RUSSIAN officials are warning that Yugoslav-type chaos could erupt in Estonia if the Baltic state moves ahead with a new citizenship law widely viewed here as discriminatory against ethnic Russians.
To counter the perceived threat to their countrymen, the Russian leadership is invoking a doctrine that claims Moscow has the right to serve as protector of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics.
Bowing to the Russian intimidation, Estonian President Lennart Meri said he would not sign the citizenship measure into law until it was reviewed and approved by international organizations.
Other Estonian leaders, however, dismiss the Russian claims, insisting the legislation adheres to international human rights standards. They add that Moscow's outrage is politically motivated and designed to distract Russia's population from domestic political and economic problems.
The Estonian parliament adopted the "law on foreigners" June 21. Immediately after passage of the law, Russia began threatening to retaliate, including delaying the withdrawal of naval forces still stationed on Estonian territory.
Under the new law, those living in Estonia, but who do not possess citizenship, are designated as immigrants. Immigrants who arrived before 1990 now have two years to apply for permanent residency status, or for Estonian or Russian citizenship. Those who fail to comply are subject to deportation.
Russians make up about 600,000 of Estonia's 1.6 million inhabitants. Most Russians emigrated to the Baltic state following its 1940 incorporation into the former Soviet Union and thus are categorized as noncitizen immigrants under existing legislation. That fact prevented most Russians from voting in last year's Estonian parliamentary elections - something that drew fierce condemnation from Moscow.
The latest act has raised tension further.
"This means the practice of ethnic cleansing and the imposition of an Estonian version of apartheid," Russian President Boris Yeltsin said.
"Yielding to the pressure of nationalists [the Estonian leadership] forgot about some geopolitical and demographic realities," he added. "The Russian side has the ability to remind them of it."
To back up his point, President Yeltsin vowed that Russia would intervene if inter-ethnic relations in Estonia deteriorated to the point of violence. "If the Russian-speaking population expresses the natural desire to protect itself from crude discrimination, Russia will not be able to remain in the position of indifferent onlooker," Yeltsin said.
Already Russia has cut off gas supplies to Estonia, although Russian energy officials say the stoppage was because of Estonia's tardiness in paying its bills.
Estonian Premier Mart Laar countered that the gas cutoff would hurt areas in Estonia populated mainly by Russians. The Baltic state, he added, has reoriented its economy so that it depends on Russia for only about 10 percent of its gas supplies.
The text of the Estonian law on foreigners already has been passed on to the Council of Europe for expert legal review. President Meri said he would like other organizations, including the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to give its opinion on the measure.
Estonian leaders say well-defined citizenship legislation is necessary to protect the Baltic state's cultural identity. Meri attributed the row surrounding the new legislation to "both a lack of information and misinformation."
Premier Laar, meanwhile, has charged that "certain circles" in Russia were deliberately whipping up hysteria. "All these fears are really unfounded," Laar says. "The aim of the law is to bring influence to bear on people so that over the next two years they decide their own status, and decide what sort of citizen of what country they wish to become."
With Russia gripped by an economic and political crisis, the Yeltsin Administration has become increasingly vocal in defending Russians living in nearby former Soviet republics. Some Moscow-based political analysts say the government is taking such a position to appease influential Russian nationalists.