A new Estonian political party that is fast garnering support ahead of October's municipal elections has sparked debate by proposing the scrapping of language tests now required for naturalization.
Instead, Res Publica, which is dominated by members of the majority Estonian population, proposes that citizenship applicants would have to attend a 100-hour language, culture and government course.
Res Publica, which has created media interest due to its enrollment of more than 2,500 members since its launch last December, announced its citizenship plan last week in the mainly Russian speaking town of Narva.
About 172,000 Russian-speaking Soviet-era immigrants, roughly 12 percent of the population, do not have Estonian citizenship and must pass a language test to naturalize unless their parents are Estonian citizens.
"The current situation in Estonia gives us all the reasons to make the first steps toward making citizenship more accessible for ethnic minorities currently residing in the country with alien passports," said Henn Parn, the head of Res Publica's Harju county division.Those who want to should be given the opportunity to attend courses in Estonian as well as the country's culture and government and should be offered trips to parts of the country they have not visited, said Parn.
"Let's say, people from (the northeastern town of) Sillamae have not seen many parts of the country, so we have to show Estonia to them," Parn said.
Having taken the 100-hour course and had their attendance officially certified, a person would automatically receive citizenship, he said.
The class would cost about 5,000 kroons ($310) per person, equal to the average monthly salary, and those unable to pay should receive state assistance, Parn said.
Currently private companies provide language classes to prepare people for the citizenship exam at a cost of up to 3,000 kroons, but such courses do not include history or government lessons or excursions.
Res Publica also suggested amending the constitution so naturalized citizens along with those born in Estonia could run for the post of president.
The Estonian Russian Baltic Party applauded the project. "Res Publica is the first Estonian-dominated party that is trying to solve the citizenship problem," said Tatyana Muravyova, vice chair of the party.
She also approved of the idea of easing the language requirements.
"The current language exam for citizenship is sometimes too complicated because it demands knowledge of very special expressions and idioms," she said.
"In the United States or Great Britain, nobody would demand that level of language competence."
Muravyova, however, acknowledged that the timing of the proposals looked like electioneering ahead of the October polls.
Peep Lilamagi, of the Reform Party, criticized the proposals, saying that while classes are a good way for people to prepare for citizenship, the law is already quite liberal and does not need to be changed.