Estonia Is Confronting Great Russian Divide Leaders Turn to EU for Aid In Diluting the Influence Of Their Powerful Neighbor

Wall Street Journal
December 2, 2004

NARVA, Estonia — Anatoli Shilimov, a 66-year-old teacher, flashes his Russian passport at a border post here and walks over a bridge spanning the Narva River into Ivangorod, Russia.

“Sock prices are better there,” he says. There is another reason he likes crossing the border: “It’s home. I don’t feel European.”

What for Mr. Shilimov is a routine shopping trip is a worrying trend for political leaders in new European Union member Estonia, which like Ukraine is divided between Russia-oriented and Western-leaning citizens. Estonia’s leaders want the EU to take a tougher united stance against what they see as Russian meddling both in Estonia and in Ukraine, their southern neighbor. But, like in Ukraine, many of Estonia’s 400,000 ethnic Russians — nearly a third of the population — want to maintain a close relationship with what they still see as the motherland.

Thirteen years after its independence, despite government efforts to more fully integrate Estonia’s ethnic Russians into society, only one-third have become Estonia citizens. Estonia leaders blame a lingering allegiance to Russia, encouraged by the Kremlin, and a reluctance to learn the Estonian language — a citizenship requirement for many ethnic Russians. Moscow says Estonia is using the language requirement to deny ethnic Russians political power.

Even though Estonia officially joined the Western camp as an EU member earlier this year, Russia is “trying to maintain their sphere of influence,” says Mart Nutt, a veteran member of the Estonian Parliament. “It’s hard for them to accept that we’re independent.”

Those concerns, in turn, have contributed to calls from Estonia and other Baltic countries for a firmer EU stance against Russian influence in Ukraine. “We have to support Ukraine’s EU orientation,” Estonia Prime Minister Juhan Parts said in an interview last month. Marko Mikkelsen,
chairman of the Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, adds, “It’s important to stand up to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.”

For its part, Russia argues that it must speak up for ethnic Russians in Estonia because Estonia has been slow in granting them citizenship, which it says violates their human rights. “Russians feel oppressed in Estonia,” Konstantin Provalov, Russian ambassador to Estonia, told Estonian newspaper Postimees in October, noting only a handful of ethnic Russians have been elected to Parliament.

Mr. Parts, the prime minister, says granting ethnic Russians citizenship “could be going faster, but we have to be patient.” Estonia’s message, he adds, “is that if Russians want to stay here, they have to integrate; otherwise, they should leave.”

A visit to Narva, Estonia’s third-largest city, where 97% of its 80,000 residents are ethnic Russians, shows the depth of the Russian influence. After World War II, Narva was rebuilt as a giant Soviet industrial park. Tens of thousands of immigrants came here to work in the region’s metal factories and nuclear-power plant. Signs are almost all in Russian.

Narva has little in common with the capital, Tallinn, with its stylish night clubs and busloads of British tourists. In Narva, unemployment is 20%, and the factories here, for the most part, have closed.

At Narva Pizza, 35-year-old Svetlana Vinakurova says she came to Estonia in 1985 from Magadan, Siberia, when her father got a factory job. She refuses to learn Estonian. “We should have the right to a Russian life, and education in the [Russian] language,” she says.

Some Russians, such as Tatiana Kisseleva, have no qualms about changing their citizenship. Ms. Kisseleva, a woman in her 50s who runs a travel agency across from the pizza shop, says she passed her language test and became Estonian in 1996 “because I feel that people who live in Estonia should have an Estonian passport.”

But at a school in the Tallinn suburb of Lasnamae, a bleak Soviet neighborhood that is almost all Russian, it is clear that Russian influence lingers despite Estonia’s efforts at integration.

In a classroom of 10-year-olds, children of Soviet immigrants have learned almost fluent Estonian. And anybody born here after the country’s independence in 1991 gets automatic citizenship. But many of these children still identify with their parents’ nationality: When a visitor asked who felt more Russian than Estonian, 16 of 18 hands shot up.