Accessibility links

Breaking News

Estonia: Ethnic Russian Voters May Play Key Role

Tallinn, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic Russian voters in Estonia could play a key role in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Of the half-million Russian speakers in Estonia, between 100,000 and 150,000 hold Estonian citizenship, comprising about one-fifth of the electorate.

The United People's Party (UPP) -- Estonia's largest ethnic Russian party -- and the Russian Party are vying for the same pool of voters. The two parties may end up splitting their same natural constituency, threatening their chances of reaching the threshold of five percent of the vote needed to win seats in the next parliament.

But if either party does get into parliament, they could find themselves involved in talks over formation of a new multi-party coalition government.

In the last election in March 1995, a coalition of several Russian parties took six seats in the Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu. But analysts say many ethnic Russian voters may now turn to mainstream Estonian parties -- or not vote at all -- because they feel let down by their deputies on two key issues -- citizenship and the language law.

GAINING CITIZENSHIP: The question of citizenship has marred inter-ethnic relations in Estonia since the republic regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite numerous changes and amendments to the original legislation -- and some strongly worded criticism from the European Union -- Tallinn looks unlikely to make citizenship easier for anyone whose parents did not hold Estonian passports before 1940, the year it became a Soviet republic.

The current statutes stipulate that Estonian citizenship is given automatically to anyone who was a citizen before 1940 or whose parents were citizens before that date. The statutes do not make mention of ethnic origin. In practice, this means someone of Estonian stock who was born outside Estonia has to apply for citizenship through naturalization. Non-Estonians can be naturalized after five years of residence in the country, provided they fulfill several conditions, including knowledge of the Estonian language.

As a result of the legislation, more than a quarter of Estonia's 1.5 million people were rendered non-citizens. Some of them -- mainly ethnic Russians -- chose to obtain Russian citizenship. Some chose to become Estonian but couldn't. Currently, about 220,000 residents -- or about 17 percent -- are "stateless." Figures vary, since there has been no census in Estonia since 1989.

According to Merle Haruoja of the Estonian Institute of Human Rights, the current law works well when it concerns non-ethnic Estonian minorities, but fails when it concerns ethnic Estonians who do not have citizenship.

Haruoja told RFE/RL's correspondent in Tallinn that she would like to have the law liberalized to enable ethnic Estonians to receive citizenship easier. She said "citizenship is a matter of identity and personal choice in all European countries, and Estonia is not an exception."

The most contentious aspect of the citizenship law is a provision stipulating that applicants should have good knowledge of the Estonian language.

Haruoja said that if non-Estonians want to integrate themselves into society, they should learn the language. She said: "It is not that difficult."

Larisa Semyonova disagrees. She is an ethnic Russian who works for the Estonian Information Center for Human Rights.

She said many young people who live in areas where Russian-speakers are in the majority lack the practical experience of day-to-day communicating in Estonian and often fail the citizenship language test. She said they are thus deprived, for example, of being able to study abroad and have their expenses paid by the government.

Semyonova asks: "Is this the way to integrate them into Estonian society? They have no choice but to go and study in Russia."

THE LANGUAGE LAW: Estonia recently tightened its language legislation. Amendments stipulate that business people, public servants and local government workers must speak Estonian in order to continue in their jobs. The new regulations are expected to affect anyone who is not a native Estonian speaker -- from nurses and chambermaids to doctors and professional people.

Semyonova said some people may lose their jobs as a result, often needlessly. She said a doctor in Narva -- where Estonians are a tiny minority -- does not need to know Estonian to treat Russian patients. Many others simply cannot afford to pay 120 dollars a month for a language course.

Political parties representing ethnic Russians in Estonia are calling the laws "discriminatory." They also object to a recent ruling by Justice Minister Paul Varul that makes it illegal for political posters to be printed in Russian. Varul said such ads violate a section of the language law that says all public signs and notices must be in Estonian.

The United People's Party has appealed to the European Union to press Tallinn into rescinding the laws.

Ethnic Russians are especially angered at the language law's lack of clarity about how much Estonian a person needs to know to adequately perform a job. But Talvi Marja -- chairman of the ruling Coalition Party and of the Estonian Cultural Affairs Committee -- says the new law is actually designed to improve the work chances of non-Estonian speakers by giving them a marketable asset.

Tunne Kelam -- a member of the Estonian parliament and chairman of the Estonian European Affairs Committee -- agrees. Kelam told RFE/RL in Tallinn that many Russians are "unwilling" to learn Estonian because they fear losing the "last vestiges of the privileges they had under the Soviet regime."

In Soviet times, Kelam says, Russian was the first and only language in Estonia. Estonians had to speak it when they went to the Post Office, for example. If they didn't, Estonians could be accused of nationalism and could be sent to jail.

Kelam said making Russian-speaking residents learn Estonian rectifies a historical injustice. He said ethnic Russians must "get rid of their post-colonial hangover and realize they have to be equal with everyone else in Estonia."

(First of three features by our correspondent in Tallinn, reporting ahead of Sunday's Estonian general elections.)