MEP Yana Toom organized a petition for stateless persons to be able to participate in European Parliament elections and invited Kaur Kender to convey a radical message to Brussels.
EP documents reveal that the petition was officially lodged by Estonian resident Sergei Stepanov, even though Toom (Center) makes no secret of the fact it was organized by her bureau. The petition criticizes the situation of stateless persons living in Estonia and Latvia in that they are not allowed to vote in EP elections.
However, it was Estonian writer Kaur Kender who took the stand in front of the European Parliament’s petition committee instead of Sergei Stepanov on Tuesday. Kender said, after hearing the deliberation, that the actual situation in Estonia is much worse.
A seminar was held before the petition was put to a vote where scientists provided an impartial overview of the situation in Estonia and Latvia. Dr. Susanne Tönsmann from the University of Zurich talked about history and pointed out that the reasons why we have stateless persons are largely psychological. Historical views differ, and some people still do not realize Estonia was occupied. “That is why naturalization seems like an insult to some,” Tönsmann said.
Jurist Martins Paparinskis from the University College London explained how the subject matter is politically sensitive. “Current European and international law leaves these kinds of matters up to member states. I believe that is where this debate belongs and will take place,” the expert offered.
What Kender had to say painted an entirely different picture for Europe. He said that Estonian prisons are full of Russian-speaking residents and stateless persons because “if you don’t have rights, you are an easier target for the system”. “In some ways it seems like a humanitarian disaster that just won’t end,” Kender said of the situation in Estonia.
“They do not have political rights; they pay taxes but cannot travel,” Kender said in English and added that there is little hope for change. The writer explained that Estonians remember how they were forced to speak Russian during the Soviet era, while they are doing the same thing to Russians today. “We believe we have the right to do it, we are an ethnic nation state.”
Kender said that he would prefer European citizenship if such a thing was possible. “I do not want to live my entire life surrounded by a rhetoric where Hitler lost, Stalin occupied etc.”
Kender said that whenever someone tells him that people’s rights need to be sacrificed in the name of security, it reminds him of another country where the Jews were seen as an existential threat to the state. “We know how that ended. It cannot happen again in the heart of Europe.”
In closing, Kender pointed out the American principle of no taxation without representation. “We have been asking these people to pay taxes for 27 years without giving them representation. Perhaps they should be represented on the European level, because Estonians will rather go extinct than give stateless persons citizenship,” the writer said. Kender’s phone was switched off all day Wednesday.
Latvian MEP Miroslavs Mitrofanovs painted an equally disconsolate picture of the situation in Latvia. He said that “events of the past 27 years are like a punishment for the crimes of Stalin’s regime, and that Russian-speaking people are gradually stripped of their rights”. Mitrofanovs gave as an example the right to education in Russian.
The petition committee was forced to call the delegate to order as Mitrofanovs veered off topic. “The subject matter is the rights of non-citizens!” the MEP replied.
“This committee is not a fashion statement or an exhibition. Please stick to the matter at hand. The latter is this petition,” said committee chairwoman Cecilia Wikström from Sweden.
MEP Urmas Paet (Reform Party), who also took part in the deliberation, said that he has never witnessed such battering of Estonia and Latvia in the European Parliament. Paet said that while formally the deliberation concerned giving stateless persons the right to vote in EP elections, the focus quickly dissipated.
“In other words, it became about how the rights of stateless persons are being trampled underfoot in Estonia and Latvia, how it is very difficult to get citizenship, and how things are generally very bad in the two Baltic countries,” Paet wrote in social media.
The petition was voted off the agenda by a single vote, that of MEP Ivari Padar (Social Democrat Party) who is not even a member of the petition committee. Padar was given the opportunity as the European socialists faction did not have enough delegates present.
“The deliberation revealed a deep concern over the fact the Soviet Union has ended. I have not joined the chorus of voices criticizing Yana Toom in the past, but this time things clearly went too far,” Padar said.
Petition shut down
Padar pointed out that Estonia has 80,000 stateless persons who are eligible for citizenship through nationalization. “More than 160,000 people have acquired citizenship and are loyal Estonian citizens. Others remain defiant, and this defiance is represented by Yana Toom in Estonia and Andrejs Mamikins and Miroslavs Mitrofanovs in Latvia,” Padar said. The MEP said that Estonia has extended its hand to stateless persons.
Padar wrote to PM Jüri Ratas (Center) yesterday, saying that while he is a supporter of the coalition in Estonia, he does not believe it proper for a representative of the Center Party to disparage Estonia’s reputation in the EP.
“Yana Toom represents the Center Party in the liberals’ (ALDE) faction. European Parliament delegates are not elected for show. They must adequately pursue European and Estonian agenda. I have always been sensible and moderate when it comes to the issues of Estonians and Russians. What took place in the petition committee yesterday is clearly damaging to Estonia’s interests and an inadequate treatment of the situation in Estonia,” Padar wrote. Asked to comment on Toom’s actions, Ratas told BNS yesterday that “no member of the Center Party can introduce an anti-Estonian initiative”.
“The situation today, where Estonia has ca. 80,000 stateless persons, and we still issue so-called gray passports to children who are born here, is definitely not right. However, I believe that giving stateless persons the right to vote in EP elections would not solve the problem of social cohesion,” Ratas wrote in social media.
The petition was introduced back in 2016, and its authors have kept the matter on the agenda since. The European Commission has said it has no grounds on which to intervene. Additionally, the makeup of the European Parliament depends on the entire population of member states, giving Estonia six representatives and Latvia eight.