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Russians In Estonia Worry They’ll Be Deported

July 1, 1993

NARVA, Estonia (AP) _ Almost overnight, Svetlana Nikiforova’s hopes of a secure future have evaporated under new Estonian laws that would make her and other Russians foreigners in the land they call home.

On the streets of this mainly-Russian city in eastern Estonia, everyone had a different version of what this controversial new law meant. But many, including Mrs. Nikiforova, are convinced they could be deported.

″I’d lose my pension under this law,″ said Nikiforova, 53, sitting on a park bench. ″I hear I could also lose my apartment.″

″I buried my parents here, but now they say I’m a foreigner,″ said 67- year-old Tamara Kritskaya, who has lived in Narva since 1954. She was one of thousands of Russians who emigrated to Estonia after it was annexed to the Soviet Union during World War II.

Viktor Solovyov, a Russian schoolboy who was born in Estonia, said he considered the tiny Baltic country his home - but he did not know long he would be able to stay.

″Estonians are going to start deporting all of us Russians in 24 hours,″ said the 12-year-old. ″Everyone says so.″

Only about 3,000 Estonians live in this town of 80,000 and the language most often heard is Russian. But Estonia wants to end that with new rules which would require foreigners to demonstrate proficiency in Estonian.

Many of the estimated 500,000 Russians living in their adopted country can’t speak Estonian. For decades, they didn’t need too, since Russia was the official language of the Soviet Union.

Last week, Estonia’s parliament passed a law that would make most ethnic Russians on its territory foreigners. They would be required to live in Estonia for at least two years after applying for citizenship, and then be forced to pass Estonian language exams.

Russia fiercely denounced the legislation, and last Thursday an impassioned Russian President Boris Yeltsin compared the law to apartheid.

The city council of Narva voted Monday 16-0 to hold a referendum on autonomy by July 17 following the announcement of the new citizenship law.

″With autonomy we wouldn’t have to worry about what our futures hold in store,″ argued the gray-haired, blue-eyed Kritskaya. ″I’m convinced with autonomy, our leaders here can build up this town and make it rich.″

Estonian officials say Russians are exaggerating the situation.

″Mass deportations are ridiculous, of course,″ said Estonian legislator Aap Neljas, part of a government delegation talking with city officials on the crisis brewing between Narva and the capital, Tallinn.

With the exception of criminals, Nejlas said nobody would lose their pensions or apartment under the new law. He said there was a lot of misunderstanding.

Some blame the Estonian government for the confusion and fear.

″The government’s public relations here in Narva have been a disaster,″ said journalist Ahto Siig, an ethnic Estonian living in Narva. ″Ninety percent of the people here have learned about Estonian laws at rallies and from inflammatory leaflets distributed by Russian hard-liners.″

Siig said support for the idea of autonomy in Narva had increased sharply since the law on foreigners was passed.

Other Russian-dominated cities in northeastern Estonia have threatened in the past to break away from Tallinn, and there is concern they may follow Narva’s example to hold a vote on autonomy.

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