Stateless But Not Right-less: The Debate Over Citizenship in Estonia

Sometimes, an image is invoked in international media (take for example two recent New York Times articles, “Soviet Legacy Lingers as Estonia Defines Its People” and “Estonia Raises Its Pencils to Erase Russian”) that Estonia, with its conservative policies on citizenship and language, is “paying back” the ethnic Russians for what the USSR—especially under Stalin—did to the native population. In these accounts, Estonia is portrayed as not complying with international or European human rights standards on the issue of minority rights of the Russian speakers.

While Estonia could further liberalize some of its policies, overall the view mentioned above is superficial and erroneous.

To start with the issue of citizenship, the fact that 7.5 percent of Estonia's 1.35 million population continues to be stateless is often mentioned as an example of discrimination. However, statelessness does not mean a right-less status for these individuals in Estonia. What these technically stateless individuals indeed do not have is the right to participate in the elections to Estonia's parliament.

However, in Estonia stateless permanent residents have the right to participate in municipal elections. On a purely practical level, they have arguably even more opportunities than Estonian citizens—namely, they can travel visa-free both in the EU and in the Russian Federation. Some believe that this has in fact contributed to the situation where some of the stateless individuals seem not to be actively interested in naturalization.

The Estonian government has organized campaigns to promote the citizenship among the group of stateless individuals but the parliament has not changed the rules of naturalization as such—especially the Estonian language test requirement. Those who successfully naturalize are paid back the money they spent on the language course. So, it is doubtful whether the burden of proof and the responsibility for the continued statelessness lies only with the Estonian government. It takes two to tango, and for some Soviet-era settlers not to acquire Estonian citizenship—or, to learn the Estonian language for that matter—seems to have been a conscious choice.

As far as the education in Estonia's Russian-language schools is concerned, a majority of Russian-speaking parents and pupils currently demand that children graduate from public schools with a very good knowledge of the Estonian language. In short, they do not want to end up being disadvantaged in the country's job market. It is difficult to find a competitive job in Estonia—certainly in the public sector but mostly in the private sector as well—without knowing the national language. If Estonia doesn’t ensure that its public schools teach Estonian to its Russian-speaking children, it would continue to face the "chicken or egg" accusation that joblessness is higher and salaries lower among the Russian-speaking minority than among ethnic Estonians.

Overall, Estonia's citizenship and language policies have served legitimate aims and been compatible with international legal standards. While statelessness has not been fully solved, most Russian-speakers have opted for Estonia's citizenship and have learned to speak at least some Estonian over the last 20 years. It is therefore important not to focus only on the negative but on what has been achieved in terms of integration in Estonia. Perhaps what the country needs now is not so much a change of laws or regulations but a shift of attitudes. It is true that on the level of attitudes, Estonia and ethnic Estonians should become more inclusive towards their Russian-speaking compatriots.

To advance this goal, I as a scholar have—together with the current Chancellor of Justice of the Republic of Estonia, Indrek Teder—started to promote the idea of “constitutional patriotism” in Estonia's public debates. While constitutional patriotism was initially a German postwar political idea, we believe that it could be successfully used for integration purposes in our country. The main idea is that Estonian citizens must find their equal rights and status in the country's constitution notwithstanding their ethnicity or mother tongue.

In this sense, the idea of “constitutional patriotism” implies that equal civil rights should be the highest constitutional value, for instance higher than ethnicity. Nevertheless, the idea of this type of new “social contract” of explicit equality is based on the continued recognition that the country's official language is Estonian.

This article has been revised to reflect the fact that in Estonia stateless permanent residents cannot participate in elections to the European Parliament.

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