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Estonia: Final Vote On Citizenship Law Imminent

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 19 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On several occasions this fall, Estonian President Lennart Meri has said he regards the passage of amendments to the country's citizenship law as one of the legislature's most important tasks in the coming months.

He has appealed to lawmakers to overcome the "political passions" that have built up over the bill of amendments. And he has stressed that the bill's passage would be advantageous for both the domestic and the foreign policy of the country.

Like neighboring Latvia, Estonia has a sizable ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking community and has been under pressure from both Moscow and the West to pass amendments making it easier for members of that community to become citizens. Last month, Meri's Latvian counterpart, Guntis Ulmanis, signed into law such legislation, but only after several well-publicized incidents that prompted Moscow to step up the pressure, the difficult passage of the amendments through the Latvian parliament, and their final approval in a referendum.

Yesterday, Estonian lawmakers completed the second reading of amendments to the Estonian citizenship law, following a heated debate in the parliament. It is likely that the final vote on the bill will take place early next month.

So far, the Estonian bill has been almost one year in the making: last December, just days after Estonia was included among the six countries singled out for "fast-track" EU membership talks, the government submitted the bill to the parliament. The draft provides for stateless children who were born after Feb. 26, 1992 (when the country's 1938 citizenship law was reinstated), to gain citizenship.

The children's parents must apply on their behalf, must be stateless themselves, and must have lived in Estonia for at least five years. It is estimated that some 6,000 children would be eligible for citizenship immediately and 1,500 annually thereafter.

As was the case in Latvia (where the final version of the amendments makes a similar provision for stateless children who were born after Aug. 21, 1991, when the country regained independence), nationalist-inclined politicians opposed the bill on the grounds that such children would not be required to prove proficiency in the state language.

Such legislation, they argued, would discourage non-Estonians from learning Estonian (according to the Open Estonia Foundation, only 16 percent of non-Estonians speak Estonian fluently, while 37 percent are deemed to have a satisfactory command). When the bill was opposed by a majority of deputies in June, the parliament postponed its second reading until the fall.

Estonian politicians who greeted last month's signing into law of the Latvian amendments have urged that Estonia follow suit as quickly as possible. Such a development would be advantageous on three fronts. At home, it would help speed up the integration of Russian-speakers (who constitute an estimated one-third of Estonia's 1.45 million population); the government advocated this in its national integration policy, aimed at averting what it calls "one state--two societies."

With regard to relations with Russia, it might help expedite the signing of the border treaty, which Moscow has repeatedly linked to an improvement in the situation of Estonia's ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking community. And as far as Tallinn's bid for Western integration is concerned, it would meet requests by the European Commission to loosen citizenship requirements.

It is difficult to predict how much the events that surrounded the Latvian citizenship law amendments will influence parliamentary deputies in Tallinn.

On the one hand, there may be a strong desire not to further prolong the amendments' passage and to push for their speedy signing into law. On the other hand, among deputies opposed to the bill, there may be a degree of complacency based on the perception that Tallinn's relations with Moscow are not as tense as Riga's and that Estonia has, after all, already been included among the fast-track EU membership candidates.

Such complacency could have serious repercussions, not least with regard to EU integration. In a recent document, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly commented that Latvia's chances of joining the EU would have been endangered had last month's citizenship referendum failed. That vote did not fail, however, and the European Commission is to consider recommending that Latvia be moved up to the fast-track group by the end of next year if Riga meets certain economic criteria.

In the meantime, the EU and other organizations will be watching to see whether Estonia passes the citizenship law amendments, thereby helping consolidate its position among the fast-track candidates. If it does so without the kind of adverse publicity that surrounded Latvia this summer, it will also avoid tarnishing its image in the West and exacerbating relations with Russia.