Andrei Tuch, Apr 8th, 2009
Early this week, a mob of young Moldovans crushed police barricades to wreak havoc in government buildings. Before the night was over, the triumphant protesters were waving their flags above the ruins of a regime that maintained control of the country for the last eight years. And one of those flags was Europe’s.
Great timing: two years ago, to the month, the continent watched another riot. On April 26th, 2007, two thousand predominantly russophone youths trashed central Tallinn. The pretense was the relocation of a WWII memorial. The cause was the discontent of a minority. Though foreign flags were waving above the violent crowd, it was not disputing an election.
Since I take it upon myself to represent Estonia, it is inevitable that I periodically find myself in the position of defending its policies. In fact no less than two th!nkers have challenged me on the subject of my country’s treatment of its sizeable minority: Joeri Oudshoorn back in Brussels, and Frank Schnittger on the site.
Estonia’s Citizenship and Migration Board says that as of January 2nd, 2009, there were 110 284 stateless persons living in Estonia; out of those, 98 359 are permanent residents. None of them are entitled to vote in the European Parliament elections. So, under the assumption that discussing this is more fun than crawling through the EPP manifesto in search of a point: why did this happen, and just how much of a breach of democracy and European values is it?
Q: Who are all these people, and where did they come from?
A: Overwhelmingly, they are people who were relocated to Estonia under Soviet rule (and their children). Before the Soviet occupation in 1940, Estonia’s ethnic-Russian population was just under 10%, the result of natural intermingling with a neighboring state. By the time the country became independent in 1991, it was around 40%. This was a deliberate policy of the Soviet government: relocated labourers have no loyalty to the land, or an identity derived from it. They were almost universally Russian-speaking and predominantly thought of themselves as Russian, but it would be more appropriate to call them Soviet. They were brought in to work in huge Soviet factories and live in huge Soviet tower blocks. They didn’t speak the local language, and had no motivation to learn.
Q: So why aren’t they citizens?
A: Because of a funny thing in international law. Short version: a lot of countries refused to recognize the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, so their legal governments technically still functioned between 1940 and 1991. There was an Estonian Government in Exile, a succession of Presidents, and diplomatic offices in Britain and the USA. So as far as the law is concerned, nobody ever stopped being an Estonian citizen. In 1991, they just finally got their passports back. The Soviet immigrants didn’t qualify.
Q: You didn’t just give citizenship to everyone who lived in Estonia?
A: Sure we did - in 1918, when the Republic of Estonia was created. That’s a one-time deal. In some countries, like the USA, you’re a citizen if you’re born on their soil. That’s worked out great for them, and they have my congratulations. But they were never occupied by another country with a massively larger population that deliberately settled foreigners on the captured territories. (There isn’t really a very good analogy for the peculiar situation that the Baltic states found themselves in. Ancient Rome’s colonies? Australia? South Africa after the end of apartheid? The closest equivalent in modern history is probably Northern Ireland, and I like to think we handled it better than they did.) So now, Estonian citizenship follows the right of blood: if one of your parents was a citizen, you’re a citizen too.
Q: What about Latvia and Lithuania?
A: Latvia’s got even bigger problems than us, because the Soviet immigrant population there is larger. Lithuania never had that sort of massive influx though. In 1991, more than 90% of residents were entitled to citizenship anyway, so they just went ahead and gave it to everyone. It was a good decision, but wouldn’t have worked here.
Q: So you denied human rights to part of your population!
A: No we didn’t. Like I said, it could’ve been Northern Ireland. Everyone who lived in Estonia in 1991 was allowed to stay. Those who were citizens, got to decide the fate of the country. If the Soviet immigrants want a say, they can get citizenship. In fact, a lot of them did.
Q: Why place barriers?
A: The barriers are trivial. You can get citizenship by passing two tests: one on history and the text of the Constitution, and one on language. Both are actually quite easy. The point is that to be a citizen, you have to make an active, conscious decision that you like this country and want to be its citizen. Once you do that, you can vote in the European Parliament elections.
Q: Didn’t they already make the decision?
A: There was a public petition about Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union just before 1991. Those who signed it got citizenship, even if they weren’t entitled to it by blood.
Q: So why are there ninety-eight thousand permanent residents who still aren’t citizens?
A: Practical reasons. The immigrants’ kids prefer not to apply for citizenship until are too old for army service. They can still travel all around the EU without visas, and just recently, Russia instituted a visa waiver for them. Since a lot of them like to visit relatives across the border, they find that avoiding the Russian consulate is more of a benefit than electing MEPs.
Q: Are any of the Soviet immigrants standing as MEP candidates in this election?
A: Sure they are! There is even one who participated in the riots two years ago. He was caught on tape breaking a store window and stealing things, so he got 18 months in jail (on a suspended sentence). Went to Brussels to complain about human rights violations, but nobody cared. There’s also an entire united front claiming to represent Estonia’s Russian population.
Q: Will any of them get in?
A: Not a chance. They can’t even get elected to local councils, where their supposed power base gets to vote. They weren’t anywhere near getting seats in the Estonian parliament during the last elections. As for the Europarliament - not even the majority can really be bothered to vote for that. And we have billboards about star-shaped power sockets.
( http://www.thinkaboutit.eu/200... )
Why 100,000 EU residents won't get to vote for MEPs - and why it's not a big deal