Russian citizens in Latvia face tests or expulsion
STORY: PLEASE NOTE: THIS VIDEO HAS BEEN UPDATED FOR CLARITY ON THE LATVIAN GOVERNMENT'S LANGUAGE TEST REQUIREMENTS.
THE TEST APPLIES ONLY TO RUSSIAN CITIZENS RESIDING IN LATVIA, AND LATVIAN NON-CITIZENS.
Speaking Russian in Latvia has not been a problem until now. About a fourth of the country's population is ethnically Russian, and it was generally acceptable to have Russian as a person's only language.
But the war in Ukraine has entirely changed the picture.
When Moscow began its Ukraine invasion, Latvia switched off Russian TV channels and crushed a Soviet World War Two monument. It has also started working towards eliminating education in Russian.
And now in the capital Riga, dozens of elderly Russian citizens wait to take a basic Latvian language test, as a proof of loyalty to a country where they have lived for decades.
Each applied for Russian passports after independent Latvia re-emerged in 1991 from the ashes of the Soviet Union.
It made them eligible for retirement at 55, a pension from Russia, and visa-free travel to Russia and Belarus.
They fear they may be deported if they fail.
70 year old Valentina Sevastjanova is taking a three-month crash course in Latvian.
"Despite concerns, I have faith that Latvia is a democratic state and will not resort to mass deportations. Furthermore, I have no other place to go as I have resided here for 40 years. Although I was born in Belarus, I obtained Russian citizenship only to visit my ailing parents who needed my care at the time."
Last year saw a growing rift between the country’s Latvian majority and its Russian-speaking minority over their place in society.
There was widespread anger over former Soviet master Moscow’s invasion in Ukraine.
And after the country’s 2022 election campaign, which was dominated by questions of national identity, State Secretary Dmitrijs Trofimovs said the government has demanded 20,000 people sit through language exams.
"If we make the difference between emotions and legal regulation we understand that if you are a citizen of another state, you are under protection, also under social protection and another kind of protection of another state. If you want to be and want to reside in another state, it has to be in compliance with the immigration law."
He said Russian citizens under 75 who do not pass the test by the end of the year will be given reasonable time to leave.
If not, they could face “forced expulsion.”