Mart Nutt: Ethnic Russians in the Baltics are not persecuted – is Putin preparing for aggression against NATO?

Along with the incredible amount of propaganda and demagogy with which Russia justifies aggression against Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, all the more frequently you will hear of attacks on other countries as well, which have large Russian communities due to historic reasons. It is possible to influence the public opinion by distorting reality and Putin’s ideologists are professionals in this field. But the question is why does this need to be done? Is it just a propaganda technique to divert attention from the attack on Ukraine or is Russia preparing in earnest for larger scale aggression, including against NATO countries, which inevitably means attacking NATO as a whole.

US journalist of Russian ancestry Julia Ioffe recently wrote the article, “Ethnic Russians in the Baltics Are Actually Persecuted. So Why Isn’t Putin Stepping In?” Even for a reader who is not familiar with the situation in Estonia, the mere title is indicative of a call for Russia to act in the same manner as in Crimea belonging to Ukraine. I do not think this is what Julia Ioffe wants, and it seems that she does not have an objective understanding of the reality of Estonia either, since she is basing it solely on Moscow’s propaganda and the non-independent information source, Russia Today.

By now, it should be clear to everyone that the protection of the rights of Russians is not grounds for Moscow, but only a pretext to occupy Crimea – part of the sovereign state of Ukraine – and to try to restore its control over the whole of Ukraine. Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov stressed in his 1992 doctrine that Russia’s goal is to regain control over the entire territory of the former Soviet Union and this is a sign of danger for the security of all countries which have experienced the tragedy of belonging to the Soviet Union. The rights of Russians in Ukraine have not been violated, and certainly not the rights of those living in Crimea, which is known to everyone who has visited this country.

Russians’ rights are not being violated in Estonia. This is not just a rhetorical statement, but has been confirmed by dozens of international organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and OSCE experts, who have thoroughly monitored Estonia. The accusations of the infringement of the rights of Russians hail only from Moscow and this bears resemblance to bitterness that Estonia has decided in favour of democracy, the West, NATO and the European Union, and not to remain a Russian satellite state. The suspicion of infringement of the rights of Russians is in fact a throwing down of the gauntlet to NATO and the European Union, since neither organisation will accept states if they are not democratic and if human rights are being violated.

A so-called grey passport (for persons with undetermined citizenship) is granted to a person who has not applied for Estonian citizenship, but who also does not have any other citizenship. This problem was not created by Estonia, but by Russia, when it decided to leave former citizens of the Soviet Union living abroad without Russian citizenship by way of its Citizenship Act of 1992. For various reasons, there are currently about 80 000 people in this situation. The majority of Russians living in Estonia have either Estonian or Russian citizenship. People with undetermined citizenship have travel documents, residence permits, the right to equal treatment and access to social services, as well as the right to vote in local elections, just as all long-term legal residents of Estonia.

Estonia’s undeniable wish is for people using grey passports to apply for Estonian citizenship. Language proficiency is not a serious obstacle since using the Estonian language at an elementary level is as easy as using basic English in everyday communication. Some users of grey passports are not motivated to apply for citizenship since they can travel visa-free within the EU and to Russia with their grey passports, while Estonian citizens have to apply for a visa to travel to Russia. Criticism of the requirement for teachers to speak Estonian is beyond comprehension. Is it possible to be able to teach in the United States without speaking English or in Russia with no knowledge of the Russian language?

Ominous parallels are emerging between Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and the actions of Nazi Germany in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. This became possible due to the indifference of the great powers. Estonia is a democratic state based on the rule of law, where the human rights of all people are guaranteed, and Russia can only threaten rather than protect the rights of people living in Estonia if it tries to use those people to its advantage. The democratic world, especially the United States, must decisively stand against aggression and protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of democratic states.


The article was first published by the Estonian Embassy in Washington.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Cover photo: Narva castle overlooking Estonia-Russia border.

26 thoughts on “Mart Nutt: Ethnic Russians in the Baltics are not persecuted – is Putin preparing for aggression against NATO?”

  1. Riddle me this:

    1. I have friends born in Tallinn (in the 1980’s) who are stuck with a grey passport. Why are people born there required to go through language tests to be a citizen of the country where they were born? How is that not insulting to them?

    2. When the Estonian language inspectorate tests the schoolteachers in Ida-Virumaa, a large percentage of them fail the Estonian language tests. This has been the case for years. How is it not a human rights issue if the government fails to provide children with qualified teachers? All children have a right to an education.

    1. let me as you as well. how comes its not insulting to your friends born in 80s not to speak the language of the country they are born to? If Id be born to russia, it would be a must to speak russian (or french in france etc). pls explain this.

      1. My friends born in the 80s do speak Estonian pretty well, but why do they need to take a language test to gain citizenship? Why don’t they get it automatically, considering they were born in Tallinn and lived all their life in Tallinn?

        People born in the USA have no language test — they are automatically citizens.

        1. Because they where not born in Estonia, instead it was USSR during those years. Did u miss ur history classes? And tests then apply in most countries even for shorter visas. Learn the facts and respect your fellow citizens. We respect you’s if you respect us. Simple as that. Be honest, we respect former Russian citizens way more than they would be respected in Russian Federation today!

          1. Estonians are full of hatered because of their battered past and they blame Russians. They used to call themselves maarahvas, meaning earth people and did not have a literary culture until the end of 19 century. City life was always full of russians, swedish, german etc.

      2. Imagine for example indians overthrowing the government in some provincial town with indian majority and introducing language tests for large proportion of population. Indians invited Russians to help protect the fledgling state and now you are paraded in newspapers as hated occupants of the indian land and have to either accept the role and move out.

        1. Are you saying that Estonia was always simply a “provincial town” within Russia? Do you not realise how ignorant, insulting and arrogant that sounds? The Estonian Republic of 1940 did NOT want to join the USSR. Yes, the USSR fought against the German army in WW2 and forced them out of Estonian territory. I’m sure that most Estonians would be thankful for this. The main problem is that the USSR stayed in control of Estonian territory and then stuck around for 50 years or so. Who should they blame for this “battered past” if not the USSR?

    2. Jimbo – if Estonia is persecuting Russians then the UK and certainly France today are certainly persecuting Welsh and Breton speakers! The French state won’t fund any Breton medium schools even though Breton is an idigenous language of Brittany (in France).

      Aren’t there languages tests in the UK? OK, it’s not so formal really, but could you function in the UK without speaking English? Do you ask for your curry in Bengali when you go for an Indians because the waiter hasn’t bothered learning English?

      Children do have a right to education – they, Estonian Russians, have Russian medium schools paid for by the state (this is something we in Wales have had to fight hard for and the French still don’t allow in France for Breton or Baque). The children leave school fluent in Russian (their home langugae) and Estonian. If the children fail the language tests then they need to work on it. But that’s their decision. The Estonian state offers them the opportunity to be fully bilingual (and they’d probably learn English too) – that would enrich their life financially and culturally. Why wouldn’t someone want that for their children? It’s only the arrogance or, imperial attitude of the Russian speaker which insists on being monoligual in Estonia.

      How rude is it that someone lives in a country and has not even bothered to learn the basics of the native language of that country?

      Maybe you’re one of these people who goes abroad and just speaks English very loudly to people because, you know, why bother learning all this silly little peasant languages.

      If you are concerned about language rights then there are several linguistic communities in Western Europe who could do with your moral support. Or, maybe, you just think these ‘little language’s like the ‘little countries should be confined to the rubbish dump as Friedrich Engels, Stalin and Hitler thought.

      1. My point is that the children in Ida-Virumaa may very well want to learn Estonian, but tests have shown their TEACHERS aren’t qualified in Estonian, thus not qualified to teach them about Estonian.

        How can the children expect to speak Estonian if their teachers are unqualified? How is this fair to the children?

        1. The State is having trouble in these Russian speaking areas because it is difficult to find enough qualified people of Estonian background to live and work in Russian areas.

          It is easy to criticise, but the reality is we need EU funding to incentivise teachers, and repair the damage done by 50 years of Soviet Russification. Yet, sadly all we get is EU austerity, bills from the EU to prop up the European banks, and criticism from people living comfortably in the west.

          1. I agree with you that a lot of teachers don’t want to work in Ida-Virumaa, and I also agree with you that spending more money on those teachers will get them to work there. After all, Eesti Energia is able to get foreign engineers to move to Narva and Kohtla-Jarve to help run the power plants, so surely the Estonian government can get Estonian teachers to move a much shorter distance to teach in Ida-Virumaa — they just need to pay them better.

            So why hasn’t it happened? Estonia receives 900 million euros a year in EU funding. They’re spending it on projects like building a children’s theme park (Lottemaa) for over 4 million euros. To me, it says that the money is there to improve the teaching quality in Ida-Virumaa, but the government just doesn’t care.

        2. Why isn’t it possible for language teachers to learn a new language? I can speak more or less fluently in Estonian after five or so years of learning and practice at home. Imagine how well they could speak Estonian in a few years if they start learning now. 🙂

      2. Do Welsh or Irish force English people to speak their language because they happen to live on their territory? Do they fire them and discriminate against them because they don’t know the language?

        1. If :
          – Welsh and Irish were actually spoken by the majority of Welsh or Irish people as a mother tongue,
          – Welsh and Irish people didn’t generally speak or understand English that well,
          – Welsh and Irish were the ONLY official languages of Wales and Ireland
          – Wales was a sovereign nation,

          then YES, it would be normal to expect English people to speak Welsh or Irish at work and school while living there.

      3. Maybe to your knowledge majority of Russians in Estonia have good knowledge of Estonian Language. Many countries have 2 or 3 languages, like Belgium / Uk.

    3. Jimbo Jones. Estonia is not the United States. We are a small nation that was nearly destroyed by a brutal regime of Russia opression. The political situation calls for some restrictions to be placed such that the small nation state cannot be highjacked by an ethnic minority that wishes to usurp the country’s independence. Therefore, we believe we are justified in requiring that the immediate descendants of Russian migrants meet some basic standards for aquiring the right to citizenship and to participate in our democracy.

      1. This kind of rhetoric is representative of Estonian people. The collapse of the Russian empire and the ensued wars and conflicts are looked upon as something foreign and not as a common misfortune of people in Estonia. The narrative is taken out of the historical context of the formation of nation states and the development of statehood itself. Estonia is seen not a multicultural society, but exclusively Estonian. Where as Estonian nation gained self-consciences and literary tradition only in the second half of the 19 century and for centuries before and after that the city culture was formed by Danish, Swedish, German and Russian people. It used to be a vibrant multicultural place. It is not anymore. There is fear and hatred all over the place. It is “their democracy” now, not a nation with rich cultural heritage it used to be. The exaggeration of Russian threat became part of national foreign policy in an attempt to attract attention from political, military and business circles of the US and some western states. I hope it is all going to change.

        1. Typical Russian-funded rhetoric. There is no way such claims can be written by an “Estonian”, in most cases not even by Estonian Russians – they know very well that their life is better in Estonia than in Russia. This is a very typical example of Russian attempt to brain-wash anyone willing to listen in the West – but fortunately it is a futile effort. Anyone visiting Estonia, knows that it is not a place full of hatred and that Estonian government has done all it could, to contain the cultural life of Russian minority – I underline, minority. Obviously Estonia is a nation-state, belonging to Estonians – always has been, always will. The “multiculturalism” was forcibly brought to Estonia by the oppressive Soviet Union, one of the biggest disasters in the 20th century – responsible for tens of millions of deaths and destroyed lives. They destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Estonians – yet “useful idiots” like this one, still pretend that it was something to be proud of. Hopefully, as time goes by, these “useful idiots” are disappearing species.

          1. russian estonian

            And you say there is no hatred? USSR was not a Russian national idea and it was just as Estonian as it was Russian. Look at the soviet leaders in Estonia. I am not even talking about USSR, I am talking about rich multiciltural society that existed for centuries. Stop hating people and come to with your history. Nobody is at fault that you’ve come to speak a minor language.

      2. No justification for injustice! No matter! in civilised countries equality is important for all citizens! And maybe you read more history! Stalin who was a Georgian and leader of CCCP did horrid things not only to Estonia but to Russians and they suffered more! In Soviet Era Estonia had special status above all other Soviet Nations! Look more history!

    1. Jimbo Jones, did u look at the year when these researches were made? I think there is some newer data (than 2008 and 2009) and i suppose the situation is different..

    2. Perhaps you should look at your own link. The overall impression from this information is that yes there are problems, but the Estonian Government is trying to address this. It also shows how quite a few studies have ended up with very different results. It’s certainly not as black and white as you suggest above. For example, some studies revealed that Russian speakers feel very little discrimination while others feel the opposite. It depends on the study questions and it depends on who has been asked. It’s also important to understand that feelings of discrimination may or may not mean that discrimination has actually occurred.

      It is a shame that Russian speakers in Estonia have been ‘left behind’ by both the Russian and Estonian Governments. Probably the best solution in the end is for them to do as much as they can to improve their own lives.

  2. These are two completely different things: 1) Russia’s possible aggression towards Estonia or any other country, 2) current situation with russians, other ethnic minorities, non-citizens etc. in Estonia. Mixing these questions together or even trying to discuss them in conjunction with each other is a very stupid move from the Estonia side. It is easy to see that not all citizens and non-citizens of Estonia are happy with the current governing of the state. And that’s perfectly understandable and normal. But by no means and under no consideration this may serve as a reason or an excuse for any form of Russia’s aggression. If you are trying to tie this things anyhow, even if you are protecting and approving past and present actions estonian government, you are playing for the hawks in Russian government.

  3. Are you kidding me mate! I was shocked when I went to Estonia few years ago and saw how minorities are treated!
    1. People who were born in Estonia were denied Estonian citizenship and they carry Grey Alien Passport
    2. Only Estonian Considered as an official language even a large percentage of the population are Russian speakers
    3. Tallinn as a city is divided in Estonian and Russian Restaurants/Areas/clubs/bars/schools. There are hardly any integration between both population
    4. Estonian Government keep trying to close Russian schools
    5. Russian areas are under developed and in poverty

    Estonians have created a second state in Estonia by not giving equal rights to all citizens who were born in the country and they hide behind that they don’t speak Estonian! In any civilised country if large percentage of citizen have a different language this should grant official language status!

    Non Estonians are treated in general as second class citizens and its difficult for them to get government jobs, or to be employed by Estonian private sector!

    So Mr Nutt, maybe you go and do more research!

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