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Provoking Moscow

TINY Estonia, one of the Baltic states that did so much to undermine the Soviet Union, is again driving Moscow crazy. A vote by the Estonian parliament on Monday makes significant demands on the status of the 600,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia.

By an overwhelming margin, the parliament voted that persons seeking to live in Estonia must apply for citizenship in the next two years. Those who do not qualify for citizenship - which requires a "good knowledge" of the Estonian language - could theoretically be forced to leave. Many Russians do not know Estonian.

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The law will require citizenship of anyone born of parents that moved to Estonia after Stalin's 1940 annexation of the Baltic states. It sets a precedent for other former Soviet republics with Russian minorities, and this week both Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Kozyrev condemned the law in unusually strong language. A policy that could engender "ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid" were two of the phrases used. One Moscow newspaper said Estonia was provoking a "Yugoslavia scenario."

Certainly it seems illiberal to force large numbers of Russians, including those who have lived in Estonia for decades, to make a choice between staying and leaving. The Estonians are clearly "sticking it" to Moscow for years of repression. If Russians could be forced out of homes or apartments this would humiliate Russians everywhere, raise questions of basic human rights, and give extremists grounds for a backlash.

At the same time, sovereign states may form their own citizenship requirements. Estonia has proven itself to be a post-Soviet economic miracle with a new currency and exports to Europe that have gone from $50 million to $425 million in two years. They want to regularize citizenship so that stateless persons have a status. The Estonians are being tough. The question is, are they fair? How difficult, for example, is the language test? Deporting Russians set up to fail is extreme; will Tallinn take that ste p?

What the Russians in Estonia must face is that they are no longer the rule-makers. An independent Estonia is a change many Russians have trouble facing psychologically. They are stuck with the dilemma of not wanting to return to Russia, but not wanting to integrate into Estonian life. Now it appears they must commit. That is not asking too much - if handled fairly, with minimum provocation.

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