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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Turn To Bend on Estonia Issue

President Lennart Meri of Estonia can only be congratulated for returning the controversial Law on Aliens to parliament, for by bowing to the judgment of international organizations he may have defused a potentially explosive situation. Now it is Russia's turn to give ground.

The law, which demands that all non-Estonian citizens register as citizens or resident aliens within two years or leave the country, is on its face innocent. But both the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe have resolved that the text was too vague, leaving it open to interpretations that would discriminate against Russian-speaking minorities.

The motives that could drive Estonian officials to discriminate are clear. Their country was under Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991 and was subjected to an aggressive program of resettlement and Russification. The desire to redress those wrongs is inevitable, but it is neither morally nor politically acceptable.

More than that, any discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia - whether officially sanctioned or not - would be highly dangerous for the tiny country's independence. The calls in Russia for Moscow to come to the rescue of fellow nationals would become deafening.

The CE and CSCE have essentially said that neither Estonia nor Western Europe can afford for Russians to be given cause even to suspect they may be forced to leave. Regardless of what the Estonian parliament now does, President Meri appears to have accepted Europe's caution, and for that he deserves praise.

Now it is Russia's turn. If passing the Law on Aliens was provocative on Estonia's part, so was Russia's thinly disguised response - turning off gas supplies to its Baltic neighbor. The rhetoric of "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing" used by President Boris Yeltsin and his foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev was also inflammatory.

It is up to the Kremlin now to do whatever it can to calm the situation. Some further movement on the stalled process of withdrawing Russian troops from Estonian territory would go a long way to help.

Between them, by passing a provocative law and responding in a heavy-handed way, Tallinn and Moscow share responsibility for encouraging the local authorities in the Estonian, but Russian-dominated, towns of Narva and Sillamae to hold a July 16 referendum on political autonomy. In the vocabulary of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, there are few more inflammatory demands that they could have made.

It is up to Moscow now to use all of the influence that it doubtless wields in these towns to get the referendum canceled.