Russia and The Baltics: The great statelessness game

Sebastian Kohn
/ 3 mins read

The OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation meeting ended on 5 October in Warsaw, and the Russian government recently summed up the results of the meeting. A representative from the Foreign Ministry said: "The Russian Federation has expressed concern over the unresolved problem of mass statelessness in the Baltic region, emphasizing that disregard for international obligations by states was fraught with serious political and social upheavals in society."

The situation of stateless ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia has been a long-standing concern among civil society. The problem dates back to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, during which many ethnic Russian were forced to move there. When the Baltics gained independence, citizenship in Estonia and Latvia was restricted to those who had links to these countries prior to the occupation. As a result, hundreds of thousands were left stateless.

The situation has since then improved, but statelessness remains a significant issue in this small corner of the European Union. The lack of a full resolution to this problem is primarily due to lack of political will and discrimination. The fact that the EU has not stepped in to pressure Estonia and Latvia to deal with this problem is shameful. It is equally shameful that the EU is held hostage by these two member states in international negotiations about statelessness. Take the UN Human Rights Council resolution on arbitrary deprivation of nationality, for instance. This instrument, sponsored by Russia, has been adopted by the Council on a semi-annual basis for many years. The EU has actively sought to weaken the resolution not because of its content (which overall is strong and objective), but because Estonia and Latvia feel like they are under attack.

So, does this mean that Russia is correct in its critique of Estonia and Latvia, and that its concerns are genuine? Not quite. The critique is in principle correct, for the most part: this problem is an Achilles Heel in the EU’s internal record on human rights. However, the concern for stateless persons is not entirely genuine, which hurts the cause. Russia and the EU are playing a political game, and stateless people in the Baltics have unfortunately become nothing but a brick.

For Russia’s stance on this issue to be more genuine, it does not need to change the substance of its criticism, but it does need to start engaging on similar situations elsewhere in the world. Statelessness in the Baltics is important, but not the most outrageous case of statelessness in the world. By engaging constructively in other places, and resolving statelessness at home – Russia has a significant stateless population – it would be much harder for the EU and the US to dismiss Russia's criticism as yet another political onslaught.

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