Back to the Roots: The Debate Over Citizenship in Estonia

Understanding the complex situation of stateless ethnic Russians in Estonia—discussed in a recent blog post by Lauri Malksoo—requires understanding the history of Estonia itself.

Situated on the coast of the Baltic Sea, at the crossroads of the Eastern and Western cultural space, Estonia has often been called a borderland. For nearly 700 years, this territory and its people were governed by foreign rulers. It wasn’t until World War I put Estonia on the political map of Europe in 1918 as a fully independent state, thus realizing the dream of a nation of just a million people.

But independence did not last long. As the result of the secret pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1940, Estonia was forced into the Soviet Union under the dictatorship of Stalin, one of the cruelest dictators of history. The Soviet occupation not only meant a new flag and a new anthem but for thousands of native inhabitants it also meant losing their home and property, deportation to Siberia, and in many cases shooting to death without trial. The Soviet repressions lasted for decades—from the mass deportations in 1949 to the persecution of dissidents in the 1980s. During these times a seemingly harmless act such as using the colors of the Estonian flag in fabrics or flower arrangements could end in a “25 plus 5”—25 years of strict prison regime plus 5 years of  forced settlement deep in Siberia.

Although the United States and several other Western governments never recognized the occupation of Estonia, Moscow did what it could to secure its power and neutralize opposition. An effective tool was changing the population structure, deporting ethnic Estonians to Russia and resettling ethnic Russians in Estonia. This policy was particularly successful in the Eastern part of Estonia where the Estonian-speaking population virtually disappeared. In 1989, only 31 out of 1,000 people spoke Estonian as their native language in the furthest east and third biggest town in Estonia, Narva.

Understandably, the Soviet officials and soldiers who settled in Estonia truly believed in the Stalinist regime and saw themselves as “liberators.” But the majority of Russian immigrants, numbed by the Stalinist propaganda, probably never actually realized they lived in a territory violently stripped of its independence.

When the bloodless “Singing Revolution” in 1991 restored Estonia’s independence, the citizenship rights of those who had been Estonian citizens before the Soviet occupation were also restituted and automatically granted to their descendants on the principle of jus sanguinis. The citizenship policy can thus not be considered harsh but in fact the only one possible, since in the legal sense no new country was created but the independence of an already existing state was restored.

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