On February 28, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, used the UN’s human rights committee to once again focus on Latvia’s and Estonia’s citizenship policies. Lavrov said that “guaranteeing the rights of national minorities requires special attention, especially with regard to the shameful cases of chronic statelessness in Latvia and Estonia”.
He stressed that the suggestions by the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the UN’s committee on the elimination of racial discrimination should be fully enforced.
The statistics suggest a situation that doesn’t call for Lavrov’s level of agitation. The number of stateless individuals decreased by 3971 last year. The change has been steady. From 1992, with 32% stateless, to 1999 with 13%, to the current year with 9% of a 1.35 million population, predictions put the reduction to much lower levels during the coming year.
Observers suggest that Lavrov should explain why these stateless individuals don’t apply for Russian passports since most are of ethnic Russian heritage and Moscow has offered them instant citizenship.
The answer stares everyone in the face, including the international commissions that have come and gone. It’s obvious that it’s been a conscious choice for some Soviet era immigrants not to have acquired Estonian citizenship. Therefore the burden of proof and the responsibility for a level of continued statelessness lies not only with the Estonian government.
Being stateless in Estonia primarily means not having the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Non-citizens have the right to vote in municipal elections – a right not conferred by most countries, including Canada. In addition, people with aliens’ passports (stateless persons) can travel visa-free both in Russia and the EU. This might in fact be a reason why many aren’t motivated to get Estonian citizenship by naturalization.
Government organized campaigns promoting citizenship acquisition have been in place for years. The Estonian language requirement has not been removed, but those who naturalize get refunds for language courses for which they paid.
The Estonian language plays a pivotal role. While Estonia is one of the few EU countries with a multi-lingual publicly financed school system Russian-speakers in the main have chosen to learn at least some Estonian. Approximately 20% of all school children attend Russian language schools and 10% of post-secondary students study in Russian.
Since 2007 Estonia’s national integration programme has required one mandatory class a year in Estonian be added to the school curriculum with the main objective being that young people whose mother tongue is not Estonian have the same advantages for higher education and the job market as native Estonians. Simply put, parents and pupils alike demand equal opportunities for education and employment. They know that weak language skills could be a barrier for future advancement.
One also notes that 40 newspapers and 28 magazines are published in Russian. Two of three all-Estonian TV channels offer regular programming in Russian while five radio stations are Russian language based. In addition the Russian language is firmly entrenched in the internet environment originating from Estonia.
It would be naïve to expect Lavrov treating the citizenship issue from a positive perspective. But his audience should be aware of Estonia’s progress during the past 20 years and not take accusatory generalizations verbatim.
Estonian citizenship issues used once again as Russian ammunition at the UN (2)