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Estonia: Russians Could Capture Tallinn -- With Votes

Tallinn, Estonia; 23 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Five years after Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in the collapse of communism, the Estonian capital, Tallinn, could be captured by the Russians -- through ballots, not armies.

Throughout Estonia, local elections are scheduled for October 20.

Half a million ethnic Russians, who make up a large minority in the Baltic republic, are concentrated in the capital and in the Russian border city of Narva. Most are noncitizens.

In Tallinn, they comprise nearly half of the city's population. If Russian parties competing for seats on the Tallinn City Council were to unite their candidates on a single party list, they could win a majority.

Local governments throughout the country began registering eligible non-citizens to vote two weeks ago. Only citizens are eligible to vote in Estonia's federal elections. But in local polls, the franchise is extended to any noncitizen who held a residence permit before July 12 and who had lived in his or her locality for at least five years before the beginning of this year.

A united Russian list in Tallinn that won close to half the vote would enable the Russian voters to elect as many as 30 seats on the City Council and empower them to choose the city's mayor.

Three Russian party lists have been registered for the elections so far. The chairman of the Russian faction in the Estonian federal parliament, Sergei Ivanov, who also heads the United People's Party, is attempting to unify the Russians. But he says he has limited hope because of differences among leaders of Russian factions. Ivanov says he rejects any notion of returning to the Soviet past or of exploiting ethnic divisions.

"In a country that has chosen the Western path of development, introducing socialist elements is impossible," he said. He also said that ethnic divisions are fading in significance.

Candidates for City Council must be Estonian citizens and sign an affirmation that they speak sufficient Estonian to work in the council. Estonian President Lennart Meri earlier this year vetoed a law that would have required candidates to pass a language test.

At least one Estonian party, the Centrists, is courting the Russian vote. Edgar Savisaar, the Centrists' leader is popular among Tallinn's Russian population for his support for social programs.