By William Blanning
Contributing Writer

Abstract: This paper will investigate the relationship between the stateless Russophone population in Estonia and Latvia and EU conditionality of accession. In particular, it will argue that the EU’s attempt to bring Estonian and Latvian minority policy in line with the Copenhagen Criteria failed to produce tangible results. It will be shown that both countries’ minimal attempts to liberalize nationalities policies as required by the EU did not succeed in naturalizing more citizens. Moreover, after accession few further improvements were made to ameliorate the stateless situation. This will be investigated within the frame of Article 15 of the UDHR.

The unexpected and surprisingly quiet demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 represented one of the seminal events of the 20th century. Indeed the Soviet legacy is still felt today in the areas of military expenditures, nuclear security, and energy production. However one of the most enduring and adverse consequences of years of Soviet rule has been in the field of human rights. At the height of its power, the Soviet Union was composed of 15 Socialist Republics. By the end of the Cold War, some of these republics had significant Russian-speaking populations that were ethnically and linguistically distinct from the titular population. In the months immediately preceding the Soviet collapse, many of these republics gained independence and were left with large populations of Soviet citizens. The dissolution of the Soviet Union essentially left these involuntary expatriates abroad with citizenship in a country that no longer existed. In other words, these individuals became stateless.

The situation was particularly pronounced in Estonia and Latvia, where in 1989 Russians composed 30% and 34% of the population, respectively (Laitin, 1998). By 2000, these mainly Russophone stateless individuals composed 13% of the Estonian population (Aptekar, 2009, 510) and 23% of the Latvian population (Statistics Latvia, 2011). Despite this size, both countries’ governments refused to ease citizenship acquisition programs, resulting in a stateless population that retained most of its initial size. Estonia and Latvia’s eventual accession into the European Union in 2004 was based upon a conditionality that required the countries conform to the Copenhagen Criteria, which mandates that “individuals belonging to national minorities should have full recourse to human rights accorded to all individuals” (Tesser, 2003, 486). Specifically, these governments were required to ease restrictive citizenship and language practices that had severely disadvantaged Russophones (Sasse, 2008). Given Estonia and Latvia’s clear violation of UDHR Article 15, which states “everyone has the right to a nationality” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality,” the following question can be asked: did European Union conditionality of accession improve the treatment and integration of the stateless population in Estonia and Latvia, or did the changes implemented serve merely to minimally appease the EU? This paper will argue that such conditionally resulted in superficial improvements that had no discernable or enduring impact on the stateless population. This finding will be based on analyzing naturalization rates prior to and after EU accession as well as the change in size of the stateless population.

The issue of the efficacy of conditionality in European Union accession as it relates to human rights has received a great deal of academic attention. However, no consensus has been reached. Lynn Tesser has argued that the economic benefits of joining the EU have generally placed increasing pressure on governments to conform to specific human rights norms (2003). Yet she also notes that such standards can have the unintended consequence of encouraging “ethnic groups to declare nationality status, thus creating greater friction between minorities and their respective titular nationalities” (Tesser, 2003, 532). David Smith adds to the dialogue by discussing the difficulty of the EU accession process. In particular, the lack of a definition of the term “minority” has served to undermine the Copenhagen Criteria (2003). Specifically in regard to Estonia, Jeannie Schultze has argued that due to political elites lack of familiarity with “European minority rights conventions,” compliance has been less than successful (2010). Finally, Helen Morris reached the opposite conclusion in Latvia by arguing that EU influence “during the accession process led to a significantly more liberal and inclusive citizenship law than might have otherwise been adopted” (2003). The picture that emerges from these authors and their research is one of very mixed assessments of success. These authors focused on the initial policy, assuming that changes to the treatment of minorities would be carried out in practice. As will be demonstrated below, data does not seem to support the notion that policy implementation has been effectively translated into everyday practice.

In order to understand the EU’s conditionality requirement, it is necessary to briefly describe how a country becomes a member of the EU. The process is time consuming and in most cases takes several years. The first step is for the applicant country to submit an application to the European Council, which must vote unanimously to open negotiations between the applicant and member states (, 2011). At this point “the applicant country must meet a core of criteria before negotiations begin” (, 2011, 1). In particular, the candidate country must meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which mandates a functioning democracy, market economy, and “the protection of minorities” (Copenhagen Criteria, 1993). It is at this juncture that the candidate country must demonstrate that their democratic and economic practices meet the criteria. Once this is done, the country signs the treaty of accession.

Estonia and Latvia’s candidacy began in the late 1990s and ended in 2004. During that time, the main contentious point related to minorities rights, and in particular, the rights of the stateless population. For instance, when Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the government was tasked with reinstating the Republic that had existed prior to World War II. This required the rewriting of the 1938 Citizenship Act, which resulted in new legislation called the 1995 Law on Citizenship. This law did not grant automatic citizenship to stateless individuals, as was the case with many other newly independent republics. Instead it set up a lengthy naturalization process with income and residency requirements, as well as extensive language proficiency examination (Aptekar, 2009). The most notable aspect of the 1995 Citizenship Law related to children born to stateless individuals. Under the law, children were not allowed to be granted automatic Estonian citizenship due to the status of their parents’ nationality (Brosig, 2010, 399). Thus this law served to prevent current and future generations from escaping their “stateless” status.

When EU accession negotiations commenced in 1998, several aspects of the Estonian minority policy were found to be unacceptable (Brosig, 2010, 399). In particular, the EU “criticized Estonia for its low naturalization numbers” and demanded “better integration of non-citizens” (Brosig, 2010, 399-400). More specifically, EU conditionality was based upon “allowing retired Soviet military to naturalize through marriage, removing language requirements for candidates running in an elections, simplifying naturalization and making language exams easier” (Schultze, 2010, 365). Consequently, the Estonian parliament amended the 1995 Citizenship Law in 1998 to allow stateless individual’s children to attain citizenship (Sasse, 2008, 849). Additional amendments made language exams easier as part of the naturalization process (Schultze, 2010, 365). Given the large economic benefit from being part of the EU, it is unsurprising that Estonia was so quick to grant such concessions.

The situation in Latvia followed a very similar track. Following independence in 1991, the Latvian parliament passed its own Citizenship Law of 1995, which excluded all stateless individuals from citizenship. The naturalization process also required demonstration of fluency in Latvian, residence in the country for at least five years, and in-depth knowledge of Latvian history. The process was even more cumbersome in Latvia as compared to Estonia, with additional financial burdens including privately incurred cost of learning Latvian, a steep application fee, and the “notarization of up to 25 documents” (Morris, 2003, 14). After Latvia’s rejection from EU accession talks in 1997, liberalization of nationalities policy became a priority (Morris, 2003, 27). The 1992 Language Law, which “required Latvian language use down to private institutions and companies and self-employed persons,” was “toned down” in the revised Language Law of 1999 (Sasse, 2008, 850). Additionally, in terms of naturalization, the application process was made to be less financially burdensome and language exams less strenuous (Morris, 2003). Yet despite the nature of these changes, the efficacy of the policies remains questionable.

From the perspective of the European Union, it would appear that Latvia and Estonia had made earnest advances in bringing their minorities policies in line with the Copenhagen Criteria and thus be fit of accession. It would therefore seem to safe to conclude that the stateless population had been decreased and naturalization rates increased due to the easing of policies. However, such a conclusion proved to be fallacious. In Estonia, as seen in Table 1, the naturalization rate peaked in 1996 with 22,773 new citizens, yet subsequently showed a downward trend. The rate’s slight increase in 2004 and 2005 is likely related to Estonia’s accession. By 2008, the naturalization rate reached its lowest point with 2,124. In addition, the number of stateless individuals dropped from 179,301 in 2000 to 97,080 in 2010 (Statistics Estonia, 2011). Given the extremely low rates of naturalization and decrease in stateless individuals, the data suggests that many stateless individuals were in actuality either dying or leaving the country. This is hardly the type of integration that the EU was hoping for.

Latvia has experienced some similar trends. As Table 2 shows, naturalization rates have been higher than Estonia’s, although this can be partially explained by Latvia’s larger stateless population. It is clear that the highest rate was in 2004, the year of accession, through the following two years. After 2006, the naturalization rate dropped precipitously, reaching a low point in 2008 comparable to Estonia. Moreover, in 2000 the stateless population was reported to be 556,035 only to be halved to 294,408 by 2010 (Statistics Latvia, 2011). Once again, naturalization rates alone cannot account for this drop, suggesting that the stateless population has been either dying off or choosing to emigrate.

Overall, it is clear that the changes made in Estonia and Latvia in order to meet the EU conditionality requirements were minimal and in effect have done little to improve citizenship acquisition rates. Moreover, since accession in 2004, more overt, restrictive citizenship measures have begun to reappear. In 2007, the Estonia parliament amended the Estonian Language Law to give “language inspectorates extended powers, including the right to recommend dismissal of employees with insufficient language proficiency” (Sasse, 2008, 850-851). Coupled with the fact that “funding for language instruction in general is inadequate” (Aptekar, 2009, 512), stateless individuals have become unable to meet the requisite Estonian proficiency needed for gaining employment. To worsen matters, the naturalization process requires a demonstration of fluency in Estonian as well as a stable source of income. In assessing these factors together, it is clear that stateless individuals who do not have a working grasp of the Estonian language are not merely left without the chance to learn the language, they are barred from being hired. This results in the fundamental inability to proceed through the naturalization process.

Similarly, Latvia has also enacted restrictive measures since EU accession. As in Estonia, extremely restrictive language laws have remained in place and become increasingly exclusionist. For example, the 1999 Language Law seeks to bolster the use of the Latvian language while prohibiting Russian usage in most public and private areas. In particular, it makes reference to “assessment procedures to check the required level of state language proficiency” (Sasse, 2008, 850). Latvian officials can legally demand residents demonstrate their Latvian language abilities whenever they choose. Once again, this procedure can result in the loss of employment, and thus, loss of the ability to apply for naturalized citizenship. This illustrates another clear example of the failure of EU conditionality.

The evidence gathered through data and policy analysis thus demonstrates the failure of European Union conditionality. The demands placed on Estonia and Latvia to reduce the stateless population were met only minimally, manifested in the slight altering of the language examination process for naturalized citizenship and reduction of administrative costs. However, these measures appear to be very small concessions and have not been shown to consistently improve naturalization rates. Once accession had been assured in 2004, both countries began to revert to previous, exclusionary habits. In essence, Estonia and Latvia produced cosmetic measures to reduce the stateless population that served only to produce a positive image and appease EU officials. The extremely low naturalization rates in both countries are a testament to the ineptness of such measures.

Moreover, an arguably more concerning aspect of EU conditionality relates to the process of accession as a whole. The EU’s inability to effectively demand and enforce more comprehensive Estonian and Latvian reforms to alleviate the stateless problem are indicative of an organization that treats human rights as merely rhetorical. Indeed it is clear that Estonia and Latvia had very little interest in integrating the stateless population, and “only reforms that were explicitly linked to EU membership were fully or at least partially implemented” (Schultze, 2010, 365). This point is reinforced by looking at the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), which was “used as a shorthand reference to minority protection during the EU accession process” (Sasse, 2008, 853). Though Latvia delayed signing the document, “the EU did not make this a stumbling block on the way to membership” (Sasse, 2008, 853). Delayed ratification of such an important document by an applicant country theoretically should have raised significant doubts as to Latvia’s commitment to upholding minority rights. An even more discouraging fact is that “the legal and constitutional changes during the accession period did not foster a trend of legislative activity in the post-accession period” (Sasse, 2008, 853). The failure of Estonia and Latvia to work legislatively to improve conditions for the stateless population after accession demonstrates a major flaw in the very notion of conditionality.

The bottom line for the stateless Russophones in these two countries remains bleak. Given the highly restrictive language and citizenship measures currently employed, gaining citizenship through naturalization remains a very tedious process. Moreover these measures serve to keep the stateless population unemployed. The result is a vicious cycle: no legal source of income means no citizenship, while no citizenship means no legal source of income. Add to this cycle the financial costs and difficulty associated with learning Estonian and Latvian language and the final product is a population that is trapped and socially marginalized. As mentioned previously, the low naturalization rates and shrinking numbers of stateless persons indicate that, by and large the stateless population is choosing to leave or dying off. This suggests two points of failure: the failure of EU conditionality to produce substantive changes in Estonian and Latvian nationalities policies as well as the failure of Latvian and Estonian governments to adequately address the stateless problem. In essence, the EU’s failure to adequately promote human rights has resulted in member states being in violation of UDHR Article 15. This violation has created a large population of unemployed and impoverished individuals with little recourse to political rights. It is a sad commentary that the EU’s accession process, with its supposed emphasis on minority rights, did not recognize this violation and place stronger pressure on Latvia and Estonia to conform to and uphold the EU’s standards and norms.

Table 1: Naturalization Rates in Estonia between 1992-2008

Table 1: Naturalization Rates in Estonia between 1992-2008

Table 2: Naturalization Rates in Latvia 1995-2008

Table 2: Naturalization Rates in Latvia 1995-2008


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Photo by Flickr user Rockcohen, via Wikimedia.


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