Toomas Sildam: Reform making Toom's citizenship an issue could backfire


The Reform Party's recent Bill aimed at changing the law so that those awarded Estonian citizenship on the basis of special merit could be stripped of that citizenship has something of a sharp whiff of electioneering, writes ERR's Toomas Sildam.

It seems that the Reform Party is keen to make an issue of the status of the Centre Party's Yana Toom, one prominent example of a person who gained Estonian citizenship along the 'special merit' principle, on the back of a bill which also addresses various citizenship issues, some of them very long-standing.

The party unanimously signed off at the end of last week on a bill which, even if rejected by the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) places the issue firmly in the spotlight of public debate.

Aside from the obvious political aspects, the bill does contain provisions which are both pragmatic and forward thinking. One lingering question which it could resolve is the status of ethnic Estonians living in the disputed region of Abkhazia* in allowing them Estonian citizenship (though this is not extended in the bill to, for instance, ethnic Estonians who settled in Siberia and their descendants).

The Bill also permits the dual citizenship for those already holding Estonian citizenship, though this really only codifies something which in practice had already been happening and which arises from the paradox of the Estonian consitution forbidding the stripping of Estonian citizenship by the state and yet barring dual-citizenship at the same time.

What has attracted all the attention however is the Reform Party's proposal via the Bill that citizenship be revoked in the case of those who have recieved it on 'special merit', but have acted in a way which does not respect the Estonian constitutional order or Estonian laws.

The problem here is a case of interpretation. There could in theory be clear cut cases of violators, but what is more difficult to pin down is when an individual acts in a way which is injurious to a state based on principles freedom and justice (including the freedom and justice guaranteed towards the very individual under scrutiny).

Estonia is clearly based on freedoms, civil liberties and the rule of law. Yes, there will always be those who make the claim that Estonia is not a just state because the Prime Minister gets ten times the averege Estonian wage, or that the courts are controlled by some kind of cartel involving a shadowy deep state and its organs, and so on and so forth, and that's precisely the point – in a fair society that person has the right to hold that opinion and others have an equal right to disabuse him or her of it. This is part of the charm of a democratic state, not a bugbear.

I personally don't share many of Yana Toom's views and opinions on citizenship, life in Estonia, or foreign policy for example. But I am ready to defend her freedom to hold those views.

Therefore I don't find the suggestion overly compelling that many of those in the Reform Party, (the very party which granted Toom her citizenship in the first place, under former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip) have implied, ie. that an amendment to the law would be a way of giving Toom her just deserts. This would in fact be little more than a slippery slope towards more infringements on freedom of opinion.

In the broader scale of things this might appear as working in the Reform Party's favour inasmuch as it could have the effect of painting them as a credible opposition party in the run-up to the elections in 2019, and moreover as being a particularly Estonian-minded party in contrast to Centre Party as the Russian-leaning party.

The party's new leader, Kaja Kallas, has havered on stating directly that the party would take on such a strongly oppositional role. Nevertheless, recent activities which the Centre Party has been involved with, such as a working cooperative agreement with the ruling United Russia Party, or Toom's own visits to Syria and with it her tacit approval of the Assad regime, are so controversial that the temptation for them to be used for political capital by Reform is strong.

The only way for the Reform Party to deflect suspicions of scapegoating Toom is to relinquish the 'special merit' provision in the Bill, not least because the law on citizenship defines quite rigorously in what cases a person can and can't qualify for 'special merit'. If anything is found wanting, the legal basis is already in place for dealing with such situations and there is no need for this addition to the bill. In short, someone involved in cirminal activities is hardly likely to be a candiate for 'special merit' in the first place.

If they don't do this, then the Reform Party run the risk of the electorate picking up on this maneuvering, and it potentially backfiring, going into the 2019 general elections.

*Ethnic Estonians have been living in the disputed Abkhazia region of the present-day independent state of Georgia since the nineteenth century. Their right of return citizenship was guaranteed for one year by the 1920 Treaty of Tartu, which dealt with Estonian independence, but in practice this was obstructed by the distant location of the territory and turbulence and upheaval through the twentieth century. Around 170 ethnic Estonians were resettled to Estonia during the Abkhazian War of 1992 which followed the break up of the Soviet Union.