Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 5

By Taras Kuzio

The closure of the OSCE missions to Estonia and Latvia on December 31, 2001, was a significant boost to the self-confidence of the ruling elites of both countries. Lithuania, with only 10 percent national minorities, adopted an inclusive citizenship policy and no OSCE mission was opened. The Latvian and Estonian OSCE missions had been in place since 1992 and 1993 respectively.

Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar declared: “The withdrawal of the OSCE mission from Estonia raises us to the ranks of the normally functioning democratic countries.” Vilmars Henins, a spokesman for the Latvian Foreign Ministry, added: “It also shows Latvia’s readiness to become a full-fledged member of associations of democratic nations: NATO and the EU.”

The timing was important for both countries because their aim to be invited to join NATO this year and the EU next, with both organizations undertaking large-scale enlargements into the former communist world. Michael Krejza, first secretary of the EU Commission in Estonia, said that if the OSCE were to declare its mission over, Estonia’s chances of joining the EU would be improved.

The head of the OSCE mission to Latvia, Peter Semneby, noted Latvia’s achievement in building a democratic and integrated community through the naturalization process, the implementation of the national program for teaching Latvian, the creation of a Public Integration Fund and better performance by its National Human Rights Office. The OSCE praised the initiative of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to amend the election laws so that parliamentary and local council candidates do not have to pass a language test. The laws were changed on May 9 by a vote of 67 to 13, only five days before the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Reykjavik. As in Estonia, these changes to the laws were accompanied by making Latvian the working language of parliament and the provision that newly elected deputies would have to take an oath of loyalty.

At the same time, the OSCE mission also ended a nine-year presence in Estonia. The last remaining obstacle was the abolishing of the language requirement for parliamentary and local candidates, which took place on November 21, 2001 by a vote of 55 to 21, the minimum number of votes required. Estonian was made the working language of parliament and local councils in October and December respectively. Candidates to parliament or local councils would no longer be required to know Estonian, but they would have to learn it quickly if elected, in order to understand the proceedings.

Estonia had earlier made amendments to its language law that had brought it into compliance with the OSCE and EU. The amendment still requires Estonian language proficiency for those working in vital services, but eases the restrictions for others working in the private sector.

Both the EU and OSCE regarded the stipulation in both Latvia and Estonia that electoral candidates needed knowledge of the titular language as discrimination against their large Russian minorities. Sabine Machl, deputy director of the OSCE mission, praised Estonia for its effective programs in integrating Russians and Russophones. “There have been tremendous developments, great progress, since the OSCE arrived here in 1993.”


Russia and its ally Belarus have been constant critics of nationality policies in Estonia and Latvia towards not only Russians but also “compatriots” (Russophones). Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins said: “Russia’s opinion on human rights in Latvia has been different from that of the EU for a long time but Latvia sought membership in the EU, not the CIS, therefore it is the EU position that matters to the Baltic states.”

Russia’s support for “compatriots,” rather than Russians per se, has angered other countries like Ukraine, which have quietly promoted the creation of Ukrainian-language schools for Ukrainians living in the Baltic states who were Russified in the Soviet era. Such polices of reverse Russification have been backed by the Estonians and Latvians.

In protesting at the alleged “apartheid” policies in Estonia and Latvia, Russia has not been consistent. Moscow is supporting Russifying regimes in Belarus and Moldova, while denying any ethnocultural rights to its own second largest minority, Ukrainians.

In December of last year, President Vladimir Putin compared the situation of Russians in the Baltic states to Albanians in Macedonia. He complained about the double standards of the international community, which intervened after a short civil war in Macedonia to promote equal rights for Albanians. The EU and OSCE backed a constitutional amendment that gave the Albanians, who make up 20 percent of Macedonia’s population, the same proportion in Macedonian institutions.

To some degree, Putin has a point. But he neglected to mention that there has been progress on national minority rights in Estonia and Latvia and that this had been accomplished with the assistance of international organizations, rather than after violence as in Macedonia. Citizenship came automatically through the “zero option” to thirteen of the fifteen former Soviet republics. But this is not typical international practice. Citizenship generally takes up to five years. It is part of a naturalization process in which a language, and sometimes a history, test is part of the process. In February Russia introduced itself language tests and a test to determine if applicants for citizenship knew the constitution.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga pointed out that Russians and Russophones “go through naturalization to become citizens of Latvia, it is as simple as that.” He added: “They have every chance to do this and become fully fledged citizens of Latvia.” Of Latvia’s 700,000 Russians and Russophones, 550,000 do not have citizenship that, thanks to amendments made to the citizenship law in 1998, is open to all who pass basic tests on Latvian language, history and the constitution.

A major factor working against Russian policies in the Baltic states is the success of those countries’ economic policies. Ethnic Russians have migrated to Russia from Central Asia and the Caucasus, but not from the Baltic states. With EU membership on the horizon, staying put seems a better prospect than returning to uncertainty (and often hostility) in Russia. The extent of the success can be seen in Estonia’s progress from 22nd (1999) to 14th (2000) to joint fourth place (2001) in the Heritage Foundation and “Wall Street Journal” annual Index of Economic Freedom. Lithuania also improved its position last year, moving from 42nd to 29th place, as did Latvia, which went from 46th to 38th place. The roots of Estonia’s successful transition lie in the Soviet era, when it was the “laboratory of economic reform.” Estonia was also helped by the fact that it was not as closely integrated into the “Russian political and cultural realm.” [1]

Russia’s interest in “compatriots” in Estonia and Latvia has less to do with national minority rights than in geopolitical issues. Russia has strongly backed policies throughout the former USSR leading to the institutionalization of binational states that would be easier to maintain within its sphere of influence. Such policies include dual citizenship, two state languages, constitutionally defined two titular nations and ethnic quotas in state institutions.

Russia’s problem has been that it has been unable to mobilize Russians, let alone “compatriots”, in the non-Russian successor states, including the Baltic states. Russian organizations exist in the Baltic states, but “their membership, duration and effectiveness have also been limited,” while their reach has been “highly localized.” [2]

In February Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Gusarov presented a list of demands to Estonia. These included: