kolmapäev, juuni 11, 2008

15 years

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.

12 kommentaari:

Pēteris Cedriņš ütles ...

Just yesterday, Diena carried an article on the response of Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis (an MEP who is forming a new, center-right party with the illustrious Sandra Kalniete) to recent Russian noises about trying to put European pressure on Estonia and Latvia with regard to non-citizens (Kristovskis says Russia is asking for a new Nuremberg, as he and others would insist upon linkage between colonization and occupation...). So I don't think the issue is in the dustbin of history yet.

Of course, the situation in Latvia is not the same -- we don't permit non-citizens to vote in local elections (nor should we, in my view), and the demographics are different (not just in sheer numbers but in geographical distribution and in the far higher percentage of Russians [and other Russophones] who are citizens by descent -- where I live, for example, one of the most Russian areas in Latvia, the vast majority from the minorities possessed citizenship through jus sanguinis).

Even so, looking back raises a lot of questions... mostly the chicken-and-egg question; how much is the divide in our society a product of that division? At least a few years ago, the vast majority of newly naturalized citizens would vote for parties I wouldn't touch with a ten-meter pole -- and these are of course the most "integrated" (they've learned the language well enough to pass the exam, and aren't resentful enough to refuse to take it).

You can't just look at the "young, smiling faces of the newly enfranchised from citizenship ceremonies" when considering that watershed -- you also have to look at the (bitter, gloomy?) faces of those who still haven't naturalized, the faces of those who took Russian citizenship (far more people in Estonia than Latvia) and those who left (not a low figure).

With all the caveats on playing what-if, I think the decision to require naturalization was the correct one (though it should have been granted to those who supported indepenence by registering with the Citizens' Congress, as it was in Estonia, and though the naturalization process should have lost its "windows" earlier). Blanket citizenship would have given us quite a different political complexion -- and I think we'd quite possibly not be in NATO or the EU.

Giustino ütles ...

Even so, looking back raises a lot of questions... mostly the chicken-and-egg question; how much is the divide in our society a product of that division?

You can also ask cui bono. Right-wing parties have an interest to keep naturalization down, because they will win few extra votes from that demographic. So their presence in policy making is actually inflated.

But we have to remember that parties and policies are just that: parties and policies. They can change, but the state is permanent. I think some still have a hard time separating, say, Isamaa from Estonia. They think Isamaa is Estonia. But Isamaa is not. They are just *one group of Estonians.*

I know plenty of Estonians, for example, that think Ansip was wrong to move that statue. Are they less Estonian for not supporting his position? Hardly.

At least a few years ago, the vast majority of newly naturalized citizens would vote for parties I wouldn't touch with a ten-meter pole -- and these are of course the most "integrated" (they've learned the language well enough to pass the exam, and aren't resentful enough to refuse to take it).

Well, who is reaching out to them? In Estonia, the two parties that have done the most outreach into the minority communities are Center Party and Reform Party.

Do you really think that urban Russophones are going to support the agrarian Rahvaliit? And SDE barely has the money to reach those voters the way KESK or Reform can.

I predict you might see a rise in SDE support because they are the ones handing out those certificates and actually going out to Narva on a regular basis and talking to people. But KESK has built brand loyalty. Reform could probably recapture some support if they dump Härra Ansip. Urbanites will support the party of money.

You can't just look at the "young, smiling faces of the newly enfranchised from citizenship ceremonies" when considering that watershed -- you also have to look at the (bitter, gloomy?) faces of those who still haven't naturalized, the faces of those who took Russian citizenship (far more people in Estonia than Latvia) and those who left (not a low figure).

There are plenty of bitter and gloomy faces in Estonia, though, not all of them stateless.

As for the 90,000 Russian citizens, that's their decision if they want to line-up and vote for whomever they're told every four years. Just as the 5,000 Ukrainian citizens or 2,400 Finnish citizens can.

Finally, those who left are somebody else's concern now, whether it is George W. Bush's, or Gordon Brown's, or Angela Merkel's. They made their choice. Plenty of Estonians with citizenship have made that choice, too.

Kristopher ütles ...

I never heard any of these myths firsthand. They were always mediated or hearsay. Maybe via some European official, like Max van der Stoel. Or sometimes it was Estonians who didn't have all that much to do with the actual leadership of what you refer to as "right-wing parties". (I can't think of any right-wing groupings off-hand except for possibly Läänemaa Jäägrikompanii and Tiit Madisson's people).

Some of the people who were anti-Soviet dissidents were by definition people who would be unhappy with any kind of status quo. The extreme case being Tiit Madisson -- Thoreau, John Brown and some truly unfortunate elements rolled into one. He may have testified before US Congress, and probably deserves some sort of recognition, but there's no ministerial portfolio for someone like that.

My own experience was that occasionally, from around 1993-1995, less privileged Estonians sitting behind me in buses, after "finding me out", would take a supercilious tone with me about how my grandparents left the country in 1944. They had spent the last thirty years on some kolkhoz in Vääna, and I felt bad, but what could I say. Luckily there was not too much of this.

I never had any Russian come up to me and tell me anything negative or political, except for general gripes about the economy. At least half of my kid sister's friends were Russian. I even bought her Russian courses for a time at the "dangerous hotbed" the Cultural Centre on Mere pst. There was never any talk of politics, though you'd think it would have been a good chance to get in a choice gibe at the Language Act or something. There are enough examples like this that I will never believe there was any real hostility unless someone was being deliberately stupid. I'm only glad glad things have worked out as they have, except it's a shame that more people don't have basic Estonian proficiency.

Hirnu-Hrnx! ütles ...

Hey G, check it out - Ames is getting reamed by rooskies. Big time. http://radaronline.com/exclusives/2008/06/russian-government-press-feedom-putin-ames-medvedev.php

I was wondering when will it happen.

Kinda sad. I liked his brand of humour. I even forgive him for shitting on Estonia during the rooskie bronze craziness. He did not know any better. Perhaps he knows now. Maybe I should write to him and suggest he set up his shop in the Baltics instead.

Exile will be missed.

Giustino ütles ...

I never heard any of these myths firsthand.

I encounter them all the time. A great deal of work has to go into undoing the damage of Kremlin-fed lazy journalism.

I even forgive him for shitting on Estonia during the rooskie bronze craziness.

Americans abroad are like a mirror that reflect the local opinion in brusque, American-style tones. Ames was just reflecting the opinions of some Russians in a 'nasty as I wannabe' American tone.

Honestly, Riga would be an interesting new locale. Not as big as Moscow, but still big. Kiev, too, could be an option for someone with Russian skills that needs to get out of Dodge. I'd love to see Ames transform into a Latvian nationalist. That would be perfect.

Hirnu-Hrnx! ütles ...

The moral of Ames' story to me is that no ass kissing does not pay.

Rude awakening for Mark it was. In America ass kissers get promoted. In Russia they've been sent to gulag and terminated. They have a word for thhese people: "otpushennye". I am not going to go into details what that means. Suffice to say, it denotes the lowest rung in a prison hiearchy among males.

Kristopher ütles ...

Tiraspol? Re a destination for Ames, that is. There needs to be an alternative newsweekly in contrast to the Times.

Giustino ütles ...

I never had any Russian come up to me and tell me anything negative or political, except for general gripes about the economy.

Some one once complained about how Res Publica got away with having a party name that wasn't in Estonian. I sort of agree. Note to Isamaa-Res Publica Liit: Drop the Res Publica. Aitäh.

Kristopher ütles ...

Actually it's even worse, it's internationally known as Pro Patria-Res Publica Union.

I think they figured that since they have little hope of getting either more Russian or Estonian votes, they would court the dead languages contingent.

Giustino ütles ...

Actually it's even worse, it's internationally known as Pro Patria-Res Publica Union.

That's just because "fatherland" sounds so scary in English.

Martin-Éric ütles ...

The whole issue of denizens in EU is a big can of worms.

I think that people who refuse to accept any citizenship, be it the Estonian or Russian (in other cases, Belorussian or Ukrainian) citizenship have essentially shot themselves in the foot. Nobody needs to feel sorry for them.

I'm a lot more concerned about the people who DO want to acquire citizenship and who keep on being disqualified over minor points. This is the case in countries like Finland and France, where the bureaucracy has a clear policy of giving systematically unfavorable decisions for residence permits, so that, after someone thinks that they have lived somewhere long enough to qualify for citizenship, they learn the unpleasant surprise that some or all of their residence permits were of a category that does not count towards accumulating residence time to qualify for citizenship.

Thus, that someone would voluntarily chose to be a non-citizen is their own business. You cannot blame the state for their misery. However, in cases where people would love to become citizens, but are factually prevented from getting naturalized, the state fully deserves to be scolded.

Estonia in World Media (Rus) ütles ...

And feel quite the opposite. Support for citizenship policy has grown stronger. Not that it ever was in doubt since 1994.