TALLINN - Until last week, almost one in 10 Estonians were denied the right to travel through European Union nations without the requirement of a visa.
As the holders of so-called "gray passports," these half-citizens, most of them of Russian heritage, were denied the freedom of travel enjoyed by their countrymen.
But on Jan. 19 Estonia's sizeable group of stateless citizens took a step closer to a more equal legal standing.
Following a European Council decision in late December, the EU announced it would allow stateless residents to travel without visas.
The ruling applies to most EU nations, but excludes the United Kingdom, Ireland and Norway.
Norway will eventually permit entry to this category of passport bearer but asked for more time to harmonize its domestic laws with the EU ruling.
Stateless residents must still meet several requirements to allow visa-free travel. They must be legal residents, hold a residence permit and an alien passport. They must also have valid travel insurance, prove the purpose of their visit and show they have the means to support themselves.
However, the change only applies to travel for up to 90 days 's grey passport holders are still denied the right to work within the EU.
The ruling also does not apply to Russian citizens living in Estonia, although this may change when Estonia joins the Schengen visa agreement.
The move is nonetheless a large step forward for Estonia's 125,000 stateless residents, who make up almost 10 percent of the population. The limited rights of grey passport holders has been the focus of international criticism.
Amnesty International called on Estonia to do more to integrate its stateless residents in a contentious report released in Nov. 2006.
The phenomenon of grey passports is a bureaucratic legacy of the transition from Soviet occupation to independence. Russian-speaking residents who were relocated to Estonia during occupation were offered the right to remain there, provided they passed a stringent language and cultural examination.
Many of the Russian-speakers who chose to remain 's most of them now old and with limited skills 's find the test too difficult, leading to calls that the Estonian authorities should make the citizenship exam process easier.