Estonia’s Non-Citizens, Citizens of the European Union?

On 11 March 2014, the US magazine The New Republic, in the aftermath of the Crimean issue, published a debatable article by Julia Ioffe, “Ethnic Russians in the Baltics Are Actually Persecuted. So Why Isn’t Putin Stepping In?” where she states:

Ethnic Russians are somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population. And yet, after Estonian independence in 1991, they were not given citizenship, even if they were born there. Russians who weren’t living in Estonia before Soviet times are given a gray passport connoting their official status as “aliens.”

The article practically happened in a very volatile period of the East European history and it obviously fired back. On 13 March 2015, in an article, “Mart Nutt: Is Putin preparing for aggression against NATO?“ published by the Estonian Embassy in Washington, Estonian politician Mart Nutt, who does not miss the opportunity to point out the Russian ancestry of Ms Ioffe, goes into more detail:

A so-called grey passport (for persons with undetermined citizenship) is granted to a person who has not applied for Estonian citizenship, but who also does not have any other citizenship. This problem was not created by Estonia, but by Russia, when it decided to leave former citizens of the Soviet Union living abroad without Russian citizenship by way of its Citizenship Act of 1992. For various reasons, there are currently about 80 000 people in this situation. The majority of Russians living in Estonia have either Estonian or Russian citizenship. People with undetermined citizenship have travel documents, residence permits, the right to equal treatment and access to social services, as well as the right to vote in local elections, just as all long-term legal residents of Estonia.

Priit Järve and Vadim Poleshchuk in their Country Report on Estonia show that:

By 1991, when Estonia regained its independence, the share of ethnic non-Estonians in the population was up to almost 40 per cent. […] In 1992, the 1938 Citizenship Act was re-adopted […] granting automatic citizenship almost exclusively to those who were citizens in 1940 (before the Soviet takeover) and their descendants. As a result, about one third of Estonia’s population (mostly ethnic Russians and other Russian-speaking minorities) became (de facto) stateless, or in Estonian official terms, ‘individuals with undefined citizenship’. To become Estonian citizens they had to take the path of naturalisation. Alternatively, while residing in Estonia, they could remain ‘individuals with undefined citizenship’, become citizens of other countries, including the Russian Federation, or leave Estonia altogether. In practice, all of these options have been used by the (de facto) stateless of 1992.
[…] In September 2012 non-citizens made up 16 per cent of the whole population (which includes the 7 per cent of the population who are (de facto) stateless.

We would not go into speculations on why a country or another decided to have procedures that led to creating non-citizens, whether we call them ‘individuals with undefined citizenship’ (quite euphemistically in Estonia) or ‘stateless person’ (rather directly in Russia), yet it is sure that geography and demography imposes history.

Any empire (per se or not) is very careful about its peripheries, as Alexander J Motyl calls the territories at the fringes, in his study Imperial Ends – The Decay, the Collapse, and the Revival (2001), where he defines the concept of empire as:

a hierarchically organized political system with a hub-like structure—a rimless wheel—within which a core elite and state dominate peripheral elites and societies by serving as intermediaries for their significant interactions and by channeling resource flows from the periphery to the core and back to the periphery.

Motyl conceptualizes further on showing that decay is the weakening of the core’s rule of the periphery; disassemblage entails the emergence of significant interperiphery relations and spells the end of empire as a peculiarly structured political system; attrition is the progressive loss of bits and pieces of peripheral territories; collapse is the rapid and comprehensive breakdown of the hub-like imperial structure; revival, or reimperialization, is the reemergence of empire—that is to say, the reconstitution of a hub-like structure between a former core and all or some of the former periphery (Imperial Ends – The Decay, the Collapse, and the Revival, 2001, p. 4).

For Motyl, one way of controlling the peripheries is the core elite’s formal rule of the periphery, involving substantial meddling in the personnel and policies of the periphery. Peripheries interact with one another politically and economically via the core (Imperial Ends – The Decay, the Collapse, and the Revival, 2001, p. 8).

Priit Järve and Vadim Poleshchuk in their Country Report on Estonia show that:

After its incorporation into the USSR, Estonia experienced all the typical pressures and contradictions of Soviet economic and ethnic policies. The Soviet Union, inspired by the American ‘melting pot’, sought to merge the different ethnic nations and groups living in the country into a new civic identity—the Soviet people.

In a Working paper dedicated to population dynamics, Kalev Katus et alii analyse the population dynamics in Estonia:

The demographic development of Estonia has been, to a great extent, influenced by the changing population composition during and after the WW II. […] Between 1940 and 1953 the population losses of Estonia, due to war activities and sovietisation, have been estimated on the level of at least 17.5 percent of total population, […] these losses were exceeded in numbers by mass immigration from different parts of the Soviet Union, mainly from Russia, which started after WW II. As a result, Estonia developed from a socially and nationally homogeneous society (Estonians formed 97.3 percent of population in 1945) into the country with residents from more than a hundred different ethnic backgrounds. The foreign-born population together with their second generation comprised 36 percent of the total population according to the 1989 census. (Kalev Katus, Marek Kupiszewski, Philip Rees, Luule Sakkeus, Anne Herm, David Powell, Internal Migration and Regional Population Dynamics in Europe: Estonia Case Study, Working Paper 98/14, School of Geography, University of Leeds, United Kingdom, 1998, p. 3.)

The debate on citizenship between liberal and conservative camps started in Estonia at the end of the 1980s. The conservatives pointed to drastic changes in the ethnic composition of the population of Estonia due to a considerable influx of Russian-speaking migrants from other regions of the USSR after the Second World War. The conservatives emerged as winners in the debate on citizenship (Kalev Katus et aliii, 1998, p. 3). The result is that some 80 000 people remained of “undetermined citizenship”.

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This situation came closer into scrutiny during the negotiations for European Union accession where the situation of non-citizenships came under closer scrutiny in order to try to identify a working solution for yet an uncharted problem at the time – the status of non-citizen being unique and without precedent in prior cases in the international law:

non-citizens […] are neither citizens, nor foreigners, nor stateless persons. A great proportion of the large Russian-speaking population of the country falls within this category, unknown in public international law.


The issue of non-citizenship also acted as a sort of revelatory substance, according to some scholar, who in the context of the debate between “old” and “new” Europe spoke about the West inability to realize a real scrutiny of their own minority issues: “the issue of double standards has regularly come to the fore in relation to debates over minority rights and protection, with “old” Europe traditionally far from willing to have its own policies subjected to the same scrutiny as “new” member states. In addition, there is a desire to differentiate between recent migrants in the EU – 15 and more historical minorities in the new member states, the former being subject to the justice and home affairs and immigration debate rather than the minority rights discourse afforded to the latter.

New member state governments – including Latvia – and their wider populations may feel that adherence to EU demands has been foisted upon them by countries unwilling to subject their own minority policies to similar scrutiny.”

This was obvious if we look at the response of a Petition drafted in 2008 and addressed to the Petition Committee by Maksim Reva (Estonian), on the rights to vote in the European elections of persons with undetermined citizenship living in Estonia. Although declared admissible it was finally rejected due to the lack of European Commission means to get involved. This is a de facto non-intervention declaration on behalf of the European Union institutions that needs to be revised for any hope of stability in the future.

“The petitioner denounces the situation in Estonia where persons with undetermined citizenship are not entitled to vote in the European elections. According to the petitioner this results in a democratic deficit. He recalls that the principle of democracy, as enshrined in Article 6(1) TEU, is a common principle to all Member States on which the Union itself is founded.

In electoral matters, European Community law grants the right of the citizens of the Union to participate in municipal and European Parliament elections in their Member State of residence, under the same conditions as the nationals of that Member State. These rights were put into effect by Directive 94/80/EC and 93/109/EC respectively.

European Community law does not grant electoral rights to persons who are not citizens of the Union. Therefore, the Commission cannot intervene in the issue of granting electoral rights in Estonia for persons not holding citizenship of the Union.” European Parliament, Committee on Petitions, Notice to members, 1.09.2009

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For us the concept of non-citizenship (or any other politically correct term would do) also questioned the concept of EU citizenship. We could go further deeper and question the actual EU and its institutions, we may have a union, but are we united? In the beginning, Estonia – and Latvia, for the matter – might have been right in their way of approaching the concept of citizenship, but Estonia is also right when relaxing the Citizenship Act, which could be taken us a step towards not only being a Union, but being united, a real, factual EU citizenship getting us united would be a real, factual foment of EU progress.

The entire case-study  Estonia’s Non-Citizens, Citizens of the European Union? is available online at:

By Gigi Mihăiță & Mihai Sebe

* This case-study was realized under the project Citi-Rights Europe No JUST/2013/FRAC/AG/6291 with the European Commission

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