Estonians accused of anti-Russian 'apartheid'

RUSSIA and Estonia drew closer to confrontation yesterday when President Boris Yeltsin accused the Estonian government of practising 'ethnic cleansing' and 'apartheid' against its Russian minority. The dispute marked one of the lowest points in Russia's relations with the three former Soviet Baltic republics since Soviet forces attacked Lithuanian nationalists in January 1991.

Estonia passed a law on Monday stipulating that its non-Estonian population must apply for citizenship or a residence permit before the end of 1995. Estonia's authorities deny that the purpose of the law is to force Russians to emigrate from the republic or to deprive them of pensions and other social guarantees. But many Russians fear they may have to leave if Estonian officials decree that they do not qualify for citizenship under the new law.

Mr Yeltsin said: 'In calling on Estonia to review its position with regard to Russians, I wish to warn that the entire responsibility for possible disturbances of civic peace in Estonia will lie with Estonia's leadership. To all intents and purposes, we are speaking about the practice of ethnic cleansing and the introduction of an Estonian form of apartheid.'

The Russian media suggested the dispute could turn violent. 'The Yugoslav scenario could reproduce itself in the Baltic area,' said the liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

According to a 1989 census, Estonia had 1.57 million people, 61.2 per cent Estonians, 30.2 per cent Russians and 8.6 per cent others. Before the Soviet Union annexed Estonia in 1940, Estonians made up 88.2 per cent of the population. The Estonians' share has declined partly because after 1962 they had the lowest birth rate of any Soviet nation, but more obviously because many Russians and Ukrainians moved in after the Second World War to work in heavy industries, the armed forces, the Communist Party and the security apparatus.

Estonian police said 7,000 Russian-speakers staged a rally in the northeastern city of Narva last Saturday to protest at the government's treatment of Russians. Narva is a Russian stronghold, where only 2,500 of the 85,000 residents are ethnic Estonians. Participants at the rally drew up a statement warning that if Russians were forced out of Estonia there would be 'civil insubordination . . . and armed struggle against deportations, down to sabotage, the emergence of underground power structures and so on'.

Mr Yeltsin's intervention was important because it demonstrated that, on the question of ethnic Russians in the Baltic republics, he and other leaders regarded as liberal in the West appear to have much in common with the nationalist opposition in Moscow.