Estonia should learn from e-Residency to reconnect with its forgotten citizens

There are approximately 400,000 people globally with undocumented Estonian citizenship. Let’s reach out to them.

There are approximately 400,000 people living around the world with undocumented Estonian citizenship.

This means they are Estonian citizens under the rules of our Republic’s Constitution, but they’ve never been officially counted by our state because they’ve never even applied for an Estonian passport. Most don’t even know they are entitled to one.

They are most commonly known in Estonia as väliseestlased (“foreign Estonians”), but if their total number comes as a surprise then it’s because of how few connections currently exist between them and Estonia.

What if we changed that?

These ‘forgotten citizens’ are the descendants of the 80,000 Estonians who escaped from Soviet terror, mostly in 1944, and built new lives in the US, Canada, UK, Sweden, Germany, Australia, and elsewhere. Most have passed away, but they have many children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren still out there who are uncounted Estonian citizens. I was one of them, by the way, until I applied for my first Estonian passport and digital ID card as an adult.

Some speak Estonian and have retained a strong cultural identity as Estonians, fostered during the Soviet occupation through exiled Estonian community organisations abroad. Some have returned. One even became President.

But the vast majority have little connections to Estonia today.

After the heartbreak of losing their country, many of those who fled worked long hours away from their children to give them a better life. Passing on the Estonian language to even the second generation was not just difficult in these circumstances, but often actively discouraged by teachers who wrongly thought it would confuse the children.

And 76 years is a long time. Their numbers may be growing exponentially with each subsequent generation, but their Estonian identities are fading.

We think this is a lost opportunity — both for Estonia and for them.

They’re a lost chapter in the story of Estonia. They’re a missing piece of the puzzle that prevents us from seeing the full picture of who we are as a nation.

The tragic circumstances in which they were displaced globally also inadvertently created new opportunities for Estonia today to develop stronger global connections. They have so much to offer Estonia and Estonia has so much to offer them.

Now is the time to fix this.

We are planing to create a non-profit organisation in Estonia with a mission to reach out to these forgotten Estonians around the world and help connect them to Estonia.

There is already a lot of good work being done to support the Estonian diaspora, but this is largely focused on those who are already preserving their Estonian culture. Let’s reach out wider even to those who don’t even know they are Estonian citizens and see if they are interested in being part of our country again.

And Estonia already has a world leading example from the state of how to do something like this: E-Residency.

For me personally, it was getting my first Estonian digital ID card in the UK that enabled me to make meaningful connections and contributions to Estonia for the very first time. My experience was very similar to Estonia’s e-residents, even though I wasn’t one.

Inspired by e-Residency

After developing an advanced digital infrastructure, Estonia launched e-Residency five years ago as a way to reach out to citizens of other countries around the world.

In truth, this isn’t such a radical idea.

All countries interact with citizens of other countries living around the world — whether through diplomacy or through campaigns to encourage tourism and investment. The difference is that Estonia introduced an official status for non-residents, as well as digital ID cards that can be issued to them so they can access Estonian e-services online. This provides real value to them, such as the ability to establish and manage an Estonian company entirely online with minimal cost and hassle. It also provides greater security and convenience for the Estonian state too in its relationships with non-residents.

Crucially, Estonia also has an e-Residency team working hard with all parts of the Estonian state to nurture these relationships and continuously improve their ‘user experience’.

It’s been an incredible success — and also offers a glimpse of what we can gain by reconnecting with our forgotten citizens around the world too.

About one in six Estonian companies are now started by e-residents and those companies have now generated more than €1.5 billion euros in revenues. From that, more than €35 million has been paid directly to Estonia in the form of taxes and state fees (which far exceeds the cost of the programme). That money is helping pay for the development of Estonia — and is needed now more than ever.

However, e-residents also contribute a far larger amount to the Estonian economy simply by doing business with other Estonian companies physically located here, as well as providing greater opportunities for local Estonian companies to develop their businesses globally.

And the contribution of e-residents to Estonia is not just financial. E-residents have become true friends of Estonia. Many of them are interested in learning more about our culture, our history, and our perspectives on the world. Some are even brave enough to learn to speak Estonian. And they speak up for us — in many different languages — when it matters.

To truly understand e-Residency, you need to understand not only our technology but also the constitutional role of our state to protect the people and culture of Estonia, and also understand how Estonia has continuously reached out around the world to nurture friendships in order to achieve this. In fact, the roots of the Estonian Foreign Ministry are older than our Republic itself and it was the only part of our state to remain independent continuously — due to the fact that our diplomats remained in post abroad and held onto embassies during the occupation.

That provides the basis for the Republic of Estonia’s legal continuation since 1918. That legal continuation is also why the descendants of those who fled are Estonian citizens, even though most of them were born when there wasn’t even a government in Estonia that could tell them this.

E-Residency is a continuation of that tradition of building a better future for Estonia through international friendships.

So if Estonia can connect like this with citizens of other countries around the world then why not with our own lost citizens around the world?

What would an e-Residency for Estonians look like?

Estonian citizens aren’t supposed to apply for e-Residency because they are already entitled to all the benefits of having a digital ID card — although some of our undocumented citizens abroad do. I know because I previously worked at the e-Residency programme and occasionally had to explain to some of these people that they are actually already Estonian citizens (to their initial disbelief).

But our forgotten citizens share many of the same characteristics of e-residents, as well as the advantage of already having an interest in their Estonian heritage. That’s why some of them were applying for e-Residency because they saw it as a way to reconnect with their heritage. Estonia would benefit by reaching out to them in a similar way.

Replicating the success of e-Residency for our forgotten citizens could include offering advice about how to apply for an Estonian digital ID, which in many cases will require detective work to trace documents that prove their heritage. We can advise them about opportunities to learn Estonian and explore Estonian culture. We can create a buddy system for them to connect with people in Estonia even if they have no known family left. We can advise them about coming to Estonia, whether that’s for a short holiday, an extended stay or a more permanent relocation. As with e-residents, we can teach them about Estonia’s business environment and show them how they can use their digital IDs to start Estonian companies (with usually a lot less hassle and cost than in their current country).

There doesn’t need to be any particular end goal. If one person just develops a slightly better understanding of their Estonian heritage as a result then it will be worth it. Everything beyond that is a bonus.

Most fundamentally, we should give these people a sense of belonging and let them understand that Estonia is part of who they are too — even if they never previously had the opportunity to understand or be part of our culture. In these crazy times, people value community more than ever — and Estonia needs all the friends it can get.

Wait.. there’s almost half a million more Estonians?

400,000 is a rough estimate, but I think a reasonable one. I don’t know anyone who has tried to calculate this before so I tried it myself. Admittedly, I’m no expert on statistics, but I would love to hear from anyone with a better estimate.

For this population to reach half a million, I’m assuming that for every person who fled Estonia in 1944 there are about six descendants currently alive abroad who don’t have an Estonian passport.

My calculations are based on the proportion of those who fled that are likely to have had children and the number of subsequent generations that are currently alive. Bear in mind that many in the first generation and almost all of the following generations would have partnered with non-Estonians, even though their children would still inherit the citizenship. We then need to subtract the number who have applied for Estonian passports, but I still believe this to be a relatively low number from this total population.

How does Estonia currently interact with them?

Estonian community organisations abroad and Estonian embassies have done an incredible job preserving Estonian culture among the diaspora and supporting exiled Estonians and their descendants around the world.

When Estonia became free, my dad asked the Estonian Embassy in London about how he could apply for citizenship and was simply told: “You were born Estonian” before they helped him track down the documents to prove it. We were also warmly welcomed and supported by our Eesti maja in the UK where people helped us track down lost family in Estonia.

There are also state organisations under Enterprise Estonia (EAS), which have done an excellent job helping connect Estonia to the world — like e-Residency, Work in Estonia, Startup Estonia, Visit Estonia and the International House of Estonia. By helping international people interested in Estonia, they’ve also helped a lot of forgotten Estonians reconnect with their country and make valuable contributions.

But this is an example of survivor bias. We know most about those displaced Estonians who have retained the strongest links to Estonia. But all this doesn’t even scratch the surface if there are 400,000 ‘forgotten Estonians’ out there.

And we use that term not just because many of them don’t know they are Estonian — but also because Estonia often acts as if they don’t exist either.

For a start, many people will be reading this article thinking that the people I’m describing can’t legally be Estonian citizens. Despite the good work of our embassies, Estonia has been giving mixed — and often simply incorrect — messages about dual citizenship over many years. The reality is that people born Estonian keep it for life. And this is not a ‘loophole’ as I often hear it described. It’s the Constitution of the Republic. You can read more about this issue in detail on ERR here.

Perhaps the most absurd example of our attitude to forgotten Estonians is the Integration Course provided by the government, which provides new arrivals to Estonia with an opportunity to learn Estonian and learn about Estonian culture. I applied for it myself when I first moved to Estonia and was eagerly looking forward to it. Just before the course was due to begin though, I received an email informing me that I was not allowed to attend.

“You’re an Estonian citizen,” they explained.

I know many others who have had the same experience, despite not growing up speaking Estonian and having never lived in Estonia before. So, while many countries have active programmes encouraging their diaspora to re-integrate, Estonia specifically forbids them from accessing its primary initiative aimed at integration into Estonia. I’ve repeatedly lobbied for this to be changed so that we can recognise that Estonian citizens can also be classed as new arrivals, but nothing has been done so far.

So we need a louder voice, a dedicated campaign to reach out to forgotten Estonians, and more help for them to make meaningful connections with their country.

As formerly ‘forgotten Estonians’ ourselves, we are ready to step up and take this initiative.

We’re writing this article to gather feedback to shape this idea and see who else would be interested in getting involved. For one thing, I don’t want to label these people as ‘forgotten Estonians’ or ‘foreign Estonians’ anymore. Perhaps “continuation Estonians” is more appropriate if we are to help them continue being Estonian based on their rights under the legal continuation of our Republic.

No matter what we call them though, we would love to hear your thoughts about how we can reach these people and what we can offer them.

My father, David Rang, is the driving force behind this idea. I’ll offer him my advice based on my previous experience working at e-Residency. And the companies I’m now involved in building here in Estonia would be more than happy to help sponsor. We would love to get more people involved.

We would also love to work closely with existing organisations from the public, private, and non-profit sector that share our vision.

These Estonians were denied their Estonian identity by historical injustices. We can’t turn back the clock. But we can start from here and move forwards together as part of a truly global digital nation.

If you are interested, drop us your email here and we’ll be in touch soon.

Saunapreneur at EstonianSaunas.com. Previously Chief Evangelist at Estonia’s e-Residency programme.