Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 30

In its first foreign policy test, Estonia’s new government has decided to ignore a list of Russian demands that claim to defend ethnic minority rights. Moscow’s move appears designed to use the ethnic factor for obtaining a stronger Russian political leverage on Estonia. The demands reflect Moscow’s policy of promoting a binational society in Estonia–and in Latvia as well–rather than the integrated society the Baltic states and their Western partners promote. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Yevgeny Gusarov presented the detailed list orally to Estonia’s ambassador Karin Jaani in Moscow earlier this month. Last week, Gusarov presented the same demands in writing, though unsigned, on February 19, Prime Minister Siim Kallas announced that the demands are to be treated as unofficial and thus not requiring a response.

The list includes: official use of the Russian language in areas with a substantial “Russian-speaking population”; mass conferral of Estonian citizenship on non-citizen residents, setting a target of 15,000 to 20,000 naturalizations each year; extending to noncitizens the applicability of the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities; legal recognition of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate operating in Estonia; legal guarantees for the continuation of secondary education in Russian as the language of instruction; greater Estonian budget expenditure for higher education in Russian; “social protection”–implying pensions and guaranteed residency rights–for former KGB officers and their families; and a halt to legal cases against former ex-Soviet military and security personnel in connection with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Estonia.

Areas where the occupation left in its wake a substantial “Russian-speaking population” are the capital Tallinn and several towns in northeastern Estonia. The country’s citizenship is available to almost all applicants, the main condition being a functional knowledge of the Estonian language and an elementary acquaintance with the country’s constitution. Under Estonia’s integration policy, the tests are designed to facilitate the acquisition of citizenship by the highest possible number of noncitizen residents. Sociologists and linguists find that the tests can be mastered by individuals of below-average education and intelligence. The goal of inclusiveness is reflected in the high rate of successful passage of the tests. Setting–as Moscow wants–a high annual numerical target appears unnecessary, the real goal being to circumvent the test process and eliminate this integration mechanism. That numerical target is probably also unfeasible, because many of Estonia’s resident Russians are more interested in either Russian citizenship or the noncitizen status. The legal limbo enables many of them to travel easily to Russia and to enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of military service, which they perform in neither country while continuing to enjoy Estonia’s superior living standards.

Although Moscow opposes the testing process in Estonia and Latvia, the Russian Duma nevertheless moved on February 20 to introduce obligatory tests on the Russian language and constitution for Russian citizenship applicants. The Duma passed Russia’s draft law on citizenship law in the second reading with amendments requiring both types of tests. The tests are to be administered by the police, as part of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s authority to issue passports and residency documents. The same deputies who–in tune with Russia’s executive branch–oppose the professionally designed and administered, OSCE-approved Estonian and Latvian tests, have now entrusted the police with performing that task in Russia.

In the Duma debate, the deputy of Latvian origin Viktor Alksnis–a diehard adversary of the Baltic states’ independence–opposed these amendments to the Russian law, arguing that the change “makes the Duma look like the Baltic parliaments.” In fact, official Moscow would be hard put to call for eliminating or circumventing the Estonian and Latvian tests, once Russia itself introduces the testing. This may well be the consideration behind the presidential draft law’s omission of the tests. The Kremlin and Foreign Ministry may well, in the third and final reading, try to drop or dilute the Duma’s amendments, so as to retain this cudgel against Latvia and Estonia.

Moscow’s demand on Estonia regarding the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities turns on how “minorities” are defined. Russia wants Estonia to extend to noncitizen residents the legal rights that are available to citizens. Estonia, citing ample European precedents, argues that noncitizen immigrants are not eligible for the rights of citizens. The Russian-proposed extension would, moreover, become a disincentive to the acquisition of citizenship, and thus to integration, favoring instead a binational society. Estonia had in the first place taken a risky leap of faith by ratifying this Convention. A number of West European democracies have not signed or ratified it.

The Orthodox Church that enjoys legal recognition in Estonia is the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, direct successor to the pre-1940 church of the same name. The Soviet authorities banned that church and extended the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate upon Estonia. The Estonian Apostolic Church continued its legal existence abroad and resumed it in the country after 1991, loosely affiliated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Estonian government has all along offered to register the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate under its own name, and is in any case guaranteeing the use of properties acquired–or ill-acquired–by that church during the Soviet era. The government is in fact prepared to accept a two-church situation. For its part, the Russian Church wants exclusive recognition and registration in Estonia, while the Moscow Patriarchate insists that its “canonical space” includes Estonia along with other former Soviet-ruled countries.

The “canonical space” argument was on prominent display most recently in the Russian Church’s and Russian government’s joint polemics against the Catholic Church. In response, the Vatican announced that it finds the concept of “canonical space” unacceptable. It is, moreover, unacceptable also to a number of Orthodox churches, such as the nationally minded ones in Ukraine–that of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Autocephalous Church–as well as to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with which the Estonian Apostolic Church has reestablished its pre-occupation canonical link. The issue seems especially rankling to the Patriarch of Moscow Aleksy II, a Tallinn native who began in Estonia his dual-track career for the church and for Soviet state organizations. Aleksy’s and the church’s views easily find their way into the positions adopted by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

Former KGB officers have, however, by the hundreds chosen to stay in Estonia after the restoration of its independence. Under Estonian law, former Soviet security and military officers are not entitled to guarantees regarding citizenship, residency, pension rights and related matters. Moscow has from time to time asked that those limitations be lifted. Related to that is the demand for cessation of investigations and court cases, stemming from Soviet crimes, such as mass deportations or the violent repression of anti-Soviet activities. The new Estonian government has decided not to react to this set of demands, so as not to be sidetracked from the previous government’s policy of normalizing relations with Russia even if it means a unilateral effort (BNS, ETA, Interfax, ORT, RTR, February 18-20; see the Monitor, November 9, December 21, 2001, January 3).