Could Estonia be the next target of Russian annexation?

Some fear Estonia's Russian-speaking minority could try to follow Crimea's path. But many see the grass as greener in Estonia.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters/File
People cross the Estonia-Russia border in Narva, Estonia, in June 2007. Some have worried that Estonia's Ida-Viru County, where Narva sits and home to much of the country's ethnic Russian population, could be the next site of a Russian annexation like that of Crimea from Ukraine.

At a cursory glance, Estonia's Ida-Viru County bears some concerning similarities to Crimea. It is predominantly Russian speaking, is located in Russia's shadow, and has a long history tied to its neighbor. But Aleksandr Dusman insists that Ida-Viru County will not willingly break away from Estonia to seek the Kremlin's embrace the way Crimea did.

“Not going to happen,” says Mr. Dusman, a businessman and engineer who has been active in Ida-Viru County's regional government affairs for 20 years.

After Russia's lightning invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine – and the acclaim with which the Russian-speaking dominated populace there evidently greeted it – there has been alarm across Europe that the Kremlin would soon turn its eyes toward annexing other predominantly Russian-speaking regions abroad. And few regions seemed to present a better target than this remote corner of the former Soviet republic of Estonia, where the country's 340,000 Russian speakers – out of a population of 1.3 million – are concentrated.

But many locals in Narva, the county's largest city, which sits astride the Estonian-Russian border, say that they do not need to be "rescued" by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. They say that their life in Estonia has been good and getting better, and they are happy in their country.

“Narva is not Simferopol,” Dusman says, comparing the city with the capital of Crimea. “And Estonia is not Ukraine.”

All one has to do is to take a stroll through Narva, Estonia's third largest city, down to the banks of its namesake river to see how easy it would be for Russia to seize the city if it wished. The gritty, five-hundred-year-old industrial city of 58,000 is just a brief trip over a short 400-meter bridge away from Russian territory. Indeed, most of the Narva’s Russian speakers – who comprise 97 percent of the population, roughly half of whom have taken Estonian citizenship – migrated to the city during the half century of Russian rule that ended in 1991 with the declaration of the second republic of Estonia.

Estonia's Russian speakers tend to be poorer than their Estonian countrymen. Many do not speak Estonian, nor are they citizens of Estonia, making them "stateless." This threat of marginalization has fueled resentment among some Russian speakers – and spurred recent criticism from Russia.

Last month, a Russian diplomat raised the issue of how Estonia was treating its Russian-speaking population, just as it had with Ukraine before the recent invasion. “Language,” the diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, “should not be used to segregate and isolate groups,” going on to note that Russia was “concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia.”

A better life

But Dusman, who is a member of the Ida-Viru County Integration Board, a government-sponsored organization which works to foster better integration of Russian speakers with other linguistic and ethnic groups, says the situation in Estonia vis-à-vis its Russian speakers is not comparable with that of Ukraine.

For one, “there are no limits” to the use of Russian in everyday life and in schools and Russian culture is well-protected. For another, he points out that unlike in Ukraine, the Russian-speaking population in Estonia is heterogeneous and comprised of large numbers of Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Finns, Tatars, and others, who have other priorities besides the advancement of the Russian language.

Dusman himself was born in Soviet Uzbekistan, grew up in Crimea, and studied in Moscow before being sent to work Estonia in 1969. He is proud of his ethnic Russian roots. But though he does not speak Estonian – like most ethnic Russians, he has found Estonian quite different from Russian, and difficult to learn – he emphasizes that he is first and foremost an Estonian citizen, and proud of it.

Ilja Smirnov, the editor of the local Russian-language newspaper Pohjarannik, basically agrees. He points out that although he was born in the Soviet Union and remained a Russian citizen for most of his adult life, three years ago he decided to become an Estonian citizen, because, he said, “I think like an Estonian.”

“I really love Estonia,” he said. Like his co-linguist Dusman, Mr. Smirnov remembers well the “hard” post-independence days of the early 1990s. “I remember the bread lines of those days. I remember my father trying to earn more money as a taxi driver after he finished his shift at the Narva power plant.”

“Perhaps life is not exactly easy today here,” he said, “but conditions are definitely looking up.”

Narva isn’t in the same league as Tallinn, the booming Estonian capital, 125 miles to the west, Dusman acknowledges. But things are definitely improving.

“We have hospitals and shops now. We have a growing middle class. Unemployment is down.” As of January of this year, the unemployment rate in Ida-Viru County was 9.1 percent, a pronounced drop from the 13.4 percent county level of a year previous, and nearly level with the improving Estonian national unemployment rate of 8.6 percent.

To be sure, Dusman concedes, the Tallinn government could do more to improve the lives of the local populace, especially its poorer residents and “stateless citizens.” There is some potential for a “fifth column there” if the Kremlin wants to stir up resentment, he said.

However, he doubts that will happen. “People would have too much to lose.”

The view of Crimea

As for Russia's actions in Crimea, Smirnov is vocally opposed. “I think it’s despicable,” he said. “Putin stole something that belonged to Ukraine.”

He contends that there is little sympathy in Estonia for what the Kremlin did.

“I think it’s terrible what [Putin] did,” declares Daria Pinchuk, a barmaid and Narva resident of mixed Russian and Ukrainian parentage.

Not all agree. A poll in another Russian-language paper, the Moscow-funded MK Estonia, indicated that 22.8 percent of Russian speakers favored the presence of Russian troops in Crimea, 24.7 percent were opposed, with the remaining 52.8 percent ambivalent or unwilling to say.

But for many in Narva, leaving Estonia for Russia seems simply foolish.

“I think it’s crazy,” says Juvi, a chef who declined to give his last name. “Basically people want a nice life, and a house, and they know they have a better chance of having those things here than over there.”

For his part, Dusman was unequivocal about what the residents of Narva would do if the Kremlin ever sent troops across the bridge over the Narva: "The Estonian army would fight, so would the local militia."

"And so," he declared, "would I."

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