Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 218

Data just released by Estonia throw a long-awaited light both on the country’s ethnic composition in the post-Soviet era and on the legal status of the nonindigenous population. Compiled by the Citizenship and Migration Board, the data show ethnic Estonians at 65.1 percent, Russians at 28.2 percent, Ukrainians at 2.6 percent, Belarusans at 1.5 percent, and several other ethnic groups subtotaling 2.6 percent of Estonia’s total population as of last January.

The total registered population as of last January was 1.454 million, including 1,075 million citizens, 323,000 documented resident aliens and some undocumented resident aliens. The “alien” category (a legal, not an ethnic category) encompasses the Soviet-era population influx. In this category, 311,000 had fixed-term residency permits and almost 12,000 permanent residency permits as of July 1998. There were at the same time 8,849 retired Soviet soldiers with 7,400 dependents residing in Estonia by special permission. During 1997, 101,000 resident aliens were granted citizenship through naturalization (BNS, November 23).

The data show, first, that a small nation which had seemed slated to be turned into a minority in its own country has gained an irreversible lease on life through post-Soviet demographic changes. Second, the figures indicate that Estonia is making progress toward becoming an inclusive society through naturalization, which is based on clearly defined residency and language qualifications. Third, the figures suggest that enfranchisement of the nonindigenous population can be managed without throwing the political system off balance, provided that the enfranchisement process remains gradual and is thereby implicitly pegged to the alien population’s generational change.