29 October 1996
REPLY from the Committee of Ministers to Written Question No. 368 by Mr van der MAELEN on the rights of the Russian minority in Estonia
I. Written Question No. 368 (28 June 1996, Doc. 7605)
Mr van der MAELEN,
1. On 17 April 1996, the Estonian Parliament passed a law on the organisation of local elections and the use of languages for such elections. In future, candidates standing for election to local councils will have to sit a language examination (see Section 26 of the electoral law and Section 48 amending Section 5 of the language law). In addition, only stateless persons in possession of a permanent residence permit are entitled to vote in local elections;
2. According to citizens' rights associations in Estonia, this electoral law is contrary to Articles 9 and 11 of the Estonian Constitution. It is also in breach of Article 12 which prohibits any form of discrimination on ethnic or linguistic grounds. These associations claim it is also contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, the Charter of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (adopted by the Council of Europe) and the Conclusions of the Copenhagen Conference on the humanitarian dimension of the OSCE;
3. More specifically, the language law is an infringement of the rights of the Russian minority in Estonia, who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In principle, these stateless persons are entitled to vote in local elections if they have been living in Estonia for at least 5 years and if they have a permanent residence permit. It is not at all clear if temporary (5-year) residence permits will become permanent or if they will merely be extended, in which case the Russian minority would not be entitled to vote. The fact also that the nationality law has been tightened up with regard to the Russian minority adds to the impression that this minority's rights are being infringed. In addition, the temporary residence permits in question have no legal value in some countries of the European Union,
To ask the Committee of Ministers,
if it intends to finds a solution to the practical difficulties encountered by the Russian minority in Estonia and to the problem of the legal vacuum. He wishes to know, more especially, if the Committee has urged the Estonian authorities to relax the nationality law and to settle the issue of permanent residence permits and voting rights in local elections, in an acceptable manner and in line with the letter and spirit of the relevant international treaties.
II. Reply from the Committee of Ministers (17 October 1996)
1. The draft Bill to which Mr van der Maelen refers underwent changes during the legislative process. The text adopted on 17 April 1996 by the Riigikogu (Parliament) was returned by the President of the Republic to Parliament on 7 May 1996 for renewed consideration and duly amended. Consequently, the description of the legal situation in Estonia given by Mr van der Maelen does not reflect the present legislative situation.
2. With regard to the Act on Local Government Council Elections which will now govern the local elections to be held on 20 October 1996 it should be noted that there is no language requirement for exercising the right to vote. And it is generally accepted that elected representatives should have a knowledge of the national language to ensure the proper functioning of a local democracy based on legislative texts and the implementation of decrees drafted in that language.
3. As regards the granting of residence permits to non-Estonians, the Committee of Ministers has been informed that all applications, in total 345,474, had been processed by the deadline, 12 July 1996, except for 3,000 applications in respect of which the required documentation has not yet been supplied. All persons granted such a permit will automatically be included on the voters' list.
All permits are temporary for a period of five years. At the expiry of that period they will, if the conditions laid down in the Law on Aliens are fulfilled, be replaced by permanent permits. If not, the temporary permits will be extended.
4. The Committee of Ministers understands that, for non-citizens, the old Soviet internal (non-travel) passports will remain valid as identity documents until the issuing of residence permits has been completed.
5. The Committee of Ministers also understands that non-Estonians who are not citizens of another State can apply for an alien's passport. So far 115 378 such applications have been received. These passports together with the residence permits will certify authorised residence in Estonia, will provide proof of legal status, will replace the old Soviet passports and allow the bearer to travel abroad. Although the process of issuing these passports has been slow to start for technical reasons (as to now 21 702 have been issued), it is being speeded up and will be concluded by the end of the year. It is hoped that the number of stateless persons will soon be reduced by those persons opting for one or other citizenship. A residence permit, whether permanent or temporary, is not a travel document and the question of its legal value abroad is not therefore relevant.
6. Since it regained its independence Estonia has, with the assistance of the Council of Europe and taking full account of comments made by international experts, adopted comprehensive legislation related to the matters raised by Mr van der Maelen. Thus, the Law on Aliens gives resident aliens the right to remain in Estonia, the Law on Citizenship provides resident aliens with the right to apply for citizenship, the Law on Cultural Autonomy preserves the language and culture of minorities and now, the Law on Local Elections gives aliens the right to vote.
7. The Committee of Ministers will remain at the disposal of member States for any problem which may arise out of statelessness.