In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Question of Citizenship in the Baltics
  • Jeff Chinn (bio) and Lise A. Truex (bio)

Unlike most of the other post-Soviet states, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—forcibly annexed by Josef Stalin in 1940—regard themselves officially as “restored” rather than “new” sovereignties. Among the results of this emphasis on continuity with the interwar republics is an approach to citizenship that is much narrower than those found elsewhere within the borders of the former USSR. Four years after independence, significant portions of the populations of Estonia and Latvia remain “stateless.” Lithuania, though it also followed the legal approach of restoring the previous state, has avoided creating a large stateless population by making naturalization automatic upon the request of permanent residents.

The Estonian and Latvian citizenship policies have drawn widespread criticism. Early in those countries’ independence and democratization processes, Western critics took aim at citizenship and residency laws for nontitular groups. The Baltic states, in keeping with their own view of independence as a restoration of pre-1940 sovereignty, brought the citizenship laws of that era back into effect. More recently, Western leaders have been voicing concern about the legal, political, and cultural rights of ethnic Russians and other minorities in the Baltics.

The Russian Federation has joined Western governments and international organizations such as the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in urging Estonia and Latvia to adopt more inclusive policies. Russian officials have equated the restrictive citizenship laws with human rights violations against Russian minorities in the Baltics, even comparing the Estonian and Latvian strategy to [End Page 133] “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia. Such charges are unfair, for the Baltic states have made significant efforts to protect the legal and cultural rights of Russian and other minorities. Nonetheless, the Estonian and Latvian approaches to citizenship have left large Russian minority populations outside the states’ political communities.

The citizenship laws of the “restored” Baltic democracies must be seen in their larger context, which includes not only the aforementioned distinction between the restored state and the new state, but also the distinction between citizenship based on descent and citizenship based on territorial residence; the citizenship laws adopted by other states in the former USSR; and the policies used by several democracies in Western Europe (where a good deal of criticism of the Baltics’ citizenship requirements has originated).


One of the most basic rights of a state is to say who is a citizen, meaning one possessing full political rights within the state; thus only the number of states determines the number of variations of possible citizenship laws. Yet numerous international declarations express a desire to reduce the stateless population. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that “everyone has the right to a nationality [i.e., ‘citizenship’],” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” Similarly, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness stipulates that a state acquiring territory “confer its nationality on such persons as would otherwise become stateless as a result of the transfer or acquisition.” In 1992, the CSCE repeated that “everyone has a right to a nationality” and that member states should “take measures, consistent with their constitutional framework, not to increase statelessness.” 1 Nevertheless, it is up to each country, and not international law or international organizations, to determine the rules for membership in its polity.

The attribution of citizenship at birth by jus sanguinis (the law of blood descent) or by jus soli (the law of the soil) is straightforward for most individuals. Most children satisfy both conditions: their parents are citizens, and they are born on the territory of the state of which their parents are citizens. For those who do not satisfy both conditions, various combinations also result in citizenship by attribution. For example, children with one parent who is a U.S. citizen are entitled to U.S. citizenship, regardless of the place of birth (jus sanguinis). Likewise, children born in the United States or its territories are entitled to citizenship, regardless of the status of their parents (jus soli). This approach, which combines the hereditary transfer of citizenship with...