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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Estonia, A Lesson in Realpolitik

The language of "apartheid" that Russia is using to condemn Estonia's citizenship law seems out of all proportion to the text of the document itself, which would merely require resident aliens to register and define their status as in the rest of the world. But if the collapse of the Soviet bloc has demonstrated anything, it is that where minority rights are concerned letter of the law is irrelevant. Only the interpretation counts.

The Baltic states are not about to become another Yugoslav killing fields. But Estonia and Latvia - both of which have massive minorities of ethnic Russians - should draw some harsh lessons from the appalling experience in the Balkans.

Whatever justifications Estonia has for defining who is an Estonian and ending several decades of Soviet occupation, this tiny nation of 2 million cannot afford to make ethnic Russians feel like foreigners. Croatia made that mistake with its Serbian minority and has paid a heavy price for it.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians settled in Estonia after World War II and they consider it home. To brand them "aliens" now is provocative.

Given the size and instability of their Russian neighbor, it is in the interests of Estonians to give their huge Russian population minimum reason to suspect discrimination. So far, the Estonian parliament has failed in this task. The laws on citizenship and the recently passed law on foreigners have served only to fuel the suspicions of ethnic Russians that the government wants to drive them out. The Russian government has in response turned to the language of Yugoslavia and South Africa - "ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid" respectively - to condemn the moves.

That language is certainly unjust. But it reflects a fact that both Estonia and Latvia must take to heart.

Political reality in Russia requires any leader in Moscow to come loudly to the aid of the 25 million ethnic Russians who live in the former Soviet republics when they cry foul. If President Boris Yeltsin were to ignore that reality, it could well undermine his support at home and help more nationalist leaders - far more dangerous to Estonia than Yeltsin - to come to power.

Estonian President Lennart Meri appears to have recognized his government's mistake when he announced that he would delay ratifying the new law on foreigners until it has received a stamp of approval from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He should have done that before the law was submitted to parliament, demonstrating to the country's 600, 000 non-Estonians that the intentions of the government - their government also - were pure.