Citizenship: Doing away with the national question

A British citizenship medal, London 2007 (AFP)
A British citizenship medal, London 2007 (AFP)
7 October 2009 – Postimees (Tallinn)

Now that the borders have disappeared and its powerful Russian minority is calling for enfranchisement, Estonia is rethinking its concept of “cohabitation”. Postimees argues that this is something all countries should do, especially in light of latter-day immigration.

On 1 October, justice minister Indrek Teder told the Estonian parliament the country is too ethnocentric and ought to be rethinking the principles and philosophy of the Estonian state, i.e. progressively moving towards a citizenship-based society. (Estonia basically distinguishes between Estonians and non-Estonians. Over 7% – mostly ethnic Russians – of the resident population do not have citizenship – down from 32% in 1992).

After the April 2007 riots (police clashed with ethnic Russians after the Bronze Soldier was taken down, a memorial to the Soviet army’s victory over Nazism), the Estonian state actively sought to integrate the young generation of non-Estonians into society. But when public opinion simmered down, other far more urgent issues eclipsed the quest for social cohesion. Apart from some draft legislation and various proposals on the matter, the discussion of integration was confined to the Ministry of Population (a body disbanded this summer), without eliciting a wider debate in society.

Towards a citizen-based society

Consequently, the justice minister’s proposals to the government ought to be applauded for rekindling the debate about the “national question” in Estonia. Mr Teder advances a cosmopolitan view that has yet to find many adherents in present-day Estonia, where it is more politically correct to vaunt the nation-state and the vital force of “feeling Estonian” than to see the dangers inherent in the principles of an ethnocentric state. The nation-state is perceived along very different lines on either side of Europe. The old European countries generally take the approach that anyone who lives in the country and speaks the language should be considered a fully-fledged member of society. We newcomers in Eastern Europe are more ethnocentric owing to our history: for over 50 years we had to watch from the sidelines as Europe’s borders fell, so all of that is very new to us.

Addressing the nationality issue in terms of a society of “citizens” rather than “nationals” is a sign of a mature state. Our progress towards a more cohesive and citizen-centred society, as urged by Estonia’s minister of justice, is probably inevitable: we cannot possibly approach the question of nationality in the 21st century the same way we did in the 19th. The only question is whether this process is going to be steered by the government or left to the mercy of new and uncontrolled social outbursts like the “excesses” of 2007. Plainly, it would be wiser for the state to get the process going now, while it can still keep control over it, rather than remaining passive and running the risk of losing control.

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