Charges Fly between Russia, Estonia over Citizenship Law

Article excerpt

RUSSIAN officials are warning that Yugoslav-type chaos could erupt in Estonia if the Baltic state moves ahead with a new citizenship law widely viewed here as discriminatory against ethnic Russians.

To counter the perceived threat to their countrymen, the Russian leadership is invoking a doctrine that claims Moscow has the right to serve as protector of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics.

Bowing to the Russian intimidation, Estonian President Lennart Meri said he would not sign the citizenship measure into law until it was reviewed and approved by international organizations.

Other Estonian leaders, however, dismiss the Russian claims, insisting the legislation adheres to international human rights standards. They add that Moscow's outrage is politically motivated and designed to distract Russia's population from domestic political and economic problems.

The Estonian parliament adopted the "law on foreigners" June 21. Immediately after passage of the law, Russia began threatening to retaliate, including delaying the withdrawal of naval forces still stationed on Estonian territory.

Under the new law, those living in Estonia, but who do not possess citizenship, are designated as immigrants. Immigrants who arrived before 1990 now have two years to apply for permanent residency status, or for Estonian or Russian citizenship. Those who fail to comply are subject to deportation.

Russians make up about 600,000 of Estonia's 1.6 million inhabitants. Most Russians emigrated to the Baltic state following its 1940 incorporation into the former Soviet Union and thus are categorized as noncitizen immigrants under existing legislation. That fact prevented most Russians from voting in last year's Estonian parliamentary elections - something that drew fierce condemnation from Moscow.

The latest act has raised tension further.

"This means the practice of ethnic cleansing and the imposition of an Estonian version of apartheid," Russian President Boris Yeltsin said.

"Yielding to the pressure of nationalists {the Estonian leadership} forgot about some geopolitical and demographic realities," he added. …