Briefs

Myth busted: Estonia’s “impossible” citizenship

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Estonia’s ethnic Russians can’t afford to become Estonian citizens; it’s too expensive, reports the German-language channel of Russian state-funded television network RT.

In late October, RT aired a video filmed in Estonia claiming that the Estonian government discriminates against Estonian Russians by making the process of gaining citizenship very difficult and costly for ordinary people. Yet as a study shows, non-citizens do not apply for citizenship because not having it is more convenient.

Even though this narrative is false, it is all too common. According to a 2016 study and report, the Kremlin uses alleged discrimination against Russian-speaking Estonians as one of the main narratives to target Estonia and inflame tensions between the two ethnic groups. This narrative is built on two presumptions: first, that non-citizens living in Estonia want Estonian citizenship, and second, that getting such citizenship is impossible due to economic reasons. Since the Kremlin keeps repeating this false narrative, it must be repeatedly analyzed and rebutted. 

Yet first, some background information is needed. During the Soviet occupation, about 500,000 of Estonia’s 1.4 million inhabitants were non-Estonians—mostly Russians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, the Russian Federation adopted a law stating that all former Soviet citizens living outside the Russian Federation would lose their citizenship. As a result, in 1992, most of these 500,000 people suddenly became non-citizens.

But not all of them. Shortly before regaining independence, Estonia began registering ethnic Russians who wished to become Estonian citizens regardless of their ethnicity or descent. As a result, about 24,000 non-Estonians, mostly Russian nationals, gained citizenship between 1992 and 1997. 

To guarantee the basic rights for the remaining ethnic Russians, all non-citizens living in Estonia receive residence permits and so-called “gray passports.” This gives non-citizens all the rights full-fledged Estonian citizens enjoy except for voting in general elections (all inhabitants of Estonia are eligible to vote in local elections). In addition, gray passport holders may travel abroad. The Estonian government hoped this would be only a temporary solution—that within a short time most non-citizens would learn the Estonian language and gain citizenship.

This did not happen. Even though the Estonian-born children of non-citizens are granted Estonian citizenship, and even though the proportion of people of undetermined citizenship has fallen from 32 to 6 percent, 79,000 people still have undetermined citizenship in Estonia.

What exactly is holding these people back? Is what RT says true, that the process of gaining citizenship is just too difficult and expensive for ordinary people?

Both claims assume that non-citizens want citizenship. Yet as a recent study shows, only about 55 percent of non-citizens do. The study says one of the main reasons why the other 45 percent don’t is that the absence of citizenship doesn’t prevent them from living in Estonia. Respondents also say it is easier to travel with undetermined citizenship; Estonian citizens need visas to travel to Russia, but “gray passport” holders can travel visa-free to both Russia and the EU.

Second, is Estonian citizenship really too costly for average people, as RT claims? Even though economic factors are not an obstacle, as the study shows, it would be useful to analyze also this question since RT did not specify what costs it was talking about. 

Obtaining Estonian citizenship involves four steps: taking language classes, applying for citizenship, passing a language exam and applying for a passport. Taking the language exam is free; the application fee is €13 and the passport costs €25. The cost of language classes varies, but the state reimburses this cost if an applicant passes the exam. Several free options also exist for learning the language; for example, the government-funded online language course Keeleklikk has about 20,000 active users.

Based on this information, there is no reason to believe the Estonian government discriminates against Estonian Russians, or that it makes the process of gaining citizenship too difficult or expensive.

Nevertheless, the myth that Estonia discriminates against Russians is still among the most prevalent Estonian-linked narratives of Russian state media. This might be useful for inflaming tensions between Russians and Estonians, but as any in binary conflict, it requires two parties: the victim and the villain. What Russian state media doesn’t understand is that this narrative does not hurt Estonia as much as it hurts Russians. Russians—both in Estonia and in Russia—are people who have no desire to be falsely victimized. Most of the 6 percent of non-citizens in Estonia are non-citizens because they have chosen to be—and their choice should be respected.