Ministry: Russian citizens' right to vote in Estonia a threat to security

A blank local election ballot in Paide
A blank local election ballot in Paide Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

The Ministry of Justice has drafted a bill which would, if it entered into law, restrict the right of citizens of aggressor states to vote in local elections in Estonia. The bill largely pertains to citizens of the Russian Federation and Belarus.

ERR has obtained a copy of the bill as drafted by the ministry, which states that the Estonian state apparatus currently lacks the ability to ascertain whether citizens of aggressor nations are free from the influence of that country.

The bill's stated aim, which would amend an existing piece of legislation, is to limit temporarily the voting rights of citizens of an aggressive foreign country at local government elections.

As things stand, all foreign nationals permanently resident in Estonia are eligible to vote in local elections, held every four years, giving this type of election the broadest franchise.

The temporary restriction on the right to vote, which would see the local government electoral law being amended, would help mitigate the aforementioned threat, whereby a foreign national who is a citizen of a country recognized as an aggressor state by the European Parliament or by the Riigikogu will not be eligible to vote.

The corresponding amendment would be considered a suitable remedy "to the extent that it would contribute to the achievement of the goal, namely to ensure internal and external peace in the country and to ensure territorial integrity and security in a situation where the security threat worldwide has risen, as a result of the actions of an aggressor state hostile to us".

The amendment would not affect the right of citizens of EU member states to vote in local elections or in EU elections, held in Estonia.

This right derives directly from EU law and so is mandatory in Estonia.

However, when it comes to so-called third countries, loosely defined as non-EU/EEA states, international conventions and agreements do not constitute binding prescriptions on the Republic of Estonia regarding the active right to vote.

This also applies to stateless persons, sometimes referred to as persons of indeterminate citizenship, in other words, there is now a binding requirement to permit them to vote in Estonia either.

In practice, stateless persons in Estonia are largely Russian-speaking people who are not citizens of Estonia, or of the Russian Federation, or any other state. In Estonia, they are issued with travel documents to permit international travel; the color of these documents gives rise to another shorthand term used to refer to these people – gray passport holders.

The newly drafted bill states that the continued participation of foreign nationals holding the citizenship of the aggressor country in Estonian local elections is very problematic.

"This would disturb the internal and external peace, territorial integrity, and security of our country. The Republic of Estonia comprehensively has no way to guarantee fully that the aforementioned foreigners are free from the influence of their country of citizenship," the bill states.

An additional consideration is the role local councils play in electing the head of state.

If three voting rounds at the Riigikogu prove inconclusive in electing a president, the process moves to an electoral college franchise, made up of regional representatives, including electors from municipal councils.

This electoral college convenes in Tallinn to vote; this last happened in 2016 during the process which led to Kersti Kaljulaid becoming head of state.

The bill's authors stress that: "According to the constitution of the Russian Federation, defending the homeland (ie. Russia) is the duty of every citizen of the Russian Federation, while there have also been cases where citizens of the Russian Federation permanently residing in Estonia have received mobilization call-ups to join the army of their country of citizenship."

The bill's authors also reference the constitutional values ​​that they say need to be protected in the preamble of the constitution as follows: "Limiting the right to vote of a citizen of a foreign country recognized as an aggressor state in local government council elections can be primarily justified for the purpose of protecting the internal and external peace of the state set out in the preamble of the Constitution, as well as for the purpose of protecting the territorial integrity of the state as a value of the constitutional order, and a state based on security. According to § 2 (1) of the Constitution, the land area, territorial waters and airspace of the Estonian state constitute an inseparable and indivisible whole. Violation of territorial integrity can consist of both the occupation of the state's territory and interference in its internal affairs."

The bill also states that in practice, the role of local government goes beyond simply resolving issues relating to local life, and may have consequences that go beyond the organization of community life as well. 

In this respect, it cannot be ruled out that exercising the right to vote in local government elections on the part of citizens of a recognized aggressor or hostile foreign state may pose a threat to Estonia's national security, and to other fundamental constitutional values, write the authors of the bill.

§56 of the Constitution reads: "In elections to local authority councils, the right to vote is held, under conditions established by law, by persons who reside permanently in the territory of the local authority and have attained at least sixteen years of age."

However, according to § 11 of the Constitution: "Rights and freedoms may only be circumscribed in accordance with the Constitution. Such circumscription must be necessary in a democratic society and may not distort the nature of the rights and freedoms circumscribed."

The Estonian state can also assign tasks or obligations relating to the whole country, to local governments, based on legislation or agreement.

The proposed bill would supplement the current legislation with a subsection 41 to §5 of the Local Government Council Election Act, ERR reports, according to which a foreign national who is a citizen of a foreign country recognized as an aggressor state by the European Parliament or the Riigikogu would be barred from taking part in voting.

The next local government elections are set to be held in the fall of 2025. 

Currently, a foreign national, regardless of citizenship, can vote in local elections, if they are registered as a resident in Estonia on the basis of a long-term resident's residence permit or permanent residence right, and they are aged 16 or over as of election day.

The next step will see Minister Laanet introducing the bill to the coalition partners and to the public. 

Russia's full-scale attack on Ukraine starting on February 24, 2022 has been declared a war of aggression by both the Riigikogu and the European Parliament, while Russia's ally, Belarus, has similarly been declared an aggressor state.

Minister Laanet concedes that some disputed issues may ultimately have to be resolved by the Supreme Court, based in Tartu.

That said, the bill mentioned above is based on decisions from the Supreme Court's criminal panel, which stated, inter alia, that fundamental rights: "Can be restricted on an exceptional basis, to protect another fundamental right or constitutional value."


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: ERR Radio News, reporter Indrek Kiisler.

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