Do they really have to choose? Estonian citizenship explained in detail

Estonian passports.
Estonian passports. Source: Piret Kooli

The case of the Rutto family from Abkhazia, who lost their claim to Estonian citizenship following a recent Supreme Court ruling, has brought the issue of Estonian citizenship back into the media. Though the Rutto case concerns the matter of citizenship by birth, reactions have included other aspects as well, demonstrating once again how confusing the provisions of Estonia's Citizenship Act can be. What follows is an attempt to untangle things, strictly following the law: an overview of Estonian citizenship, who is entitled to it, who cannot lose it, who can, and why.

Anyone able to trace back their lineage to someone who had the right to Estonian citizenship by birth before the beginning of the Soviet occupation on 16 June 1940 is still considered an Estonian citizen.

This principle means that if for instance your great-grandparents left Estonia in the 1930s and your family have since lived in the United States, you have a valid claim to citizenship.

In the case of the Rutto family, the situation is more complicated. They left Estonia before the Republic was founded in 1918 and the Treaty of Tartu was signed with the Soviet Union in 1920. To be Estonian citizens by blood, they first need to get their claim to citizenship in the Republic before 16 June 1940 confirmed. And in that matter, there are currently two court rulings that directly contradict one another. Hence the confusion, and the calls from officials ranging from the president to the interior minister to fix the law and make it clear enough.

The situation is complicated still today. Among other things, there is a persistent myth that the children of an Estonian and a foreign parent will have to "choose" at some point in their lives, as Estonia does not allow dual citizenship.

While it in fact does—but let's have a look at the law.

Blood versus privilege

Estonia applies the jus sanguinis in its definition of citizenship by basic right. This means that to hold Estonian citizenship and for this to be a basic right, you have to be Estonian by blood, ie at least one of your parents needs to be Estonian.

An Estonian by blood cannot lose their Estonian citizenship.

There is also citizenship acquired by naturalisation, and here is where the confusion starts. As a naturalised Estonian, established legal practice here sees your citizenship as a privilege and not as a basic right. This means that a naturalised Estonian can lose this privilege again under certain circumstances.

One principle applied time and again in the Citizenship Act is that while first-generation immigrants will always be limited, the law sees second-generation immigrants as Estonians by blood.

Estonians who cannot lose their citizenship

If you are Estonian by blood, you cannot lose your citizenship. You cannot be deprived of it either, even if you decided to join the armed forces or intelligence service of another country. If you are Estonian by blood, you are Estonian for good, unless you yourself choose otherwise. And even then the state has the last word.

This means that any Estonian by birth who either acquires the citizenship of another state later in life, or who holds it by blood because their parents aren't only Estonian, is de facto a dual citizen. Typical examples are Estonian Americans, Estonian Canadians, and so on. There are tens of thousands of them. Hundreds of them work for the Estonian state, too. This isn't some semi-legal thing: Estonian dual citizens do exist.

It also means that a youngster about to turn 18 years old who has an Estonian as well as a foreign parent, such as eg the son of Tallinn Centre Party politician and British citizen Abdul Turay or the daughters of the author of this article, will not have to choose a country. They are and will remain dual citizens by virtue of the fact that they cannot lose and cannot be deprived of their Estonian citizenship to which they are entitled by birth.

There is only one option for an Estonian by blood to quit the country for good, and that is by submitting an application for release. For instance, if an Estonian by birth who also holds an American passport wants to join, say, the US Army, which requires its recruits to be American citizens only, they would have to apply for release, and the state would have to grant it to them.

Estonians who can lose their citizenship

If you are a naturalised Estonian citizen, no matter the age at which you were naturalised, you can lose your Estonian citizenship. In your case, it is not a basic right you are entitled to by birth, but a privilege granted by the Estonian state.

To be granted this privilege, the Estonian state requires you to give up all other citizenships you may hold. In other words, Abdul Turay as well as the author of this piece would have to turn in their British and Swiss passports before they could become Estonian citizens.

As a naturalised citizen you can also be deprived of Estonian citizenship should you choose to fight for another country, try to overthrow the constitutional order of Estonia by force, and some such (see Citizenship Act § 28).

Naturalised citizens can also lose their Estonian citizenship if they choose to become citizens of another country again (see Citizenship Act § 29).

This means that virtually all of the provisions of the Citizenship Act for the deprivation or loss of Estonian citizenship only apply to naturalised citizens. Or rather, following the letter of the law, anyone who is Estonian by blood is excluded from those provisions, as they cannot ever lose their citizenship.

Automatically naturalised citizens

Though being born in Estonia is not enough to make you a citizen, there is such a thing as automatic naturalisation of you are the child of holders of the Estonian aliens' (or 'grey') passport, you were born in Estonia, and you are not yet 16 years old. If your parents held that passport for at least five years at the time you were born, you are automatically regarded a naturalised citizen if you meet these conditions.

In other words, if you are the child of a stateless couple who resided in Estonia for at least five years at the time you were born, you are automatically an Estonian citizen—unless your parents decide to file for release, which they have to do within the first year of your life.

This is another example of limits for the first, but complete legal inclusion of the second generation.

Special cases

The rights of citizens by blood extend to adopted children as well, and also to children who are assigned a legal guardian by an Estonian court, granted that the adoptive parent or legal guardian is an Estonian citizen by blood.

Former citizens of the Soviet Union who do not hold the citizenship of another state, but chose to remain here today are holders of Estonia's grey passport. They can apply for citizenship much in the same way as other foreigners can.

Citizenship across diaspora, 20th century

Given the turmoil of Estonia's history in the 20th century, it is easy to get confused by the question who exactly is an Estonian by blood, at least legally speaking.

For example, UK citizen Adam Rang's family story (Adam lives in Estonia and works for the country's e-Residency Programme) saw his grandfather Uno Rang granted travel papers by the United Kingdom and never holding British citizenship. Come 1991, when Uno's son, Adam's father, wanted to apply for Estonian citizenship, he was told that he was in fact simply submitting an application for his first Estonian passport, as he is a citizen by birth.

This is made possible by the definition in the Estonian law today that anyone is a citizen by blood who can trace their family back to the Republic of Estonia before the outbreak of World War II. In other words, if you go back to someone who was an Estonian citizen before 16 June 1940, or who entitled to citizenship by blood under the rules set out back then, you are entitled to Estonian citizenship by blood.

Though you will need to deliver proof, of course.

Citizenship Act unlikely to be challenged by international court

In the practice of international courts, citizenship is one of the last strongholds of almost unconditional national sovereignty. Because of that, it is unlikely that the Citizenship Act's de facto division of Estonians into two classes of citizens (by blood vs naturalised) will ever be seriously challenged.

Legal practice in Estonia regards the right of a naturalised Estonian to citizenship to be a privilege rather than a basic right, and stipulates that this privilege can be revoked. Hence any attempt of a naturalised Estonian to contest the fact in an international court of law that virtually all of the law's provisions concerning deprivation or loss of citizenship only apply to their kind is very unlikely to succeed.

But does anyone have to choose between countries?

There is the persistent myth that the children of a mixed couple will have to choose between their parents' countries come their 18th birthday. So do they really have to choose?

The answer to that question is a resounding No. Though the Citizenship Act does state that an Estonian cannot hold the citizenship of another state, this is contradicted and in practice overruled by the statement that no Estonian by blood can be deprived of citizenship.

In the case of the automatically naturalised children of Estonia's stateless, there is no other citizenship to start with, so although their parents are able to reject their children's Estonian citizenship and the children themselves will be able to apply for release once they turn 18, they do not have to choose.

Even in the hypothetical case of, say, a toddler of French origin adopted by Estonian parents by blood, that individual would grow up a dual citizen, as their adoptive parents' jus sanguinis would extend to them.

This means that under current law, there is no situation in which someone turning 18 would need to choose for reasons of keeping or losing their Estonian citizenship.

Potential change of citizenship and naturalisation policy

The debate surrounding citizenship and its different variants has cropped up from time to time since Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Major change to the policy so far has been prevented by conservative forces in the Riigikogu. Though the national parliament has discussed bills to amend the Citizenship Act on several occasions, the policy has never been made more liberal.

The most recent call for liberalisation came out of the Reform Party, whose chairwoman, Kaja Kallas, told ERR News as recently as November this year that both she and her party are in favour of allowing full dual citizenship. The party's last bill to the effect was voted down in parliament.

One argument against change has been that the limitations themselves are limited. Once a naturalised couple have children of their own, that second generation is considered Estonian by birth, which means that unlike their foreign parent, they cannot lose and cannot be deprived of Estonian citizenship anymore unless they should want to and they apply for release themselves.

Another prevailing argument is that the current law acts as a defence against potential passport-distributing on the part of Russia, of the kind that was seen in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the years leading up to Russian annexation and occupation.

Latvia recently liberalised its own citizenship law to the effect that full dual citizenship is now an option for citizens of EU member states as well as allies of Latvia within NATO. An option of this kind would likely have an easier time in the Riigikogu as well.

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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