Tallinn, Estonia — The smallest of the Baltic states, Estonia is arguably Europe’s most vulnerable point in the new cold war between Russia and the West. Perched to the north of Latvia and Lithuania along the Bay of Finland, Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million people, has a 166-mile eastern border with its imposing neighbor Russia. Estonia is a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At least on paper, this means that an attack against Estonia is tantamount to an assault against the Western security alliance. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power plays in Eastern Europe have made Estonians jittery.
Russia doesn’t have to move its military to stir up trouble in the Baltics, which would have global repercussions. Putin could destabilize Estonia and Latvia without firing a single shot by meddling with the ethnic Russian minorities in the two countries. The Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia are not as easy prey as were those in Crimea, the Donbass or Moldova, but their heads could be turned in geostrategic jockeying that, in a worst-case scenario, leads to military confrontation.
There are unfortunately no polls that show where the sympathies or loyalties of the Baltic Russians lie and to what extent they are susceptible to being manipulated by Moscow through Russian media and other mechanisms. This raises the question, What is the best strategy to ensure that Russian speakers in the Baltics won’t be used as an excuse for Putin’s intervention, as happened in Crimea and the Donbass?
At the moment, the Baltics’ policymakers and NATO seem convinced that flexing military muscle is the best way to keep Putin at bay. NATO and the U.S. have told Putin in no uncertain terms that aggression against an alliance member will not be tolerated. Earlier this year NATO sent troops into Estonia at Washington’s prodding to make a show of force on the Baltic Sea. On Feb. 24, Estonia’s independence day, units of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment rumbled through the streets of the border town of Narva, just miles from Russia, where several thousand Russian army paratroopers conducted exercises.
Estonians are justifiably worried, given their nation’s historical rubs with Russia, the most recent of which, in the form of Soviet occupation, eviscerated Estonia’s statehood for five decades. They also point to the Russian-owned enclave of Kaliningrad, a land fragment squeezed between Poland and Lithuania where an unprecedented arms buildup is underway. Estonia‘s standing army is only about 3,200 troops.
As pleased as most Estonians are to have NATO’s presence, Russia’s threat is not primarily a military one. As with neighboring Latvia, Estonia has a significant Russian minority: 24 percent of the population. The proportion of Russian speakers is even greater if you include Ukrainians and Belarusians. About 40 percent of Latvians are native Russian speakers. Most of the roughly 320,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia migrated to the country during the Soviet era or are descendants of those migrants. As a result of postwar Soviet policies, Russian speakers are heavily concentrated in Estonia’s urban centers and districts adjacent to the border. In Tallinn, 45 percent of the population is Russian.
Relations between Estonians and the Russian speakers remain strained by the past. The bad feelings generated during the fall of the Soviet Union and transition to statehood still fester. Many ethnic Estonians view Russian minorities as representatives of the old regime and look at them with resentment. (Estonian nationalists even refer to them as civilian occupiers.)
The interests of the Baltic’s Russians lie in a prosperous, democratic Estonia within the EU. But Estonia and Latvia have to make it easier for them to see this.
As for the ethnic Russians, they have never forgiven the Estonians for their treatment in the early 1990s. In postindependence Estonia, command of the Estonian language became a condition of citizenship and employment in the public sector. Most resident Russian speakers lost their jobs, citizenship and passports. Much the same happened in Latvia. But nowhere in central or Eastern Europe was the exchange of the elites more dramatic: Ethnic Estonians replaced almost all Russians in the privileged class in 1992 and 1993. Even in 2010, two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, 100,000 ethnic Russians lived in Estonia as stateless people. Only a third of ethnic Russians in Estonia have citizenship.
Estonian is the country’s only official language. Even in Russian-majority districts, more than half the high school curriculum is in Estonian. There is only 15 minutes of Russian-language television news a day, leaving Russian speakers with no option but to follow Russia’s pro-Putin media. (Latvia has much more Russian programming.)
The importance of integration
A year ago, these strains didn’t raise an eyebrow. Today, against the background of the Ukraine crisis, it has entirely new significance. Russians in Estonia tend to take Moscow’s view of the conflict, I was told by both Estonians and Russians. They sympathize with the Russian separatists, Putin’s resuscitated Russian empire and the protectorate role that Moscow claims to be playing. This means they view membership in NATO and its presence in the Baltics through Russian lenses. They are thus likely to be receptive to Putin’s geopolitical gaming.
It’s unclear how Russians in Estonia would react to more aggressive overtures from Russia. But for now, they appear to tread cautiously, keeping unpopular opinions to themselves. There’s only a very small Russian minority political party, which isn’t even in the national parliament. Most Russian Estonians who can vote tend to cast their ballots for the Center Party, which includes ethnic Estonians.
Despite tensions, there are bright spots. Younger Russian speakers are much better integrated than their parents’ generation. Many, for example, speak flawless Estonian and hold good jobs. Most Russian speakers, even if they lost their privileged status of the Soviet era, have a far higher quality of living in prosperous, high-tech Estonia than their compatriots in Russia.
But Estonians are disinclined to rue their treatment of the Russians. Most say the approach in the early 1990s was and remains the right one. There has been no reconciliation that could help the population bridge the gap on contested issues. Andrei Hvostov, a social democratic politician who is the child of a mixed Estonian-Russian marriage, told me it would be a political suicide to even broach the possibility of reconciliation in public.
So now the fight over integration (or assimilation, as the Russians say) is a matter of geopolitical importance. It would be easy enough for Moscow to ratchet up the propaganda against Tallinn and Riga and start introducing rumors that fuel suspicions about ethnic Russians’ safety in these countries. Many observers here say it has already begun. For example, there is talk of forming a new Russian minority party that would defend the rights of Russian speakers.
The goal of Putin’s foreign policy in Europe is to weaken the EU and sow dissent in NATO. What’s happening in the Baltics fits in with Moscow’s strategy of promoting and even financing anti-EU, far-right parties across Europe such as the National Front in France. There’s no chance of their coming to power, but they can throw a wrench in the works of the European Parliament and member states.
Alas, Estonian nationalists are partly to blame for leaving this door open to Putin. It’s not too late to reach out to Russian speakers by simplifying naturalization procedures, making Russian a second language in majority-Russian regions and meeting Russians halfway on education issues.
Better late than never — and over the protests of nationalists — an Estonian Russian-language TV channel is in the works and is scheduled to begin broadcasting in mid-2016. The trick will be to keep it balanced, which Latvia has had a hard time doing with its Russian media (which have been hijacked by pro-Kremlin figures who regurgitate Putin’s propaganda rather than provide independent quality programming).
Surely the real interests of the Baltic’s Russians lie in a prosperous, democratic Estonia within the EU. But Estonia and Latvia have to make it easier for them to see this. Hopefully their efforts won’t be too late.