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


She is a Ukrainian law student at the Riga Graduate School of Law in Riga, Latvia. She is a Ukrainian student of law at the Riga Graduate School of Law, in Riga. The controversial revisions of the law that went into effect on September 24, 2022, required Russian citizens who wanted to keep their permanent residency permit in Latvia to demonstrate their Latvian language proficiency at a level no lower than A2. The requirement was closely scrutinized both in Latvia and internationally, due to its link to rising tensions resulting from recent Russian actions. This included the movement of Russian tanks towards Kyiv, in February 2022. The amendment required that Russians and Belarusians who wanted to renew their residence permits in Latvia pass a Latvian proficiency test. This amendment mainly affected those who had renounced Latvian citizenship in favour of Russian citizenship, and were living in Latvia under a permanent residence 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. 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 have filed complaints with the Constitutional Court of Latvia citing concerns over the right to inviolability of personal life and the principle of protection of legitimate expectation. On September 5, this week, the court has not yet ruled on these cases. 11301 of the 13,147 people who registered to take the test had actually taken it. More than 6,500 people applied for the repeated exam scheduled between September 4, and November 30, 2010. If they fail to comply, it will complicate their ability 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 is expediting their submission.

In my opinion, Latvia faces increased polarization within its society triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russians in Latvia are viewed as a security threat, especially when the Russian president defends his invasions with the protection for Russian speakers and Russian culture. The Latvian government has to strike a delicate balance between individual rights and national security. The final resolution of this issue depends on how the government responds to protesters and whether the Constitutional Court rules on the legality of alterations to the Immigration Law that are in line with human rights standards.