Cablegate: Latvian Budget Crisis Erodes Capacity On Human

DE RUEHRA #0545/01 3160925
P 120925Z NOV 09



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1. (SBU) Summary: Human rights institutions are bracing for
severe cuts as a result of belt-tightening in Latvia.
Institutions intended to increase integration and ensure
basic human rights face either steep cuts or sweeping
reorganization. Under the proposed budget, the
Naturalization Board, responsible for facilitating the
acquisition of citizenship for Latvia's non-citizen
population, will be merged into the Office on Citizenship and
Migration. While this is a logical pairing, there are doubts
about the motive for the move, especially since the cost
savings will be modest. The already cash-strapped
Ombudsman's office will also face acute cuts under the
proposed budget. Progress in human rights areas of concern
will be increasingly difficult in this environment. End

2. (U) On November 5, Saeima (Parlaiment) passed the first
reading of its 2010 budget, designed to comply with the
dictates of international lenders (see reftel). The new
budget imposes across-the-board spending cuts affecting
almost every institution of the Latvian Government, including
those vital to providing social services and fighting
corruption. The human rights institutions involved have
smaller budgets and have flown under the radar to some
extent, but their drastically reduced budgets will affect
their ability to operate.

The Naturalization Board

3. (U) Latvia has approximately 340,000 residents, mostly
Russian-speaking, who do not hold the citizenship of any
country. The Naturalization Board (NB) operates service
centers that collect naturalization applications and
administer naturalization tests. Meanwhile, the Office of
Citizenship and Migration is responsible for tracking
immigrants and issuing passports. Facing declining numbers
of applications and a first round of budget cuts last year,
the NB had already closed seven of its fifteen service
centers and reducd staff by more than half. The proposed
budget would cut the NB budget again, stripping it of its
largely independent status and place it under the OCM, within
the Ministry of Interior.

4. (SBU) Representatives of the NB complain that the proposed
reorganization could eliminate much of the staff familiar
with naturalization operations, slowing or even halting the
naturalization process. Both NB and human rights NGOs express
concern about the transfer of naturalization powers from a
body intended to encourage naturalization to a body whose
operating ethos is one of protecting Latvia against unwanted
immigrants. Ilze Brands-Kehris of the Latvian Center on
Human Rights notes that Latvia has resisted international
calls to give non-citizens greater rights by saying it
prefers to encourage them to naturalize - a signal that the
current plan would undermine. In defense of the proposal,
Ingrida Circene, chair of the Saeima Human Rights Committee
and from the right-of-center New Era party, argues that all
agencies are facing cuts, and there is no reason to think
that a restructured NB can't handle the job.

5. (SBU) Circene further argued that because the number of
naturalization applications has declined in recent years, the
NB is a reasonable place to look for cuts. Furthermore,
opponents of naturalization often argue that "everyone who
wants to naturalize has already done so." However, as rumors
circulated that the NB would close entirely, there was a
small rush of applicants - possibly trying to get their
applications in before the window closed for good. In the
first nine months of 2009 there have been almost as many
applications as in all of 2008. This would indicate that
there are still some non-citizens that could be persuaded by
the right incentive to naturalize.

The Ombudsman's Office

6. (SBU) In contrast, the Office of the Ombudsman does not
face a restructuring -- rather, it faces a budget that will
be less than half what it was in 2008. The Ombudsman's
office is charged with investigating and responding to any
alleged rights violation by the GOL, and for providing
recommendations on how to improve Latvia's institutions from
a human rights perspective. The office has been plagued with
controversy over the last year, as staff released an open
letter decrying the lack of leadership and poor management of
Ombudsman Romans Apsitis. The Ombudsman's office has focused
on meeting the minimum required standards to reply to each
complaint received, and has made only infrequent, and some

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claim trivial, recommendations for legislation. In meetings
with PolOff, Apsitis has declined to discuss management
complaints that he considers internal matters, but noted that
budget cuts are crippling what limited ability his office had
to make bold or proactive recommendations.

7. (SBU) Apsitis has lost the faith of both human rights NGOs
and of the Saeima. Circene expressed dismay that the clear
ineffectiveness of the office and the lack of confidence in
Apsitis personally made the Ombudsman an easy target for
budget cuts. Brand-Kehris noted broad agreement that Apsitis
is ineffective, but noted that poor management doesn't mean
the office's function is unnecessary, as gutting its budget
implies. Brand-Kehris also noted that equally cash-strapped
NGOs would shift emphasis to pick up the slack where the
Ombudsman's office failed to advocate for human rights
improvements, especially in closed institutions like prisons.

8. (SBU) Comment: Latvia needs to slash its budget, and there
is no way to avoid painful cuts to some well-intentioned
institutions in this process. Independent voices like the
Ombudsman and Naturalization Board are proving vulnerable to
particularly harsh cuts. These institutions should not be
exempt from budgetary scrutiny, but if the current proposed
budget passes, Latvia's chances to make progress on human
rights issues will be greatly diminished.


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