Some nationality disorder

Since 1991, Estonia has tens been home to tens of thousands of “non-citizens” — Russian-speakers who settled in Estonia in Soviet times. Their numbers are decreasing, but too slowly. Is this Moscow's fault?

Published on 5 May 2011 at 14:32

The number of non-citizens in Estonia is falling every year. The reasons are many: some have opted for Russian passports, while others have died. And, finally, some have even obtained Estonian nationality.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number of non-citizens fell in April to below 100,000 people for the first time since Estonia recovered its independence [in 1991]. According to the Deputy Secretary-General for Internal Security, Erkki Koorts, the number of non-citizens should continue to fall in the future, owing to strong demand for Estonian passports for children of Russian speakers.

The large number of non-citizens has always been a source of conflict between Estonia and Russia. In 1994 the Russian Commission on Citizenship Issues declared: “Hundreds of thousands of persons residing in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remain without citizenship, have restricted voting and property rights, and their right to live in these countries is being questioned.” Moscow then proposed to give these people dual citizenship. Since then, the policy of Estonia’s large neighbour has changed little in the matter. In a recent speech before the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attacked Estonia and Latvia for their large number of non-citizens and called the situation “shameful.”

Estonia does not have the precise number of non-citizens present within its borders in the aftermath of independence, mainly because at that time Tallinn regarded these people as “citizens of the Soviet Union.” The Aliens Act was passed in 1993, and in the following year the first grey passports were issued to non-citizens.

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The demand for Estonian citizenship went through something of a boom once Estonia entered the European Union in 2004. Soon afterwards, though, the decision of Moscow [Act of June 17, 2008] to authorise the holders of grey passports to travel to Russia without a visa and Estonia's entry into the Schengen area [in 2007], which guarantees permanent residents freedom of movement throughout western Europe regardless of their citizenship, cooled the desire to obtain Estonian citizenship.

“Russia's decision to waive visa requirements for holders of grey passports cannot be considered a friendly act towards Estonia, as it seeks to perpetuate the problem,” said Koorts.

Having Estonian citizenship certainly makes the job search easier, but young men have good reason to hold onto the grey passport. As Estonian citizens, they must do military service; if they hold a Russian passport, they may have to go into the Russian army. Neither country, however, imposes an obligation on non-citizens to do military service.


More or less citizens

Just after independence in 1991, Tallinn decided to limit the automatic granting of Estonian citizenship to persons residing in the country before its annexation by the Soviet Union, as well as to their descendants. Those who had arrived after 1940, and their children born in Estonia or elsewhere, could acquire Estonian citizenship on condition that they be proficient in the Estonian language and know the country's history. Some 125,000 Russian speakers who failed the tests or refused to take them have become stateless, or “non-citizens”, who hold a grey passport. Tens of thousands have opted for the red Russian passports proposed by Moscow. Since 1995, all children born in Estonia after 1992 may obtain Estonian citizenship unconditionally.


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