Latvia, Estonia slam Moscow's new minority rights criticism

1st March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Latvia and Estonia on Tuesday rejected renewed claims by Moscow that the two Baltic nations were violating the rights of their Russian-speaking minorities.

In a statement, Latvian Foreign Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis said he was "genuinely astonished" at remarks made by his Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov during a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Speaking to the global watchdog, Lavrov spotlighted the "shameful phenomenon" of statelessness in Latvia and Estonia.

The issue mainly affects Russian-speakers, many of whose roots lie in a Soviet-era settler community sent to the region during five decades of Kremlin rule.

Kristovskis said such comments were at best wrongheaded.

"Latvian legislation and the existing regulation on the matters of national minorities fully comply with standards of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and United Nations, and this is a subject that belongs to Latvia's domestic affairs," he said.

Latvia and Estonia have had rocky ties with Russia since they broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.

Moscow has spotlighted the minority issue frequently, notably since the two nations joined the European Union in 2004.

It argues that new citizenship rules introduced after independence -- including Latvian and Estonian language tests -- count as discrimination and left many Russian-speakers in a grey area because their Soviet citizenship no longer existed.

As of January, 14.6 percent of Latvia's 2.2 million people were stateless. In Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, the figure is 7.5 percent.

"Every non-citizen in Latvia is offered an opportunity to naturalise. However, to do that or not is a choice left up to each individual," said Kristovskis.

In a statement, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet questioned Moscow's motives.

"Thanks to the successful work of the Estonian government, since 1991 the number of stateless individuals has decreased and is now a fifth of what it was," he said.

"We encourage individuals with undetermined citizenship to apply for Estonian citizenship. Russia's role in this has not been constructive," he added.

© 2011 AFP

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