Luukas Kristjan Ilves on dual citizenship: Who is more Estonian?

Luukas Kristjan Ilves.
Luukas Kristjan Ilves. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Reflecting on what it means to be a citizen based on his own personal experiences, Luukas Kristjan Ilves, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at Brussels-based think tank and policy network the Lisbon Council, and son of former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, finds that Estonia has more to gain than lose in allowing dual citizenship, as noted on his social media page.

I was saddened [Wednesday] morning by yet more news about an Abkhazian Estonian who will apparently be stripped of their citizenship. Our citizenship law does not currently allow dual citizenship. This means 18-year-old dual citizens are faced with a difficult choice and likely discourages many parents from even applying for Estonian citizenship for their children.

I'm trying to imagine what would have happened, if 18-year-old Luukas had been forced to choose whether to give up their Estonian or US passport. At the time I had lived in Estonia for a total of two years, between the ages of 9-11. I graduated high school in Washington and had just begun my freshman year of university at Stanford. It would have been unthinkable for me to give up my US passport. This would have meant not just leaving the country in which I had grown up and where I was attending the world's best university at the time; I would have also been abandoning the country in whose complex history my mother's family has been wrapped up for three centuries already.

I apparently would have given up my Estonian passport, then, full of teenage defiance against the country that forced me to make such a decision. Had my father then become president of that very same country 11 months later, it would have felt like the world's greatest irony.

Not forced to choose

But that's not how things went. I had the privilege of being an Estonian citizen by birth [jus sanguinis], whose citizenship is protected by the Estonian Constitution.

Two years later, I decided to write my bachelor's thesis on the political economy of the reforms of Estonia's 1980s and 90s, ie the transition period. As an adult, I fell in love with this country and this people, its bravery and its solidarity, its capacity to stand, even in difficult times, for principles that matter: family, home, but also freedom and democracy. History has taught Estonians at the end of both the 19th and the 20th centuries that the principles of the Enlightenment and the maintaining of an individual are not inconsistent with nationalism, but rather complement one another.

At 20 years old, Estonia became something more for me than some place where I had lived for a couple of years, where my forebears' farm was located, where my father worked. It became an idea worth pursuing, perhaps even dying for. It was acting on this idea that I voluntarily returned to Estonia at age 21, after ten years away, to serve conscription.

I worked for the Estonian state for eight an a half years — following conscription as an official and a diplomat. I believe that even now I am indirectly serving the Estonian agenda in my work. When I start a family someday, I will raise my children as Estonians. And I know that my contributions to serving the Estonian agenda will not end there.

Patriots raised, not born

I was not born an Estonian patriot — rather, I was given the opportunity to grow up to be a patriot. My story isn't "typical." But perhaps there is no "typical" Estonian who has been raised abroad? Aleksander Einseln, Mari-Ann Kelam, Veiko Parming, Riina Kionka, Paul Marley and Paloma Tupay — these are people who have come to Estonia as adults and dedicated or are dedicating a good chunk of their lives to this country.

But are we more Estonian than Alli Rutto, who lives in Abkhazia? Are we more Estonian than all those non-birthright Estonian citizens I served with, whom I'd trust with my life in battle? And are we more Estonian than Justin Petrone, Lili Milani or Abdul Turay? Do we want to forgo the opportunity to tie these people even more closely to Estonia? Are we giving them the opportunity to become Estonian patriots? Or are we forcing them and their children to make an impossible choice — you can only become an Estonian if you sever all ties with your roots.

The citizenship policy of the 90s had its reasons, and it may have been reasonable given the circumstances of the time. But that was nearly 30 years ago. In order to move forward, we don't have to condemn the decisions of the time, or those who made them.

Let's discuss this

But what is the actual threat to the Republic of Estonia today? Granting dual citizenship is not a zero option of citizenship. Let naturalisation require a language exam and a loyalty oath.

Many are concerned about dual loyalties. But citizenship does not automatically grant the right to access the state secret or serve in a sensitive position.

Would dual citizenship mean intensifying background checks for those to access the state secret and granting the Estonian Internal Security Service increased flexibility in refusing to issue licences? Should we introduce other restrictions as well, such as on purchasing land in border areas? Great, let's discuss this!

I won't rule out that there are places where dual citizenship isn't appropriate. My father gave up his US passport when he was appointed Estonian Ambassador to Washington. And let the office of the President of the Republic remain exclusive to citizens by birth.

We are all concerned about the more distant future of the Estonian people. It isn't only a matter of principles, but also of what will make us a successful, prosperous, growing state and people in the long term.

We can't rule out that allowing dual citizenship would not involve any risks. But it would involve benefits. And, justifiably, I believe enough in the Estonian state and people to know that we are capable of realising these benefits and minimising these risks.

Following repeated instances of hate speech and otherwise divisive comments or personal attacks on a related article, the comments facility on this article had to be revoked.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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