Last Updated: Thursday, 26 November 2015, 08:53 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Estonia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Estonia, 2007, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Republic of Estonia lies on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. To the west it borders the Baltic, to the north the Gulf of Finland, to the east the Russian Federation and to the south the Republic of Latvia. Its territory includes 1,521 islands in the Baltic Sea. Estonia no longer formally claims territories in the Narva and Pechora regions of the Russian Federation, although a definitive border treaty has yet to be completed. One was signed in 2005, but then it failed after some Estonian MPs added a special statement to the text reiterating Estonia's 'legal continuity' as a state, and Russia withdrew its signature.


Dominated since the thirteenth century by Danes, Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians, Estonia was established as a modern nation- state in 1918. However, from the very beginning, Estonians had to fight for independence against the imperialist ambitions of Germany and Bolshevik Russia. The war of independence ended with the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty in 1920. In this treaty Soviet Russia renounced all claims on the sovereign rights of Estonia. The country's first constitution was proclaimed in June 1920, and Estonia became a member of the League of Nations in 1921.

As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Red Army occupied Estonia, together with Latvia and Lithuania, and in August 1940 the country was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviet regime arrested and killed thousands of Estonians and deported tens of thousands more. The entire Estonian political and social infrastructure was destroyed and replaced with Soviet institutions. Western states never recognized the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR. After Hitler's Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Nazi forces occupied Estonia from 1941 to 1944, when the Soviets again took over. As a result of deportations, war, mobilization and mass emigration, the population of Estonia decreased from 1,136,000 in October 1939 to 854,000 in January 1945.

In 1945, Estonians formed about 95 per cent of the population, taking into account the loss of the territories in the Narva and Pechora regions of the Russian Federation that were mostly inhabited by Russians. Subsequently, the ethnic composition of Estonia was substantially altered. The central Soviet authorities introduced heavy industry requiring a new workforce, and brought hundreds of thousands of people into the country from central Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. During the whole period of Soviet occupation after the war, half a million more people came to Estonia than left it. The percentage of Estonians in the population, according to the 1989 census, dropped to 61.5 per cent.

Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika offered an opportunity for democratic forces to begin protesting environmental damage, forced industrialization, Russification and the repression of Estonian national culture. The Estonian Supreme Soviet declared sovereignty (the precedence of Estonian legislation over Soviet legal acts) in November 1988. Then in August 1991, Estonia issued a declaration on the re-establishment of independence. After protracted negotiations, the armed forces of the Russian Federation withdrew from Estonia in August 1994, although a number of demobilized Russian officers remained in the country.

Since independence Estonia has developed into a fully functioning democracy. It has held multiple elections deemed free and fair by international observers, resulting in the peaceful transfer of power between different ruling elites. Estonia's active integration with Euro- Atlantic institutions culminated in March 2004 with Estonia's accession to NATO, and in May 2004 with membership in the European Union.

However, policies adopted in the mid-1990s excluded large numbers of the Russian-speaking population from automatic citizenship, and had long-term effects for their political representation. None of the predominantly Russian-speaking political parties won seats in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

While the fact that Western states had never recognized the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR simplified the issue of their recognition as sovereign states, it also made criticism of exclusive policies of nation and state building more difficult. The OSCE mission to Estonia, in place since 1993, closed at the end of 2001. This reduced international leverage over Estonia.


Main languages: Estonian (official), Russian

Main religions: Lutheran Church, Russian Orthodox, Baptist Church

According to the 2000 census, the main minority groups include Russians 351,178 (25.6%), Ukrainians 29,012 (2.1%), Belarusians 17,241 (1.3%) and Finns 12,195 (0.9%). Official estimates for all groups in 2006 do not differ widely from the 2000 census data. There are also small populations of Jews, Tatars, Germans, Latvians, Poles, Lithuanians and others.

According to the 2000 census, Estonians constituted 67.9 per cent of the total population; they speak Estonian, a difficult Finno-Ugric language unrelated to Slavic languages. Besides the ten largest minorities listed above, other smaller minorities include Armenians, Azeris, Moldovans, Chuvash, Karelians and Roma. The first congregation of Jews was founded in Tallinn in 1830. Several hundred Jews were deported in June 1941 and later that year, during the German occupation, some 1,000 who had failed to flee were murdered. The Estonian Jewish community today consists of about 1,000 people, more than half of whom are pensioners. The non-Estonian population lives predominantly in the main industrial towns in the north-east of the country and in the capital, Tallinn.

In 2006 according to official data published by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 83.6 per cent of residents of Estonia are Estonian citizens. Another 7.4 per cent were citizens of other states, and 9.0 per cent were residents of 'undetermined citizenship'. These numbers, alongside corresponding figures for Latvia, are unprecedented for the European Union, especially as they refer to stateless residents rather than third-country nationals.

According to the 2000 census, the population of Estonian citizens comprises 83.4 per cent native speakers of Estonian, and 15.3 per cent native speakers of Russian.


The Estonian Constitution of 1992 prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion or political or other beliefs. It guarantees the same fundamental rights to Estonian citizens and non-citizens alike (article 9). It provides for the right to assemble freely, but prohibits non-citizens from joining political parties, although they may form social groups.

The Law on Local Elections adopted in 1993 permits resident non-citizens to vote but not to run for office. Estonian law makes no distinction on the basis of lack of citizenship or other such grounds regarding business or property ownership (other than land). All residents of Estonia may participate equally in the privatization of state-owned housing.

As in the other Baltic States, one of the most important inter-ethnic issues in Estonia centres on the large number of non- citizens in the country. The key underlying issue is that post-Soviet Estonian independence is officially understood in Estonia in terms of 'state restoration' and not the creation of a new state. This policy was used to justify the awarding of automatic citizenship only to pre-1940 citizens and their descendants, which in turn was aimed at securing the demographic and political pre-eminence of ethnic Estonians against the large numbers of post-war, mostly Russian settlers.

Citizenship Laws

In January 1995, the Riigikogu (Estonian parliament) passed a new law on citizenship that brought all citizenship-related regulations into one document. Estonian citizenship can be acquired by birth (if at least one of the child's parents is an Estonian citizen) or by naturalization. An Estonian citizen may not simultaneously be a citizen of another country. Citizens of foreign states who wish to become naturalized must be at least 18 years old and must have lived permanently in Estonia for at least five years before applying. An applicant must have knowledge of Estonia's state system and the Estonian constitution, and speak Estonian (language knowledge requirements are established by a separate law). In addition, an applicant must take an oath of loyalty to the Republic of Estonia and its constitution. Further, Article 16 of the Citizenship Law Implementation Act bars the naturalization of:

'Foreign military personnel in active service; persons who have been in the employment of the security and intelligence organizations of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; persons who have been convicted of serious criminal offences against people or who have a criminal record of repeated convictions for felonies; and persons lacking a legal steady income.'

The Russian authorities, concerned with the plight of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics, pushed for Estonia's adoption of a dual citizenship policy. The Estonian authorities argued that dual citizenship would raise serious questions about dual loyalties. In response to criticism about the treatment of ethnic minorities, in 1992 the Estonian President established a Human Rights Institute to monitor human rights in Estonia, investigate reports of violations and provide information concerning ethnic and nationality issues.

While Russia has repeatedly attempted to portray Estonia's treatment of its Russian-speaking population as a violation of human rights, most international observers have disagreed, although initially the European Union, Council of Europe and a range of NGOs pointed to the fact that in their original formulation, post-1990 nationality laws were in effect designed to make it difficult for Russophones to acquire Estonian nationality. In 2003 a Council of Europe report concluded that the Estonian authorities 'have gone a long way to ensuring the rights of the Russian- speaking minority'.

In 2004 a number of proposed amendments to the Law on Citizenship, which would have waived the language requirement for the naturalization of elderly residents, were defeated. Although the issue remained controversial, there was also evidence of political will on the part of the Estonian authorities to advance integration of ethnic minorities and the granting of citizenship to the country's sizeable population of non- citizen residents. Most analysts agree that the Estonian government demonstrates genuine political will to integrate ethnic minorities and non- citizens in the long term. Estonia's budget for integration projects in 2004 increased 38 per cent over the previous year.

Since 1993, all those employed in government offices and in the service sector are required to acquire appropriate Estonian- language competence within four years. In districts where the language of more than one-half of the population is a language other than Estonian, the inhabitants are entitled to receive official information in that language, and the local government may conduct business in that language. Western monitors have reported that the language office liberally grants extensions to people who can explain their failure to meet their requisite competence level in the permitted time. Estonian-language training is available, but some claim it is too costly. Representatives of ethnic Russians have commented that the language requirements are too difficult.

As in Latvia the critical issue for minorities in Estonia is the naturalization of the large number (some 384,000 in the mid- 1990s) of resident non-citizens. The new citizenship law can, in the long run, allow for naturalization, provided, as suggested by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in February 1996, the language test is simplified. By mid-1995 more than 82 per cent of non-Estonian resident members of minority ethnic groups had applied for residence and work permits, thus indicating that they wish to remain in the country. Estonia's accession to the EU, and therefore the prospect of work opportunities in the EU, has also increased the desire for citizenship

International organizations have played a more significant role in promoting the rights of ethnic minorities than indigenous NGOs, although advocacy groups for ethnic minorities have been amongst the country's most vibrant civic associations. The failure of Russian-speaking political parties to achieve representation in the parliament has further contributed to a greater role for NGOs. Within the executive, national minority issues are discussed at the President's Roundtable on National Minorities.

The Russian-speaking minority has on the whole not mobilized politically to protest discriminatory measures. This is in part due to the absence of Russian-speaking political parties in parliament, which is in turn a reflection of the fragmented nature of the Russian-speaking population. Different sub-groups within this population have quite different histories of settlement in Estonia, different ethnic backgrounds and contrasting traditions of political mobilization.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Association of Turkish and Caucasian Nations in Europe

Estonian Institute for Human Rights
Tel: +327 630 7477

Estonian Union for Illegally Repressed People (Memento)
Tel: +372 245 0974

Estonian Union of National Minorities
Tel: +372 231 6442

Jaan Tönisson Institute
Tel: +372 511 9245

Jewish Congregation in Estonia
Tel: +372 243 8566

Legal Information Centre for Human Rights
Tel: +372 646 4270

Ukrainians and Belarusians

Ukrainian World Congress
[Umbrella organization representing and coordinating between Ukrainian Diaspora organizations. Toronto, Canada]
Tel: +1 416 323 3020

Sources and further reading


Anderson, Barbara A. and John H. Romani. 'Changing Social Priorities and the Increased Salience of the Economy in Estonia', Nationalities Papers 33, No.3 (September 2005): 303-314 Baltic Observer.

Clemens, Walter C. Jr. The Baltic Transformed: Complexity Theory and European Security, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Dahlgren, T. (ed.), Human Rights in the Baltic States, Helsinki, Advisory Board for International Human Rights Affairs, Finnish Helsinki Committee, 1993.

Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Hiden, J. and Salmon, P., The Baltic Nations and Europe: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century, London, Longman, 1994.

Hughes, James. ' 'Exit' in Deeply Divided Societies: Regimes of Discrimination in Estonia and Latvia and the Potential for Russophone Migration', Journal of Common Market Studies, 43, No. 4, 2005, pp. 739-62.

Pettai, V. and K. Hallik (2002). 'Understanding processes of ethnic control: Segmentation, dependency and cooptation in post- communist Estonia.' Nations and Nationalism 8(4): 505-529.

Rauch, G.V., The Baltic States: The Years of Independence: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, 1917-1940, New York, St Martin's Press, 1995.

Taagepera, R., Estonia: Return to Independence, Boulder, CO, and Oxford, Westview Press, 1993.

Voorman, Rein. 'The Gendered Perception of Social Problems in Post-Soviet Estonian Society: Qualitative Perspectives', Nationalities Papers 33, No.3 (September 2005): 315-331.


Fein, Lisa C. 'Symbolic Boundaries and National Borders: The Construction of an Estonian Russian Identity', Nationalities Papers 33, No.3 (September 2005): 333-344.

Laitin, David D. Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Ukrainians and Belarusians

Belarusian Diaspora in the Baltics: Estonia: http://www.belarus-

Laitin, David D. Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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