Ethnic Categorization in Latvia

Olga Cara (University College, London)

The registration of citizens’ ethnicity in official documents and passports was a commonplace and compulsory in the Soviet Union. This paper explores what impact this has on current ethnicity registration processes and shows how primordial understanding of ethnicity is still in existence in Latvia.

The EU and international recommendations and human right standards fuelled the debate about the ethnicity record in the passport in Latvia, but the discussion was only about the record and not about the usefulness and necessity of the ethnicity category as such in registration papers. The current choice is to have or not have your ethnicity in the passport, but the retention of ethnicity category in the Population Register and a near complete absence of public discussion about this issue reflect the understanding of the ethnicity as being something as genuine and valid as somebody’s age or gender.

Moreover, the ethnicity category in the Population Register which is a central filing system for all residents and citizens of Latvia who has a personal ID number makes it possible to individually identify the members of any ethnic group. This is different from census categories where this individual identification is not possible.

Besides, bicultural identity is not allowed in the Population Registry or voluntary passport record. Moreover, continuous practice of ethnicity records and ethnic primordial rhetoric in political area encourages people to think about ethnicity is as something very rigid, almost like some physical features. This in turn hinders the development of inclusive civic Latvian identity.

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