Left behind? Russian-speaking minorities struggle in new Baltics

While the Baltics make economic and democratic strides, they also face growing pressure to better integrate their poor, disenfranchised Russian-speaking minorities.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Isabelle de Pommereau
Baltic Russians sell mittens in Tallinn's Old Town. Russian speakers are a big Baltic minority.

On the edge of Tallinn's 13th-century Old Town, women huddle along a medieval wall, selling mittens in freezing weather. They are Russian-speakers. Across the street, shoppers banter in Estonian at trendy boutiques that are a testament to the economic vitality of a former communist state that's turned itself around at breathtaking speed.

This picture of poorer Russians and more-successful Balts living peacefully side by side is seen often across the Baltic region, especially in Estonia and Latvia, home to most of the Baltics' 1.1 million Russian-speakers. But behind this equilibrium, there is a simmering mistrust.

Subconsciously at least, Russian-speakers are still associated by many Balts with the former occupier. Most came in the Soviet years to what were then considered the richest Soviet republics to do jobs locals did not want, in oil shale for example. They stayed, even after the Baltics broke free of the USSR.

Lithuania integrated the Russian-speakers easily, but in Estonia and Latvia many never learned the native languages required for citizenship or chose to remain noncitizens – and now they tend to look to Moscow for help and direction. With a third of residents being Russian-speakers (a little less in Estonia), Latvia has the largest such community in the Baltics. In Lithuania, Russian-speakers only make up 7 percent of the population.

As a result, how to integrate large Russian-speaking minorities has become one of the key challenges facing Latvia and Estonia, experts say.

Occasionally, tensions explode. They did in 2007, when the removal of a Soviet memorial from Tallinn’s center led to rioting by members of the Russian-speaking population – and a cyber-retaliation by the Russian government.

But the issue of the Russian minority's place in society took on a new dimension last year when a pro-Russian party won the most votes in Latvia's parliamentary elections.

"We always look at this issue with great concern, but the particular case in Latvia is more worrying to us than the situation in Estonia," says Hannes Hanso of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn. He sees the vote as Russia's effort to "reestablish itself as a center of gravity ... for those post-­Soviet countries."

“Russian economic interests are much much bigger and more ingrained in Latvia. The Russian population is easier to manipulate over there.”

The popularity of Harmony Center, Latvia's pro-Russian party, reflects deep discontent over austerity measures that have hit Russian-speakers hard in particular, experts agree. In Latvia especially, Russian-speakers have been largely disenfranchised, says political scientist Guna Leiskalne.

"None of the Latvian parties has ever tried to speak to Russians – never ever," she says. "Latvian politicians have never fought for them. Somebody has to represent them."

But while not yet a crisis, the question of how to integrate Russian-speakers, especially the hundreds of thousands of noncitizens, remains a thorn in the Baltic societies' side.

"Right now, there are no signals for danger. Russia and the European Union need each other. But we don't know how things will be in five, 10 years," says Raivo Vetik of Tallinn University's Institute of International and Social Studies.

"That's why Estonia needs to do a better job of integrating Russians."

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