Those of you who actually reside in Estonia may not think about it on a daily basis, but for those outside of Estonia 'the citizenship issue' is often on the tip of their tongues when talking about Estonia.
The Estonian Foreign Ministry recently updated its page to reflect that as of July 2, 115,274 people still have undetermined citizenship in Estonia. That is 8.5 percent of the population. In 1992, 32 percent of the Estonian population had undetermined citizenship.
Like a good open liberal New Yorker, when I first heard of Estonia's citizenship laws five years ago I said, 'well why don't they just given them citizenship then?' It has been since then that I have begun to understand the painful reality is that there was no 'silver bullet' for statelessness in Estonia in 1992 and there still isn't one today.
The reality is that the Republic of Estonia existed de jure from 1944 to 1991. It did. That's why guys like Toomas Hendrik Ilves received Estonian citizenship in the early 1990s. Because their status of citizens never ceased, even if they were born in Stockholm or Berlin or London.
Couple that with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from the USSR to occupied Estonia in the 40s through 80s, and you have a problem. Those people had Soviet citizenship. On December 25, 1991, their country ceased to exist. At that point they became stateless.
How was Estonia supposed to handle these several hundred thousand stateless people when it already had citizens. How do most people become citizens? Through naturalization. Some of these stateless persons had been in Estonia since the 1940s. Others had been in Estonia since the 1980s. Who was to judge which ones had to naturalize. And could living in a country for two years without any knowledge of the local language or culture really guarantee one citizenship? If so, why would someone that immigrated in 1994 not have those same rights?
Ay, it's a conundrum with no easy answer, other than naturalization. Over the past 15 years the policy has been molded and reshapen and tweaked and, lo and behold, as of today 145,470 people have naturalized. That's not great but you can't say that it's bad and you also can't say that the policy doesn't work because it appears that it does.