Catch-22 for Russian elderly in Baltics

Elderly Russians living in Latvia have become trapped in a Catch-22 situation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They can't travel and have become non-citizens, because they have failed to give up their old Soviet-Union passports.

Mostly pensioners, they long for the old days, and haven't come to terms with the new European reality of the Baltics. Meanwhile, in Latvia, three in ten of the population have Russian background.

Irina Pryadko, a 79-year-old, is a part of the Russian ethnic minority in Latvia. She doesn't miss her homeland, but yearns for a country which no longer exists.

“Yeltsin alone decided that we could be thrown out of the Soviet Union. And nothing good came from it. We've been here for fifteen years. We have been under the yoke. We are not pensioners here. We were pensioners under the USSR. We got many privileges, we worked and we got a pension,” she said.

Irina's nostalgia for the Soviet past does not make her different from millions of people who felt the same in Russia itself. Unfortunately, she was living in Latvia when the Soviet Union broke up, and has been forced to contend with Latvia's reassertion of its national identity.

To get a Latvian passport under the new regime, a citizen has to pass a test, demonstrating knowledge of Latvian history and language.

Irina Pryadko, however, has not taken the test.

“We're not ashamed of the Russian language, we are even proud of it. I don't think there is a better language anywhere in the world. Half of the world speaks Russian,” she claimed.

Irina has become a non-citizen. She cannot vote. She cannot travel abroad.

“Many of them didn't take any citizenship. So they are not citizens. They thought that they were staying loyal to the USSR and its successor, Russia, but in fact it turns out that neither Russia nor Putin want these citizens,” Mikhail Gubin, a journalist from Latvia, comments.

In the view of Latvia's parliamentary majority, Latvia's membership of the Soviet Union was the result of an annexation by its bigger neighbour in 1940. And now the country is re-establishing its place in Europe. Latvia has been a member of both NATO and the European Union since 2004.

For many Latvians, history is on their side.

“It will take a hundred years for them to outgrow their nostalgia for the Soviet Empire. Or they should adopt the same position as Germany under Adenauer. Putin must follow the path of true democracy and reveal to the Russian people all the crimes of the Red Army and the KGB and ask for forgiveness, as Germany did. We don't have any problems now with Germany,” Visvaldis Lacis, a Member of Latvian Parliament said.

Throughout the post-Soviet period, Russia has claimed that whatever the historical issues, the Russian minority living in the Baltic states shouldn't be treated as some second-rate group and denied their basic rights.

In the last twelve months Russia has begun a programme to entice ethnic Russians back to their motherland.

Nevertheless, for some of the 150 thousand non-citizens in Latvia this is little consolation.