Regarding Estonia's Russians, the Basic Issue Is Justice

MUCH has recently been said and written about the status of Russians living in Estonia. While many of these discussions have focused on legal and economic considerations, the essential, unstated question has been "How will justice prevail?"

Philosophers from Plato to Doonesbury have argued about the meaning of justice. Some believe that justice cannot be defined; we can only know what injustice is. How, then, does an entire nation try to implement a just society, after living with injustice for 50 years?

Last year, Estonia, a land of 1.6 million people, regained the independence it lost in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The secret protocols to the pact gave Estonia and the other Baltic states to the Soviet Union.

Estonia, a sovereign nation with its own Nordic culture and traditions, was a member of the League of Nations. Its population was predominantly Lutheran and spoke Estonian. The literacy rate in Estonia was more than 95 percent. It had historical ties with Denmark, Sweden, and Germany.

During the 50 years of Soviet occupation following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, about 100,000 Estonians were killed or deported. Its economy stagnated as Estonia's pre-war soul mate and economic equal, Finland, became one of Europe's economic stars. Historians worked as janitors. Artists were sent to psychiatric prisons. Estonia's population developed a protective mindset that sought to avoid rather than comply with every law and regulation.

Before World War II approximately 9 percent of Estonia's population was Russian. After the Soviet annexation, thousands of Russians were sent (not always willingly) to Estonia. They were sent to supply additional workers for factories and culturally dilute, if not obliterate, the Estonian nation. Because of this, Russians now make up about 30 percent of the population.

The Russians who arrived in Estonia lived in their own enclaves, refused for the most part to associate with the native Estonian population or to learn the Estonian language, and enjoyed a preferred political position.

These Russians and their descendants continue to live in Estonia and, until the past few years, their sheltered, unintegrated world remained secure. That shelter collapsed in August 1991, when Estonia regained its independence. Now they must choose where their allegiance lies.

Estonia's new Parliament must decide what policies to implement toward its Russian population. Should they be considered automatic Estonian citizens? Should they be treated as second-class citizens? Should their presence even be considered?

Estonia's Basic Law, its new Constitution, guarantees fundamental human rights to all residents without distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens. In that sense, the Estonians have rejected legalized retribution as an element of the justice they seek to define and achieve.

UNDER Estonia's new citizenship law, however, those people (and their descendants) who came to Estonia after the Soviet occupation are not granted automatic citizenship. In Estonia, the post-annexation immigrants may vote in local elections but not in national elections. They cannot serve as policemen or receive certain government-sponsored benefits. To become citizens they must have lived in Estonia for at least two years and demonstrate a knowledge of 1,500 basic Estonian words. Compared with the citiz e nship laws of most of the world's countries, Estonia's is extremely liberal.

Estonians would be among the first to acknowledge that liberal words do not necessarily translate into liberal reality. The newly freed colonial subjects of the British, French, and Spanish empires initially found it difficult to forgive past injustices, even as the British, French, and Spanish colonists found it difficult to accept their loss of control.

Some Estonians are also finding the idea of immediate forgiveness of the Russian colonists difficult, just as many Russians are finding it hard to accept that they are no longer as powerful and privileged. To the credit of them both, their ongoing process of readjustment has not resulted in a Yugoslav-style conflagration.

The Estonian government must decide how to implement and execute the principles embodied in Estonia's Basic Law, which has received almost unanimous praise from human rights groups, so that all residents of Estonia have a stake in the country's success. But within this legal framework, the real issues are whether the Russians want to become part of Estonia's society and how willing the Estonians are to encourage them to do so. These are the issues which will determine whether Estonia's search for justice

will succeed.

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