By Vadim Poleshchuk (Tallinn), GLOBALCIT collaborator
On 28 January the Estonian Parliament has adopted amendments to the Citizenship Act, which provide easy access to citizenship for children, if at least one of their parents is effectively stateless. Thus, the country took another step towards eliminating the problem of statelessness and/or absence of Estonian citizenship among children – descendants of Soviet settlers. This rather symbolic gesture – even if it does not affect so many third-country nationals in absolute numbers (1,500) – became possible due to increased influence of the local Russian-speaking population on internal political processes.
A specific characteristic of the situation in Estonia is a large number of people with undetermined citizenship – this political jargon is used locally to refer to (de facto) stateless persons from among former Soviet settlers and their descendants. Estonia regained its independence in 1991 and is firmly committed to the principles of state continuity. However, the emergence of mass statelessness is a result of a political decision, since Estonia in 1992 decided to restore its pre-war Citizenship Act and did not provide easy access to Estonian citizenship for people settled in the country under the Soviet rule, as it was done in Lithuania. Nowadays, more than 70 thousand people (about 6% of the total population) remain people with undetermined citizenship, and most of them are ethnic Russians.
According to the Estonian citizenship policy, a key naturalisation requirement is a test for Estonian language proficiency and a civil test. Under the conditions of Estonia – the country is still bilingual, if not by law, then in fact – the national language test is often cited as an obstacle to obtaining citizenship. This assessment is indirectly confirmed by the fact that for all the period after 1992 the majority of new citizens naturalised without a language exam but using various simplified paths to citizenship. An important place among such privileged groups is now occupied by children. The liberalization of policy towards children has been gradual. First, the new Citizenship Act of 1995, when adopted, allowed children under 15 years old to naturalise with their parents. The 1998 amendments paved the way for citizenship for children, if both their parents were stateless. The 2015 amendments simplified the procedure and, as a matter of fact, introduced automatic acquisition of Estonian citizenship by such stateless children.
Amendments to the Citizenship Act adopted in January 2020 became the next step away from the harsh policy approaches maintained since the early 1990s. According to these most recent amendments, Estonian citizenship will be granted by simple application to children from mixed families if one of the parents is a person with undetermined citizenship and the other is a citizen of a third country (in practice, these are usually citizens of Russia). Parents or grandparents of these children should have lived in Estonia at the time of the restoration of independence. These changes signal the recognition of a special link between Estonia and persons with undetermined citizenship, a link that is passionately denied in official public rhetoric. In addition, for the first time, in the context of access to citizenship Estonia refused to consider as “children” only those under the age of 15 and extended the age of eligibility to 18.
Recent changes to the Citizenship Act have been made possible thanks to internal political changes, which put at the head of the ruling coalition the Centre Party, which is highly dependent on the support of Russian-speaking voters. Ironically, this reform, which was the result of a coalition agreement, was also supported by the Centre Party’s partners in the government, who represent the minority-unfriendly right and far-right spectrum of national politics. These amendments were also supported by the Social Democratic Party, although, in their opinion, access to citizenship of minor Russian citizens is impossible due to the peculiarities of Russian legislation.
The January 2020 amendments highlighted the boundaries for the possibility of changing Estonian citizenship policies. It seems that simplifying the rules in relation to adults with undetermined citizenship (as opposed to children) is politically impossible, also due to the peculiarities of their electoral behavior (most of them support only the Centre Party).