In Estonia's refugee debate, Soviet past makes for present angst

The news of 71 migrants found dead on a highway in Austria has given new fuel to an EU-wide, mandatory quota system to relocate refugees. But sentiments in Estonia reveal the obstacles such a plan still faces.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters
People hold national flags of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in front of a freedom monument in Riga, Latvia, during a protest in early August against European Union plans to host 250 refugees in Latvia over the next 2 years. Estonia has seen similar concerns over EU plans to place about 200 refugees there.

One political adviser called it Estonia’s biggest debate in the past five years, one that is “extremely emotional.” A television executive in Tallinn said it would be the first topic he’d choose for a political “hard talk” show.

But they're not referring to the fear of Russia, which has kept defense analysts in this Baltic nation awake at night. Their focus is the controversy over Estonia’s plans to take in about 200 refugees over the next two years.

Estonia sits far from the chaotic border of Greece and Macedonia and the burned-down refugee centers in Germany – from the migrants storming the Eurotunnel into Britain or being rescued off the Mediterranean. And geography, language, and size suggests it won’t ever face the complex challenges of those European nations in the physical crossroads.

But Estonia is nevertheless focused intently on what obligation it has in Europe’s migrant crisis, a discussion that has been agitated by conservative political forces but also informed by its history of Soviet occupation. And even as this week’s tragedy in Austria – where 71 migrants were found dead in an abandoned truck – spurred European leaders to once again push for a mandatory system to redistribute refugees across the European Union, the response in Estonia shows Europe’s long road ahead on burden-sharing.

According to a TNS Emor poll commissioned by the Estonian government in June, when Estonia and many other countries dug in their heels on quotas, 42 percent of respondents said they were against admitting refugees, compared with 32 percent who welcome them. 

“Two hundred immigrants will come next year and it’s [treated] like the end of the world. Two hundred people will destroy our society. How?” asks Urmas Sutrop, the director of the Estonian Literary Museum, whose mission is to preserve Estonian cultural heritage. “These are not ideas that belong to a normal society.”

He, like many others, sees a clear role for Estonia in this crisis, especially because Estonians have long emigrated for better job opportunities elsewhere.

Raido Kalbre, a young software developer in Tallinn, says he can’t understand what the controversy is about. “I don’t think Estonia is such a place that a lot of immigrants would want to come to,” he says.

But the chatter he hears at the water cooler or dinner table suggests a deeply divided public.

And Andrus Valda, a taxi driver in Tallinn, says that his country of 1.3 million is too small to sustain an influx of newcomers. “We are such a small nation,” he says. “It’s OK if just a few come, but not many believe it [will end with a few]. They think it starts at 200, and then it grows from there, and they will create a lot of problems for Estonia.” 

Echoes of Soviet-era worries

Part of the resistance stems from the same factors that have caused nations like the Czech Republic or Slovakia to reject mandatory quotas: These countries have no experiences with new migration patterns, especially with populations coming from Syria or Eritrea. While the Russian-speaking ethnic minority in Estonia comprises nearly a third of the population, almost all of that immigration took place during the Soviet era – and was largely unwelcome by ethnic Estonians. 

That lack of experience, coupled with uncertain economic times and a euroskepticism fueled across the Continent by the migrant crisis and the latest Greek bailout, have allowed anti-immigrant, anti-EU forces to gain a foothold here. The nationalist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, which emerged in 2012, captured 8.1 percent of the vote in this year’s parliamentary elections. It appeals to the sentiments that have also boosted the Finns Party in Finland and France’s National Front.

And Estonians' instinct to preserve their culture and language, given their history, makes it easier to inflame a sense of nationalism. Right after World War II, only 2.7 percent of the population was comprised of ethnic minorities. In 1989 that surged to 38.5 percent, mostly Soviet Union residents who came – or were forced to migrate – to toil in heavy industry. 

“This was perceived as a kind of existential threat to the existence of Estonians,” says Raivo Vetik, a professor of comparative politics at Tallinn University, “and in this context, also this new issue comes in.”

Even though the number of new refugees is minimal, residents worry that they could soon see the kinds of images they’ve watched on TV – almost all cite the 2013 immigrant riots in Sweden – in their own backyard.

Mr. Sutrop says he believes these concerns will dissipate once refugees arrive, “and people realize they are normal people,” he says.

Mr. Vetik sees another potential upside. The Russian-speaking minority continues to be Estonian’s main integration problem, and with new refugees coming in, Vetik says, many are asking why there are still so many gaps between Estonian and Russian speakers. “There are arguments that Estonians and Russians are so similar.… We are much more similar compared to those new people coming in, so we should integrate fast, or more efficiently," he says. That’s been the “positive note," he says.

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