Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 227

The Estonian parliament yesterday adopted amendments to the citizenship law in force since February 26, 1992 (which is a reinstatement of Estonia’s pre-Soviet citizenship law). Yesterday’s amendments facilitate the acquisition of citizenship by children born in Estonia since that date and henceforth to “stateless” parents resident in the country for at least five years. The “stateless” residents of Estonia are primarily Russian settlers of the Soviet era who did not avail themselves of their right to acquire Russian citizenship. Their offspring will now be automatically eligible, on parental request, without having to pass an Estonian language test, for Estonian citizenship.

This unusual exemption was the most controversial element in the amendments because it implicitly introduces an element of ethnic-linguistic differentiation. Estonia’s pre-Soviet/current citizenship law did not differentiate on ethnic-linguistic criteria.

Russia, the OSCE and the European Union had each, for its own reasons and in its own way, pressed Estonia to open the door more widely to citizenship for the “stateless” residents. Estonia’s executive branch submitted the amendments more than one year ago, but ran into parliamentary resistance. Yesterday’s voting tally from the 101 deputies was 55 in favor (including the six Russian deputies, who thus ensured a narrow passage for the bill), 20 opposed and 26 not voting. Prior to the voting, President Lennart Meri had assured the parliament that this was the European Union’s “last” demand for concessions on language and citizenship issues (BNS, December 8; on the ethnic composition of Estonia’s population, see the Monitor, November 24).

Latvia approved a similar amendment in a referendum in October by a margin of 53 to 47 percent, with the Russian vote tipping the balance (see the Monitor, October 5). In Latvia as in Estonia, there is some concern that scrapping the language test for one category of residents–in this case, minors–may invite pressure for naturalization of the nonnative population without a language test. This could pave the way toward a bi-national and unstable, rather than an “integrated” society.