Estonia bows to pressure

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THE ESTONIAN parliament will today hold an emergency session to discuss changes to a controversial new law on citizenship and residency rights that has been attacked as discriminatory by Russia.

President Lennart Meri, who refused to sign the law, recalled MPs from their summer break after objections from Moscow were partially echoed by independent observers from the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). Calling on MPs to 'reconsider' the law, President Meri has put forward a list of amendments aimed at defusing the tension between Tallinn and Moscow.

'We certainly think that we have taken Moscow's objections on board and have shown good will on this issue,' said Juri Luik, the minister responsible for relations with Russia. 'We can only hope that the spirit of compromise will now prevail.'

The new law specified that Estonia's 500,000 non-citizens - mainly ethnic Russians brought in after Estonia's annexation by Stalin in 1940 - would be obliged within two years to apply either for Estonian or Russian citizenship or for a residence permit. Although in most cases the permits were to be granted automatically, certain categories, such as former Soviet army officers, would be rejected and might be liable to expulsion.

Describing the new law as nothing short of 'ethnic cleansing' and 'apartheid', Russian leaders, including President Boris Yeltsin, warned Tallinn that they would intervene to protect the rights of ethnic Russians if asked to do so.

Anxious to avoid a further escalation of tension, President Meri refused to sign the law and asked experts from the Council of Europe and the CSCE to take a close look at it. When they, too, expressed reservations about some of its provisions, he decided to recall parliament.

According to Mr Luik, although the basic thrust of the law will not be changed, many points will be spelt out more clearly. The amended law will also include more specific guarantees concerning the rights to social security benefits of ethnic Russians. It is unlikely, however, to include unequivocal residency rights for former Red Army officers, or to drop Estonian language tests as one of the requirements in attaining Estonian citizenship.