Encouraged by the state, ever more ethnic Russians in Estonia are trying to shed their outsider status and gain citizenship -- but not without debate.
Estonia joined the EU last May, one of ten new entries
Nearly a third of Estonia's 1.4 million inhabitants are ethnic Russian, the result of post-war “Russification” policy in the Soviet Union. But when the Baltic state regained its independence in 1991, the Russians lost their foothold in society.
Now more than a decade later, there is debate over state-sponsored citizenship efforts, aimed at helping them integrate.
The 35-year old Marina Samsonova was born in Estonia but started to learn Estonian only seven years ago. In December, she hopes to pass language and constitution exams and to join the more than 100,000 Russians who have gained Estonian citizenship in the last 13 years.
Her story is far from unique. Samsonova is one of 157,035 non-Estonians who have been living without any citizenship since the Baltic state regained its independence.
"I was born and grew up in a small town (in eastern Estonia near the Russian border), Sillamae, that during Soviet times had a huge military factory and was mainly inhabited by Russians. At my school we had no lessons in Estonian at all," Samsonova, who works in a Tallinn bar, said.
Protest against reforms
As in Latvia, where ethnic-Russian youth have been protesting against education reform, Estonia plans to implement a huge revamp in Russian schools to ensure 60 percent of lessons in Russian secondary schools will be given in the local language. The reforms will take effect in 2007.
"Those who attack Estonia as well as Latvia for the school reform are very hypocritical," says Lilia Sokolinskaja, a Russian journalist who has worked 44 years in Estonia for the main local Russian-language radio.
"The aim of the changes is to end the current dead circle, which means thousands of young Russians entering the labor market can compete only for jobs at the lowest level because they are unable to enter Estonian universities or to become otherwise part of the Estonian community, due to the lack of knowledge of the language," she adds.
Effort from both sides
Samsonova has a boyfriend living in Moscow, but she has chosen to stay in Estonia, which became a member of the European Union this year. She also believes Russians must make more effort to integrate.
"I support the educational reform in Russian schools, too. No-one has ever insulted me for being Russian but I have always known that I can't compete with Estonians on the labor market. This is why I finally started to study the language and applied for citizenship," she says.
Both Samsonova and Sokolinskaja said that while thousands of Russians have made more efforts in the last few years to learn Estonian, Estonians are still too slow to accept Russians as a full part of their society.
"One of our aims is to change the attitude of ordinary Estonians," concedes Mati Luik, director of the Integration Foundation, which handles dozens of integration programs, financed by the state, Nordic countries and EU.
Human rights violation denied
In addition to over 100,000 Russians who have already become Estonian citizens and 157,000 people -- mainly Russians -- who live in Estonia without any citizenship, Estonia has 88,500 Russians who have Russian citizenship and live in Estonia with a residence permit.
Estonia denies accusations by Moscow that it is violating the Russian minority’s human rights, saying it has cut in half the time for the citizenship application process and subsidizes costs of studying Estonian.
"The process to apply for citizenship has been made easier,” said Mari Pedak, director of the Citizenship and Migration Board.
Among other means to promote integration is a highly popular program that aims to send Russian children to live with an Estonian family for several weeks and learn the language.
"Estonia is the only country in Europe that has had such a vast naturalization process," Paul-Eerik Rummo, minister of population affairs, said. "The best way to reply to criticism is to look at the facts. The share of people living in Estonia without any citizenship has decreased in the last 13 years, from 32 percent to 11 percent," he said.