The Russian claiming to be Estonian

Tiina Kaukvere
, reporter
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Photo: Liis Treimann

Russian citizen Georgi Simul (54), who was born in St. Petersburg and is still residing there, had no close ties with Estonia only a few years ago. However, as it happened, he is now considering himself an Estonian citizen by birth and has gone to court to make the state recognize it as well.

The wealthy real estate businessman from St. Petersburg comes to vacation to Estonia every year. His most recent visit was to Õllesummer festival with a Finnish visa, which is granted more easily. Georgi Simul does not speak Estonian, but does speak, besides Russian, English and French.

He has no special knowledge of Estonian culture either yet he is willing to waive his Russia citizenship and move to Estonia with his wife and four daughters, whose age reaches from 21 to five years. “It is important to be a citizen of the free world, especially considering the future of my daughters”, he explained, hoping that his youngest girl would go to school in Tallinn. “We would buy a house in Pirita”, he daydreams and even promises to learn Estonian. “Tere hommikust, tere õhtust”, he says, proving the result of his studies so far.

Georgi’s frequent visits to Estonia began approximately two years ago. In his words, a travel agency in St. Petersburg recommended then to study his family history and that led to the current court case against the Estonian state. He has hired Olavi-Jüri Luik, a top lawyer, to represent him.

“I went to apply for a visa and they said at the travel agency that my surname is interesting and asked about it”, Simul recalled. “When I said that I have relatives in Estonia, they recommended checking, whether my ancestors had been optants”, he said. “Optants? What does that mean?” he could not understand.

Optants is the term for Estonians, who had settled in Russia before Estonia had become independent, and who were granted, in accordance with the Tartu Peace Treaty, the option of choosing their citizenship while in Russia. This option was also granted to Jaan and Karoline Simmul, who had moved from Sõmerpalu in Võru county to the Pskov region in Russia, and were declared citizens of Estonia together with their seven-year-old son August in 1912. This is proven by documents held in the National Archive of Estonia, which Simul managed to find. According to these documents he considers himself an Estonian citizen by birth, since August is his grandfather.

“My great-grandmother Karoline hardly spoke Russian and I could not understand her when I visited her as a child”, Simul recalled, telling how the Estonian consulate in St. Petersburg had congratulated him after the documents had been found. “They said congratulations, now you are entitled to citizenship.”

Yet the congratulations were premature. The Russian businessman submitted his citizenship application to the Police and Border Guard Board last April together with the 1921 documents proving that his grandfather August had been “granted citizenship”.

But the Police and Border Guard Board were not happy with it. As it happens, it is still not entirely clear what the Tartu Peace Treaty was meant to state and who is entitled to be a citizen of Estonia. A large number of old documents and letters have survived, but these can be interpreted differently. The outcome is a legal confusion, where the decisions of the Estonian state are inconsistent. Some people have been granted citizenship based on such documents, others have been refused. The latter have gone to court – Simul included, five descendants of Estonians are currently claiming their right to citizenship.

The Police and Border Guard Board have adopted the view in recent years that the Estonians residing abroad, who never returned to their homeland, did not become citizens. And since Jaan, Karoline and August all died in Russia, they were not citizens. They did not meet the terms of the Tartu Peace Treaty by returning to Estonia, the Board believes.

Albert was granted, Georgi was refused

“This is discrimination! What is the different between me and Albert, who was granted citizenship?” Georgi Simul referred to a court ruling of 2002, which granted citizenship to one Albert of Estonian origin. His mother had also been an optant, who never returned to Estonia. “The peace treaty does not stipulate that failure to comply with the term of leaving the country within one year results in being deprived of citizenship”, the court then ruled and added that the actions of the Estonian state towards those opting for citizenship had proven it. After a special commission had “adopted” a person to Estonian citizenship, the certificate had been immediately issued.

“This ruling has opened Pandora’s box”, Simul believes.

However, the Tallinn administrative court reached an opposite ruling regarding his case this May and agreed with the Police and Border Guard Board. “Persons opting for Russia shall leave Estonian territory within one year from the date of such option. [--].Similarly, persons of Estonian origin residing in Russia may opt for Estonian nationality during the same period and under the same conditions”, the court cited Article IV of the Tartu Peace Treaty.

On the other hand, the treaty does not stipulate what happened to those who did not return to homeland within one year or who were prevented from leaving. Did the certificates of citizenship already issued become invalid?

The administrative court ruled in the end of May that although the Simmuls’ archive documents bear the stamp “admitted to citizenship”, an individual realized the right only by actually arriving in Estonia. Leaving Russian territory was the condition.

In the court’s opinion, this is proven by several documents. For example, the “Explanation letter on entering the Estonian citizenship”, which contains more detailed conditions for optants.

The administrative court also considered the activities of the Russian state – if an Estonian residing abroad received Estonian citizenship, the person was issued an alien’s identity card granting them the right to stay in Russia for another year. The option certificates became invalid within one year and were replaced by residence permits of Soviet Russian citizens, the court decided.

On the other hand the court agreed with Georgi Simul that a state’s sovereignty in determining its citizenship means granting and revoking citizenship by a definite resolution and act instead of leaving a personas status indefinite. The citizenship act was approved only in the end of 1922, when the basic principles of continuity of citizenship were determined.

All the way to the Supreme Court

The court also had to admit that optants residing in Russia had been actually prevented from leaving for Estonia. It is not known, however, that the Simmuls were obstructed.

The Tallinn administrative court concluded that the Simmul family while living in Russia could not expect to retain their Estonian citizenship. They must have been aware of the facts and deliberately opted for Russia.

But Simul’s representative, the barrister Olavi-Jüri Luik of Lextal legal firm, totally disagrees and has already appealed against it.

According to Luik, the positions of the court and the Police and Border Guard Board contradict the actual practice, since there are known cases of Estonian citizens returning to Estonia only in 1939 and the state recognized their citizenship. Russia may have obstructed their leaving by taking away their citizenship certificates and replacing them with Soviet Russian residence permits, but Russia’s arbitrary actions cannot change the laws of Estonia, the lawyer argued.  

He finds that the court had grossly violated the standards of procedure, since the ruling was based on random historic documents rather than administrative acts with the authority of law. Luik considers an issued certificate of citizenship such an administrative act, which has unlimited duration of validity.

Since the peace treaty does not concern depriving of citizenship, it should be analyzed, Luik says, whether Jaan Simmul was deprived of citizenship or he lost it according to the citizenship act, which came in force later. There is no administrative act concerning the revoking of citizenship. Luik also finds that the court and the Police and Border Guard Board abuse the principle of equal treatment, since individuals have been previously recognized as citizens by birth based on analogous documents.

This debate may go all the way to the Supreme Court. In the opinion of Aadu Must, a historian and Centrist member of parliament, up to 170,000 descendants of Estonian settlers in Russia may have the right to citizenship by birth; therefore the cautious attitude of the state can be understood. Among others, a resident of Abkhazia, the Estonian language teacher Ilma Krenstrem, whose case Postimees has repeatedly described, may have the right to Estonian citizenship. A further hundred Estonian-speakers in the villages in Abkhazia are also waiting for the issue to be settled.