RIGA, Latvia, May 14 (UPI) -- Latvia's Parliament has voted to ease citizenship rules for those living abroad but excluded Russia, drawing criticism from the country's Russian speakers.
After two years of debate, a majority of Latvian lawmakers in the Saeima voted last week to end a restriction on dual citizenship for those of Latvian descent living in many foreign countries, such as the hundreds of thousands who have left the country seeking jobs since its independence in 1990.
In 2011, Latvia -- a nation of 2 million whose economy was hit hard by the recession -- lost up to 37,000 citizens to emigration, University of Latvia econometrics Professor Mihails Hazans told the LETA news agency in March.
The new amendments embrace the concept of dual citizenship, which provides that economic migrants and their descendants in the European Union, NATO countries, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand will be able to retain Latvian citizenship while also hanging on to their current citizenship.
The dual citizenship bill, however, excludes those living in Russia and Israel, which the country's Russian-speaking minority protested as a discriminatory move to create "second-class" countries, and by extension, second-class Latvian citizens.
Some 54 members of the Saeima voted to approve the measures, while all 27 MPs of the Harmony Center party, which represents the Russian speakers, voted against.
The Citizenship Law amendments also cover those exiled under the Nazi occupation of World War II during the post-war Soviet occupation, which lasted until May 4, 1990, when the Latvian Supreme Council declared the nation's independence from the Soviet Union.
Such exiles can become dual citizens no matter where they live.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said last week's vote is a long-needed boon for Latvians who have been forced to leave their homeland for political or economic reasons.
"The new wording of the Citizenship Law upgrades the current regulation, while applying the concept of citizenship to the dynamic change in the modern world, including Latvia's accession to the family of the European Union and NATO states," he said.
The Harmony Center party was turned back in its attempts to add the Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional bloc of former Soviet republics including Russia, to be added to the list of states were Latvian migrants and their children can hold dual citizenship.
Harmony Center Deputy Chairman Valery Agesins said the dual citizenship amendment sorts Latvian citizens into "right" and "wrong" categories and smacks of "elite club" politics.
"For example," he said, "the Latvian national who traveled to the U.K. for a job and is willing to accept the nationality of that country is getting into a better position than the Latvian national who went to Russia to work and is willing to accept the Russian state."
Latvian Citizenship and Immigration Deputy Chief Janis Citskovskis told Latvian Radio, however, restricting dual citizenship to countries that are "politically and militarily close" was necessary for security reasons.
"Until now, dual citizenship was denied because people cannot serve two masters in the event of armed conflict," he said. "It is believed that these countries are close to us and there is no possibility that they might break a military conflict."
The amendments to the Citizenship Act are set come into force Oct. 1.