It is a bright day in late August and everyone in Tallin seems to be rushing to the center of town, where celebrations are underway for the 25th National Restoration of Independence Day. The public holiday commemorates the events of Aug. 20, 1991, when Estonia surreptitiously declared independence from the Soviet Union which had occupied the country since 1940.
The clear sky dotted with white clouds echoes the blue and white of the Estonian flag. On a stage in Freedom Square, choir after choir perform folk and contemporary songs in vibrant traditional dresses. It all looks very picturesque: a peaceful, small country, and member of the European Union since 2004, successfully reviving its cultural identity, quashed for 50 years by Soviet occupation.
I join Elisabeth Haljas, and Vladimir Petrov, both 23. Haljas is ethnically Estonian, Estonian is her mother tongue, and she is able to take full advantage of her EU passport. Petrov, on the other hand, is from a Russian-Ukrainian family and he carries a gray alien’s passport issued by the Estonian government.
An alien passport may sound like a joke, but it is a complicated reality for ethnic Russians in this Baltic republic, as the country’s anxieties about its much larger neighbor grow. When Estonia gained independence, ethnic Estonians were given citizenship in the new state. But those ethnic Russians now living on the wrong side of the border—32 percent of all the country’s residents in 1992—found themselves in a political and geographical gray zone. The new government forbade dual citizenship, which forced ethnic Russians to make a difficult choice: either take the risky step of getting a Russian passport, limiting options (and rights) in Estonia and potentially uprooting families that had been in the country for decades, or apply for Estonian citizenship. In the meantime, they were classified as stateless and issued gray alien passports.
An alien passport. Photo by: Sara Anna Nadalini
At the time, Estonia was anxious to reverse years of deliberate Russification by Moscow and limit the influence of Russia over its territory, but what was meant as a temporary measure has become an enduring reality. More than 25 years since independence, Estonia is still home to thousands of stateless people. Estimates put their number between 80,000 and 90,000, a visible minority in a country of only 1.3 million and the world’s 10th largest stateless population.
While a good number of ethnic Russians have successfully become Estonian citizens or acquired Russian citizenship, many have not. While the advantages of citizenship in an EU member state might seem obvious, the naturalization process is long and difficult, and it requires fluency in Estonian, a complex language with 14 cases which many people living in along the Russian border do not speak at all.
Petrov was born in 1993, after independence, but stateless status is hereditary: he has been, as his passport puts it, of “undefined citizenship residing in Estonia” since birth. In 2016, the citizenship laws were amended to automatically grant citizenship to newborns in the country unless their parents choose to opt out, but for Petrov and thousands of stateless others who are already adults, it was too late.
“Travelling within the EU is not too much of a problem, but working there is a whole other matter,” Petrov says. “You cannot stay for more than a few months anywhere, so effectively we must be in Estonia. And here lots of people would like to look for work in countries which pay better, like Finland or Sweden,” an option open to anyone with a E.U. passport. “I need a visa to go anywhere, even those countries which welcome almost any tourist. It makes you feel like there is something wrong with you, or that you are some sort of criminal or Russian spy.”