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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonians Delay Citizenship Law

Under fierce economic and political pressure from Moscow, President Lennart Meri of Estonia has said he will delay ratification of a citizenship law that appears to target ethnic Russians until it has been internationally approved.


The announcement by Meri came two days after Russia cut off all gas supplies to Estonia on Friday, in protest at the law "on foreigners" which President Boris Yeltsin described last week as "apartheid".


There were conflicting reports Monday, however, as to the status of Russia's cutoff of gas supplies.


The general director of the Estonian gas company Eesti Gaas, Arne Saar, said Monday that he had reached agreement late Sunday night with the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, to resume 80 percent of normal supplies on Tuesday.


But neither Eesti Gaas nor Gazprom have the final say in the settlement of the political dispute between Tallinn and Moscow, and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev made no mention of a possible agreement in comments he made on the situation on Monday.


Kozyrev told Itar-Tass that Meri's decision not to ratify the law immediately was "encouraging". Kozyrev said "if the situation improves, not only will economic sanctions be lifted, but all conditions will be created for a full-scale partnership".


A statement from Meri's office Sunday, as reported by Reuters from Tallinn, said: "The president deems it necessary to announce that before a decision on ratifying the law, or not ratifying the law, he will turn for expert opinion to the Council of Europe, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and other organizations".


The statement said Meri is seeking "an impartial and professional assessment of the law", which was passed June 21 by the Estonian parliament.


Russia also suspended gas supplies to Lithuania on Sunday, Baltfax news agency reported Monday, but the report said the cutoff was ordered for economic reasons. The agency said Lithuania owes Russia $40 million in gas debts.


Russian-speakers living in the third Baltic state of Latvia were assured by Yeltsin on Monday that Moscow would defend their rights against infringements by the republic's government, the news agency said.


"The protection of the rights and interests of Russians in Latvia as in any other country will remain a Russian foreign policy priority directive", Yeltsin said.


Both Yeltsin and Kozyrev were unequivocal in their condemnation of the Estonian parliament's approval of the law, which requires all non-Estonian residents to apply for Estonian citizenship or a residence permit within two years, or leave the country. The law also discriminates against ex-Soviet Army troops living in Estonia.


According to the political counselor at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, Arthur Laast, the law was sent on Friday to the CSCE for review, which will take about two weeks. Laast said that Meri will not sign the legislation unless it is cleared by the CSCE.


Officials at Gazprom said the suspension of gas supplies to Estonia was not connected to the controversial legislation, and was purely a financial concern.


"It is nothing to do with the law", said Gennady Kremenskov, the head of the distribution department at Gazprom. Kremenskov said the reason for the suspension lay in Estonia's failure to pay debts to Gazprom of over 10 billion rubles ($10 million. )


"We are not a charity", he said. "They promised us they would pay a month ago, and they didn't. Cutting off the gas is the only way to deal with these people".


But Laast called the question of the gas debt "mere smoke", which he said the Russians were using "to try to disguise political intent".


Although Estonians have not yet felt the effects of the cessation of the Russian gas supply, Tallinn is running on gas reserves which are expected to last only a few more days.


Neelis Milder, the director of the Baltica clothing factory in Tallinn, said Monday that his factory "can survive two or three more days". Milder, whose factory employs 1, 000 people, estimated that a third of Estonian factories are dependent on gas for their power.


In the predominantly Russian-speaking northeast city of Narva, the city council Monday condemned the law "on foreigners" as discriminatory and declared a referendum for July 16-17 on autonomy for the region within Estonia, Baltfax reported.


Russian-speakers constitute 90 percent of Narva's population, and there are 600, 000 Russians resident in Estonia, which has a total population of 1. 56 million.


Scott reported from Moscow and Thoenes from Tallinn.