E.g., 09/21/2023
E.g., 09/21/2023
Estonian Citizenship Policy: The Restoration of a Country Leads to Statelessness for Some

Estonian Citizenship Policy: The Restoration of a Country Leads to Statelessness for Some

A father and son wave flags at the Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn.

A father and son wave flags at the Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn. (Photo: Kevin Jaako)

In January 2017, the United States deployed Special Forces to Estonia as part of an ongoing presence of U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops aimed at ensuring security in the Baltic region. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, separatist conflicts in eastern Ukraine, an increase in Russian military activities in the Baltic Sea region, and ongoing allegations of Russian meddling in elections in Europe and the United States, tensions between Russia and its neighbors have attracted growing international attention. In recent years, the United States has increased its investment and interest in Estonia, working to shield the tiny country and its 1.3 million residents from potential Russian incursions.

Estonia’s emergence as a key player in this context is unique and multidimensional, in part due to its large Russian-speaking population and citizenship policy. The first of the former Soviet republics to enter membership talks with the European Union, Estonia has been an EU and NATO member since 2004. Following independence in 1991, Estonia sought to restore the country to its pre-Soviet identity by reverting to its earlier citizenship policy, viewing the Soviet era as a period of illegal occupation. This policy rollback had a significant effect on Russian speakers, a multiethnic linguistic community that comprises 30 percent of the country’s population and is chiefly made up of Soviet-era migrants and their descendants. Russian speakers are often defined as muulased (non-Estonians, aliens, or foreigners), a term also used in a derogatory sense by some Estonians. Most were not entitled to Estonian citizenship following independence, and while the majority has acquired some form of legal residency, a number remain stateless (officially classified as having undetermined or undefined citizenship by the Estonian state and census), causing divisions within the country and with its much larger neighbor.

While Estonia earns praise and criticism alike for its citizenship policy at home, militarization and tensions continue to wax and wane between the United States, Estonia, NATO, and Russia. In light of recent geopolitical developments, scholars, policy experts, and journalists are increasing their interest in and coverage of Estonia, often with a keen emphasis on Estonia’s citizenship policy and Russian-speaking population. Building upon recent research, including mixed-methods fieldwork by the author, this article examines Estonia’s citizenship policy, its impacts on Russian-speaking residents, and implications for ongoing regional events.

Occupation and Restoration

Estonian history is punctuated by forced occupations and external influences. Danes, Baltic Germans, Swedes, Poles, Germans during the Nazi era, and Russians in imperial and Soviet periods have all occupied and staked claim to Estonian lands. The occupations of these powers have shaped Estonian society, identity, and policy.

From the early 1700s, Estonian territory was part of the Russian Empire until Estonia became an independent republic in 1920. A series of Soviet and Nazi occupations during World War II, however, cut Estonian sovereignty short. The Soviet Union then annexed Estonia in 1940, and during this occupation, Estonian institutions, policies, and society were influenced by the Soviet political ideology and legal system, as well as Russian lingua franca. Russian speakers migrated to Estonian cities and towns, decreasing the ethnic Estonian share of the population from 97 percent in 1945 to 62 percent by 1989.

Soviet rule and occupation began to falter during the 1980s. As a result of the so-called Singing Revolution (roughly 1988-91) marked by the public gatherings of hundreds of thousands to sing prohibited patriotic songs and protest, Estonia gained independence in 1991. The Singing Revolution unfolded as a national reawakening of identity, language, culture, and pre-Soviet statehood, and challenged the legality of Soviet annexation and occupation. Collective momentum and action arose from the coalescing of shared grievances linked to the occupation, including mass deportations of Estonians, loss of independence, resettlement of Russian speakers in Estonia, and fear of Russification and assimilation.

Unlike most former Soviet republics, Estonia considers its independence a restoration of the former state, rather than a secession. Using the legal principles of restorationism and ex iniuria jus non oritur (“unjust acts cannot create law”), which recognize the Soviet era as a period of illegality, Estonia restored its pre-Soviet statehood. Restorationist independence thus guaranteed citizenship to those citizens of the restored pre-Soviet Estonia (and their descendants) but not to all Soviet citizens, causing the majority of Russian speakers who moved to the territory in the Soviet era to become stateless migrants.

Today, Estonia is considered a post-Soviet success story. It is home to a multiparty democracy and low levels of perceived government corruption, and its economy is prosperous with a booming technology industry. Despite these achievements, Estonian citizenship policy and its impacts on Russian speakers continue to be a challenge for the country. The policy is a major cleavage between Estonians and Russian speakers, reinforcing a “one state-two societies” system, with a number of implications for the lives of Russian speakers, including reduced civic and political participation. Less evident, perhaps, is the possible effect of lack of citizenship on Russian speakers’ physical and mental health, mortality, poverty, and labor market access. A sense of grievance over the removal of a Soviet-era monument in Tallinn in 2007 sparked a riot in which one person died and approximately 1,300 were arrested, and triggered the first documented cyberwar.

Going Back in Time: Post-Soviet Citizenship Policy

As Estonia is a restored state that maintains legal continuity with the pre-Soviet Republic, its citizenship policy initially consisted of the pre-Soviet policy (Citizenship Law of 1938). This meant the restored citizenry was largely comprised of ethnic Estonians—the majority pre-occupation. Citizenship policy also newly prioritized the legal principle of jus sanguinis (blood, i.e. heritage or ethnicity) over jus soli (soil, place of birth), allowing for descendants of those original inhabitants to acquire citizenship.

In 1995, an updated Citizenship Act (Kodakondsuse seadus) was passed, establishing that Estonian citizenship could be obtained at birth (through jus sanguinis), acquired through naturalization, or reacquired by individuals who lost it as a minor. The 1995 law and subsequent legislation denoted the requirements for naturalization and civic participation, with a strong emphasis on Estonian language proficiency. Those seeking citizenship must complete a written and oral language exam, with some exceptions for those with Estonian language education. Applicants must also have at least eight years of legal residency (including five as a permanent resident) and consistent legal income, pass an Estonian constitutional competency exam, and swear an oath of state allegiance. Noncitizens are restricted from voting in national or EU elections (unless they are EU citizens), becoming a member of a political party, working in the local public sector, or running for or holding public office.

While Estonia’s citizenship policy shares much with that of other contemporary states, it has been fraught with contention. Intergovernmental entities (including the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), human-rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, local legal and advocacy groups, and the Russian government have all criticized the policy as marginalizing or discriminatory. In response to these pressures, Estonia has continued to alter its policy; for example, it has eased access to citizenship for some vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children of stateless parents, and abandoned children.

Impacts on Russian Speakers

Though Estonian citizenship policy has become more inclusive over time, it remains controversial, stemming from how it has affected Russian speakers in Estonia. The information in this section derives from the author’s doctoral research, which included surveys of 421 Estonian residents and interviews with 21 of them conducted in 2013, as well as cognitive mapping and on-the-ground fieldwork in Tallinn and Narva, Estonia. The findings shed light on the impacts of the citizenship policy, including naturalization and political participation, which influence each other and overall inclusion within Estonian society.


Following the restoration of Estonian citizenship policy, most Russian speakers became stateless residents, marked by their gray Alien’s Passport. Since then, they have either acquired Estonian or another citizenship, primarily Russian but in some cases Ukrainian or Belarusian (dual citizenship is illegal with few exceptions, requiring residents to choose one citizenship or the other), remained stateless, or returned to Russia.

Russian speakers in Estonia primarily consist of ethnic Russians, with smaller numbers of Ukrainians and Belarusians. As of 2011, approximately 89,913 Russian citizens, 4,707 Ukrainian citizens, 1,472 Belarusian citizens, and nearly 84,494 stateless residents lived in Estonia.

Between 1992 and 2014, approximately 158,000 individuals became naturalized citizens of Estonia, according to the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board (see Figure 1). While naturalization rates were relatively high during the immediate post-independence period, citizenship grants have declined steadily since 2005. Meanwhile, the number of ethnic Russians leaving began to decline after 1996, and in 2011, the newly arriving exceeded those departing or dying.

Figure 1. Estonian Naturalizations, 1992-2014

Source: Estonia Police and Border Guard Board, “Naturalization 1992-2014,” 2015.

Naturalization is the primary means by which Russian speakers in Estonia acquire citizenship; however, many opt out of the Estonian process in favor of Russian citizenship or stateless residency, both of which offer their own sets of rights, benefits, obligations, and challenges. Noncitizens, for example, have what some view as the best of both worlds: Unlike Russian citizens, they can travel visa-free throughout the European Union, and unlike Estonians, can do the same in Russia.

When Russian speakers were asked to assess the difficulty of acquiring citizenship, most stated that naturalization is easy in theory, but difficult in practice, particularly when it comes to language proficiency and length of the process. As one Russian-speaking interviewee noted, the process “wasn’t difficult, but it was very long. It was very, very, long.” The view was not universally shared, however. As another noted:

Half of Russian speakers have managed to get citizenship, despite all of the obstacles and considerable objective difficulties. We still have stateless people, which is absolutely intolerable in my mind... This permits organizing ... a society without paying attention to the basic needs of minorities.”

This frustration was echoed by most Russian speakers interviewed and surveyed. Though most expressed a preference for Estonian citizenship, they shared a negative or mixed perception of its value, and supported a jus soli policy. Estonia’s eligibility requirements, security of status, and lack of dual citizenship for most residents make access to nationality highly restrictive compared to fellow EU Member States and other democracies, according to 2014 data from the Migrant Integration Policy Index.

Civil Society and Political Participation

Civil-society organizations (CSOs) are an important platform for noncitizens to engage in public life in Estonia. Legal residents, regardless of citizenship, have the ability to form or participate in CSOs, which include nonprofit associations, foundations, and informal partnerships. CSOs may be formal organizations with official offices, or may primarily consist of online spaces where people engage or organize with others.

Figure 2. Civic and Political Participation Rates of Russian Speakers Surveyed, by Activity

Note: Data cover responses from 421 Russian speakers surveyed. Participants were asked to select among various options, allowing for multiple responses.
Source: Author’s survey responses.

As of 2013 there were more than 138 CSOs that catered specifically to Russian speakers, according to the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations’ (NENO) recommended network Etnoweb. Most are cultural or educational, such as the Russian Cultural Club in Tallinn; however, others are involved in minority rights, civic and/or political participation, and minority inclusion and advocacy. Some organizations are funded by the Russian state, including Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor), Russian School of Estonia, and Legal Information Centre for Human Rights, and are considered suspicious or security threats by the Estonian Internal Security Service.

Electoral Engagement

Russian speakers also participate to various extents in the electoral process, primarily at the local level. High voting rates among survey and interview participants reflect a heightened interest in local affairs, community, and identity among Estonian Russian speakers.

Such high interest and participation in local elections also demonstrate the impact of local-election voting rights for noncitizens or permanent residents. While this policy has pragmatically diffused ethnic tensions and serves as a mechanism for greater participation, not all perceive it as such. Many Russian speakers, regardless of citizenship status, see it as not going far enough to fully include them into the political system and society as equal members. One Estonian citizen noted a perceived ethno-linguistic “glass ceiling” within Estonian politics and society. Additionally one stateless resident noted:

“You must understand that one falsification that the Estonian government makes, they always say, ‘It is not a problem because people with alien passports [stateless status] can participate in local elections,’ but this isn’t true…I think participation is when I can be elected… I can put my candidacy towards elections and I can be elected or work in administration.”

While local voting laws have expanded political participation opportunities for Russian speakers, many remain frustrated with Estonian politics and policy. Additionally, a bill proposed by the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) in 2017 seeks to limit local voting rights to Estonian citizens, which would further complicate how Estonian citizenship policy affects Russian speakers.

Political Representation

Russian speakers are fragmented as a political and/or electoral bloc, and their political parties are of marginal influence. The Russian-speaking electorate and political actors have largely been successful at the local level (particularly in Tallinn and Narva, both of which have large Russian-speaking populations), including through the mainstream Center Party and Social Democratic Party, which have Russian-inclusive or -leaning platforms. The Center Party in particular has long been a major advocate for greater Russian minority inclusion and equity in Estonian politics and society, but not without controversy.

The lack of political or electoral cohesion may partly explain an overall decline in electoral participation and lack of perceived representativeness of political institutions beyond the local level among Russian speakers. Survey and interview findings indicate that most Russian speakers, regardless of participation, are frustrated and wary of party politics and elected representatives. As one Russian speaker stated:

“Naturally they [politicians] are interested in preserving their Estonian culture, their language... Of course they probably feel the historical enmity that existed during the Soviet Union... But here there is already a generation that doesn’t even remember who Stalin is or the Soviet Union and that for 22 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, haven’t ever seen the Soviet Union or been part of the Soviet system. But nevertheless for some reason, they are having to pay for these mistakes.”        

Though Estonian Russian speakers are often defined by media, policymakers, and governments (Estonian and Russian) as “Russian,” this conflation ignores the complexity of identities and place attachments. Such oversimplification also illustrates underlying ideologies that equate ethnicity, language, and/or culture with a neatly bordered nation-state. The author’s research suggests that Estonian Russian speakers are not monolithic and should not be solely associated with Russia or Russian-ness. Russian speakers overall tend to have stronger local and Estonian identities compared to Russian identities.

Future Policy Implications

In light of recent geopolitical and regional shifts, Estonia has emerged as a potential site for conflict. As the United States, United Kingdom, and NATO increase their presence on Estonian soil, Russian overtures to Estonian Russian speakers, military maneuvers, and political interference continue to cause alarm throughout the region and beyond. Russia’s compatriot policies, which emphasize protecting Russian speakers regardless of citizenship status or location and inculcating a shared Russian World (Russkiy Mir), are of marked concern for Estonia and its former Soviet counterparts, having influenced armed interventions by Russia in Ukraine and Georgia. Such policies are further complicated by the Russian state’s dominance of Russian-language media, politicized rhetoric around Russian speakers’ human rights, and military buildup in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad.

While diplomacy and the military are considered paramount to this buildup, Estonian citizenship policy and its Russian-speaking population are sticking points that also require thoughtful and locally grounded examination. Estonia’s citizenship policy has had mixed results. On the one hand, it has allowed for the restoration of a nation-state and identity that emphasize shared ethnicity, language, and culture while thwarting substantial Russian (foreign and domestic) influence. On the other hand, it has negatively affected Russian speakers’ ability to engage as equal members of a state with which they largely identify, allowing for critiques or overtures from Russia.  

Although the policy remains problematic, recent regional developments and the election in 2016 of a new Estonian government with Russian-inclusive leanings have increased opportunities for change. In January 2017, Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas outlined a proposal to grant citizenship to certain stateless residents who have resided in Estonia for more than 25 years. While any major shifts remain highly contentious, such statements illustrate the potential for policy change.  

Estonian Russian speakers’ mixed perceptions of and engagement with Estonian politics, policy, and state illustrate the challenges of restoring a nation-state and citizenry that has undergone tremendous change. Such challenges convey the inconsistencies or contradictions between nation-state restoration and liberal democracy. While Russian speakers remain frustrated with naturalization and wary of politics, the majority maintain strong local identities, consider Estonia their home and its political and civic life their own, perhaps paving the way for more inclusive policies in the future.


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