Liberation or occupation?
Estonia does not often appear in foreign newspapers, and when it does, something serious must have been going on. Last April, the capital city Tallinn did make headlines. Russian youth groups clashed with the police over the removal of an old Soviet monument from the centre of Tallinn. The incident showed how the Estonians and the Russians, even 15 years after independence, still don`t get along with each other very well.
I am trying to find out how the situation is different from Lithuania and Latvia, where the struggle for independence was quite similar. Lithuania solved the matter by giving all its citizens a passport and citizenship, while Latvia and Estonia chose to only hand those out to families who had been living in the two countries already before Soviet occupation. For Russian inhabitants of the country to obtain full citizenship, they have to pass a test of the local language as well as the local history. Which is quite difficult, because the Latvian and Estonian versions of history are quite divergent from the Russian one.
`It`s more difficult for Russians to find a job in Estonia`
Russia claims to have liberated the Baltic States from Nazi-Germany and to have catered for everything the Baltic States needed since then: constructing road, incorporate them into the Soviet Empire and protect them against outside threats. The Baltic version of the history refers to that period as pure occupation. Before the second World War, Estonia`s economy was on a par with the Finnish one. Right now, they are some 20 years behind. The Russians are further blamed for leaving the country with massive pollution problems, ruining churces, deporting opinion leaders and simply aiming to eradicate the Estonian language, culture and people.
Since Estonia`s independence, the tides have changed. The Russians who, oftentimes beyond their will, were sent to Estonia to russify the country are now in the minority position. Aleksi (33), born a Russian himself, tells me that Russians have more problems finding jobs and joining public life. He says that a big share of that is to be blamed on themselves, for not being willing to take part in the new Estonia and its political systems. Especially old people have difficulties learning the language, and they prefer to stick to their own culture as they knew it before they moved to Estonia.
In the beginning of 2007, the Estonian government started discussing the possibility of relocating the Bronze Soldier, which led to unrest among the Russian population. They saw yet another symbol of their identity removed and young Rusians took this opportunity to demonstrate against the Estonian government. Riots that resulted from the demonstrations led the government to relocate the moment instantly. Then Russia joined the discussions, claiming that Russian interests in Estonia were being damaged and had been damaged ever since independence. Nationalistic extremists on both sides took the dispute further, adding a number of incidents. Flags and symbols grew in importance. Blue, black, white flags for Estonians, orange and black for Russians. Liisi (23) tells me she thinks the flags were a good sign that Estonian people united and stood strong against the Russian propaganda.
Blaming one another
The Estonians blame Russians for not being prepared to accept their culture or learn their language. In the same way, Russians claim they are treated as B-class citizens. When I speak to Russians however, none of them wishes to return to Russia. Irina (25) says the living standard in Russia is decades behind Estonia. She herself has an Estonian passport and speaks Estonian, like most of her friends. Irina thinks the problems between Russia and Estonia are largely political, and are only supported by small groups of youngsters who are looking for trouble anyway.
Russia is accused of stimulating Russian nationalist movements and using propaganda to add oil to the flames. Margo (35) says that Russia is simply waiting for things to happen so they can jump on top of it and relight Russian nationalist activities in each Baltic country. It is also generally believed that creating issues between Russians and Estonians help Russia restore its national, or nationalistic, pride in spite of serious problems in Russia itself.
I suppose that out of the three countries, Estonia is the most susceptible to this, because of the share of Russians in the population. They make up a very small minority in Lithuania, forcing them to assimilate with the Lithuanians. Russians make up almost half of the population of Latvia, which makes it logical for both groups to look for compromises. In Estonia, the Russian population accounts for one third. Too small to play an important role, too big to be neglected.
Another addition to the problem, in comparison with Latvia, is that Russia sent mostly soldiers to Estonia. On average, these soldiers had lower education levels than the emigrants Latvia was treated to, many of whom now run their own businesses. Their participation in the society is much more apparent, resulting in fewer clashes between the Russians and the indigenous local population.
The Russians who were once in the position of power, are now forced to obey the new systems. The educational system forces them to learn Estonian as their first language. But despite the fact that the language gap for youngsters has become a lot smaller, some young Russians, and Estonians alike, are just looking for confrontations and they will use their roots as an excuse to fight.
The Soviet time has left deep wounds in the confidence of Estonian people in Russia, its politics and in this case, even its people. It can be argued though, that the Estonians themselves have downgraded the Russians by not allowing them to automatically become Estonian citizens. Altogether, it must be added that the political representatives of both countries should take their responsibilities not to justify or accept extremist actions taken by their group against the other and vice versa.
Once again, I seem to have found a subject that is way to complex to describe in a single article. Although the obvious problems are indeed caused by small groups of activists, the mistrust between the two nationalities may give rise to bigger problems in the future if no adequate and moderate response is found.
photo | Link
to this article