Tõnis Saarts: Revoking election rights of non-citizens would add to dissent
If those aiming for the revocation of the local elections voting rights of Russian citizens and stateless persons cannot present a realistic scenario where local councils end up in the hands of pro-Putin activists unless something is done immediately, their argumentation falls short, Tõnis Saarts reasons in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
Political circles have been buzzing with opinions according to which Russian citizens and stateless persons in Estonia should be left without the right to vote in local government council elections. While the topic seems to have fallen off the agenda temporarily, relevant debates will likely continue before and after [Riigikogu] elections.
It is suggested that keeping current voting rights would pose a threat to Estonia. This is based on the presupposition that Russian citizens and people without citizenship are rather disloyal to Estonia and that the war in Ukraine has only deepened the rift. Other argumentation suggests that the expanded voting rights have had their day as many Russian-speakers already have Estonian citizenship and keeping the status quo would contribute nothing further to integration.
Revoking rights once granted, especially after 30 years, can only be based on rock-solid argumentation. Even debating the matter based solely on emotions and guesses is pointless.
If those seeking the revocation of the rights claim that Russian citizens and stateless persons pose a security threat, they should demonstrate that almost everyone in those groups really does side with Russia and would like to see a similar "special military operation" unfold in Estonia.
A recent opinion poll revealed that 27 percent of Russian-speaking people in Estonia considered Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine to be justified. Even though the group included more Russian citizens and stateless persons, not nearly all of them condone the Kremlin's actions, with many admitting to be confused. This begs the question whether punishing a group sporting such a wide variety of different attitudes is really justified?
Proponents of the voting rights change should also be able to convincingly demonstrate considerable risk that most stateless persons and Russian citizens would vote for parties and election coalitions publicly advocating for approval of the Ukraine war, suggesting the creation of "people's republics" in Narva and other parts of Ida-Viru County and threatening Estonians with "denazification" and "demilitarization." This would only be possible if chauvinistic moods were stronger than ever before in the history of re-independent Estonia.
Do we really have reason to fear such a scenario? I do not know of a single political party in Estonia to have voiced support for Putin's aggression or publicly advocated for the "liberation" of Estonia.
Considering just how marginalized and ostracized all manner of pro-Putin sentiment is in Estonian society, it is very difficult for me to imagine the birth of an election coalition that could represent the Putinist agenda in Estonia in the near future. Even if a watered-down version of something like that were to crop up, it is even more difficult to see it taking half or nearly half of council seats in Tallinn or other parts of Estonia.
Therefore, if those aiming for the revocation of the local elections voting rights of Russian citizens and stateless persons cannot present a realistic scenario where local councils end up in the hands of pro-Putin activists unless something is done immediately, their argumentation falls short.
I would have found a voting rights debate much more relevant following the Bronze Night as opposed to now when the Ukraine war has split the Russian community and the creation of a formidable pro-Putin front is unlikely to say the least even on the local level.
It is true that more than half of Estonia's Russian-speakers have gotten Estonian citizenship since the expanded voting right was first introduced in 1993 and the legislative incentive does not serve the same purpose it used to. However, we would be better served by considering what its revocation would bring. What would be the Russian community's reaction? Would the step really promote integration and loyalty to Estonia or would it rather be counterproductive?
I believe that it would cause those who have Estonian citizenship and are far removed from supporting Putinism today to join in the protests. "Our people are being persecuted," is how that reaction could be summed up and would render distrustful many who were previously loyal and positive. In other words, we would be activating the very anti-Estonian front the creation of which we are so desperately trying to avoid.
Isamaa MP Kalju Põldvere phrased one possible narrative of Estonia's population policy in the 1990s: "Laws in the Republic of Estonia need to make the Russians feel like the ground under their feet is on fire." If the word "Russians" were to be swapped out with "Putinists," there might even be something to the idea. But even then, solid argumentation would be required for taking away rights once granted in a democratic and free society.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski