RIGA, Latvia, March 26 (UPI) -- Russian-speaking "non-citizens" of Latvia barred from voting in parliamentary elections will instead have parallel elections of their own, organizers say.
The leaders of the "Non-Citizen Congress" announced Saturday in Riga they have decided to organize a parallel parliament for Latvian non-citizens in the country who don't have the right to vote in the June 1 elections, the LETA news agency reported.
The group's initial congress convened last weekend, during which about 250 registered representatives presided over its first official business. Group founder Yuri Alexeyev said the number of people seeking to attend had doubled in the run-up to the event, which was called to focus attention on the legal limbo faced by Latvia's approximately 320,000 "non-citizens."
They are mainly Russian-speakers who immigrated to the country in the 1940s while it was part of the former Soviet Union. They have special passports and are seen by Latvia's post-independence officials as citizens of the former U.S.S.R., but without citizenship in either Russia or Latvia.
"The Non-Citizen's Congress is aimed at eliminating the institution of the non-citizen -- the non-granting of citizenship in one way or another," Alexeyev said. "We need an effective recipe to end the status of non-citizens. Since the government does not want to deal with it, we will do so by means of civil society."
The non-citizens, who make up about 15 percent of Latvia's population, can become naturalized if they can demonstrate a knowledge of the Latvian language but progress in naturalization has stalled after five years of efforts.
Latvia's political leaders blame the Russian-speaking minority for unwillingness to adapt due to ideological, historical and practical reasons, but Non-Citizen Congress task force member Elizabete Krivcova told LETA many of them have problems with naturalization due to health and age issues, not an unwillingness to naturalize.
The idea for the Non-Citizen Congress emerged in November when a referendum drive to grant automatic citizenship for the Russian-speakers organized by the For Human Rights in United Latvia party was derailed by the country's Central Elections Commission.
The activists collected 12,000 signatures from full Latvian citizens in support of the move -- thus passing the first stage of the referendum process. The next stage called for the collection of at least 150,000 more signatures, which would have qualified the bill for official support, Russian broadcaster RT reported.
But election officials voted to halt the process because it contradicted the principle of continuity guaranteed by the Latvian constitution and violated the European Union's opposition to the mass submission of citizenship applications on security grounds, CEC officials said.
Non-Citizen's Congress co-founder Valery Kamarov said the parallel parliamentary elections were important to demonstrate that the new congress could legitimately represent the interests of non-citizens.
But Riga mayoral candidate Sarmite Elerte, a high-profile member of the ruling Unity Party, said the Non-Citizen's Congress is a merely a political project that has little to do with a sincere desire to help people, LETA reported.
"Latvian citizenship law is fair and allows anyone who has lived in Latvia a certain number of years and has passed relatively simple language and history exams to gain citizenship," she said.
Elerte added that some have chosen non-citizen status to make it easier to travel to Russia while for others it is a matter of principal to cling to their identities as citizens of the U.S.S.R.