Students union appeals for Russian students to be able to complete studies
The Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL) has called on the government to amend restrictions, which were placed on Russian and Belarusian students in late July, in order to enable those already studying in Estonia to complete their current study programs in the country. The office of the Chancellor of Justice drew the Ministry of the Interior's attention to the unclear wording of the regulation and also requested clarity regarding its implementation.
In its appeal to the government, the Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL) pointed out that decisions made prior to the introduction of the regulations in question had already made it more difficult for citizens of Russia and Belarus to receive long-term visas for Estonia, and that Estonian higher education institutions were also no longer accepting new students from these countries. Therefore, the regulations introduced in July primarily affect those Russian and Belarusian students who are already living and studying in Estonia.
Head of the EÜL Marcus Ehasoo was critical of the "rigid" regulations, which, by preventing the issue of visa-free travel documents to citizens of Russia and Belarus after July 30, may also prevent students from those two countries who are currently in Estonia ,from completing the higher education courses they have already begun.
Estonian higher education institutions admitted students from both Russia and Belarus, until as recently as the last academic year, with 218 students with Russian citizenship studying at the University of Tartu alone.
"For the EÜL, any positive impact of expelling (Russian) students who are already pursuing higher education in the country remains a mystery," said Ehasoo.
"It is unlikely that this sanction will have any particular impact on the Russian Federation or the Republic of Belarus, but it will affect those specific students very significantly," Ehasoo added in the appeal.
Ehasoo also confirmed that the EÜL has been in contact with Russian and Belarusian citizens currently studying in Estonia, as well as Belarusian student associations, since Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine began in late February.
Based on these meetings, the EÜL has concluded that the majority of Belarusian students in Estonia are both opposed to the war in Ukraine and also to the ruling regime in their home country.
"While it is clear that there are exceptions in both communities, it is important to recognize that it has been young people in both countries who have been trying to instigate the overthrow of the incumbent regimes and a turn their countries towards democracy," said Ehasoo. "We could therefore see Russian and Belarusian students studying in Estonia as an opportunity to contribute further (by allowing) young people to experience the difference between democratic and authoritarian regimes."
According to Ehasoo, the students are also unclear as to why the regulations appear to primarily affect those who are already, to some extent, tied to the Estonian state and whose behavior may therefore be more easily monitored and predicted.
The EÜL, therefore asks the Estonian government to "consider the possibility of introducing exemptions to the regulations for students who are already studying in Estonia, irrespective of their level of higher education or academic workload."
Interior Minister opposes exemptions
Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets told ERR he was not in favor of introducing exemptions to the restrictions, however, he added that the issue should be divided into two parts, with the sanctions a matter of principle.
"Estonia has said that the war in Ukraine must end and that all sanctions against citizens of the Russian state apply equally. That includes those students who are in Estonia" said Läänemets. Making major exceptions is what Russia really wants, for the European Union to start making exceptions in every case. Then it is possible to refer to one exception and then another and in this way confuse and antagonize countries," he said.
The second aspect, according to Läänemets, relates to the students, and he believes that they should have no problem completing their studies in Estonia as they have been given permission to stay here for the duration of their courses.
"The question is what will happen to these students afterwards. In the past, before the sanctions were imposed, they had the possibility to stay in Estonia if they wanted to work, to apply for a residence permit here. Today, they do not have that opportunity," he said.
Läänemets added that students who have expressed support for Ukraine should not be put in a position where they may face punishment upon returning to their home countries after completing their studies in Estonia.
All those in Estonia who have spoken out in support of Ukraine and acted against Putin's regime can apply for international protection, with each case assessed on an individual basis.
"If their lives are in danger, the Estonian state can come to their aid in certain cases," said Läänemets.
Lack of clarity
The key issue surrounds the question of whether the new regulations affect only those Russian citizens who are applying for an Estonian study visa for the first time, or whether they also apply to Russian students who are currently part-way through their studies in Estonia and require visa extensions in order to remain in the country to complete their courses.
One Russian student, who has been studying at the University of Tartu for several years, turned to Chancellor of Justice for assistance after becoming concerned at the potential non-renewal of her work permit due to the recently introduced regulations. In response to this, and reports of other Russian students, who have expressed similar concerns in the media, The Chancellor of Justice's office requested clarity over the regulations from the Ministry of the Interior on Tuesday.
According to a letter sent by the Chancellor of Justice's office to the Ministry of the Interior, "The explanatory memorandum to the regulation does not explicitly address the question of whether (the restrictions) affect only those wishing to study in Estonia (who are) applying for a residence permit or visa for the first time."
The letter also asked for greater clarification from regarding how the regulations have been implemented, as well as the precise details of any guidelines which may, or may not, have already been provided to the Police and Border Guard to this end.
The Police and Border Guard Board told ERR News on Tuesday that there are 348 Russian citizens in Estonia who have been granted a visa for studying.
"Most often the permits are given for the nominal time of studies (for example: 3 years for BA) so they can finish the studies with current permits. However, there is no possibility to obtain new permit now (or for example starting MA after finishing BA)," a spokesperson said.
The PPA added that the sanction does not affect students from Belarus.
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Editor: Michael Cole