FROZEN IDENTITY

Erik Messori / Matteo Manghi

 

Stateless, a grey passport citizen. You go to sleep as a citizen and wake up the next morning as a foreigner in the country where you have lived your whole life. In the 1950s the Soviet government sent millions of people to the outskirts of the USSR to expand local workforces. Whole new industrial towns were raised in north-eastern Estonia at places such as Kohtla-Järve, Narva, Sillamäe and Avinurme. People of all professions – mainly blue-collar mine workers but also specialist engineers from all over the Soviet Union were sent there to work. After the USSR’s collapse in 1991 some 25 million ethnic Russians were left outside the borders of their homeland. In the words of a popular propaganda song “my address is not the street name and the house number, my address is the Soviet Union“, so when communism fell, those people lost their home and the legal status of a citizen. The paradox was that many of these people had been born on Estonian SSR territory and lived there all their lives but the actual nation they were growing up in was the USSR. Today a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million population, or 330,000 people, are its Russian community. And 7.5 per cent of the population, or about 100,000 people, are now considered stateless citizens in Estonia. When the USSR fell Estonian citizenship was first granted to people whose ancestors lived in the first Estonian republic of 1918-1940. Migrants who came after that, and everyone born before re-independence was put into a “grey passport” zone, which legally made them foreigners or alien citizens. To obtain Estonian citizenship they needed to pass an Estonian language test and civics examination. The Estonian language is often the main problem for those non-citizens as it can be difficult for the over-30s, who grew up and often still live in the Russian-speaking community. The challenge is easier for younger descendants of migrants, who grew up in an independent Estonia studying both the local language and constitution at school. A sense of injustice and a demand for equality prompt some of the older citizens to refuse to take the examinations. They feel insulted to have to ask for citizenship of a country where they and their parents have lived their whole lives. Some point to Estonia’s president, who was born in Sweden and studied in the US, saying they have lived here longer than him. Most of these grey passport citizens are descended from Russian grandparents who migrated here for work after World War II. About half the community of Estonian-Russians live in the capital city, Tallinn. Another stronghold is in the industrial areas of north-east Estonia, Ida-Virumaa. Today they work mainly in industrial facilities but with the mining and oil shale industry shrinking many have lost their jobs. The fact that most have high school level education with specialised industrial training makes it extremely tough them to find new jobs. The jobless rate in Ida-Virumaa is the nation’s highest at 10.1 per cent. About 60 specific restrictions forbid stateless residents from working in government institutions. There are citizen-only positions in parliament, courts and for positions such as auditors and also on a local level, such as municipal and city councils. That deprives stateless citizens of many opportunities, even if it they just wish to be a fire-fighter or a city office secretary. Those jobs are now far-fetched dreams for grey passport citizens. One common way to cope with unemployment is to work in a foreign country but even that is difficult, as a grey passport allows its holder to be abroad for no more than 183 days a year, making it hard to take a long-term contract. Some still go abroad illegally, making them vulnerable to fraud and exploitation. Their unusual passports can confuse border officials of foreign countries, often resulting in long delays and at times leading to deportation. Although grey passports entitle the holder to visa-free travel to Russia and many other countries, finding a foreign job or settling down permanently is difficult. Apart from the legal difficulties there are emotional issues involved, as grey passport citizens consider Estonia as their home. Despite what some locals think, most grey passport holders have no desire to settle in Russia, although those who have relatives in Russia do occasionally visit there. Being able to visit Russia without a visa, rather than paying 130 Euros a year for a visa as an EU citizen, is often seen as an argument for remaining stateless. Estonia does not allow double citizenship, which many members of its Russian community would like to hold. This citizenship crisis began in 1991, when a national referendum saw 78 per cent of citizens say “yes” to breaking away from the USSR and declaring independence. Chaotic times followed, as the new state was assembled with the Soviet Army, bureaucracy and KGB veterans in its backyard. The truth is that the challenge of resolving the legal status of migrants from the USSR was not among the most urgent problems facing the nation. That is how the authorities came up with what was supposedly a “temporary” solution, in the form of an Alien’s Act which authorised the issuing of grey passports to non-citizens. As time has passed the issue has simply been brushed under the carpet by leaders afraid of the political consequences of re-visiting this awkward issue.

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