Last Updated: Friday, 24 November 2017, 11:39 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - Estonia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1994
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - Estonia, 1 January 1994, available at: [accessed 25 November 2017]
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.

Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

In its third year of independence from the former Soviet Union, Estonia slowly worked towards legalizing the status of its large non-citizen minority. In February 1992 the Estonian Parliament passed an "ius sanguinis" citizenship law that granted automatic citizenship only to citizens or their descendants of Estonia's inter-war republic (1918-1940). The law also provided for naturalization. This legislation effectively disenfranchised roughly 30 percent of the population that came to Estonia after Soviet annexation in 1940 or were born there in later years.

Language remains the most serious obstacle to naturalization. The Law on Estonian Language Requirements for Applicants for Citizenship" was not passed until February 10, 1993. The law presupposes a knowledge of about 1,500 words of Estonian. The Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu, passed amendments simplifying the language test for naturalization for the handicapped and for those born prior to 1930, but many non-citizens lived in areas where few Estonians reside and therefore had little opportunity to hear or speak Estonian. The cost of language instruction also hindered those seeking naturalization.

On June 21, 1993, the Riigikogu passed a Law on Aliens with the goal of regulating the residence of non-citizens in Estonia by granting them residency permits and aliens' passports. Non-citizens in Estonia had only their old internal Soviet passports and thus faced problems obtaining international travel documents. The law, however, did not contain any guarantee of residency and granted only five-year residency permits. Estonian President Lennart Meri refused to sign the law and sent it to the Council of Europe for expert legal advice. The council noted that, "The experts are of the opinion that the status of persons already resident on the territory of Estonia cannot be compared to that of non-citizens not presently residing [there].... " The Riigikogu amended the law, granting a guarantee of residency to those who had lived in Estonia prior to independence. On July 8, President Meri signed the bill into law.

The law still, however, denied residency permits to career military retirees of the Soviet armed forces and convicted criminals. Legislation reportedly was planned to deal with each case individually, but to Helsinki Watch's knowledge no such law was passed as of November. While such exclusions may appear justified when applied to new immigrants, they are unwarranted and excessive with regard to Estonia's non-citizen population, most of whom have long residency in the country.

Estonia did, however, make progress in resolving tensions with its large non-citizen minority. On February 15, 1993, Estonia signed an agreement with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to set up a mission in Estonia to monitor human rights and the condition of the non-citizen population. The CSCE mission with offices in Tallinn, Kohtla-Jarve, and Narva, began to function in March 1993. On June 25, 1993, President Lennart Meri formed the "Round Table," a body composed of non-citizen organizations, parliamentarians, and representatives of national minority groups, to meet at least once a month to discuss legislation affecting the non-citizen population. Finally, the Estonian government granted citizenship to approximately one hundred non-citizens, allowing them to run in local elections held on October 17, 1993. According to the Local Government Council Election Law, non-citizens who have five-year residency may vote in local elections, but are forbidden to run for office. In some areas of heavy non-citizen settlement, the number of citizens able to run was quite small.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights fact finding missions have visited Estonia without interference since independence in August 1991. Some came on the invitation of the Estonian government.

U.S. Policy

The United States continued to support the growth of civil society and free market reform in Estonia and to call for the speedy withdrawal of Russian forces. The U.S. State Department viewed the condition of Estonia's non-citizen minority as a "practical problem", rather than a human rights concern.

A $2.5-billion aid package for the states of the former Soviet Union that President Clinton signed into law on September 30, 1993, conditioned aid to Russia on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic States. The U.S. also granted Estonia funds to finance the work of the "Round Table."

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Helsinki Watch's work in Estonia centered on two main issues: citizenship and non-citizen rights. In August and October 1993 Helsinki Watch sent missions to Estonia. A report issued in October 1993 concluded that the August 1993 mission "uncovered no systematic, serious abuses of human rights in the area of citizenship.... Problems exist, however, especially concerning the successful integration of Estonia's large non-citizen population, roughly 30 percent of the country's 1.6 million residents."

Copyright notice: © Copyright, Human Rights Watch

Search Refworld