According to the results of an analysis conducted by legal scholars at the University of Tartu, the Estonian state in 2013 made a mistake when it came to the question of the citizenship of Alli Rutto, an ethnic Estonian living in Abkhazia.
Based on the analysis, the descendants of optants who did not return to Estonia are not legitimate citizens, and in the current legal area should be regarded as foreigners, said Ruth Annus, director of the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department of the Ministry of the Interior.
"From 2003-2015, the state has made a mistake in regarding them as Estonian citizens by birth," she explained. "There are no more than a few hundred such people, but the state has made a mistake and given them Estonian passports, so a reasonable solution must quickly be found."
Annus added that should the state want to recognise these people as citizens, these changes would need to be made to the legislation.
Working group leader: Perceptions of citizenship have changed
An analysis on opting for Estonian citizenship conducted by legal scholars at the University of Tartu indicates that the rights and responsibilities of citizens in the current sense were granted only to those individuals who had opted for Estonian citizenship and also actually returned to Estonia and received an identity card of a citizen of the Republic of Estonia.
"It has been nearly 100 years since the opting for Estonian citizenship under the Tartu Peace Treaty," said Marju Luts-Sootak, professor of legal history at the University of Tartu and head of the analysis working group. "Perceptions of citizenship, international law and relations between a state and citizen following World War I and the time between wars in general differed significantly from modern perceptions."
Commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior, the analysis highlights the fact that in addition to the right of each individual to choose or opt for citizenship, it was also possible at the time to establish, with an agreement between states, a state's right to refuse to accept into its citizenship an individual who has opted for said citizenship. The Tartu Peace Treaty signed between Estonia and Soviet Russia granted this right of refusal to both signatories.
Estonian citizenship could be opted for by people originally from Estonia and at least 18 years of age who, in order to do so, had to submit a statement of opting for citizenship to a control-optation committee operating in Russia at the time. The committee issued certificates of citizenship. This certificate did not directly grant the right to realise one's civil rights upon arrival in Estonia; the latter was granted by an identity card issued only after supplementary checks had been completed.
During these checks, it may have been determined that the decision of the optation committee was erroneous or its confirmation had been refused on ideological or political grounds. The state decided to issue identity cards only to those individuals who returned to Estonia.
"Optants who stayed in Russia were considered Estonian citizens, but they could not exercise Estonia's civil rights and they also did not bear the responsibilities of Estonian citizens," Luts-Sootak said. "Both optants themselves and the Estonian authorities hoped that certificates of Estonian citizenship could save people from Soviet mobilisation or taxes and the nationalization or confiscation of their assets."
Optants retained the potential opportunity to exercise their civil rights if they reached Estonia and were granted the identity card of a citizen of the Republic of Estonia. At the same time, however, it is not certain that optants who remained in Russia could have been guaranteed this opportunity in every single instance, the professor added.
Supreme Court ruling in accordance with analysis results
"Based on the analysis, the descendants of optants who did not return to Estonia are not citizens by birth according to its current meaning," Annus said. "This is because the rights and responsibilities arising from citizenship were very different for those who settled in Estonia and those who did not. If we compare the current administrative practice of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), the conclusions of the Supreme Court ruling from this spring and the results of the analysis, they are in accordance with one another. The descendants of those optants who did not return to Estonia must continue to be regarded as foreigners."
Late last year, the Ministry of the Interior commissioned an analysis from legal scholars at the University of Tartu regarding the portion of Estonia's citizenship law in 1918-1940 regarding the acquisition of Estonian citizenship by the means of opting for it stipulated in international agreements.
Opting for citizenship is a right granted to individuals by an international agreement to choose one's citizenship following countries' territorial changes or the establishment of new countries altogether.
Editor: Aili Vahtla