Latvia to tackle citizens' rights: Ethnic Russians may eventually gain full rights in their adopted country, but not all at once

THE WINNERS of Latvia's general election declared yesterday that one of their first priorities in government will be to pass a law covering the citizenship rights of the hundreds of thousands of mainly ethnic Russian residents of the country who are currently barred from voting.

'We are aware of the need to act fast on this problem,' said Gunars Meierovics, a senior figure in the Latvian Way party which emerged as the clear victor in the election with just over 32 per cent of the vote. 'But the precise shade of the law we pass will depend on who we team up with in a coalition,' he added.

Mr Meierovics ruled out the possibility of an alliance with the far- right Latvian National Independence Movement, which, although coming second with 13.3 per cent, did less well than many had feared.

The second plank in the future government will almost certainly be the Latvian Farmers' Union (LZS), which scored some 10.6 per cent of the vote. While the Farmers' Union and Latvian Way reject extremist calls for the forcible repatriation to their countries of origin of Latvia's 700,000 non- citizens, both parties favour a 'gradual' naturalisation process - a euphemism for the fact that they want to impose strict quotas.

'There are just too many non-Latvians here. We cannot possibly give them all citizenship at once,' said Mr Meierovics, who is widely tipped to become the next president. 'It is easy to criticise us for wanting quotas, but what other choice do we have.'

Only citizens of the pre-1940 Latvian republic or their descendants - 28 per cent of whom are ethnic Russians or non-Latvians - were entitled to vote in the weekend election, which saw 75 per cent of the vote going to centre-right or far-right parties. Most Latvians reject giving carte blanche citizenship rights to the hundreds of thousands of mainly ethnic Russian workers brought into the country after it was invaded by the Red Army in 1940 and later annexed. They argue that the immigrants were not invited and that, with ethnic Latvians making up only 52 per cent of the 2.6 million -population, the locals are in danger of becoming a minority in their own country.

The failure to pass a citizenship law to date has met with howls of protest from representatives of the non- Latvian community here (mainly Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians), and, more importantly, from Moscow which accuses Riga of violating human rights.

'The extreme nationalist may not have won, but the general drift to the right has been confirmed,' said Aleasejs Grigorievs, a spokesman for the Harmony for Latvia party, which favours a speedy naturalisation process and which won 12 per cent of the vote. 'I fear that the trend towards excluding ethnic Russians from the country's mainstream activities will continue.'

In addition to voting rights, only citizens are allowed to own land. They are also set to receive double the number of privatisation vouchers in state-owned firms which are due to be sold off. The failure to pass a citizenship law until now - in contrast to Estonia and Lithuania - has also been criticised by some ethnic Latvians on the grounds that lack of clarity over the issue has slowed down much- needed economic reform.

Alfred Rubiks, Latvia's former Communist Party boss, who is in jail awaiting trial for treason, apparently won a parliamentary seat because he was on the Equal Rights Party's list, AP reports. He is due in court next week for supporting the failed August 1991 hardline coup in Moscow.

(Photograph omitted)