At the time Estonia gained independence, about one third of the people living in its territory were Russian-speaking minorities from other Soviet republics. On May 1, 2004, Estonia entered the European Union, making its 1.1 million people European citizens overnight. Nonetheless, 162,000 people, or 12 percent of the country’s population at that time, remained stateless. These individuals must choose between learning the Estonian language and passing an exam to acquire Estonian citizenship; applying for Russian citizenship and thus surrendering the benefits of EU membership; or remaining stateless with limited political access and foreign travel restrictions. Some consider that the government’s citizenship requirements violate equality provisions of the Estonian Constitution.
Nevertheless, the situation has improved significantly. The number of stateless persons in the country has dropped to approximately 112,000. As long-term residents, most stateless persons were able to vote in local but not in parliamentary elections. Authorities have adopted policies, such as funding citizenship and language courses and simplifying the process for persons with disabilities to facilitate acquisition of citizenship by those stateless persons who wish it. Children whose parents are stateless and have lived in the country for five years are eligible to acquire citizenship at their parents’ request. In addition, the naturalization process has been shortened.
According to news reports in November 2008, the Estonian parliament did not pass amendments to the
law on citizenship proposed by the leading opposition Center Party, which would grant Estonian citizenship to all children permanently living in the country, including those born to families of non-citizens.