Over the last two-year period, for which statistics are available, only 37 ethnic Russians moved from Estonia to the Russian Federation despite Moscow’s programme for resettling what it calls “compatriots” and the regular complaints of Russian officials that Estonia is oppressing its ethnic Russian minority.
In the Moscow newspaper, “Novaya gazeta”, journalist Vyacheslav Ivanov suggests it is important for everyone to understand why despite the oft-reported problems of ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries, “the majority of Russians there prefer to live in Estonia” than to return to Russia.
Ivanov begins his article by recounting what happened when in the summer of 1994, the Russian Drama Theater in Tallinn put on Chekov’s “Three Sisters”. In that performance, actors dressed like Soviet officers left the stage at the end when the sisters talk about going “to Moscow, to Moscow!”
Their departure was met with thunderous applause, not because the performance was especially noteworthy but because it occurred when Russian troops finally left Estonia after it recovered its independence – and those applauding were not so much Estonians and ethnic Russians living there who viewed their withdrawal as a positive step.
To be sure, Ivanov continues, some ethnic Russians did leave – about 27,500 a year between 1991 and 1996. Most of these people were either retired military personnel and their families or civilians who “for various reasons considered it impossible for themselves to continue to live in independent Estonia”.
After 1996, the number of those departing began to decline precipitously to less than a thousand a year in the early 2000s. And in 2011, the number of ethnic Russians arriving to live in Estonia exceeded, admittedly by a small percentage, the number of those departing or dying, Ivanov says.
Today, 1,315,000 people live in Estonia. About 70 percent of them are ethnic Estonians, approximately 26 percent ethnic Russians, and the rest “representatives of other nationalities”. In 1940, non-ethnic Estonians constituted less than 10 percent of the population and their number included Old Believers who had been living there since the 17th century.
Urmas Ott, an Estonian television host, once told him, Ivanov continues, that “Estonians at the beginning of the 1990s especially after the withdrawal of Russian forces from Estonia very much hoped that if not all ethnic Russians then their absolute majority would do the same”. Now, it is different, although Ott said Estonians remain a “patient” and “tolerant” people.
“Perhaps,” Ivanov suggests,” precisely these qualities of the ‘titular’ residents of Estonia are in a well-known sense a guarantee of the preservation of the balance between the two language communities. Not the main and not the only but one of the key factors.”
Another factor is that ethnic Russians living in Estonia have been profoundly affected by Estonian values: they are very different from their compatriots elsewhere, by their “greater restraint” and “greater moderation in their views. Although,” he adds, “from the point of view of Estonians, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were even more so.”
A major social-political problem in Estonia, the Russian journalist continues, is the existence of a large number of residents who are without citizenship and the large number who are citizens of a foreign country, in this case, Russia. Many in Estonia and Europe consider what Tallinn has done in this area far from “far-sighted”, but not everything is as it appears.
There are approximately 330,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia. About 120,000 of them have Estonian citizenship, about 100,000 are citizens of the Russian Federation, and about 100,000 are non-citizens who have many but not all the rights of those who are citizens of Estonia.
But at the same time, Ivanov continues, these non-citizens who carry what are known as “grey” passports have in a certain respect “more rights than do the citizens” of either of the other countries. They can go to Russia without a visa, something Estonians cannot; and they can go to the European Union without a visa, something Russian citizens cannot.
That is a considerable advantage as is the fact that Estonia even in Soviet times was distinguished by a relatively high standard of living. That still makes it attractive, but other “non-material” qualities are almost certainly more important. These include an independent judiciary which protects people even when they act in ways that some Estonians don’t like.
Many in Russia followed the 2007 case of the “Bronze soldier” monument whose removal from the centre of Tallinn to a military cemetery sparked protests. But far fewer are aware that some of those arrested at the time later won their cases in Estonian courts – or that such vindications are far from unique.
Ivanov concludes that “the situation of the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia is far from ideal”. Unemployment is higher among Russians there than among Estonians, and pay is lower for them than for Estonian citizens. But what is important is that activists in Estonia are constantly raising these issues and often winning their cases.
That is one more reason why ethnic Russians in Estonia aren’t moving back to Russia where activists have far fewer victories and where the courts have far less independence than they do in European Estonia.
The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog.
Cover: Narva castle/credit: Eduard Zentsik.