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Russians in Northeastern Estonia Vote on Autonomy

July 16, 1993

NARVA, Estonia (AP) _ Estonia’s two main ethnic Russian communities, angered by new Estonian laws that limit their political and civil rights, voted Friday on whether to break away from the Baltic country.

The autonomy ballots are the latest stage in the dispute between the government and Estonia’s large Russian minority over the future of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republic.

The balloting does not, however, seem to foreshadow a threat to Estonia’s integrity. The goal of the referendums seemed less to achieve autonomy than to force changes in despised laws.

Balloting was held in the border city of Narva and the nearby city of Sillamae, which is 98 percent Russian. First results are not expected before Sunday.

″This referendum will give us a foundation for finally getting equal rights in Estonia,″ said Vladimir Chuikin, the chairman of the Narva City Council, a former Communist and the driving force behind the referendum.

Ethnic Russians make up about one-third of Estonia’s 1.6 million people. Most came during Soviet rule, which ended with Estonia’s 1991 declaration of independence, and did not get automatic citizenship.

At a polling station inside a Narva community center, most voters advocated autonomy.

″I voted ‘yes’ because I feel humiliated in this country,″ said Nina Kurova, a 61-year-old Russian pensioner. ″We need to have life like it used to be under the Soviet Union. Autonomy will help us.″

A law adopted three weeks ago classifies most ethnic Russians as foreigners who must apply for residency and work permits. They cannot vote until they are citizens and must pass a language test to become citizens.

After a public outcry, Estonia modified the law, but even Estonian legislators said the changes were mainly cosmetic. Still, the revisions were enough to allay the fears of many Russians who now oppose autonomy.

″People were scared at first. ... They thought Estonian laws meant they would be deported,″ said Olga Serogina, an English teacher in Narva. ″But people have been thinking it through and many don’t think autonomy is a good idea anymore.″

Estonian officials have conducted a weeklong information blitz to drive home that point.

At a town meeting in Sillamae, a city of 20,000 dependent on a massive Soviet-era uranium enrichment plant, Estonian officials warned that autonomy would make a bad economic situation worse.

″Nobody wants to go to a city that appears to be politically unstable,″ lawmaker Jaanus Raidal said. ″Political passions only prevent foreign investment.″

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