Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts “Nationality is Ethnicity:” Estonia’s Problematic Citizenship Policy
“Nationality is Ethnicity:” Estonia’s Problematic Citizenship Policy

“Nationality is Ethnicity:” Estonia’s Problematic Citizenship Policy


City of Narva, Estonia

Estonia’s citizenship policy complicates the country’s relationship with its large Russian-speaking minority and Russian neighbor. Estonia’s policy approach is an “achilles’ heel” for the Baltic region. However, recent political shifts provide an opportunity for change.

With the 2016 election of Estonia’s first female head of state, President Kersti Kaljulaid and the formation of a new coalition government that includes the Russian-leaning Center Party, with new Prime Minister Jüri Ratas as its leader, the Estonian government has a rare opportunity to revisit its citizenship policy. The emergence of a new governing coalition headed by the Center Party leader PM Ratas and the Social Democratic Party leader led by Jevgeni Ossinovski, both of whom favor more inclusive policies, offers an opening to reconsider Estonian citizenship. Although the coalition has stated that the policy will not change, there may be room for alterations.

Understanding Estonian Citizenship Policy

Estonia’s citizenship policy evolved in tandem with the restoration of the independent Estonian state. Estonian statehood is founded on the legal principle of restorationism, which interprets the Soviet era as a period of illegal occupation. Restorationist independence guaranteed citizenship only to those citizens of restored pre-Soviet Estonia (and their descendants), not all Soviet citizens living on Estonian territory. The country’s citizenship policy also prioritized the legal principle of jus sanguinis (citizenship based on blood, ancestry, or birthright) over jus soli (citizenship based on soil or place of birth), while also denying dual citizenship. Estonian citizenship policy produced a large Russian-speaking stateless population, which today remains the tenth largest in the world by state. Although naturalization is an option, international organizations remain skeptical, and the Migrant Integration Policy Index considers it one of the most restrictive in Europe. While the Estonian state emphasizes ethnic heritage, it has amended and altered its policy, often because of international pressure. The recent political shifts in Estonia provide an opportunity to revisit Estonia’s citizenship policy and how it engages its Russian speakers.

Policy’s Impacts on Russian-speaking Population

Estonia’s citizenship policy is contentious. As of 2011, Russian speakers in Estonia roughly include 188,959 Estonian citizens, 90,510 Russian citizens, and 85,961 stateless residents. Approximate numbers of citizenship status vary. For example, the Estonian-based International Centre for Defense and Security suggested that Russian citizens may number over 100,000. Moreover, Russian speakers have experienced a decline in naturalization since 2007 and comprise the majority of Estonia’s stateless population. In order to acquire citizenship, Russian speakers obtain citizenship primarily through the legal principle of jus sanguinis, naturalization, or other means. While there is no general legal provision for jus soli, it is applied to abandoned children and as of 2015, to children of two stateless parents (starting in 2016). The 2015 policy is a progressive step; however, this policy does not alleviate the statelessness of other children in Estonia. Additionally, Russian speakers are underrepresented in elected and unelected positions, have lower levels of civic engagement, and have lower levels of electoral participation than ethnic Estonians. While the relationship between citizenship policy and Russian speakers’ political and civic affairs is quite clear, citizenship policy indirectly may be associated with Russian speakers’ health, mortality, and poverty.​

How do Russian speakers themselves understand and experience this policy? Based on research in the City of Narva (Ida-Viru County) and Tallinn (Harju County), I identified several effects of the citizenship policy on the Russian-speaking population.

Russian speakers want to see policy change and view citizenship acquisition as challenging in practice. The majority want Estonian citizenship to be based on the principle of place of birth, rather than heritage or blood. Russian speakers also tend to hold mixed understandings of citizenship’s worth. When asked to assess the value of citizenship in Estonia, around half of Russian speakers responded that citizenship is important, while the other half responded that it is not important. While Estonian language proficiency tends to be a major issue for Russian speakers, the majority of Russian speakers in this study see language proficiency as an important element of naturalization. However, these same Russian speakers want language proficiency requirements relaxed or more resources offered to assist with language learning. Although Russian speakers view naturalization as challenging and citizenship policy as frustrating, the majority suggested that they are still more interested in Estonian citizenship than remaining stateless or becoming a citizen of another state.

Additionally, while Russian speakers are fragmented into Estonian citizens, Russian citizens, stateless residents, or citizens of other states (ex: Ukraine, Belarus, etc.), these statuses do not equal an identity. My research found that Russian speakers in general tend to emphasize locality (Tallinn, Narva, or other locality) and country (Estonia) as important for identity. Estonian citizens and stateless residents have slightly stronger Estonian identities than do Russian citizens. However, Russian citizens living in Estonia identify more with their local communities, Estonia, the European Union, and the world more than they do with the Russian Federation. This finding highlights the disconnections between how Russian speakers in Estonia are portrayed by Estonian, Russian, or international media and realities on the ground, particularly in the City of Narva. For example, Estonian and international media or policy experts often portray Estonian Russian speakers as potential “fifth columnists” and Russian “pawns” threatening Estonian security. Conversely, the Russian state promotes policies and narratives that portray Estonian Russian speakers as passive victims of a nationalist game perpetrated by the Estonian state and as co-nationals longing for Russian protections.

This finding also illustrates the ongoing frustration that many Russian speakers have with how Estonia approaches citizenship and national identity. This frustration was echoed by one Russian speaker from Tallinn, who stated that:

In Estonia, it [citizenship] is a big issue – [because] nationality is ethnicity. But this conception is common…that all Estonian people who have Estonian citizenship are Estonians…If people like Russian speakers from Estonia go to Russia they are [considered] Estonians. They can explain like yeah I live in Estonia and have Estonian citizenship but for ethnic Estonians I am Russian and a Russian-speaker, (author’s interview). 

Conclusions & Implications

What can be gleaned from these local insights?

First, Russian speakers—citizens and non-citizens alike—identify more with their local communities and Estonia than with Russia. Second, Russian speakers are not a monolithic community with a singular citizenship status. Third, Russian speakers are frustrated with Estonian citizenship policy, which has triggered a mixed understanding of citizenship’s worth, and would like to see policy change. Finally, Russian speakers’ citizenship status should not be equated with national identity.

Estonia’s citizenship policy is outdated. Recent political shifts in the country signify a potential turning point to reform it. While this policy is linked with Estonia’s independence, ethnonational identity, and statehood, its impacts on Russian speakers’ civic involvement, political enfranchisement, integration, identities, and quality of life remain immense.

Russian speakers should not be portrayed solely as security threats to the country or region. Most Russian speakers consider Estonia their home and its political and civic life their own. Citizenship policy changes that reflect Estonia’s Russian speakers’ fealty for their country and political community will have a major impact. Estonia should allow birthright citizenship and dual citizenship; relax naturalization requirements, particularly for long-term residents; increase opportunities for citizenship and Estonian language education; and emphasize citizenship’s value and connection to Estonian identity and democracy. Such changes would trigger more political and civic inclusivity, wider societal equity and integration, and hinder Russia’s attempts to influence this population.