Estonia denies it will evict Russians

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The Independent Online
ESTONIAN government officials yesterday categorically denied that a controversial new law on nationality and residency rights was aimed at paving the way for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians living in the country.

At the same time, they rejected claims by Moscow that under the law, ethnic Russians - who make up almost one-third of Estonia's 1.6 million population - would be denied equal rights to pensions and social security benefits. 'These are wildly inaccurate and inappropriate claims and I urge those making them actually to read the law that we passed,' said Juri Luik, the Estonian minister responsible for overseeing relations with Moscow. 'All countries have laws regulating citizenship and residency rights and ours are nothing unusual.'

The new law, passed on Monday, essentially compels the some 500,000 mainly ethnic Russians living in Estonia who are not yet citizens to register with the authorities as foreigners and to apply for residency permits within the next two years.

According to Mr Luik, the granting of the permits will be a mere formality and the main point of the exercise will be to replace outdated identification papers issued during the Soviet period with those relevant to the independent Estonian state. With few exceptions, such as former army or KGB officers, all those applying for residency permits will have them granted. Those who do not apply, however, may be asked to leave. 'In that case they will be classified as illegal aliens who have clearly demonstrated no respect for the laws of the land. They will not be deported, but they will be asked to leave.'

The prospect that any ethnic Russians - for whatever reason - may be asked to leave Estonia has incensed Russia's Foreign Ministry. Vitali Churkin, the Deputy Foreign Minister, told Moscow Radio on Monday that a package of 'serious diplomatic, political and possibly not only political measures', was being prepared.

Mart Laar, the Estonian Prime Minister, has condemned Moscow's statements as a 'crude interference' in his country's affairs.