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Tiny Baltic State Keeps Charging a Touchy Debate Over Who Should Belong

'LATVIA for Latvians.'' If this small Baltic state followed through on that popular slogan, it would be left with just over 50 percent of its current population.

But this fact is exactly why a recent campaign for more stringent ethnic restrictions on citizenship resonated in this newly independent country of 2.7 million, where during the Soviet era, many Russians immigrated at the same time as many Latvians were deported or fled.

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The hard memories of domination at the hands of its enormous and powerful neighbor, as well as the current difficulties of post-Soviet poverty, have helped make the nationalist Fatherland and Freedom party one of the strongest political forces here, according to recent polls.

This month, the party fell less than 5,000 signatures short of the 131,000 needed to hold a referendum on tightening Latvia's citizenship laws to prevent most Soviet-era migrants from ever becoming Latvian citizens.

Far from considering the failed initiative a defeat, Party leader Maris Grinblats, who is also Latvia's minister of education, called the campaign a moral victory. Although they repeatedly affirm that Latvian citizenship isn't based on ethnicity and point to thousands of ethnic Russians, Estonians, and Jews who hold Latvian passports, Fatherland and Freedom sees much of the Russian migrant population who migrated after World War II as a latent threat to Latvia's national sovereignty.

Boris Tsilevich, a Latvian citizen of Russian Jewish ancestry who works for a conflict-resolution institute, sees no reason for Latvians to fear the Russian population.

''Not a single case when noncitizens attempted to protect their interest by violent, anticonstitutional means has ever been discovered,'' Mr. Tsilevich said in an interview by e-mail. ''In my view, what is going on is an attempt to change rules during the game for the next time'' so that the current rulers will not be voted out of office by newly naturalized citizens.

Indeed, as a sign that at least some Latvians are entering the 21st century, the referendum initiative was hotly debated in the Baltic corners of cyberspace, such as the BALT-L discussion group.

But most supporters of the failed initiative can't afford the luxury of a cyberspace soap box. A small band of elderly demonstrators, carrying mainly Russian-language placards urging Russian migrants to leave and accusing Russia of genocide in the southern rebel republic of Chechnya, gathers regularly near Latvia's Freedom Monument in Riga, the capital.

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Yet in the last days of signature-gathering in Riga, an election official said that ''we've seen Russians and Poles who are Latvian citizens signing.'' She stamped the passports of everyone who signed in a practice that has been denounced by Latvia's Human Rights Agency as a form of registering a person's political convictions.

''I'm not afraid of the stamp. This is the way it must be,'' said Gaisma Antonovica, who braved icy cobblestone streets to sign on the last day. And Rudolfs Sudmalis, who says he spent 13 years in Soviet labor camps, said that he was signing to protest Russians ''who are buying property and eating us out of our own land, as well as the retired Russian officers getting fat pensions.''

The prominent editor of a business newspaper said that calling the signature campaign a victory was ''foolishness.''

''The point is that more than 90 percent of the Latvian electorate was against this proposal or indifferent,'' he said. ''Moreover, Fatherland and Freedom was behind the current citizenship law when it was passed by the last parliament, so they're agitating against their own law.''

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