The views expressed in this document are not necessarily those held by the European Parliament as an institution.
Russian influence has marked the Baltic’s political and historical development for centuries. Most of the Baltic territories were under Russian rule during the 18th and 19th centuries. After the First World War, the three Baltic States enjoyed a period of independence until 1940, when the entire region was illegally occupied and integrated into the Soviet Union. However, the three Baltic states remained among the most prosperous areas of the Soviet Union, as well as the most Europeanised. In the late 1980s, following the liberalisation reforms of the Soviet regime (glasnost and perestroika) introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Baltic States sought to regain their independence, with formal moves started early in 1990.
Russian rule was marked by two periods of intense assimilation, in the 1880s and during the communist era after World War II. During the Soviet occupation, an enormous influx of Soviet migrants, the majority of whom came to the Baltic because of the improved living-standards. Others were retired army personnel stationed there or prisoners who decided to stay after completion of their term because of the relatively good economic conditions. As a result, when independence was achieved again, there remained a significant Russian-speaking minority, which do not belong ethnically to the particular Baltic State. The largest ethnic Russian minority is in Latvia, then Estonia, and the smallest in Lithuania. A fuller statistical analysis can be found at Annex.
The treatment of the Russian minority in the Baltic States has the potential to destabilise the situation in those countries, and affect adversely the development of relations with the EU, NATO and Russia. Although Russia has stated that it has no fundamental objections to the Baltics joining the EU, the desire of the Baltics to join NATO in the longer term could potentially present problems. Equally, the Baltic States are keen to ensure that Russia should not have an effective veto over their future political relations.
In its Regular Report on Estonia, the Commission reaffirmed its 1997 opinion: Estonia present the characteristics of a democracy, with stable institutions, guaranteeing the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities, but further measures must be taken. Concerning the protection of Minorities, the Commission noted:
[…] it is regrettable that the Parliament has not adopted amendments to the citizenship law to allow stateless children to become citizens. Continuing attention needs to be given to the promotion of Estonian language learning among non-citizens.
Since the publication of the Report on 4 November 1998, the Estonian government has made concrete steps to improve the integration of the Russian minorities, taking note of the Commission’s observations
Estonia’s current policy towards non-Estonians has grown out of a climate dominated by the restoration of the independence of Estonia and its emergence from the Soviet regime. Under existing legislation, there are four legal categories of citizens – Estonian citizens, citizens of other states, persons with undetermined citizenship and undocumented persons. It should be borne in mind that for the Estonian government, the issue of non-Estonians appears to be primarily a question of immigration, as non-Estonians (primarily the Russian speaking community which represent just over 28% of the total population) are not considered as minorities within Estonia but rather as first generation immigrants.
i. Legal Situation
a. The Law on Citizenship
Automatic citizens are all persons who held Estonian citizenship before June 16, 1940, and their descendants, and children of parents who possess Estonia citizenship. Ethnic Estonians who did not reside in Estonia before June 1940 do not automatically have citizenship.
2. Naturalisation procedure
It is possible for all residents legally residing in Estonia to apply for and to obtain Estonian citizenship. Since independence more than 100,000 people have been granted Estonian citizenship through naturalization.
The law provides that a person who wishes to receive the Estonian citizenship must be at least fifteen years of age, have lived in Estonia on the basis of a permanent residence permit for no less than five years prior to the date on which an application for Estonian citizenship is submitted and for one year from the date following the date of registration of the application. This does not apply to persons who lived in Estonia before 1 July 1990 and who applied for a residence permit before 30 April 1996 as specified by the Citizenship Act.
The applicant must also have knowledge of the Estonian language in accordance with the requirements of the Citizenship Act. The new language test for acquiring Estonian citizenship was standardised according to the recommendations and advice of European experts. Information regarding language requirements is freely delivered by the National Examination and Qualification Centre, where everyone who wishes can take a pre-test and have a free-of-charge consultation. A free handbook is also available to teachers, applicants and examiners. The language requirement at a minimum conversational level and tests listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing ability and speaking ability. Special provisions are set out for applicants born before 1 January 1930, who are exempt from the writing ability section, and for handicapped candidates. Applicants who have acquired elementary, secondary or higher education in Estonian are also exempt from the language exam. Applicants must have knowledge of the Estonian Constitution and the Law on Citizenship, in accordance with the Citizenship Act ( 1).
Applicants must have permanent lawful income sufficient to support himself or herself and his or her dependants (unemployment benefits are also considered a lawful income). They must swear an oath of allegiance to the state of Estonia, which states that “In applying for Estonian citizenship, I swear to be loyal to the constitutional state system of Estonia”.
It is also possible to acquire the Estonian citizenship because of special service performed for the state of Estonia. However, the award of citizenship on such a basis may be given to no more than five people in any one year.
3. Stateless children
New amendments to the Citizenship Act adopted by the Estonian government on 8 December 1998 make it possible to obtain Estonian citizenship through naturalisation for children under the age of 15, who were born in Estonia after independence was reinstated and whose parents, single parent or adoptive parents have lived in Estonia for no less than five years, and who do not enjoy the citizenship of any state.
Clear legal status for non-citizen is provided in Estonia’s Constitution and laws, such as the Aliens Act, which guarantees their human rights. Furthermore, non-citizens can apply for a resident permit, temporary or permanent. An amendment to the 1997 Aliens Act makes non-citizens who applied for temporary residence permits before 12 July 1995 eligible for permanent residence permits starting from 12 July 1998. People who have lived in Estonia on a temporary permit for at least three years, with permanent accommodation and regular income will be eligible for a permanent residence permit.
ii. Current social issues
In recent years the political scene has evolved somewhat. The approach to issues involving non-Estonians has developed, with attitudes have become more tolerant and open. In April 1997 the Estonian government appointed Mr Evgueni Golikov (Russian speaking) as counsellor for ethnic and cultural questions. A committee was also set up to oversee the amendment of the existing laws on citizenship, languages and aliens. More recently, the government has started discussions on a national programme aimed at increasing the integration of non-Estonians, the programme is hoped to be ready for March 1999. In the meantime, the Foundation for the Integration of Non-Estonians granted in 1998 financial support (4.4 million Estonian kroons) for 76 different projects aimed at facilitating the integration process.
In a statement in February 1998, the Estonian government made clear that key to its integration policy was improving language education in schools. Ongoing efforts, supported by the Phare programme, are being made to improve the teaching of Estonian as a foreign language in public schools and universities. Recently, the Ministry of Education has also introduced a number of innovations to increase the effectiveness of language teaching and to improve coordination of foreign aid given for language studies. Among the noted positive developments are:
- Amendments to the Education Act in November 1997 to establish a new “State language teacher” post.
- Amendments to the Basic and Secondary Schools Act to extend the existing system until 2007/2008 and ensure the public funding, with no time limit, of Russian elementary schools covering the period of compulsory education in Estonia.
- In April 1998, the adoption of a language strategy document for non-Estonian speaking people
However, in December 1998, amendments to the Languages law were adopted stipulating that elected representatives must have sufficient proficiency in the Estonian Language to participate in the work of governmental bodies and to understand content of legal acts. These amendments which will come into force on 1 May 1999 have been criticised by the OSCE Commissioner of Ethnic Minorities Max van der Stoel.
Political participation for non-citizens
Residents without Estonian citizenship are not totally excluded from the political process. They have the right to vote in local government elections, if they are permanent residents and have applied for their residency permits before 12 July 1995. Estonia is one of a limited number of states where such an opportunity exists.
VI. THE EUROPEAN UNION
As has been alluded to earlier, the European Union has encouraged the integration of minorities in the Baltic States through Phare assistance. In its political statements, the Council of Ministers has encouraged the governments of the countries to apply European norms for the treatment of minorities, and to resolve any disputes with neighbouring countries, principally Russia.
The European Parliament has stressed the need for applicant countries to meet the political criteria for enlargement laid down by the Copenhagen summit. In its resolution on the Communication from the Commission ‘Agenda 2000 – for a stronger and wider Union’ (A4-0368/97), the Parliament called for accession negotiations to be started with all applicants, while raising specific concerns. On Estonia, the Parliament stated “that efforts have to be sustained fully to implement the acquis, to improve the quality of public administration and to further extend citizenship to members of minority groups”. Since then on 15 April 1999, the Parliament adopted a resolution on the Regular Report from the Commission on Estonia’s progress towards accession (A4-0149/99). The resolution “welcomes the amendments to the Citizenship Act adopted in December 1998, which brought Estonia’s laws into compliance with OSCE standards, and notes the important contribution which the new citizenship law will make towards the further integration of Estonian and Russian speakers into this multicultural and multiethnic society.”
POPULATION STATISTICS FOR THE BALTIC STATES
Source: Statistical Yearbook of Estonia 1998
Document data: Briefing No. 42 03.05.1999 Link: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/enlargement/briefings/42a1_en.htm#top Also available in French