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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Baltic Rights Issue

The Russian government's anger over Estonia's new law on foreigners and the denial of voting rights to hundreds of thousands in Latvia in the recent elections is absolutely justified. The laws reflect badly on the Baltic state's wish to be seen as democracies, and they ought to be rethought and modified.


In today's unstable Europe it is easy to believe that discrimination against foreigners means arson attacks on migrant's hostels, ethnic cleansing, and outright war. Non-violent forms of harassment, and the treatment of foreigners as second-class citizens under the law, are less brutal and bloody, but they are just as reprehensible from any moral or political standpoint.


Hundreds of thousands of people in Estonia and Latvia now find themselves classed as outsiders, even though they have been born there or lived there all their lives. During the two republic's struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, many of them supported the Popular Fronts and demanded the restoration of the republic's freedom. The results of the referendums held in the spring of 1991 suggest that as many as a third of the Russians in the two republics voted this way. Now they find themselves being rewarded with language tests that they must pass in order to qualify for citizenship.


The Baltic states have two broad arguments to justify their pressure on Russians. One is that their republic's ethnic balance is precarious, with over 40 percent of the population being neither Estonian nor Latvian in origin. The Latvian nationalists point out that the capital city, Riga, as well as the five next largest cities have non-Latvian majorities. This is a unique situation in any European country.


To counteract this, they say, Russians cannot be allowed to behave as though Russian-language schools and automatic rights for Russians will go on forever as they did in the Soviet period. They must either make a serious effort to learn the local language, and accept the primacy of local culture, or leave.


Estonia is now going further. It is setting a time-limit of two years, by which time every non-Estonian must go through the complicated hoops for citizenship or get out.


The second Baltic argument is that their two republics suffered enormous damage under Soviet occupation, including the forcible deportation of thousands of their people to Siberia when Russian troops first arrived, and later during the collectivization drives. After the war, up to and including the period of perestroika, Moscow pursued a deliberate policy of mass migration, sending thousands of Russian workers to the region's new factories.


Both arguments have considerable weight behind them, but it is political and psychological rather than moral or legal. Past wrongs do not justify the denial of human rights to other people, or, putting it biblically, the sins of the fathers should not be visited on the sons.


When the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the nearest thing Europe has to an embryonic United Nations for the continent, looked into Estonia's citizenship laws last autumn, it concluded: "Parliament must legislatively ameliorate, if not remove, the sources of anxiety for Russians". Not only has this advice not been followed. The new law on foreigners makes things worse. "Estonia", the CSCE report went on, "must develop programs to teach Estonian to non-speakers, which has been done inconsistently up to now. Integrating the Russians into Estonia will be a vital long-term project essential to political stability and economic development". The report pointed out that there were no established procedures for passing the language test, and that even learning 1, 500 words was daunting for older people.


A report this spring on the Latvian citizenship law by Max Van der Stoel, the CSCE's high commissioner for nationalities, was equally tough. It urged the government to give automatic citizenship to all children born in Latvia. It called for the exemption of everyone over 60, as well as the disabled, from the language requirement.


It said that any exclusion of a person based on specific categories, such as former employment in the KGB or in high Communist Party positions, must be established by court. A court should determine whether a person had been involved in repression. It was not enough to disqualify all former army officers, for example.


The irony of Estonia's and Latvia's extreme nationalism is that it comes at a time when history is already moving in the direction of those who want to protect their local Baltic cultures. Migration into the two republics is coming to an end, so that over time the Russian-speaking sections of the population will decline. A substantial proportion of young Russians, and particularly those who are married to Estonians or Latvians, are putting their children into local language schools.


Why not therefore accept that those Russians who were living in the republic at the time independence was restored in 1991 have a full right to be citizens? Discriminating against non-Latvians and non-Estonians, which means against Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles as well as Russians, is not only objectionable in itself. It is politically blind. The concept of mono-ethnic societies is unrealistic in today's world. The Europe to which Estonia and Latvia returned in 1991 when they regained their independence is not the one they left in 1940. The CSCE is right to point that out.


Jonathan Steele is Moscow bureau chief of The Guardian.