Aliens at home

Published : Oct 23, 2009 00:00 IST

in Tallinn

TWO decades after they gained independence, former Soviet states are still struggling to come to terms with their past. In many newly independent states the ethnically defined local elites have reviled the Soviet period in an effort to create a separate national identity and consolidate their hold on power. In the Baltic republics the rejection of everything Soviet has also been passed on to local Russian populations.

The first thing that strikes a Russian visitor to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is the total absence of any signs in Russian. Russian speakers account for half the citys residents, but the Russian language is invisible on the streets, and in shops and cafes. Even medicines sold in Tallinn drugstores have only Estonian-language leaflets. The situation gets truly schizophrenic in the predominantly Russian northwest of the country. In Narva, Estonias third largest city on the border with Russia, where 98 per cent of the residents are Russian speakers, all street signs are in Estonian.

The policy of vengeful language denial is Estonias way of settling scores with the former Soviet Union and Russia as its successor. It has created a deep schism between Estonians and Russians.

When the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent states two decades ago, there were 500,000 ethnic Russians among Estonias total population of 1.4 million. Four-fifths of the Russians could not speak Estonian, but it was not their fault. They had been resettled to Estonia to fill jobs in industrial plants set up in the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they became part of the Soviet Union under the pre-Second World War Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Russians lived in compact communities and felt no need to learn Estonian. When Estonia regained independence, the shock of being cut off from Russia was compounded for ethnic Russians by open discrimination in terms of language, voting rights, employment and property ownership. Estonian nationalists unleashed a vicious campaign against Russian residents, labelling them Soviet occupiers and a potential fifth column.

Millions of Russians have faced similar problems in most former Soviet republics, with the exception probably of Ukraine and Belarus. But it was only in Estonia and Latvia that discrimination against Russians is enshrined in law. Native Russian speakers are officially declared aliens. They are denied the right to vote, get elected or form political parties, and are thrown out of government jobs. To get Estonian passports, the aliens first have to obtain temporary residence permits, which have to be renewed every one or two years. It is only after five years that aliens can apply for Estonian citizenship, but not before they pass tests for the knowledge of the Estonian language, the Constitution and the immigration legislation.

To get any job involving contact with other people, non-Estonians must take further language tests. Non-Estonian employees are subject to harassment by the feared Language Inspectorate (Russians call it language inquisition), which carries out spot checks to see if they speak Estonian well enough. If a person fails to improve his language skills within a limited time frame he may lose his job.

The declared goal was to promote the integration of Russians into Estonian society. The real purpose, however, was to make non-Estonians flee the country. As former Director of the Citizenship and Migration Board Andres Kollist admitted in an interview last year, the aim was to make life hell for Russians. He said the guiding principle for the Migration Board was Estonians back to their home, Russians back to their home.

Kollist estimates that about 100,000 Russians have left the country. But an overwhelming majority stayed on either because they did not have enough money to resettle or because they believed they had as much right to live in Estonia as ethnic Estonians.

Estonia is my homeland, why should I go elsewhere? said Dr Sergei Ivanov of Tallinn University. The 51-year-old scholar and politician was born in Estonia and has been living there ever since. Nevertheless, he, his Russian wife and his children had to go through the naturalisation process as aliens.

Ivanov was one of a handful of ethnic Russians who fought their way into Estonian politics. In 1995 he was elected to the Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament, and for the next 12 years sat on its foreign relations committee. For eight years he was also a member of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), campaigning for the rights of the Russians in Estonia and other Baltic republics.

Today, Ivanov seems almost ready to admit defeat. Efforts to promote inter-ethnic dialogue and integration suffered a crushing setback two years ago when the Estonian authorities pulled down a Soviet war memorial in central Tallinn, unearthed the remains of Soviet soldiers buried beneath the monument and moved them to a military cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Estonians saw the Bronze Soldier monument as a symbol of Soviet occupation, whereas Russians cherished it as a sacred tribute to the Soviet armys sacrifices in liberating Estonia from Nazi invaders. Hundreds of Russian youth staged violent protests in Tallinn, in which one boy was killed.

The removal of the monument widened the split in Estonian society and further alienated Russians, Ivanov told Frontline. Russians in Estonia are also deeply insulted by the glorification of Estonian Second World War veterans who fought on the side of Nazi Germany. Every year Estonia hosts reunion meetings of Waffen-SS veterans attended by fascist sympathisers from other countries.

After the Bronze Soldier incident, the number of ethnic Russians in Estonia applying for Russian passports increased threefold. Russian passport holders today total 100,000; about 200,000 Russian speakers have Estonian passports, and 120,000 are non-citizens. Those who take Russian citizenship do not necessarily plan to resettle in Russia. For many it is an act of defiance to the policy of assimilation.

The relocation of the Bronze Soldier fatally poisoned Estonias relations with Russia, which condemned blatant human rights violations in Estonia. Ivanov says Estonia shot itself in the foot as Russia sharply cut the transit of oil and metals through Estonian ports, thus undermining a cornerstone of the Estonian economy.

However, Moscows response has hit thousands of ethnic Russians employed at Estonian ports. Also, weakening economic ties reduce the opportunities for Russia to project its influence in Estonia. Ivanov is convinced that Estonias anti-Russian course is a conscious choice of its ruling elites. They came to power and retain power by stoking Russia-phobia among Estonian constituencies, he said.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who grew up in the United States and is the first Estonian head of state who does not speak Russian, publicly stated his aversion to Russian as the language of occupiers. Speaking Russian would mean accepting 50 years of Soviet brutalisation, he said in an interview to the BBC.

Human rights groups have repeatedly denounced the discrimination against the Russians. In its 2006 report on Estonias linguistic minorities, Amnesty International stated: Persons belonging to this [Russian-speaking] minority enjoy very limited linguistic and minority rights, and often find themselves de facto excluded from the labour market and educational system... there are disproportionately high levels of unemployment among the Russian-speaking linguistic minority. This in turn has further contributed to social exclusion and vulnerability to other human rights abuses.

Estonia has not only rejected all criticism of its draconian ethnic policies but tightened its language legislation. Recent amendments stipulate that business people, public servants and local government workers must speak Estonian in order to continue in their jobs. By 2010 all Russian schools in the country must switch to Estonian as the language of instruction for 60 per cent of subjects. As the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights warned in 2004, the proposed school reform in Estonia might increase the rate of school dropouts and may also carry an increased risk of social exclusion.

The current crisis is taking a heavy toll on Estonias economy. According to Amnesty International, unemployment is twice as high among Russian speakers as among Estonians, and the pay gap reaches 25 per cent. Russian speakers account for the majority of Estonias prison population and approximately 80 per cent of the drug addicts.

Nationalistic politicians make no secret of the fact that their goal is still the same: force Russians to leave Estonia. In August, former Parliament Speaker Ulo Nagis stated that ethnic minorities were a potential fifth column that would turn against Estonia in a crisis threatening its independence.

Ivanov shares concerns about the fifth column, but notes that it is the Estonian authorities who are turning the ethnic Russians into enemies. You cannot call the Russians occupiers and expect them to be patriots of Estonia, he said.

Estonias leaders peddled a bogus threat from Russia and a Russian fifth column to push successfully for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union in 2004. The U.S. and NATO, which insisted on securing political rights for ethnic and religious minorities in former Yugoslavia, closed their eyes to the violations of minority rights in Estonia.

The U.S. used Estonia in geopolitical games against Russia, bringing the NATO to Russias doorstep, said Ivanov.

He thinks the new U.S. administrations pledge to reset relations with Russia has given new hope for the Russians in Estonia. President Barack Obamas visit to Moscow in July seriously alarmed political leaders in Estonia and other Baltic states. Mart Laar, former Prime Minister, and Kadri Liik, Director of the International Centre for Defence Studies, Estonias leading think tank, helped draft and signed an open letter that 22 East European politicians sent to the U.S. President in August, warning him against making the wrong concessions to Russia. They strongly cautioned Obama against abandoning the missile defence plans for Europe or involving Russia in the programme because Russia was as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods and using economic warfare and creeping intimidation in order to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe. When Obama, nevertheless, scrapped the planned deployment of missile interceptors in eastern Europe, Estonias leading newspaper Postimees said the decision had the devastating effect of a 7-point earthquake on Estonias foreign policy.

A credible improvement in U.S.-Russian relations will undermine the position of Estonian elites, who have staked their political fortunes on confrontation and a revival of the Cold War, Ivanov said.

Ivanov is determined to carry on with his mission of building bridges between Estonians and Russians, though he complains that sometimes he feels like a man banging his head against a stone wall, as his efforts are not only quietly sabotaged by the Estonian authorities, but also sneered at by Russians who think it is a waste of time talking to Estonian fascists. His immediate plans, as a member of the Tallinn Municipal Council, are to open a Russian museum in the capital and a Russian college at Tallinn University. Meanwhile, his elder son lives in Norway, where he runs a business, and his second son studies graphic arts in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment