A pro-Kremlin Twitter account raised an intriguing question recently: Why doesn’t Russia implement incentives for “Russians” in the Baltic countries, like Estonia, to move to Russia. The short answer is that they do and the offer is repeatedly rejected. Let’s unpack this.
Firstly, it’s worth clarifying that there are 70,000 Russian citizens in Estonia so they actually make up about 5% of Estonia’s population. In addition, about 5% of Estonia’s population are of ‘undetermined citizenship’, which means they didn’t apply for Russian citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union and haven’t yet applied for Estonian citizenship, but instead accepted a special status in Estonia that provides them with permanent residency rights and a travel document.
However, both these numbers are decreasing fast – but not because resettlement to Russia is in any way a significant factor.
The status of undetermined citizenship is an historical anomaly resulting from the Soviet occupation, but the number of people with this status has dropped sharply from over 30% of the population in the 1990s. That’s due to successful integration, which includes state support for meeting the basic language requirements in order to help them become Estonian citizens. As a result, many are still applying. Children born in Estonia to parents with undetermined citizenship automatically qualify for Estonian citizenship now anyway. Part of the challenge of reducing the number further is that the status of undetermined citizenship actually provides some additional benefits of its own, such as unique travel rights in both the EU and Russia, as well as not being obliged to partake in citizenship duties such as military service.
As for Russian citizens, the number of them renouncing their Russian citizenship in order to apply for Estonian citizenship has doubled in 2022. In fact, the main obstacle for them at present is that the Russian Embassy in Estonia has said it has temporarily stopped processing requests to renounce Russian citizenship.
The tweets shown above are one of many frequent examples in which commentators conflate Russian speakers in Estonia with “Russians” as a citizenship or presumed single identity or loyalty. This is clearly not the case. Of those in Estonia who speak Russian as their mother tongue, more than half have Estonian citizenship and speak Estonian too. Their identity is complex, as it is for everyone, but they are not a single group with a single worldview. Some, such as the Old Believer community, settled in Estonia centuries ago. Despite their marginalised or oppressed depiction in Kremlin propaganda, many have reached the highest levels of politics, business, entertainment and the arts. Many identity as Estonian and are loyal to Estonia, while also preserving their heritage. They have more rights and opportunities in Estonia than in Russia, despite the latter repeatedly promoting narratives that Russia needs to protect them.
This presents a paradox to those elsewhere who attempt to repeat this narrative. If you believe the propaganda that Russian speakers in Estonia are not protected then there isn’t a good explanation for why they choose to continue living there. So this may come as a surprise to those who attempt to promote this narrative, but Russia isn’t helping them move to Russia because that ‘help’ has been widely rejected, repeatedly.
One offer of financial incentives by the neighbouring Pskov oblast in Russia aimed at convincing residents of Estonia to resettle just across the border resulted in a grand total of just 11 applications at the time of this report several years after it was launched. A year prior to Russia’s full scale war on Ukraine, the Russian Ambassador in Estonia conceded that there is low interest among residents of Estonia to resettle as part of Russia’s ‘State Programme to Assist the Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots Living Abroad to the Russian Federation’. It is unlikely, to put it mildly, that events in Russia since then have added to the attractiveness of resettlement with increasing oppression, sanctions, and mass mobilisation.
The reality is that Estonia, as a rules-based democracy with a vibrant economy open to the world and some of the highest levels of freedom in the world, offers a far higher quality of life to all its population, regardless of mother tongue and regardless of whether they hold Russian citizenship as permanent residents or keep their status of undetermined citizenship.