We, 4.10.2023
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Citizens said no to blanket citizenship

Joosep Värk
, reporter
Photo: Sander Ilvest / Postimees

Member of the Free Party faction of the Riigikogu, one of the authors of the Estonian Constitution Jüri Adams says that any attempt to change the foundations of Estonia's citizenship policy is an attempt to change the results of the 1992 referendum that would rip open old wounds.

Jüri Adams, you have been involved with the foundations of citizenship policy since the early days of the Estonian National Independence Party (ESRP). Prime Minister Jüri Ratas believes that the upcoming elections should concentrate on changing that foundation. What is your opinion of that idea?

The principal battles over the basis of citizenship policy were fought towards the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Attempts to revise the results of those struggles now would not be sensible. Estonian citizenship is given to people whose ancestors were citizens of Estonia before the Second World War. Everyone else has the right to obtain citizenship but must do so individually.

There are a number of people for whom the concept of citizenship is little else than the color of their passport. Estonia has given everyone the same civil rights and freedom to travel irrespective of that color. The only difference is whether the person can vote in Riigikogu elections or not.

If that is indeed the only difference, why shouldn't we just give people citizenship?

It is not just a matter of the right to vote; one needs to qualify for Estonian citizenship. There are certain minimum requirements. First there's language proficiency, and then there is basic knowledge of democratic politics. People who lack this qualification are not fit to act as full voters.

How could they affect election results?

The views and notions of most people, new citizens who have come from the east differ considerably from those of Estonians in terms of the spirit and essence of elections.

Had we opted for universal citizenship that would have given everyone living here the right to vote in Riigikogu elections in 1992, it is probable Estonia would never have carried out its major reforms. Estonia would not be what it is today. We would be a slightly adjusted Soviet republic, like Central Asian countries or Moldova etc. today.

We have gained a lot of new citizens over the years, and this has reflected in election results where support for political forces that look back at Soviet times with a sense of nostalgia has remained stable or even grown. It is quite a peculiar phenomenon as the number of people who share those views keeps falling.

Do I have it right when I say you believe the change would bring the Center Party new and grateful voters?

It is probable. If a great number of people would be given half-mandatory citizenship virtually overnight, it is likely they would largely vote for the Center Party at least in the next election. However, I do not suspect a backroom play was behind Ratas' idea.

The proposal is unfortunate if only because it will rip open a lot of old wounds, reopen already decided matters. It will come off as an attempt to artificially summon old tensions in the eyes of a lot of Estonians. Should it be decided to actively pursue the proposal, it would cause rifts in society we really do not need. We just managed to mollify relatively artificial antagonism over the registered partnership act. Why create new tensions now?

You spoke of old wounds. It is possible younger people do not even know what you mean. What are those wounds?

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the opportunity to restore Estonian independence presented itself, one of the principal questions was how to go about it in practice. It was a matter of constitutional law do determine Estonia's relationship to the first republic. Who will become citizens of the new Estonia, who will have the right to vote. Disputes between the legal continuity camp and the universal citizenship camp lasted for years.

They were put to bed in a series of political compromises that manifested in the current Constitution in 1991-1992. One of the elements of this was a second referendum held next to the referendum to pass the Constitution in 1992 that asked whether people who are not historically Estonian citizens should be given the right to vote. The majority of citizens said „no“.

Jüri Ratas' statement, which I hold to be utterly unrealistic in practical citizenship policy, falls into the category of old battles and arguments. One part of post-Soviet citizenship policy has been that people who do not want to become Estonian citizens or do not qualify for citizenship for whatever reason can live out their lives in peace without citizenship.

Time will solve this problem; it will be gone in 50 years at the latest. There are fewer stateless persons every year, which is an entirely normal process. Attempts to arrest that process are not sensible.