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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonia Angers, Alienates Its Ethnic Russians

TALLINN, Estonia -- For the 20 silent, glum-faced people waiting last week for their new passports by the back door of 13 Endla Street, May was the month they and hundreds of thousands like them became aliens in the country they call home.


As of May 15, the red Soviet passport ceased to be valid in Estonia. That left more than 300,000 people -- mostly ethnic Russians -- wondering just whose citizens they are. As they line up to get gray passports identifying them as noncitizens, many wonder if this is the final bid to oust them from the tiny ex-Soviet republic -- even though most have nowhere else to go.


"This means I'm now a second-class person here. I don't even understand what's written in it," said Tamara Sprogis, examining her new passport, printed in Estonian and one of about 100,000 issued over the past year at the government's Citizenship and Migration Department.


Sprogis is typical of many of Estonia's new stateless residents. Born in Russia and married to a Latvian, she has spent her working life in Estonia as an employee of the militia. But with her negligible grasp of Estonian, she is unlikely ever to meet the language requirement for citizenship.


"Thirty years I worked here -- I've earned full citizenship," she said bitterly.


The coveted blue Estonian passport is issued only to those whose families lived in the country since before June 16, 1940, the day the country was occupied by the Soviet Union, or who pass exams on the Estonian language and constitution. The alien passport enables its holders to re-enter the country if they leave; only 16 countries recognize it so far.


"I've lived here for 55 years, but they still won't give me Estonian citizenship," said pensioner Maria, who wouldn't provide a last name. Maria, 78, was sent to Estonia from the Leningrad region in 1942 to serve in a field hospital during the war and now hopes to get Russian citizenship with Estonian residence rights. "You've got to be someone's citizen, after all," she said, peering in confusion at the list of requirements.


Of Estonia's population of almost 1.5 million, about one-third are now non-citizens. This includes the new, gray-passport alien category, plus the 122,000 residents with Russian citizenship. Then there are the estimated 60,000 "illegals" who did not apply for the alien passport in time, and may now have problems docu national minorities. "They can't do this physically, but they can squeeze ethnic Russians out by introducing discriminative legislation."


According to Semyonova's organization, the law says that only Estonian citizens may hold government jobs, work as a lawyer or university rector, or serve as a juror. Holders of alien passports may not vote in national elections, and may only vote in local elections if they have lived in that area for five years.


In view of Estonia's wish to join the European Union, European institutions continue to monitor the situation closely, but say the policy on citizenship is not unreasonable.


By Western European standards, this may be true, but consider Narva in northeastern Estonia, close to the Russian border. There, the population of 80,000 is predominantly ethnic Russian, and disenfranchising noncitizens would leave about one in 10 residents entitled to vote.


Then there's the question of what to do about the tens of thousands who have not yet applied for an alien passport and who may have nothing to prove their identity.


The government may use "some further stamps or certificates or something," speculated Andres Kollist, head of the Department for Citizenship and Migration, in an interview with the Russian-language newspaper Den za Dnyom.


And then there are those like Svetlana Zinchenko.


A teacher from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Zinchenko was invited to Estonia in 1991 to teach at a Russian school in the military town of Paldiski, 50 kilometers from Tallinn. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., the town continued to live in a bubble of Russian control until 1994, the result being that Zinchenko's residence documents were not renewed annually by the Estonian authorities.


Disqualified from applying for a gray passport for herself and her 14-year-old daughter, she has now been instructed by the government department to leave the country "as soon as possible." She swapped her apartment in Ukraine for one in Estonia, but now can't privatize the Estonian one. So she has no money to buy a new home elsewhere.


"My daughter can't even finish the school year," she said, waiting to receive legal advice at Semyonova's center. "We came to Estonia to start a new life. Now we will lose everything, and have nowhere to go."