BNN IN FOCUS | Saeima holds heated debates about Russia citizens: «to deport or not to deport?»

On Thursday, the 30th March, Latvia’s Saeima passed in the first reading amendments to the Immigration Law that provide certain minor reliefs for Russian citizens to make it easier for them to update their residence permits. The planned amendments caused sharp discussions among deputies – certain politicians said the proposed changes will basically «permit forced deportation of these people from the country».
69 deputies voted in favour of amendments, 12 voted against, and eight abstained in the vote. The final reading of amendments to the Immigration Law is planned for next week.
Jānis Dombrava from the National Alliance said the

arguments from For Stability political party leader Aleksejs Rosļikovs against the proposed amendments to the Immigration Law can be considered as «pitiful Russian propaganda».

«I just had the feeling it was some pitiful Russian propaganda voiced from the Saeima tribune. This is about Russian citizens who were as old as me in the 90s; most of them did not consider it necessary to learn the state language and integrate in Latvian society,» said Dombrava, adding that approximately 95% of these people «voted for a terrorist and murdered» at the last Russian presidential elections.
The current transition rules listed in the Immigration Law state that Russian citizens’ held residence permits are valid until the 1st of September 2023. If these people want to update their permits, they have to submit to the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (PMPL) a certificate proving their level of state language by the 1st of September 2023.

Deputies in the opposition tried to appeal to the conscience of other Saeima deputies,

saying that the planned amendments «are inhumane, because the majority of Russian citizens living in Latvia are elderly people. They cannot pass state language exam due to various health problems. This means all of these people, many of whom are sick, will likely be shoved over the state border after the 2nd of September». Certain deputies said some Russian citizens have difficulty in receiving health evaluation statements from doctors to prove they are unable to take state language exams.
«According to studies and data from PLMP, 90% of people who will be forced to leave our country are, as I’ve already told the National Alliance, pensioners – people with weak health and chronic health problems,» explained Rosļikovs, adding that 9 202 of those people are pensioners.
The leader of For Stability stressed that the majority of these people previously decided to pick Russian citizenship for pension purposes,

«because over the course of their lives they could not secure enough to ensure sufficient pension to retire».

«Considering that the situation has changed in the world, this will mean an attempt to seek revenge on them. 9 200 people will be deported to a country where they have no relatives, no real estate, no one to welcome them. 5 000 of them are pensioners. They don’t have anyone even here. This is why Dombrava’s joke during the committee’s meeting that we will help with real estate sounded as absolutely insane. What will this mean? We will deport them and give away their apartments to more deserving people?» asked Rosļikovs.
He also invited the Combined List to not become the «first party» in charge of the Ministry of the Interior to restore the practice of people’s deportation in the history of independent Latvia.
Dombrava said that most of those people support Russian war crimes in Ukraine and do not condemn the crimes committed by the Soviet Union against Latvia. He also claimed that Latvia has already given them a great deal of generosity – the planned amendments include a condition that permit people to take language exams again if necessary.
«Russian citizens are not more special than citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan, whose residence permits in Latvia have run out,» said Dombrava, adding that

«unlike foreigners of other nationalities, Russian citizens are given the privilege to take the language exam twice».

Previously it was reported that there are almost 17 500 Russian citizens living in Latvia that have to prove their state language skills. Most of them were former non-citizens who decided to pick Russian citizenship instead of Latvian.
At the same time, concerns are voiced in the public space that state institutions will not be able to process all state language exam requests received to extend residence permits. Considering the aforementioned, in February Minister of the Interior Māris Kučinskis proposed easing residence requirements for Russian citizens in Latvia and dropping the 1st September deadline. Instead he suggested making the process more gradual, over several years. Additionally, he suggested requesting proof of people’s state language skills only if a person’s residence permit is nearing its end.
This proposal was rejected following objections from the National Alliance. Then the ministry proposal a new law amendment variant in which it was proposed to state – if documents for extension of residence permits are submitted before September, Russian citizens would be allowed to continue living in Latvia, but PMLP would have the right to review applications for up to a year. The planned amendments also state that if the first attempt to pass the language exam fails, it will be allowed to try again before the end of November. The certificate proving knowledge of language by the end of the year.
Igors Rajevs from the Combined List said the planned amendments offer two opportunities. «They will give our services an opportunity to perform all necessary activities in accordance with existing legislation and regulations. Secondly – amendments will help preserve the rights of the people affected by this law,» he said.
During debates in the Saeima, deputies also mentioned multiple problems associated with the planned amendments. Representative of the Union of Greens and Farmers Viktors Valainis mentioned that amendments are necessary, but it is concerning if institutions have enough capacity to satisfy the demand for language courses and language exams.
«Saeima deputies were deceived – all Saeima deputies were deceived about institutional capacity and their ability to comply with the law. We asked all these questions about testing and terms, and we received confirmation. But today we see that PMLP cannot handle even its basic functions – issuing passports or e-ID cards to residents in accordance with specific terms,» explained Valainis, adding that people have to wait long queues to get their documents or inquire about services.
Valainins doubted the opposition’s stance about «planned mass deportations», saying that he believes this is simply not possible. «We should exclude such words from our rhetoric. We are not the kind of country that engages in deportations or exile. It was in our history, these tragic events happened. I believe we shouldn’t talk about these things. We respect the legal system that we have, and it does not allow such things regardless of whether a person has failed one or both exams,» he said, stressing that «in the current situation the Saeima has no other option than to pass this law».
Artūrs Butāns from the National Alliance reminded the opposition that previously in the committee it was explained that the planned amendments do no apply to children and pensioners older than 75 years. He said «part of the opposition has taken a position, believing that everyone will be deported without exceptions in September».
«And why would anyone be deported? If you’re saying they will be deported, it means you think they disobey the law. You assume they will not comply with the law. Or maybe you believe none of them know the language. If we look at data from the Latvian Language Agency, most of them know the language,» he explained adding, that he does «not understand what the commotion is about, because those who oppose the legislative draft assume all Russian citizens have a document that proves their state language knowledge».

«So why all the worry?» asked Butāns.

The Progressive Party’s representatives stressed that the legislative draft is legally incorrect. Atis Švinka said the planned amendments are of low quality and that part of the blame is on the previous Saeima. He said the National Alliance has been in the coalition for years and was responsible for the Ministry of Culture and development of the state language. So this is why the question is – if the issue of the language is so important, why didn’t the party try to motivate Russians living in Latvia to learn the language and integrate in Latvia’s society earlier?
Švinka also said that he understands the party’s position in regards to Russian-speakers, that «many of them have lived here for 20, 30 and 50 years without knowing the state language».
Non-party Saeima deputy Glorija Grevcova said the amendments should also apply to citizens of Belarus and other countries who want to receive residence permits in Latvia.
Currently the law states that for the people who are required to have a certificate proving their language skills to receive the status of EU permanent resident, residence permits will remain valid until the 31st of December if PLMP receives relevant information about a person’s state language skills by the 1st of September 2023 and by the 30th of November 2023 if the person took a repeated exam.
Approximately 8 000 Russian citizens have applied for mandatory state language exams in Latvia.
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