by Kristina Olausson

Estonia is one of the former Soviet countries that has made the most sensational transformation since the fall of the Wall. With digitization becoming an integral part of the country’s trademark, the most recent edition to its portfolio is the so called “e-residency”. While not being a type of citizenship, it enables you to start a company, manage it remotely and clarify your identity towards other parties without being physically present in Estonia. However, while opening up to the world Estonia still faces problems of exclusion on its on turf.

After the end of the Second World War and the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic countries, the Soviet government encouraged ethnic Russians to move to the newly acquired territories. Hence, countries like Estonia saw an increase in the number of Russians residing within its borders. After the fall of the wall, about 30% of Estonians were of Russian ethnicity. These individuals were not automatically granted citizenship, but have been subject to statelessness carrying so called “grey passports”. Despite its small population, 6,1% of Estonia’s population are stateless, equaling 79,300 persons. This part of the population also suffers from higher unemployment (1.5 to 2 times higher than amongst Estonians) and are also over represented in the prison population. Additionally, Estonia has not yet signed or ratified major international conventions on the topic; the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and the European Convention on Nationality.

During the Russian annexation of Crimea, debates in Europe flared up about the possibility of Russian “interference” in the interest of Russian-speaking or Russian ethnic communities in EU countries. Yet, the support for the regarding claims that such intervention would be reasonable is limited.

The reasons for this are many fold. The path Estonia has taken, is a very different one from the country it was at the time when many of its Russian inhabitants moved there. It is on the forefront of the European Union. This autumn Estonia is heading the European Council during the six-months Presidency. Its new President, Kersti Karjulaid, said recently that “It is only 25 years since, and we feel that we have a lot to offer to Europe”. In other words, “It’s in a way payback time now”.

An important point is also that the new generation of young Russian-speaking Estonians are grown up in a Western country, contrary to their parents. As said by the U.S. based researcher Agnia Grigas: “this generation offers nuanced perspectives on their relationship to Russia” because they have are grown up in Europe with the possibility to travel and study in other Western countries. Additionally, many have not travelled to Russia and the bonds to their parents motherland may not be as strong.

Estonia, from an economic point of view, is far superior than Russia for most Russian Estonians. They thus have a limited incentive to move back to Russia, where living standards would fall below the one that can be enjoyed in Estonia. Additionally, the answer to why the Russian minority of Estonia is less of a problem than Ukraine for example, can also be attributed to the EU membership. The access to the internal markets with rights and freedom of movement for its citizens is something highly valued, which would not be possible to enjoy with a Russian passport. This fact is also a reason to why the statelessness in Estonia persists.

While incentives to gaining Estonian citizenship can foremost be attributed to being able to stand for Parliamentary elections, work in the public sector etc., holders of “grey passports” can both travel to Russia and the EU without a visa. Additionally, stateless persons in Estonia enjoy far more rights than elsewhere in the world, which is also an argument the government uses when defending its choice not to sign the Conventions on statelessness. Stateless residents may get permanent residence, travel abroad (with the grey passport) and are also given the right to Estonian consular representation abroad. Thus, there might be reasons why statelessness persists.

A definitive aspect must be the possibility for the many young Russian-speakers to themselves decide themselves whether they want to be part of Estonia as full citizens. The legislative adjustments the Estonian government has done recently must thus be seen in a positive light. In January 2015 it amended the Citizenship Law to simplify naturalization requirements for several categories of people, including children. The change has sought to allow children who are born to stateless parents, to obtain Estonian citizenship at birth automatically. Parents may reject citizenship for their children if they want to.

Thus, step by step, Estonia takes the road towards uniting its population and offering a new generation of Russian-speaking Estonians a different path than the one of their parents. One that means being part of the EU, having access to the internal market and economically beneficial choices in life.

07 October 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 69