Between the spring and the summer of 1990, after five decades of Soviet rule and German occupation, the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania commenced the procedures to restore their independences, asserting the de jure continuity of their states and adopting reviewed versions of their pre-war constitutions. For the majority of their people, this coincided with the resurgence of a sense of national pride and identity after decades of oppression. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, also made large swaths of the population collapse in a grey area between two states.
I feel blessed for having spent my university years in Estonia, luckily in a time when both Nazi troops and Soviet forced deportations were just a distant memory. I loved everything about Tallinn. The charming, medieval old town, my cosy student life at the Katherine’s College and people’s love for their country.
Like the majority of those who are not directly touched by the matter, little did I know, when I first arrived, about statelessness (Määratlemata kodakondsusega isikud, “people with undetermined citizenship”). Needless to say, when Estonia regained its independence in 1991, new citizenship regulation was a crucial legislative area to define, and the Estonian parliament eventually resolved to found it on the principle of the ius sanguinis: citizenship was extended only to the pre-war Estonians and their descendants. As a consequence of this, almost one third of the population became stateless, including many who were born in Estonia to settled families. For over a decade, the only way for these people to acquire Estonian citizenship was to undertake a naturalisation process involving a language examination, a test on the Estonian constitution and to reside in the country for eight years prior to the application (of which the last five with permanent residence). I knew nothing about any of this.
You can imagine my astonishment when one of my university friends showed me his Alien’s passport.
Having always been sensitive to minorities’ issues and social struggles, I decided to dig deeper and jumped on a train to the border town of Narva, where the vast majority of the population is of Russian descent and a striking 16% of its inhabitants are stateless. Here I got to know Valeria, one of the many forgotten children of Narva’s late 1980s, who inspired my idea of creating a short documentary on the issue.
“An Alien’s passport is a great obstacle to one’s international mobility and one’s right to participate in political and public life” she says. “The economy in Narva is depressed. Some of us would want to become EU citizens to go to work in Germany or Scandinavia, where wages are much higher than here, but we are not allowed to stay in other countries for more than six months”. Furthermore, stateless persons are not allowed to vote in national elections. For people like Valeria, this is a severe form of marginalisation. “But some of us see the good side of living in this grey zone: we can travel to Russia without having to pay for a visa, and it avoids being called to arms in either country. Some actually make a conscious choice not to apply for citizenship”.
Valeria, on the other hand, has been actively trying to complete the Estonian naturalisation process. The oldest daughter of a stateless family of Russian origin, she was born in the border town of Narva during the Soviet occupation and lived there until she was 12, when she moved to Russia to attend school. After graduating from the University of Moscow, she decided to return to her hometown, which had become part of Estonia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the requirements to obtain the Estonian citizenship have not changed much since 1991: despite the fact that she was born in Narva and spent her whole childhood there, she is not yet able to acquire Estonian citizenship.
This short (17-minute) documentary is a poetic representation of her life as a stateless person in this border town. I shot it and produced it while staying at Valeria’s house in Narva. The colour of her Alien’s passport is a powerful metaphor of her situation and it represents a constant, subtle theme throughout my work: a life at the margin, in a grey legal zone, trapped between two states and their national identities.
Between 2014 and 2015, after more than two decades during which several international bodies raised recommendations to Estonia to tackle this issue, the Estonian parliament finally approved a number of amendments to the Citizenship Act in order to facilitate the process of naturalisation, in particular for young people under the age of 15. Most importantly, all children born to stateless parents in Estonia after 1 January 2016 have the right to acquire Estonian citizenship at birth, provided that their parents have lived in Estonia for at least five years. Unfortunately for people like Valeria, no provisions were made for over-15s: despite having passed both the language and the constitution exams, at 29 years of age, she still has to wait two years to fulfil the five-year permanent residency rule before her application can be accepted.
All in all, even though the new legislation is still far from eradicating the problem of statelessness in Estonia, it can be seen as a significant and long-overdue step in the right direction. My wish is that my modest contribution to the cause helps make these struggles for citizenship more visible and, before too long, a thing of the past.