Neljapäev, 17 Aprill 2014 12:00
Estonian Life No. 16 2014
Can Putin claim that the ethnic Russian community in Estonia is threatened? Can he insist that Russians in Estonia beg him to come and provide them safety from an antagonistic Estonian people and government?
According to a recent public declaration called 'Memorandum 14', no. The declaration is signed by known non-ethnic-Estonian public figures and organizations including the Open Estonian Fund, Free Alliance EMSL and citizen activists. One of the signatories is parliamentarian Olga Sotnik, a member of the Centre Party, the leader of which, Edgar Savisaar was not critical of Russia for annexing Crimea.
Memorandum 14 supports Estonian sovereignty and condemns a third country from interfering in Estonia's domestic affairs. "We insist that Estonia's community problems should be solved in cooperation with representatives of Estonia's legitimate government. We do not need protection from abroad, we consider the involvement of foreign countries in the internal affairs of Estonia unacceptable."
The signatories reject separatist sentiments and declarations that are made in the name of the Russian community in Estonia. The initiators of Memorandum 14 claim that the vast majority of local Russians want to live in free and democratic Estonia and that no "protection" from anybody is needed. "We want to live in Estonia. This is our country. Obviously Estonia has problems, including those involving our Russian minority. But these must be solved within the framework of the Estonian constitution. /// We think that in spite of separate ideological positions, we are still unified in stating that our home is an independent and free Estonia."
Is 'Memorandum 14' just a passing anomaly? Does it have depth and staying power within the community? In the absence of any credible empirical evidence one must rely on anecdotal information about the extent of any realistic anti-Estonian movement in Estonia. One cannot dismiss the effectiveness of clandestine efforts of the Kremlin in generating pockets of 'unrest' and therefore pleas for Russia's protection from Moscow-controlled provocateurs in Estonia.
Ida Virumaa in some respects is not dissimilar to Crimea. The county has a high percentage of Russian speakers and currently borders Russia. A high portion of the 340,000 Russian speakers in Estonia are concentrated in Ida Virumaa. (During the pre-war independence years the region east, across the Narva river was also Estonian stripped from her during the Soviet occupation.) Local inhabitants, however, insist that Ida Virumaa will not ask Moscow for inclusion into Russia.
It's said that the seeming marginalization of Russian speakers has been the result of lower average family incomes when compared to Estonians. Many don't speak Estonian and see Estonia's language policy as being discriminatory. According to this narrative then Narva (Estonia's third largest city and the capital of Ida Virumaa) could be easy pickings. Its 58,000 inhabitants live a brief 400-metre bridge from Russia on the other side of Narva River. A fully 79% of the city's residents are Russian-speakers who were directed there during the 50 years of Soviet occupation.
How did Russian-speaking Estonian residents react when Russian troops invaded Crimea. According to a poll conducted by the Moscow-funded Russian language newspaper MK Estonia, 22.8% of Russian speakers favoured the presence of Russian troops in Crimea. Opposed were 24.7%, with 52.8% ambivalent or unwilling to say one way or the other.
Media interviews with long-time Ida Virumaa residents, local business people, politicians, etc show that in general, Russian speakers favour an independent country, with no interference from foreign powers. The selection of opinions has probably been influenced by the bias of the interviewer.
Some comments (The collection of these statements is not a statistically valid reflection of any predominant sentiment in the area.): If Russia took over, "People would have too much to lose." "I think it's despicable. Putin took something that belonged to Ukraine." "I think like an Estonian." "Perhaps life is not exactly easy here today, but conditions are definitely looking up." "Narva is not Simferopol, and Estonia is not Ukraine." "When you cross into Ivangorod (Russia), straight away you can see the atmosphere there. Who is going to want to join that?"
A more emotions-free evaluation of the situation in Ida Virumaa was given by a Russian-speaking, successful local businessman: Estonia is attractive due to the lack of corruption, the security of property rights and the ease of doing business. "You can feel confident they won't come for your business tomorrow, they won't take anything away or change the laws so that it's really difficult to do business."
Local residents have also indicated that there are no limits to the use of Russian in everyday life and schools and Russian culture are well-protected. The Russian-speaking population in Estonia is not homogenous, unlike in Ukraine and it consist of significant groups of Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Finns, Tatars and others. All of these ethno-cultural entities have priorities of their own, not the urgent advancement of the Russian language and possibly Putin's agenda.
Twenty one years ago, in 'referendums' held by local councils of Sillamäe, Kohtla-Järve and Narva some 97% respectively of the voters agreed with the idea of the local region having 'national territorial autonomy in which all residents have equal rights'. The supreme court declared the 'referendum' contravened the Constitution and the public accepted this decision without any significant protest. Currently it seems few locals even remember the 'referendum'.
Recent demonstrations organized by Russian-speaking separatists in Tallinn have gained very sparse attendance. Russian speaking observers themselves, from the 'Open Republic' organization have indicated that the scant participation is simply more proof that the vast majority of Russian-speakers in Estonia consider the country to be their homeland in which Western values, open governance and rule of law predominate.
Currently it's clear that any sizable sentiments of separatism would be generated by Moscow. But it would still be impossible to prove that the Kremlin would not attempt to initiate a clandestine agitation campaign amongst Russian-speakers in Estonia, infiltrate their ranks with trained provocateurs and use any unrest in Estonia as a pretext for militarily 'defending' the Russians in Estonia.
Similarly it would be difficult to prove that all Russian-speaking Estonian residents would support the Estonian defence forces against an invasion by the Russian Federation, even though many have claimed they would join in a military defence.
Still the words of an Ida Virumaa resident, local politician and entrepreneur Aleksandr Dusman are encouraging. If the Russian Federation sent troops over the bridge at Narva, Dusman is convinced that "the Estonian army would fight. So would the local militia. And so would I."