Estonia's Russian passport holders show little sign of being 5th column

By bne IntelliNews August 22, 2008

Robert Anderson in Tallinn -

Russia's invasion of Georgia has sparked outrage in the three Baltic States, all of which been regularly harassed by Moscow, often using the large Russian minorities still living there as a pretext.

"The most scary part is that Russia gave the South Ossetians passports and now they say they have come to defend their passport holders," says Andres Kasekamp, head of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. "It makes us uneasy as it could potentially be extended to us."

Yet unlike Georgia, the Baltic States are under Nato's protection and the big Russian minorities living in Estonia and Latvia are not agitating for union with the motherland, as a visit to the Russian-dominated region of Narva in Estonia shows very clearly.

When the Estonian government removed a Soviet war memorial from the centre of Tallinn under cover of night in spring last year, it sparked the country's worst crisis since its struggle for independence from Moscow in the early 1990s. Ethnic Russians - who make up a quarter of the country's population - rioted in Tallinn, Russia interrupted border traffic, and nationalists attacked Estonia's embassy in Moscow and launched a wave of cyber attacks against private and public institutions.

One year on, Estonia's Russians are still bitter at what they regard as the insult to their war dead, but in their heartland - Narva, on the Russian border - they are becoming evermore tightly integrated into Estonia. "Russians are not angry with Estonians as a people, but with the government and the prime minister," says Gennadi Fillipov, a representative of the city's Russian community.


Narva, the main border crossing with Russia, has for centuries been the flashpoint for conflicts between east and west. Its hulking medieval castle, which faces Russia's Ivangorod fortress across the Narva river, changed hands repeatedly until Sweden finally ceded Estonia to Russia in 1721.

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, Narva - which had been flattened in the World War II and resettled with Russians - became the focus of resistance to the new nationalist government. Its city council was eventually dismissed in 1993 after it held a referendum for autonomy. But while young Russians rioted in Tallinn last year from a sense of powerlessness as well as nascent Russian nationalism, in Narva there was barely any trouble. Its 80% Russian majority runs Estonia's third-largest city and is close enough to the border to know that life in Russia is not to be envied. "We see with our own eyes what is going on in Russia," says Mihhail Stalnuhhin, speaker of the city council.

In large part Narva's transformation has economic roots. After independence, many of its factories lost their market overnight, causing one fifth of the industrial city's workforce to become jobless and thousands to leave. Narva turned westwards and has finally begun to benefit from Estonia's now deflating economic boom. Unemployment today is around the 4% national average. "We felt this boom in the last two years," says Tarmo Tammiste, the ethnic Estonian mayor. "Who wanted to find jobs, found them."

The city's huge 19th century Krenholm textile mill is struggling to cope with Asian competition, but new industries are springing up to take its place. Cargotec of Finland has recently acquired a onetime secret Soviet defence factory and plans to produce 1,000 loader cranes a year.

Narva is also different in that, while Tallinn's rough balance between Estonians and ethnic Russians foments conflict, the city's domination by Russian speakers prevents it. With 95% of Narva's 67,000 residents speaking Russian as their mother tongue, the city has become an enclave within an Estonian state determined to promote its own language. Even though the opposition Centre party-run city council is meant to work in Estonian, only six of the 31 councillors speak the language fluently, so it debates in Russian and translates all official documents. "We violate the law but we can't be punished," says Stalnuhhin.

Estonia's refusal to automatically grant adults Estonian citizenship until they can pass a language test still rankles, but it's no longer a burning issue. Children can now qualify for citizenship if their parents sign them up, while a new generation of Russians is becoming bilingual through schooling. This qualifies them for citizenship, but more importantly integrates them into Estonian society and even gives them an advantage over young Estonians in the job market. A phased introduction of Estonian into Russian-speaking schools that began last September will accelerate this process and has been surprisingly uncontroversial so far. In Narva, the biggest problem has been finding Estonian-speaking teachers because only 4% of the city's population is ethnically Estonian.

Many adult Russians who became stateless after independence have since opted for Russian citizenship. In Narva - which is closer to St Petersburg than Tallinn - a third of the population has taken Russian citizenship, which qualifies them for Russian pensions and universities. Some 9% of Estonia's population - 20% in Narva - remains stateless, but they have had little incentive to become Estonian since being granted the right to travel freely in the EU's Schengen area with their residence permits. Citizenship does give the right to vote in national elections and win civil service jobs, but it also means military service for the men.

The dispute over the government's removal of the Bronze Soldier statue may perhaps have discouraged ethnic Russians from becoming citizens, but this is less and less important, and it has not stopped them from becoming more and more Estonian. Unlike their ethnic Estonian neighbours, the Russian minority may be supporting Moscow in its battle with Georgia, but they have absolutely no desire to become Estonia's South Ossetia.

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Estonia's Russian passport holders show little sign of being 5th column

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