For the first time since I became acquainted with Estonia, there is a renewed public interest in the criteria for obtaining Estonian citizenship.
You may find that humorous, in that myself and others have written about this contentious issue to the point of exhaustion over the years.
However, these were external debates. The visit of a PACE chairman here or a UN high representative there could spur heated conversations about Estonian citizenship laws by outsiders, yet within the country they mostly provoked defensive reactions. I encountered few passionate arguments within Estonia about citizenship. The Estonian mindset seemed to be, "the law is the law, and I have more important things to think about."
Last week though, several government ministers met to discuss the current policies. Minister of Education Tõnis Lukas did not divulge the agreements, if any, that were reached during the talks to the media. He said an official statement on the internal discussion was unlikely. But what has changed to bring about such a debate?
One major factor is undeniably the war in Georgia. The Kremlin's logic of protecting its citizens on the territory of another state did not go unnoticed in Tallinn. 8 percent of Estonian residents hold foreign citizenship, mostly Russian, Ukrainian, and Finnish. And then there's that other 8 percent, the roughly 100,000 people who still have undetermined citizenship.
Ideally, most long-term residents of Estonia would adopt Estonian citizenship. That is what the government is trying to encourage. Learn the Constitution. Take some language courses. Here's your passport. But many stateless persons enjoy the best of both worlds. They have visa free travel to both the European Union and the Russian Federation. And what do they get with their eesti pass? The freedom to join the Center Party and vote for Edgar Savisaar in European Parliamentary elections? How grand.
That solid bloc of ~100,000 residents with undetermined citizenship is indeed a challenge. As one recent op-ed pointed out, that's more people than live in the city of Tartu, Estonia's second largest. In the 1990s, Estonians might have been quick to passionately defend such a policy. They were still sorting through the broken garbage of the Soviet legacy and probably believed, next to the legal and moral arguments, that the *temporary* exclusion of part of the population from the democratic process was the best way to consolidate the state within Western institutions.
Today, though, with the average Torumees Joosep anxious about the global financial crisis and the implosion of Estonia's consumer-driven market, this is just another headache that I believe most would simply like to go away. With Estonian reestablished as the primary language of public life and the fear of being subverted by Homo Sovieticus retreating into memory, Estonians now feel comfortable again within their own skin and within their own land. To be Estonian is uhke ja hää? When was it ever not?
In this environment, one would hope that the law would work and the situation would naturally resolve itself. The news that the Russian embassy handed out more Russian passports to stateless persons than the Estonian government did last year, however, is symbolic of the challenge that faces either this Estonian government or a future one.
What is the solution? There are various incremental actions being discussed by the current government to encourage more to take Estonian citizenship. But I think that ultimately a larger renewal of policy may be underway. This is probably no longer an issue that the Estonian government wishes to expend vast resources to resolve. In my experience, Estonians are ultimately stubborn yet practical people. I have confidence that a solution will eventually be found.