Moscow rattles Estonia with talk of 'concern' for its Russian population

In the wake of Crimea's annexation, Estonia is shoring up its ties with NATO and the United States.

Alik Keplicz/AP
US Vice President Joe Biden (r.) and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik met with media in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday. Mr. Biden met with Polish and the Baltic leaders to discuss an upgrade in defense strategies for the region.

Russia says it is worried that a former Soviet republic isn't doing enough to protect its large ethnic Russian population. But this time, the Kremlin is not talking about Ukraine.

It's talking about Estonia.

The tiny Baltic state is a member of both NATO and the European Union. But the tone coming from their giant neighbor to the east – a neighbor that just occupied Crimea on similar grounds – has Estonians nervous.

“I believe that most Estonians are neither hysterical nor surprised by President Putin’s behavior in Crimea,” says Eiki Berg, a professor of international relations at the University of Tartu, Estonia’s leading research institution.  “This is very similar to what Stalin’s Soviet Union did in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1939-40.”

Estonia enjoyed a brief independence between the world wars, ending with invasions by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and then the Soviets again, who occupied the country until 1991. The post-war occupation of Estonia brought deportations that affected nearly every family in this country of 1.3 million, and large numbers of ethnic Russians immigrated to Estonia, a legacy which is felt today in the country’s demography.

The considerable ethnic Russian population in eastern Estonia’s border region, which in some areas is 90 percent Russian speaking, came to the fore on Wednesday, when a Russian diplomat raised concerns to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. "Language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups,"  the diplomat said according to Reuters, and Russia was "concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine."

“Estonia and Latvia have significant Russian-speaking minorities that could be exploited in a similar way [to Ukraine], using Russian media under control of the Kremlin,” says Martin Hurt of the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense Studies, a security oriented public policy think tank.

“But there are major differences with the Ukraine situation," Mr. Hurt adds. "The NATO alliance, of course, provides a massive deterrent and Estonia has been a member of the EU for the last 10 years. The Russian minority understands its benefits and the lesser standard of living across the border.”

Estonia’s ethnic Russians are considered to generally have far better opportunities than their cousins across the border in Russia. But integration has not been without problems. Most of Estonia’s social problems fall disproportionately on the shoulders of Russian speakers, from unemployment to crime to drug and alcohol abuse. Tallinn’s concrete Soviet-era ghettos are populated largely by ethnic Russians.

Discontent occasionally boils over. In April 2007, Russian speakers rioted for two nights after the Bronze Soldier memorial to fallen Red Army “liberators” of Estonia during World War II was relocated from the center of Tallinn to a military cemetery. This was followed by a cyber attack on Estonia’s computer networks generally attributed to the Russian government. Differing interpretations of the events of World War II, which many ethnic Russians in Estonia see as the defeat of the scourge of fascism and which Estonians view as the beginning of a brutal occupation, are a frequent cause of discord.

Visitors to Estonia’s border city of Narva, in the industrial Ida-Viru County, could be forgiven for feeling they were in Russia. It is dominated by Soviet-era housing blocks and is almost 95 percent Russian speaking. Less than half of Narva’s residents are Estonian citizens and some 36 percent are Russian citizens. Another 16 percent hold no citizenship at all. Russian-language media from across the border dominate the flow of information.

Katri Raik, the head of University of Tartu's Narva College, wrote in Tallinn’s Estonian-language daily Eesti Päevaleht on Tuesday that ethnic Russians near the border are being fed a daily diet of Kremlin propaganda that can sway opinions in its favor. She added that Estonia needs to better reach out to its Russian minority to provide a different interpretation of world events.

“There is always a risk that some segments of the ethnic Russian population in Estonia, especially those living in the northeast, being intoxicated by Russian propaganda, could easily follow Putin's call whenever this may happen,” says Professor Berg.

In the meantime, Estonia is shoring up its ties with NATO and the United States. The leaders of the Baltic states met with US Vice President Joe Biden in Poland earlier this week to discuss an upgrade in defense strategies for the region.

“We we see clear parallels with the events proceeding World War II,” adds Berg. “This is neither paranoia nor just a bad dream. Welcome to our world.”

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