It's been nearly 15 years to the day since the Riigikogu passed the Law on Aliens, a legal document that defined the legal status of stateless residents in Estonia whose status came into question after the Citizenship Act was passed in February 1992, defining Estonian citizens as citizens of the Republic of Estonia prior to 1940 and their descendants.
There have been so many myths spun from the passing of these two acts that it is hard to discuss them all in a single blog post.
Myth #1 is that the laws were passed specifically to disenfranchise the Russian-speaking part of the population. Some Estonians support this myth. They use the alarming demographics of the 1989 census as the rationale behind the acts. But, in reality, roughly 10 percent of pre-1940 citizens were ethnic Russians. So this myth is actually false. In fact, I recently read that up to 10,000 people on the Russian side of the southeastern border -- which was Estonian up to 1944 -- have Estonian passports because of the jus sanguinis principle.
Myth#2 is that these acts disenfranchised 30 percent of the population. This myth is also somewhat untrue. For starters, because permanent residents have the right to vote in municipal elections, they are not completely disenfranchised. The second dilemma is that, as former Soviet citizens, they are entitled to Russian Federation citizenship, as the RF is the successor state to the USSR. They are therefore potential RF citizens who have not elected to file the paperwork to reconcile their status. Estonia requires them in most cases to pass an exam. But there are a variety of citizenship options available.
Myth#3 is that statelessness is somehow permanent based on ones historical status in Estonia. Therefore, to this day, you will read by some angry voices on the Internet that 30 percent of Estonia's residents still lack citizenship. In reality, the naturalization process has worked well enough that 8 percent of residents, or slightly north of 100,000 people, still have this status.
Sitting here in 2008, I feel quite different about these acts than I may have felt even five years ago. In the past, if you supported even the premise of Estonian independence, then you subscribed to the whole package, the language laws, the citizenship laws, and the interpretation by *some* Estonians of certain parts of history.
Today, though, it's hard for me to look at the young, smiling faces of the newly enfranchised from citizenship ceremonies in places like Jõhvi or Narva and think that a) they ever were really repressed in some way by the state or that b) they were ever in anyway truly not part of it. How could they have ever not been Estonians?
And so, the citizenship issue has become, in these 15 years, a formality. Estonia has already traveled so far down this road of naturalization on the basis of jus sanguinis that the endless hours of arguing over the acts of 15 years ago seem a waste of time. There is no going back. The decisions were made.
Increasingly, though, I find myself reevaluating this part of the Estonian package through a political lens. How did these acts get passed? Who passed them? It seems to me that the right-wing parties had a political agenda, and they hammered that agenda through. For them, we give thanks. Estonia successfully navigated its way to EU and NATO membership with limited domestic opposition. Estonia implemented a school reform policy to end asymmetric bilingualism. Estonia set up tax policies that, at least for the time being, significantly reoriented the economy. Pat yourself on the backs, guys.
Still, this political factor, that these were decisions made by parties perhaps out of their own self-interest, rather than just the national interest, poses an interesting conundrum for the future. The decisions of the past have been made. Estonia integrated fully into the West. Mart Laar's bold vision of the irreversible westernization of his country has been mostly achieved, and if the steady hand remains, that process will be concluded sometime in the next few years, when the rising generation of Estonians, born in a free, western Estonia, begin to be heard in the public discourse. All of these old debates will be as real for them as Vietnam is for the Lindsay Lohan generation in the United States. And what will the agenda be then?
I wonder how this process will be interpreted by this new Estonia, all of whom are enfranchised, but not all of whom were enfranchised from birth. Will the myths of national angst prevail? Will these older distinctions of citizenship manifest themselves in politics or in the work place? Will these acts still be seen as part of the Estonian package, or will Estonia have grown bigger than that, so that they are viewed dispassionately as history?
Will future generations of Estonians sit in history class, as I sat in mine, debating the merits of these acts, the same way we talked about the Missouri Compromise in eighth grade? We talked, argued, agreed or disagreed, but then the bell rang and we went to lunch, where we spoke of more important things, like the collapse in popular support for New Kids on the Block.
When I think about citizenship policies today, I feel like Estonia's finger is moistened and it's about to turn the page on this era. It hasn't done so yet, but there is a page-turning feeling of inevitability in the air.