Estonians Zealously Guard Citizenship--and Culture


Valery Kalabugin’s mother was Russian, his father Armenian, his birthplace this center of a 5,000-year-old Baltic culture.

Kalabugin sits in the Estonian congress, one house of the country’s provisional legislature, and his recent record of fighting for the independence of Estonia is unassailable. But even he has sympathy for the people trying to keep him from becoming a citizen of his native country.

“I will acknowledge,” he says, “that the problem would not be so painful if there were not so many people involved.”

Indeed, few issues in the three Baltic states can be as all-encompassing as the one being debated Saturday by the Estonian congress in its first post-independence session: Who has the right to Estonian citizenship?


As in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, the debate is inspired by much more than questions of blood and birthright. It is an attempt to define exactly what happened to those countries during their 51 years of occupation by the Soviet Union, and more specifically how to deal with the more than 1.5 million ethnic Russians who migrated and settled across the Baltics--"colonized” is the preferred local term--in that time.

Most Estonian politicians seem to favor a rule based on the last constitution, adopted in 1938-39, in which native citizenship was granted to anyone whose mother or father was Estonian or who married an Estonian. Naturalization was also permitted anyone over 18 who resided for two years in the country and learned its monstrously difficult language.

The new proposal grants citizenship to anyone who can show that his or her forebears were citizens before the Soviet annexation in 1940. That would include descendants of the roughly 80,000 Russians then living in Estonia, but very pointedly would exclude the hundreds of thousands of residents imported from all over the Soviet empire by Soviet authorities since that time. They were brought in largely to staff new factories, serve in local army garrisons, and generally dilute Estonian culture and defuse political activism.

The issue is particularly hard-fought in Estonia, not because it has the largest concentration of Russians--Latvia’s is slightly higher--but because some parts of the country are now almost entirely settled by Russians, some of whom have lived in Estonia far longer than Estonians now returning from exile. Nevertheless, it is of real concern in both other countries, especially in Latvia, where the new government has already issued 10,000 identity cards as a prelude to a restrictive citizenship law.


In many ways, the citizenship issue reflects deep Baltic resentment over the long Soviet occupation. It is no accident that Estonians often assuage their wounded pride, caused by their decrepit infrastructure and poor service standards, by referring to the “Sovietization” process. And Baltic leaders say the Soviets demonstrated their uncitizen-like nature by despoiling the land with mineral mines and polluting the rivers with industrial waste.

“We used to own the land, and we know how to keep it,” says Lauri Vahtre, a leading Estonian politician and historian who is a strict constructionist on the citizenship issue.

The Baltic people also resent the role played by some of their Russian residents in fighting the independence movements of the last two or three years: In Estonia, a “hard-line” Russian bloc in the elected Supreme Council is still fighting a rear-guard action against some reform. Unsurprisingly, some ethnic Russian members of the congress took pains Saturday to distance themselves from this clique.

“I and tens of thousands of Russians who have fought together with Estonians don’t want to be lumped together with the Russians who did everything they could against independence,” said Alexei Lotman, one of the few members to address the congress in Russian rather than Estonian.


But there is a deeper element. As in the other Baltic states, much of the debate about citizenship here turns on the prospects for the very survival of Estonian culture, the future of which is in the hands of fewer than 1 million people living in this tiny sub-Arctic land.

“Citizenship is the cover issue,” says Vahtre. “The true matter is the life or death of the Estonians as a nation.”

Accordingly, much of Saturday’s debate in the congress covered comparative birthrates among genuine Estonians and imported Russians, who are said to be procreating much faster.

The argument is that even if Estonians are eventually outnumbered, at least they should still be overrepresented on issues of self-determination.


“If we don’t take measures,” said Juri Liim at the congress, “we may face a situation where the citizens of Estonia may want a referendum to go back and join another country.”

The renewed insistance that applicants for naturalization also show proficiency in the language harks back to efforts by German and Russian occupiers over the centuries to extinguish Baltic tongues such as Estonian, a relative of Finnish. Until recently, the Soviet regime refused to allow even the most modest official business to be conducted in Estonian.

“I can remember five years ago being screamed at by a post office lady because I wouldn’t order stamps in Russian,” recalls one young Estonian.

The collapse of the Soviet Union does not by any means assuage these fears: In large part, Baltic concerns about absorption are aimed not at the Soviet state but at the Russian people, whose habits of overcoming and extinguishing neighboring tribes date back at least as far as the 12th-Century annihilation of the Varangian culture of Novgorod.


The Baltic peoples are so highly conscious of their feeble grip on survival that they often refer to themselves in terms usually heard elsewhere referring to rare species of animal or plant life in Brazil.

“We have a special responsibility because there are so many small nations who have already crossed the border into being extinct,” remarked Jaan Einasto, another member of the congress.

Characteristically, many speakers positing citizenship standards chose their models not from the constitutions of the United States or large Western European countries, but from such places as Gibraltar, San Marino and Brunei.

For all that, there are many Baltic leaders who take a more liberal view of citizenship. Most of these seem to be in Lithuania, which with only 350,000 Russians out of a population of 3.7 million has the least to worry about. But even in Estonia, there are some who argue that the exclusionary position will only create political problems. This is particularly true in places like Narva, a city of 100,000 where only 4,000 residents would pass the congress’ citizenship test (the rest are Soviet imports who have lived in relative isolation for decades).


“What about the other 96,000 Russians there?” asks Rein Taagepera, a congress member opposing the strictest rule. “We have to give them a feeling of security in Estonia or they might try to secede.”

But that argument cuts little ice with most other politicians who believe that Estonian citizenship is something of a privilege that Estonians have a right to distribute.

“I don’t understand why non-Estonians are so frustrated,” said Mart Laar, a young historian and leader of a new political bloc. “They will be given every opportunity to apply for citizenship. The only thing is, we will have control over granting it.”