Estonian officials and Russian diplomats are working on the formalities necessary to complete the deportation of former Russian Army serviceman Nikolai Mikolenko. Mikolenko, a retired noncommissioned officer, is waiting in a deportation center in Tallinn for his fate to be resolved. A dozen others in Estonia could soon follow Mikolenko's path.
Prague, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For Estonian authorities, the case of Nikolai Mikolenko is open and shut. The former Soviet and then Russian Army serviceman took part in a U.S.-Russian program that gave military personnel stationed outside Russia money to acquire housing and ostensibly return to their home country.
Mikolenko, a noncommissioned officer (praporschik), retired for health reasons from the Russian armed forces in 1994 at the age of 38. He signed a contract to receive the housing aid in return for relocation, was given $25,000, and bought an apartment in St. Petersburg.
But Mikolenko never left Estonia, his residence permit expired, and now Tallinn is seeking to deport him.
Heikki Kirotar, a spokesman for the Estonian Department of Citizenship and Migration, told RFE/RL: "According to Estonian laws, [Soviet Army] officers who have accepted the so-called [bank] guarantee or certificate -- or voucher, as it is sometimes called -- must leave Estonia. And the majority of them did. By signing his name when he was accepting the money, [Mikolenko] gave up the right to live in Estonia after the year 2000."
Mikolenko's Estonian residence permit expired in 2000, but he remained in the country with his wife and two teenage children. He appealed the government's decision not to grant him an extension of his residence permit. A top Estonian court ruled, however, that Mikolenko had no legal grounds to stay in Estonia because he had signed the housing deal. The court said Mikolenko was breaking immigration laws by staying in the country without a valid permit.
Kirotar said: "Mikolenko was complaining and appealed to courts up to the highest level. And the court's decision was unambiguous -- if a person accepted the money to buy an apartment in his home country, then he or she abandoned the right to have the Estonian residence permit extended. And according to Estonian laws, there are no reasons to grant them a permit to stay in Estonia."
In July, the Estonian authorities told Mikolenko that he must leave the country within two months. He did not do so. On 3 November, Mikolenko was placed in a deportation center in Tallinn, where he must wait until the necessary paperwork is completed. Kirotar said this may take several days, week or months.
Andrei Arjupin told RFE/RL the matter is not that simple. Arjupin is Mikolenko's lawyer and works at the nongovernmental Legal Information Center for Human Rights in Tallinn. Arjupin says Estonia was never part of the bilateral U.S.-Russian agreement and therefore has no right to demand that Mikolenko fulfill his obligations according to the housing-for-relocation arrangement.
"Estonia in no way was related to this program, which was a result of an agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation and which was a sort of humanitarian assistance. It is necessary to put a clear distinction between the right of an alien to stay in Estonia on one side and meeting his commitments [on the other]. An American side agent, or the company that was distributing those vouchers, has always had the opportunity to file a claim against [Mikolenko] demanding that he give back the voucher or the goods he received. And Nikolai was ready to do that at any moment," Arjupin said.
Arjupin says the Estonian position on the legal status of retired Russian Army personnel is inconsistent. In 1994, Estonia and Russia reached an agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops and for social guarantees for the retired servicemen who remained in Estonia. Initially, all these people were granted five-year residence permits -- the maximum term allowed by law for noncitizens.
Arjupin says Estonian authorities are now claiming that all those who retired after the agreement was signed must leave the country. "All [Mikolenko's] problems evolved in 1999 when the [Estonian] parliament accepted an amendment that forbids residence permit extensions for those who participated in different aid programs or who got allowances for relocation from Estonia," he said. "And in 2001, it was quite a shock for the person filing for a residence-permit extension, as well as for his family, that he could not stay longer in a country that had let him stay five years prior to that. It is also important to bear in mind that the Russian and Estonian sides have different interpretations of the agreement on social guarantees for former Russian servicemen."
According to Arjupin, family members of retired Russian military personnel who are not Estonian citizens are also receiving the same treatment. Mikolenko was forced to divorce his wife to lift the burden of her facing deportation, as well. He notes that the couple has been living in Estonia for 22 years and could otherwise qualify for the special status of long-term noncitizen residents.
Zoya Kritskaya, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, told RFE/RL that the official Russian position regarding the Mikolenko case has already been outlined in a Foreign Ministry statement. "The Estonian side is using Nikolai Mikolenko's -- as well as other Russian retired military personnel's -- participation in the so-called '[housing] voucher' program as a reason to justify its actions," she said. "But at the same time, the true problem is being deliberately concealed. And that is a gross violation on behalf of Tallinn of a number of provisions of the bilateral agreement on the social guarantees to Russian armed-forces retirees in Estonia signed in 1994. Mikolenko and other retired Russian military servicemen are being protected by that agreement."
About a dozen other retired Russian military personnel in Estonia are in similar situations.
Arjupin says his client still has legal ways to stay in Estonia, or to return to Estonia if deported. He says Mikolenko has applied for an Estonian residence permit on different grounds and that this may prevent his deportation. That application is expected to be decided by December.
Mikolenko's appeal also is under consideration by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. If deported, Mikolenko could file a re-entry appeal on humanitarian or medical grounds.