Over 72,000 Russian citizens reside in Estonia and a growing number of them want to renounce their citizenship. Many, however, fear falling into a void between the countries having no documents at all.
Since the beginning of the war, the number of Estonian passport applications has more than doubled, primarily among Russian people, official reports show. On the other side, Russia appears to be tightening the screws on its citizenship, leading many to fear a citizenship vacuum between the two countries.
Ilya has spent his entire life in Estonia, despite holding a Russian passport. The family man and programmer, age 40, has been trying to renounce his Russian citizenship for the past three years but has encountered red tape everywhere.
After the invasion of Ukraine, the situation became especially pressing for him.
"Faced with initial difficulties I abandoned the process for a while, deciding that okay, there are more pressing matters at the moment; I'll return to it later, but it is now absolutely essential to me," he explained.
Since the start of the war, the number of Estonian residents who have applied to become citizens has more than doubled, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Before the war, 16 to 30 persons per month filed for Estonian passports; now it is 50 to 80.
However, there are more and more reports of the Russian side delaying or even obstructing the process of relinquishing citizenship, creating growing anxiety among Russians in Estonia that they will be left in a void without any valid documentation during the process.
"This fear is quite strong: those who want to renounce their citizenship are concerned that Russia will complicate the process for them, while those who don't want to renounce and continue to live with Russian passports are hesitant to discuss their problems because they don't want to reveal their Russian citizenship or are afraid that their residency permit will be revoked," Irina Kalblukova, an ETV+ reporter who investigated the situation, explained.
Kablukova knows at least five individuals who are in the process of relinquishing their Russian citizenship but are unwilling to discuss it in public. Ilya also requested anonymity because he fears for his safety.
After Estonian independence getting a Russian passport was relatively easy
After regaining independence in 1991, the majority of the people received Estonian citizenship either by birth or naturalization, i.e. by meeting the requirements and passing a test.
Those unable or unwilling to obtain Estonian citizenship had two options: an undefined citizenship (Alien's Passport, Estonian: välismaalase pass) or a Russian passport.
Ilya, who moved to Estonia as a child in the 1970s with his parents, chose the second option.
"For a variety of reasons, I was unable to obtain Estonian citizenship and choosing between no nationality and nationality, even Russian, seemed like a no-brainer to me as a young person at the time; the grey passport and lack of nationality were incomprehensible to me," Ilya explained.
At the same time, Russia granted citizenship rather easily to anyone associated with the Soviet Union.
There were 72,147 people like Ilya at the beginning of November. These people have both a Russian passport and an Estonian residency permit that is valid indefinitely. It resembles an ID card and has many of the same digital service functionalities, with the exception that it cannot be used for international travel.
Russia requires many documents to terminate citizenship
Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets (SDE) explained the first step of the process is to visit the Russian embassy and obtain a document indicating that an application to renounce citizenship has been submitted: "Once they have this paper, they can present it to the Estonian government. The candidates must then complete the relevant procedures, such as language examinations and other prerequisites. When these conditions are met, the Estonian government will grant them citizenship after Russia relinquishes its own."
Ilya's wife and children are Estonian nationals, and he works for an international IT firm where the language of daily interaction is English. He passed the Estonian citizenship exam, gathered the required paperwork, and then traveled to the Russian Embassy in Tallinn.
"I managed to get everything wrong, even my actual birthplace... Some bureaucratic nuances that, in my opinion, are absurd," Ilja said.
Kablukova explained that people often fill out forms only to discover on the spot that there are numerous issues with them, necessitating them to fill out forms again and wait again.
"Technically, it makes no difference to me as a layperson. However, it must be written this way and not the other, as in one case the document will be accepted and in the other, the form will be incorrectly filled in," Ilja said.
In recent years, the Russian authorities have denied an increasing number of applications. This may be due to wartime turmoil, fleeing citizens or a government effort to limit immigration.
Kablukova says the subject is much discussed on Russian-language social media and in social circles as many people are terrified of getting caught in the vicious circle between the two countries and becoming "illegal" residents meanwhile.
Similar to many other countries, Estonia requires a person to relinquish their former citizenship before being granted new citizenship.
Läänemets said it is a back-and-forth process to achieve citizenship for all. There are people around the world without citizenship and that does pose a big concern. "If countries do not solve these issues [for them], people fall into a stateless void."
The precondition for citizenship is that Russia must release its citizen, "no state can deprive any citizen of the citizenship of another state," Läänemets explained.
Several sources describe instances in which Russian officials informed people, particularly those who came later, that in order to be released from their Russian citizenship, they needed to obtain a certain document — e.g. a certificate of de-registration — which could only be issued in Russia. However, going to Russia is risky at the moment, particularly for men of military age.
"People have reported having an issue and a challenge. Some complications occur due to the fact that they need simply to travel to Russia, which is... It is already illegal in Russia to assert that Russia is the aggressor in the conflict in Ukraine. They cannot move because they are caught in the cogs," Läänemets said.
The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tallinn issued a written comment stating that everything is proceeding in accordance with the law and deadlines and claiming that any delays are due to the actions of the Estonian authorities, who have closed Russian consulates in Tartu and Narva and are preventing new diplomats from being sent to Estonia.
Concerns over renewal of residence permits
While Läänemets is aware of the delays, he said that dozens of Estonian passports are still issued each month, indicating that it is still possible to obtain the "release documents" from Russia.
"Let us put it this way: there are people who, for various reasons, are unable to renounce their Russian citizenship, either because the Russian Federation does not grant them this renunciation or because they must travel to Russia and, for example, traveling to Russia could result in arrest for them," Läänemets said, adding that the reasons vary, that they "may be political or because they have tax debts or something else."
Hence the next concern. Many Russians live in Estonia with permanent or long-term residency permits that must be regularly renewed. Kablukova said that many fear that if they let their Russian passports expire, they will not be able to renew their residence cards and potentially thousands of people, most of whom are elderly, will become illegals.
"Many people believe that a valid Russian passport is required to renew their [Estonian residence permit] documents at the police. And if they are unable to renew their [Russian] passports when they expire, they fear that they cannot go to the police and will eventually lose their permanent or long-term residency status in Estonia," Kablukova explained.
Läänemets said that a permanent or long-term residence permit does not expire and only the card needs to be renewed. "A passport, a Russian passport or a passport in general, is only required as a travel document," the minister said.
Läänemets added that there is no need to be worried about suddenly having thousands of illegals without papers in Estonia. "It is in Estonia's best interests for those to whom we have already said yes, you can live here, to feel safe in this country. It is in both our and their security interests."
While previously, the minister hinted that it may be possible to help those Russians in Estonia who are stuck in the process of renouncing their Russian citizenship, now the minister's message is crystal clear: the Estonian citizenship law is not a game and there are no half-measures.
So is the determination of many Russian citizens living in Estonia. "To remain a citizen of the Russian Federation while residing in Estonia and in Europe in general is, if nothing else, strange to me," Ilya said.
In the past, it has usually taken between six months and two years to renounce Russian citizenship, and only time will tell whether these new concerns are justified.
Editor: Kristina Kersa