In the article, nationality is defined as demos, i.e. political community, which coincides with the definition of citizenry, although traditionally nationality has been defined in Estonia as an ethnic group, i.e. ethnic community.

Ernst Gellner emphasises the idealised understanding of the democratic nation-state as held by the builders of nation-states.

Europe’s traditional nation-states have become steadily more multicultural due to the immigration that took place after World War II. This has given rise to questions about citizenship as one of the pillars of the nation-state. According to the ideal nation-state model, three important elements should coincide: the territory of the country as the habitual space of “the people”, an environment for the national culture to function, and the citizenry. According to such an idealistic understanding, the territory of the state and the citizenry coincide: all permanent residents should be citizens and all citizens should be permanent residents.

This approach does not fit with the changed world of the 21st century, which is characterised by the rapidly-spreading migration of people across state borders. The citizens of one country settling in other countries and at the same time the multiplicity of citizenship in that country’s own population raises questions about the functionality of the idea of a nation-state, and democracy as a system. The right to vote is traditionally considered to be a citizen’s fundamental right, on which the democratic system of government is based. Citizens are those members of society who participate directly in governance, either through elected representatives or by being elected themselves to serve as a representative. It is precisely this that sets them apart from the country’s other residents. It is therefore important that the citizenry be localised within the territory of a specific sovereign country. In addition to the right to vote, citizenship also has two additional legal categories: social rights, which are tied to the wellbeing of a people – including the right to healthcare and education – and civil rights or personal freedoms (Marshall 1950). In addition to endowing rights, citizenship is marked by a single national identity, which binds people with the same citizenship into a uniform and coherent community, frequently connected by their language, faith, national identity and history.

The trend this century has been the decoupling of the various elements of citizenship – common national identity; political, social and collective rights – from each other, as well as the all-encompassing concept connecting them together: citizenship (Benhabib 2005). People may have political rights in a country, without sharing a uniform national identity with the rest of the population; at the same time, people may have social and civil rights, without having political rights or the right to vote. The first trend refers to the separation of nationality from citizenship, where a democratic system of government and the national community function as if separate from one another: a specific country’s citizens no longer form a coherent nationality or demos. Nearly all European countries are suffering from the problem that citizens, although possessing the same rights, do not feel a connection to one another or form a coherent community. Similarly in Estonia, the nation-state seems to be an ‘Estonian business’, although Estonian-Russians also participate in democratic governance of that state.

The second trend refers to the disconnection of various rights from citizenship: in developed democratic countries, a person’s social and civil rights are instead linked to the person’s permanent place of residence (to residency) and no longer to citizenship. The result is a situation in which the perceptions that have existed up to this time regarding citizenship and the nation-state are no longer valid, even though new perceptions have not developed with certainty. We are like travellers who are wandering about on an unknown landscape with the help of old maps, with markings dating from another time and based on a different set of needs (Benhabib 2015).


In OECD countries in 2013, the largest degrees of relative importance of third-country citizens (not including country of residence or EU citizens) were in Latvia (15.3%) and Estonia (14.3%). These were followed by a smaller relative importance in Austria (6.9%), Greece (6.6%), and Spain (6.4%) OECD 2015: 303.

The majority of developed democracies are currently faced with a situation in which a considerable portion of their populations are comprised of long-term residents who are citizens of other countries, but whose set of rights does not differ significantly from that of citizens. More and more people are no longer living in their country of citizenship. Adhering to the logic of the right to vote – that citizens have the right to decide over questions concerning their way of life – the right of citizens permanently residing abroad to vote, and the of the right to vote for people permanently living in the country but who do not have citizenship, comes into question.

In the same manner, questions arise over the obligations of citizens with respect to their country of origin and their country of residence. Long-term resident non-citizens do not carry all the obligations (for example, the obligation to participate in national defence), while at the same time national citizens who do not permanently live in the country do bear that obligation before the state. Citizens permanently living abroad are not always subject to legal acts (for example, acts concerning taxes) adopted in their country of citizenship, or the decisions executed by those in a position of authority, over which they, however, decide directly by using their right to vote. The situation described raises questions regarding the normative mechanisms necessary for the functioning of a democracy.

The changes described above and the resulting problems are also not foreign to Estonia. In the case of Estonia, as a country where a proportionally large number of citizens from other countries also live and whose own citizens are increasingly living abroad permanently, the question arises regarding where the borders of Estonia as a political community are. To what extent, and in what direction, does the variation in citizenships of Estonia’s residents affect the formation of a coherent Estonian national community? What problems are created in the functioning of Estonian democracy if the population does not share one citizenship; if the institution of permanent non-citizen residents becomes perpetual; and if the continuous emigration of Estonian citizens develops the community of citizens outside of Estonia’s political territory?

The functioning of Estonia’s government as an e-government adds another dimension: it has become easy for a citizen of Estonia to apply their political rights while permanently living abroad. Furthermore, a new group with their own rights has emerged – Estonia’s e-residents – who have a legal relationship with the Estonian state, even if they have never been to Estonia. This article discusses the effects on Estonian democracy arising from the differences in rights between citizens and permanent non-citizen residents; the influence that the Estonian citizens’ diaspora abroad has; and the effects of emigration and globalisation on the Estonian nation-state’s self-identity and democracy.

Citizenship of Estonia’s residents


2000. In 2000, there were 1,095,557 Estonian citizens living in Estonia, in 2011 the number had reached 1,102.618.

People with undetermined citizenship are former citizens of the former Soviet Union and their descendants, who following the disintegration of the Union in 1991 have not taken up the citizenship of any country.

According to data from 2011, Estonian citizens comprise 85% of Estonia’s population, and nearly one-sixth of our residents are citizens of other countries or people with undetermined citizenship. Over the last decade, the proportion of Estonian citizens in the total population has increased steadily: for example, according to the 2000 Population and Housing Census, Estonian citizens accounted for 80% of the total population. This relative importance has predominantly increased at the expense of those with undetermined citizenship, whose share in the population has decreased over the 10-year period, from 12% to 6%. The third-largest group, after Estonian citizens and undefined citizens, are citizens of the Russian Federation, whose proportion in the population has increased from 6% to 7% (see Figure 3.1.1) over the period of ten years.

Even though these three citizenship groups comprise a large portion of Estonia’s residents, when taking a closer look, the national-political affiliation of Estonia’s residents is much more diverse. According to the Population and Housing Census, citizens from 116 countries were living in Estonia in 2011: in other words, Estonia’s population includes citizens from nearly 60% of the UN Member States (the UN has 194 Member States). Estonia’s accession to the European Union (EU) resulted in an increase in the number of citizens from other Member States living in Estonia: during the period 2000–2011, the number increased from 4,018 to 6,792 people. During the period in question, the number of citizens from Asian and South Caucasus countries also increased (329 people to 1,218 people). Taking into consideration a continuing general internationalisation trend, over the next decade the number of citizens from other countries living in Estonia will increase even further and Estonia will surely end up as the permanent place of residence for some of these foreign citizens.

Figure 3.1.1. The distribution of Estonia’s population according to citizenship

Source: 2000, 2011 Population and Housing Census.

At the beginning of the 1990’s, ethnic Estonians were dominant among those with Estonian citizenship, however Estonia’s citizenry has now become more ethnically diverse: slightly less than one-fifth of Estonia’s citizens are not ethnic Estonians (see Figure 3.1.2). As before, nearly all ethnic Estonians living in Estonia are Estonian citizens: 99.6% of ethnic Estonians hold Estonian citizenship. Slightly more than half (54%) of Russian nationals (N = 326,235) hold Estonian citizenship, a quarter (24%) hold Russian citizenship, and slightly less than a quarter (21%) hold undefined citizenship, according to the 2011 Population and Housing Census.

Figure 3.1.2. Ethnic composition of Estonia’s citizenry

Source: 2011 Population and Housing Census.

The proportion of Estonian citizens in the population is also expected to increase in the following years, resulting not so much from the citizens of other countries acquiring Estonian citizenship, but rather on account of the fact that the proportion of people with undetermined citizenship will decrease continuously, with nearly half of the decline due to mortality (see Table 3.1.1). The proportion of citizens of other countries or undetermined citizens is the highest among older Estonian-Russians in comparison with younger age groups, while the majority of those with Estonian citizenship are found among younger Estonian-Russians. Among those of other nationalities who are under 24 years of age, 77% are Estonian citizens, while among those who are 65 years and older, the number is roughly half of that (36%). The situation is the opposite in the case of Russian citizenship: among older residents of a different nationality, 42% are Russian citizens, while only 12% of those in the younger age group are Russian citizens (see Figure 3.1.3). Therefore, in terms of integration, it is a positive sign that the younger an Estonian-Russian person is, the more likely he or she is to be an Estonian citizen.

Figure 3.1.3. Age composition of other nationality citizenship groups

Source: 2011 Population and Housing Census.

Integration monitoring data from 2015 shows that the division of Estonian-Russians by citizenship also differs markedly based on the indigenousness of the population, i.e. based on whether the individual or their parents were born in Estonia: the more indigenous a person is, the more likely he or she is to be an Estonian citizen (see Figure 3.1.4). Among those Estonian-Russians who have immigrated to Estonian during their own lifetimes (first-generation immigrants) there are fewer Estonian citizens (31%) and more Russian citizens (39%). However, among those who were born in Estonia (second-generation immigrants), the majority are Estonian citizens (65%), and among those with either one or both parents born in Estonia, Estonian citizens are already the vast majority (over 80%).

Figure 3.1.4. The division of residents from other nationalities according to citizenship and indigenousness

Source: EIM 2015.


Ius sanguinis, i.e. blood based citizenship policy means that citizenship is awarded based on the citizenship of one’s parents, not the country of birth. If citizenship is awarded based on country of birth, then the principle is ius soli, i.e. the soil principle.

Even so, more than a third (35%) of the Estonian-Russians born in Estonia who took part in the Integration Monitoring Survey sample do not have Estonian citizenship. They are predominantly either people with undetermined citizenship (20%) or Russian citizenship (14%) (Figure 3.1.4). In addition, a total of 19% of Estonian-Russians, who were born in Estonia themselves and whose parents were born in Estonia, are not Estonian citizens (9% are Russian citizens and 10% have undetermined citizenship). The fact that the children or grandchildren of immigrants are still not Estonian citizens stands out in contrast when compared with other European countries. The historic peculiarities of immigration also play a part here. The majority of the Russian-speaking residents of Estonia became immigrants and non-citizens by definition only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, not at the time when they immigrated to Estonia. In addition, in accordance with the principle of ius sanguinis and the prohibition of dual citizenship in the Citizenship Act, obtaining Estonian citizenship becomes complicated - there is no principle of birth-right citizenship or ius soli and sometimes there seems to be simply just too little motivation to renounce the other citizenship. Both principles also hinder the increase in the number of Estonian citizens among new immigrants that arrived after the restoration of Estonia’s independence.

Dual citizenship has become increasingly widespread in the European Union and the countries of North America, with the introduction of the principle of ius soli alongside the principle of ius sanguinis (MIPEX 2015). All of these changes are motivated by the need to adapt to transformations in the population during the age of migration. There is a desire to create conformity between the sovereign borders of the state and the legal relationship to the state on the part of the people who are permanently living within those borders. The goal of democratic nation-states continues to be to achieve a situation in which the majority of the people living permanently in a country are citizens, i.e. they have equal rights and obligations before the state.

Based on the scenario described above, it can be projected that those permanent residents who are not Estonian citizens will remain for an extended period of time in Estonia, and the majority of them will continue to be citizens of the Russian Federation. As stated above, the number of people with undetermined citizenship is decreasing from year to year, primarily as a result of demographic causes (mortality) or the acquisition of Estonian or Russian citizenship (see Table 3.1.1).

Table 3.1.1. Reasons for the decline in the number of individuals with undefined citizenship

Death of person 1560 52%
Acquisition of Estonian citizenship 624 21%
Acquisition of the citizenship of another country 504 17%
Personal request 34 1%
Other 277 9%
Total 3009 100%

Source: PPA 2016.

The fact that the majority of those with undetermined citizenship and Russian citizenship are elderly will most likely have an effect on the ability of those people to adapt to the conditions of Estonia’s citizenship policy, such as language proficiency and the passing of citizenship exams. Prior integration monitoring has shown that Estonia’s citizenship policy has operated, in a sense, as an enhancer of ‘natural selection’, providing even greater opportunities for more capable individuals and inhibiting the opportunities of those who, by their nature, are not cable of breaking through (EIM 2008: 5). The distribution of Estonian-Russians into Estonian citizens, persons with undetermined citizenship, and Russian citizens is not random, but instead mirrors the different levels of adaptation and strategic choices for coping with the norms, restrictions and opportunities provided by Estonian society. Estonian citizenship has been acquired mostly by people with higher education and also younger people, i.e. those who, based on their socio-economic and human capital indicators, are more capable of adapting to modern society (EIM 2008: 5).

We can therefore state that in terms of the process of integration the distribution of and changes in citizenship status among the Estonian population is heading in a positive direction. The growth in the number and proportion of Estonian citizens supports a basic principle of the nation-state, according to which all residents should have citizenship together with every right to participate in the political process, including Riigikogu (parliamentary) elections. At the same time, Estonian citizenship opens up access to all offices in the public sector, thus also providing better conditions for integration in the labour market. Even so, it can be observed that because of the current principles governing the granting of citizenship, the number of citizens of foreign countries living permanently in Estonia will remain significant and will also continue to grow due to the increase in immigration.

The migration process with respect to citizenship

The division of Estonia’s population on the basis of citizenship indicates a relatively minor, yet continuous, increase in the share of Estonian citizens, although the growth is being slowed at the same time by the emigration of Estonian citizens. The vast majority of people emigrating from Estonia over the past decade consisted of Estonian citizens, whose proportion among all emigrants during the period 2004-2015 fluctuated between 77-94% (see Figure 3.1.5). At the same time, among immigrants arriving in Estonia (including returning migrants) the proportion of Estonian citizens is significantly smaller, remaining in the range of 30-65% (see Figure 3.1.6). According to data from Statistics Estonia, over the last decade (2004-2015) an average of 4,900 Estonian citizens, 233 Russian citizens and 586 people with other citizenship or unknown citizenship left Estonia each year. At the same time, an average of 2,080 people with Estonian citizenship (return migration), 512 with Russian citizenship, and 1,460 with other citizenship or unknown citizenship entered Estonia.

Figure 3.1.5. Emigration from Estonia during the period 2004-2015 based on the citizenship of migrants. Relative importance of citizenship among all emigrants

Source: Statistics Estonia.

Note: Due to the change in the principle used to calculate Statistics Estonia’s migration statistics, migration data from 2015 differs significantly from earlier data (for more details, see Tammur 2017).

Figure 3.1.6. Immigration into Estonia during the period 2004-2015, based on the citizenship of immigrants. Relative importance of citizenship in terms of all immigrants and returning migrants

Source: Statistics Estonia.

The migration balance presented above points to continued growth in the number of Estonian citizens living abroad. According to data from the Population Register, as of 2016 there are a total of 109,592 Estonian citizens permanently living abroad (PPA 2016: primary countries of residence are presented in Figure 3.1.7.). This accounts for 9% of all Estonian citizens registered in the Population Register (N=1,253,503). Half (50%) of the Estonian citizens living abroad are working age (31-65), while the other half is comprised of children between the ages of 0-18 (25%), young people between the ages of 19-30 (18%), and pensioners aged 65 and older (7%) (PPA 2016). Excluding underage children a total of 82,227 Estonian citizens with the right to vote are living abroad. It is likely that this number is much higher, since many Estonian citizens have not registered their residency abroad in the Population Register. In addition to Estonian citizens permanently living abroad, there are many transnational Estonians who spend a large part of the year abroad (see Chapter 2.2. of the article by Rein Ahase, Siiri Silma and Margu Tiru).

Figure 3.1.7. The top ten countries of residence of Estonian citizens abroad

Source: PPA, 1.11.2016

On the basis of the number of citizens with the right to vote (N=899,793) entered in the Estonian National Electoral Register of Citizens for the 2015 Riigikogu elections, nearly 10% of all Estonian citizens with the right to vote reside abroad. Due to e-elections it is not possible to precisely identify the share of votes cast by so-called ‘foreign’ Estonians in Riigikogu elections over the past decade; however, 10% of the electorate residing permanently outside the country is a relatively telling indicator.

Due to the continuous migration process the inevitable situation is developing where 15% of Estonia’s permanent residents do not have political rights, while at the same time the number of those who have political rights, but who are themselves no longer living permanently in Estonia, is increasing.

Although it is likely that many Estonian citizens living abroad retain a connection with the Estonian state, and in the information age there are few obstacles that would restrict close relations with one’s country of citizenship (see also Triin Vihalemm’s article Chapter 3.2), legally and normatively the question arises as to where the boundaries between the Estonian state and Estonian democracy lie.

Estonia is the only country in the world whose regulatory framework allows, in addition to the three rights groups delineated above: Estonian citizens, permanent residents who are citizens of other countries, and permanent residents with undetermined citizenship – a fourth group, with a special category called e-residents. In December 2016, Estonia had 10,988 e-residents, to whom the Estonian state has awarded economic rights within its legal system (PPA 2016). In the future, Estonian e-residency will engender new legal and normative discussions on the rights and obligations of citizens, permanent residents, and e-residents. Even though it is still too early to assess the actual extent of the use of rights by e-residents, it is still appropriate to raise questions regarding normative limits on the rights of e-residents. The current economic rights of e-residents may, over time, lead to social rights (rights arising from the payment of taxes) and the demand for civil rights (the right to have a say, personal freedoms, etc.). Future analyses must focus on what shape the legal relations for those different groups of people will take within the borders of the Estonian state and how this will effect Estonia’s democratic development.


If a state has a large number of residents with different citizenships, then citizenship no longer operates as an inclusive mechanism that unites the population, forms a basis of common identity, nor acts as an institution that provides all residents of the state with equal rights and obligations. In addition, the different categories of rights are also separated from citizenship: political, social and civil rights are now distributed differently between residents of the differing status groups.

In Estonia citizenship and national identity do not coincide. The population is distributed into groups with different citizenships and consequently has different rights, at levels that exceed that of other countries in Europe. As was demonstrated in this chapter, a large number of people with Estonian citizenship are living outside of Estonia. Estonia has preserved the principle of inherited citizenship (ius sanguinis), as a result of which the rights of Estonian citizens are bestowed upon those living abroad generation after generation. At the same time, a category of permanent residents who are citizens of other countries has developed, along with a different set of rights and obligations, which means that being born in and living one’s entire life in Estonia does not yet grant all rights before the Estonian state. Therefore only a proportion (although a majority proportion) of Estonia’s residents form a political community, while at the same time a quarter of the permanent residents have no right to participate in the exercise of power. This in turn places in question the full-spectrum functioning of the democratic system, since democracy presumes equal rights in exercising power among the people living on the territory of a specific sovereign state.

Although the relative importance of Estonian citizenship is increasing, this is not taking place at a rate that would justify any assumption that in the coming decades a state will be reached in which all second- or third-generation permanent residents are also Estonian citizens. In addition to the lacks in citizenship among immigrants who arrived during the Soviet period, and their descendants, a new group of permanent residents who are citizens of other countries is emerging. As a result of immigration, Estonia will become multi-cultural and the citizenships held by residents will diversify even further. This will bring with it the legal questions raised above, concerning the different rights and obligations of citizens and long-term residents before the state. Maintaining differences in the rights of permanent residents over the long-term, however, does not support the development of democracy. Citizenship is also one of the institutions that serves as a basis for cohesive national identity, and therefore a denial or refusal of citizenship hinders the development of a common national identity and the development of social cohesion. Society is left with an identity gap and a legal gap, which creates difficulties for the functioning of a unified demos as well as for economic and social development.

What needs to be done in this situation, to ensure that a democratic form of government functions fairly? As was noted at the beginning of the chapter, 21st century migration processes have presented a challenge to the traditional approach to how citizenship, residency, and political rights are connected to one another. Essentially there are two possibilities regarding how to adapt the idea of a state empowered by sovereign democratic citizens with the factors inherent in the changed situation: 1) uphold the principle that the political community and nation-state must coincide and, based on that, expand political rights to all those permanent residents who have been living for several generations on the territory of the state or 2) change one’s understanding of a political community whose parameters do not correspond unequivocally with the boundaries of the nation state and frequently cross the boundaries of other nation-states (Bauböck 2005: 686).

The second option implies that part of Estonia resides as citizens on the territory of other nation-states. In the case of Estonia the latter option would mean the preservation of the status quo in the Citizenship Act, where citizenship is passed down from parents to their children. However, a new situation requires a paradigmatic change in this understanding, since developments in the Estonian state are currently decided by people who are not permanently residing in Estonia and who may no longer be connected to Estonia.

The first option means that in addition to social and civil rights, permanent residents must also be given political rights. Alternatively the principle of ius soli should be established in the Citizenship Act and birth-based dual citizenship permitted. This political choice entails, of course, rather fundamental amendments to Estonia’s current citizenship policy. Even though several European countries have integrated the principle of ius soli in their citizenship acts or expanded the political rights to non-citizen residents (for example, Germany, and Sweden), Estonia’s coalition governments have, thus far, continually stated that the fundamental principles of Estonian citizenship will not be changed.


Bauböck, R., (2005). Expansive Citizenship: Voting beyond Territory and Membership. PS: PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol 38, No 4, pp. 683–687.

Benhabib, S., (2005). Borers, Boundaries, and Citizenship. PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol 38, No 4, pp. 673–677.

EIM 2008. Monitoring of Integration in Estonian Society. Integration and Migration Foundation and the Office of the Minister of Culture. Available:

EIM 2015. Monitoring of Integration in Estonian Society in 2015. The Institute of Baltic Studies and the Ministry of Culture. Available:

Gellner, Ernst (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Cornell University Press.

Marshall, T. H. (1950). Citizenship and Social Class And Other Essays. Cambridge: University Press.

MIPEX 2015. Migrant Integration Policy Index. Access to Nationality. Available:

Statistical data used

OECD statistical database on non-citizens according to country:

PPA. Police and Border Guard Board data based on the Population Register. Data received in November 2016, in response to the author’s inquiry.

Statistics Estonia database: migration statistics and population censuses.