Latvian language, and a stable income. The most controversial aspect of the law was the establishment of quotas which greatly limited the number of non-Latvians who could attain citizenship annually (ibid., 310). Both the Latvian and the Estonian citizenship policies galvanized the Russian government. Portions of the ethnic Russian population in Estonia staged protests and even threatened to secede. The Russian government also attempted to use the timetable for the withdrawal of Russian troops stationed in Latvia and Estonia as leverage in negotiating a more favorable citizenship policies (Barrington, 23). Latvia and Estonia also attracted criticism from the Council of Europe (CE), Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and Helsinki Watch (Erlanger, 1). Eventually, some aspects of the policies were amended, but the Russian government continues to accuse the nations of discrimination against Baltic Russians.


Works cited

  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution : Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (Yale University Press, 1994).
  • Jeff Chinn and Lise A. Truex, “The Question of Citizenship in the Baltics,” Journal of Democracy 7.1 (1996).
  • Lowell W. Barrington, “An Explanation of the Citizenship Policies of Estonia and Lithuania,” American Political Science Association, 1 Sept 1995, <>, 23.
  • Steven Erlanger. “Latvia Amends Harsh Citizenship Law That Angered Russia,” The New York Times, 24 July 1994, < >, 1.