The perennial Estonian citizenship conundrum maintains its stubbornness, not to mention complexity, this time hitching on the back of the Rutto case.
The Ruttos live in Estonia and had Estonian citizenship — or so they thought. The family hails from Abkhazia, a region on the border between the present day sovereign nations of Georgia and the Russian Federation, though wholly under Georgian rule, which saw a brutal civil war in the early nineties.
Western-centrism might place Abkhazia below Estonia in the same hierarchy of tempting destinations which places North America at the top of the tree for those historically wanting to better their lot. However, history paints a different picture. Between the mid-nineteenth century and the declaration of Estonian independence in 1918, a huge amount of economic emigration from Estonia, then part of Imperial Russia, moved in an eastwards direction deep into other parts of Tsardom. Around 200,000 Estonians moved to places like Abkhazia, and there, on the whole, they stayed.
Estonian villages nestled between the Caucasus and the Black Sea
The Estonian language, customs, etc. were preserved in Abkhazia to a startling extent, and two Abkhaz villages named in the media even have Estonian-sounding names: Salme and Sulevo (see maps). In the meantime, Estonia became independent. After the 1920 Treaty of Tartu between the fledgling Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia confirmed the Estonian-Abkhazians' homeland as an independent state, the latter had a year to return to Estonia to claim citizenship, if they so desired.
Many, however, did not do so (known as "opt outs" in the Estonian media); their decision was set in stone when Estonia was absorbed into the Soviet Union after World War II. Shifting fortunes as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s saw Estonia reassert independence whilst Abkhazia burned; the roles were now reversed, and many Estonian-Abkhazians "returned" to the newly-reindependent Estonia, an even more attractive proposition on EU accession in 2004. A 2002 Estonian law did away with the first Republic's requirement of returning to Estonia before the ink had even dried on the Treaty of Tartu, in order to claim Estonian citizenship by birth for oneself and one's descendants. This further encouraged relocation.
Sulevo Estonian village location in Abkhazia, close to the Georgia (Gruusia)-Russia border. Source: Google Maps
The Ruttos are one such family of returnees. Coming to Estonia in 2005, Arnold Rutto, his sister, and their mother (still in Abkhazia) all applied for, and thought they had, Estonian citizenship, after locating an Estonian-born forebear's documents in 2013.
Citizens 'by mistake'
A recent Supreme Court ruling has stripped them of this right, however, effectively rolling back to the status quo at the Treaty of Tartu nearly 100 years ago. The Ruttos have been informed, in all seriousness, that they had been made citizens "by mistake."
Notwthstanding its esoteric nature, the saga has brought citizenship under scrutiny again, in particular "dual citizenship."* The issue with the Ruttos is not primarily one of duality; again, the viewpoint of some western commentators tends to presuppose that the case was all about them after all, and that it's high time Estonia starts doling out citizenship to everyone who asks for it and who happened to relocate to Estonia in the past few years, often spawning offspring in the process.
An easily misunderstood concept, dual citizenship half-truths tend to get magnified manifold online, attracting their fair share of marginal characters in internet comments; indeed two recent opinion pieces on ERR News on the topic required comments disabling following a groundswell of hate-speech and other attacks.
With these caveats in mind, let's survey recent opinion on the Abkhazian question, and its interface with citizenship issues, as it appeared in the Estonian dailies.
Andres Anvelt, Minister of the Interior
Mr Anvelt (SDE) sees the situation as solvable, though very complex. Quoted in Postimees, he points out that curbs had to be made on the granting of Estonian citizenship when, in the aftermath of the 2002 law noted above, over 40,000 applications were made, mostly in the Russian Federation and not solely from the ranks of the opt-outs.
Estonia's joining the EU in 2004 also influenced subsequent policy, he says. In 2015, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) found that security risks were such that descendants of the opt outs should not be considered citizens after all – three years later confirmed by the Supreme Court. The figure for those being given citizenship "by mistake" is probably in the hundreds, he says.
Urmas Reinsalu, Minister of Justice
Urmas Reinsalu (Pro Patria), as reported in Postimees, calls for a broad, common-sense approach to the law, rather than a narrower, legalistic one. He also points out that the 1920 Treaty of Tartu was between Estonia and Russia, not between Estonia and Georgia (the village of Sulevo today lies in Georgian territory).
Eiki Nestor, President of the Riigikogu
Mr Nestor (SDE) noted in Postimees with some irony that co-party member Andres Anvelt himself had been recently confirmed a citizen by birth, in the wake of questions surrounding both his grandfathers, ethnic Estonians who went to live in Soviet Russia and were not citizens of the first Republic. Mr Anvelt had previously received citizenship via naturalisation in 1992.
Vice Chair of the National Security Assistance Supervisory Commission Hanno Pevkur (Reform) says in Postimees that his party wants to unambiguously denote Estonian-Abkhazians as Estonian citizens, whilst issuing caveats on "special merit" citizenship, by which some prominent figures have been granted citizenship as recognition of services to the state. One example of the latter is Yana Toom MEP (Centre), who was granted citizenship on the special merit scheme by the Reform-led government of Andrus Ansip.
Oudekki Loone (Centre) is another figure calling for citizenship discrepancies to be put to bed.
The Estonian authorities do not treat people equally or fairly, she says, pointing out that the Rutto ruling contradicts provisions in s. 32 (4) of the Citizenship Act of 1995, which deals with the question of citizenship granted "by mistake" and descendants of those so granted.
The current system is hyprocritical and unfair and one which Ms Loone says she had been addressing prior to the Rutto case, writing to Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt early on in October seeking th resolution of the Estonian-Abkhazian situation.
Ms Loone calls for a swift resolution to the issue, saying that the claim "we gave you an Estonian passport by mistake" is misleading as well as inhumane.
Ms Loone's party, Centre, has long been seen as championing the rights of "stateless persons," those living in Estonia, in practice overwhelmingly native Russian-speakers, who have no determined citizenship and are issued grey-coloured passports as travel documents.
Arnold Rutto himself has penned an opinion piece in Postimees entitled "Let's not push Estonian-Abkhazians into Russian citizenship."
Having spent half his life in Abkhazia and having witnessed the war there, Mr Rutto says that every Estonian-Abkhazian has something to offer the country; ethnic Estonians in Abkhazia, many of whom have never been to Estonia, should be educated about their rights, he says.
He adds that many people seem either unaware that there is such thing as an ethnic population of Estonians in Abkhazia, or that there had been but the situation is now resolved.
Sulevo village, in Georgian Abkhazia. The border with the Russian Federation is delineated by the River Psou flowing roughly northeast to southwest, at left of the picture. Source: Google Maps
Moreover, the community needs more contact with Estonia in order to maintain cultural links and keep up its Estonian language skills, which have been deteriorating, he says, and Estonia is their only choice of destination.
However, getting from Abkhazia to Estonia would prove difficult, according to Mr Rutto. The Estonian state does not recongnise documents issued by any Abkhazian authority, since it is not a sovereign nation; on the other hand, crossing the border into Russia would effectively mean no turning back as it is met with serious sanctions from the Georgian state, but at the same time getting out of Russia at the Estonian border necessitates getting an internal Russian Federation passport before even thinking about getting an Estonian one, he says. Nonetheless, Estonia is the community's only hope, Mr Rutto states.
Jaanus Piirsalu has written several pieces in Postimees on the issue, noting that the Ruttos are not the only Estonian-Abkhazians out there. He paints a portrait of two of the approximately 300 left in the community, "Aunt Lilli" (Lilli Angelstok, 88) and "Aunt Aka" (Agness Rõuk, 86), highlighting that many of the people concerned are elderly. Arnold Rutto had explained that this was one factor why more Estonian-Abkhazians had not previously made the move when they had the chance; many stayed behind to look after elderly relatives, and also to farm land acquired and cultivated by their forbears.
Mr Piirsalu notes that there should be sufficient sympathy, given the 1990s war and other privations, "at home" in Estonia for the issuing of Estonian citizenship to all the descendants of opt-outs in Abkhazia.
Other articles in Postmees noted the phenomenon is not confined to Abkhazia; ethnic Estonians in Crimea are another group affected, particularly after the illegal annexation of the region by the Russian Federation in 2014.
Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) notes that whilst Estonian law means those taking Estonian citizenship are supposed to forgo any previous citizenship, regardless of the state, many in practice do not do so and continue to live in uncertainty. It notes the pluses to the current law, particularly on security issues, but points out that most EU countries permit dual citizenship. Two notable exceptions are Spain and Germany, though both give some leeway in permitting dual citizenship in some cases (for instance, in the case of Spain, if the other citizenship is one of a number of Latin American nations).
Connected to the security issue, EPL also cites research from the Univeristy of Tartu which shows around 75% of Russian speakers in Estonia polled stated their sole allegiance lies with Estonia, with only 7% claiming sole allegiance to Russia.
Cases where dual citizenship inappropriate, but in general needed
Emilia Aimra writing in Õhtuleht states that the law as it is encourages people to leave their homeland.
As reported in ERR News, Senior Fellow of think tank the Lisbon Group Luukas Kristjan Ilves said on his social media account that, whilst there are areas where dual citizenship is inappropriate, for instance due to security considerations (such as that of his father, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who had to renounce his US citizenship when appointed Estonian Ambassador to the US; Mr Ilves subsequently became President of Estonia), but that allowing dual citizenship as a whole "will make us a successful, prosperous, growing state and people in the long term."
Journalist and former Tallinn City Council representative Abdul Turay stated in response to Mr Ilves that it was paradoxical that his, Mr Turay's, son would, under current law, have to choose between Estonian and UK citizenship on reaching his 18th birthday, and that Mr Turay, who says he is a descendant of black troops who fought on the side of the British in the American War of Independence, himself would like citizenship as well.
* Which is not so much a person 'holding' dual citizenship as two different sovereign states, often with widely differing or conflicting laws on the issue, claiming that person as a citizen.
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.
Editor: Aili Vahtla