Back in 1978, a Scottish banker was walking the streets of London when he noticed an unusual blue, black and white flag fluttering in the wind. James Oates had a deep interest in vexillology, the study of flags, yet he'd never seen this one before so he knocked on the door of the building to find out more. Fate had brought him to 167 Queen's Gate, which was home to the Estonian Legation - a de facto Embassy for an almost forgotten Republic called Estonia.
Inside were exiled diplomats who eagerly took the opportunity to tell James about their country and its right to independence. James was so inspired that day that he joined Estonia's unlikely campaign for freedom against seemingly impossible odds.
Many years later in a free Estonia, James was eventually awarded the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana for his long-standing support for our country by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The Cross of Terra Mariana is the highest honour that Estonia bestows on non-Estonians and is awarded for special services to the Republic. James now lives in the Estonia he helped free, speaks Estonian and is continuously working to build more trade connections between Estonia and the world.
I was reminded of James' story when I read about Estonia's dual citizenship debate. He is the 'Scottish banker' mentioned by Abdul Turay in a recent opinion piece. James would easily pass the test for Estonian citizenship, but our Citizenship Act seeks to prevent dual citizenship and so would force him to give up his UK citizenship first. Giving up the citizenship of your birth means giving up the automatic right to be with your family when they need you, so it is hardly a simple solution. Acquiring Estonian citizenship hadn't previously been a concern for a UK (and therefore EU) citizen like James, but yet another unlikely twist of history is about to change that.
Our Republic is precious, and citizenship of it is an enormous privilege, but Estonia is a stronger country when someone like James is able to make a deeper connection with it. He at least deserves dual citizenship more than me.
And here is the strange thing. I actually am a dual citizen of Estonia and the UK. I was born with both citizenships, and so my constitutional right and that same Citizenship Act says I have the right to be Estonian forever, regardless of any other citizenships I have and regardless of the fact that I don't speak much Estonian yet.
Estonia's existing dual citizens
My own circumstances aren't as unusual as you might think.
Despite the heated debate around dual citizenship, it is worth noting that Estonia already has an incredibly large population of dual citizens like me spread around the world. We are the children, grandchildren and also now great-grandchildren of Estonians forced to escape Soviet terror in September 1944.
Over the past few years, I've noticed a sharp increase in the number of us that are now moving to Estonia for the first time. I've met them at coworking spaces, government offices, expat events, friends' parties, and on nights out in Tallinn. We are incredibly proud of our Estonian heritage, but you probably wouldn't think we are Estonian if you bumped into us. Our families were part of the story of Estonia, but we also know that our stories are not widely understood today in the land that they left. Soviet propaganda depicted the escapees as elites or fascists who left for a better life, but these were men, women and children who lost everything, were highly traumatised and endured unimaginable hardship even after they reached refuge.
The trend to return seems to be driven largely by Estonia's rising reputation as a digital nation and startup hub. Our dual citizenship causes regular confusion though.
'How did you get this?' one border official at Tallinn airport demanded to know when I handed over my Estonian passport following a friendly chat in English.
'But you weren't born here,' a bank clerk pointed out to me during a mortgage application meeting in which she insisted I apply as a foreigner. Even after giving her my Estonian passport, I had to correct my nationality to her five times during the meeting.
Unfortunately, this confusion can work in reverse too.
'You are an Estonian citizen and can not participate,' I was emailed just prior to what I thought would be the start of my first Estonian language lessons. There is a welcome course to integrate new arrivals to Estonia, but citizens aren't allowed to attend even if they are new arrivals and don't come from an Estonian-speaking family.
My path to citizenship
Ironically, I owe my dual citizenship to a grandfather who refused to be a dual citizen. Uno Rang was one of many people taken from the Displaced Peoples Camps to help rebuild Britain after World War II. Despite eventually meeting the criteria for British citizenship, Uno never applied because he wanted to remain Estonian as he waited for the day he could return to his country. The UK government always recognised Estonia's right to independence too so, in addition to letting Estonians keep their diplomatic outpost at Queen's Gate, the UK continued to recognise Uno as an Estonian citizen.
As a result, the British government issued my grandfather with an international travel document that was stamped as valid for 'all countries', but an official at the home office in London then scribbled 'except Estonia' on it before handing it over. They invalidated his document within Estonia in order to respect international law and send a message, albeit in a very small way, that only the Republic of Estonia has authority within its territory and so only the Republic of Estonia, once free, can legitimately issue identity documents there to its own citizens.
Uno eventually died waiting to return in 1982.
Like many others in his situation, Uno had to work long hours in hard labour and struggled with the trauma that he had been through. He had little free time to spend with his children when they were young and therefore wasn't able to pass down the Estonian language to my father. He did pass on a belief in Estonia though.
My father inherited a love for a country he had never visited and that almost no one around him had heard of. After the Republic of Estonia was restored, he asked the Estonian Embassy in London if he could apply for Estonian citizenship but was told no for a reason that was both surprising and emotionally overwhelming to hear. Estonia was illegally incorporated into the Soviet Union by force and so its actions, which resulted in the denial of citizenship to the diaspora and their children, are now null and void.
'You cannot apply for citizenship,' the Embassy clarified, 'because you are already a citizen. Now we can restore your rights.'
Belonging to Estonia
A few years later, I applied for my first Estonian passport too and then hovered my pen over a box on the application form that asked if I wanted a digital ID card with it for an extra fee. It sounded kinda cool so I ticked it, although I had no idea what on Earth I would do with one of those. My friends in the UK initially laughed when I showed them my Estonian documents and I was warned not to travel with them just in case. A lot has changed since then of course, including for Estonia's reputation, so now those same friends in the UK want to know more about how they can get their own Estonian digital ID cards.
At this point, I have to make a confession though. I'm also Latvian.
My grandfather was not just among 80,000 men, women and children who fled Estonia, but also among 200,000 that fled the Baltic states. My mother's side of the family has a near identical story about fleeing Soviet terror in 1944, except that side left Riga. I learnt some Latvian as a child, grew up singing along to Prāta Vētra songs in my British bedroom, and I'm even quoted in an old Baltic Times article as a young member of the Latvian diaspora who said they would be interested in moving to Latvia one day.
But the Latvian government took a different approach to citizenship. They told my mother that there was only a short window for the 1944 diaspora to become dual citizens - and she had missed it. They've since changed their mind about the rules, but that decision took place around the same time that I learnt about my Estonian citizenship.
My Estonian digital ID card made me feel a sense of belonging and it opened up a connection for me to contribute to the success of Estonia. I eventually used that card to establish an Estonian company online, which I could then manage from the UK. After that, I sought more connections with Estonia by hiring Estonian talent and working with other Estonian companies. That eventually led to me exploring my heritage more deeply and moving here permanently. I've since invested even more heavily in Estonia, and I'm doing the best I can to learn Estonian. I promise.
I now work for Estonia's e-Residency programme in order to help more people around the world acquire an Estonian digital ID card and then follow a similar path to me. E-residents do not get citizenship or residency rights, but they do value our e-services and that gives us an opportunity to teach the world more about Estonia and help more people contribute to our future success. E-Residency is a new concept, but we are merely continuing Estonia's long history of reaching out beyond our borders and establishing more connections between Estonia and the world that contribute to our future prosperity and security, just like at the Estonian Legation in London all those years ago.
Giving people a deeper connection to Estonia and a real sense of belonging should not be a threat to Estonia's national identity. Instead, it can help strengthen our Republic and enable more people to learn about Estonia's culture and language.
If forced to choose one citizenship, I would now choose to remain Estonian like my grandfather, but I hope I never need to make that decision.
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: Dario Cavegn