EU dispatch: Latvia immigration law may force thousands of Russian residents who failed language exam to leave Dispatches
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EU dispatch: Latvia immigration law may force thousands of Russian residents who failed language exam to leave

Oksana Bidnenko is a staff correspondent for JURIST. She is a Ukrainian law student at the Riga Graduate School of Law in Riga, Latvia.

On Tuesday, September 5, the situation in Latvia regarding the new Latvian Immigration Law took a significant turn. Controversial revisions to the law implemented on September 24, 2022 required Russian citizens seeking to maintain permanent residency permits in Latvia to prove their proficiency in the Latvian language at a minimum level of A2. This requirement was met with both domestic and international scrutiny, given its connection to rising tensions stemming from recent Russian actions, including the movement of Russian tanks toward Kyiv in February 2022.

In the lead-up to elections, the Latvian parliament approved an amendment to the Immigration Law that was proposed by the right-wing National Alliance. This amendment mandated that Russian and Belarusian citizens seeking to renew their existing residence permits in Latvia must pass a Latvian language proficiency test. This primarily affected individuals who had previously renounced their Latvian citizenship or non-citizen status in favor of Russian citizenship and were residing in Latvia on the basis of a permanent residency permit. To maintain their status, they were henceforward required to pass a Latvian language proficiency exam.

Initially, failing to pass this exam by September 1, 2023, would have led to the invalidation of all currently valid permanent residency cards issued to Russian citizens, regardless of the expiration date indicated on their cards. However, Cabinet of Ministers Regulation No. 157 outlined exemptions, including individuals under 15 and over 75 years, those who held a Latvian language bachelor’s degree, and those with specific medical conditions.

As of December, around 25,000 people were subject to the language examinations. Some Russian citizens filed applications with the Constitutional Court of Latvia, citing concerns about the right to the inviolability of private life and the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations. The court’s ruling on these cases remains pending.

On September 5, earlier this week, it was reported that 61% of Russian citizens who took the exam had failed it. Out of 13,147 registered for the test, 11,301 had taken it. Over 6,500 individuals applied for a repeated examination scheduled between September 4 and November 30.

For those whose residence permits expired due to exam failure, the Head of the Office for Citizenship and Migration Affairs clarified that they must leave Latvia within 90 days. Failure to do so would complicate their ability to cross the border legally. However, there is no official count of how many have left, or of their destinations.

In late August, the government proposed revisions to the Immigration Law, suggesting that Russian citizens who failed the language assessment by September 1 could apply for a two-year temporary residence permit, during which they would need to fulfill the Latvian language requirement. These amendments have been drafted, and the committee within the Saeima [Latvian legislature] is expediting their submission.

In my opinion, Latvia faces increased polarization within its society triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian citizens in the country are perceived as a potential security threat for the country, especially, when the Russian president justifies his invasion of countries with the protection of Russian speakers and Russian values. The Latvian government must navigate the delicate balance between national security concerns and individual interests. The resolution of this matter ultimately depends on the government’s response to protesters’ demands and the Constitutional Court’s rulings on the legality of the alterations made to the Immigration Law and their alignment with human rights norms.