By Andrew Stuttaford
April 20, 2015

“We could have been Bosnia,” said Eerik-Niiles Kross, a center-right Estonian politician, former intelligence chief–and much more besides. He didn’t have to tell me why. Estonians remain haunted by the memory of their doomed interwar republic. It inspired their drive for independence from the Soviet Union, but it reminds them that what was lost can never be truly restored.

The early stages of Soviet occupation saw some 60,000 Estonians killed, imprisoned, or deported (primarily to Siberia and Kazakhstan) out of a population of 1.1 million. Even more escaped to the West. In their place hundreds of thousands of mainly Russian settlers moved in, transforming Estonia’s demographics as they did so. By 1989 the Estonian share of their own country’s population (by then expanded to more than 1.5 million) had shrunk to a little over 60 percent, down from close to 90 percent in 1939.

As Estonia slid towards independence in the late-perestroika era, some 300,000 of its Russian inhabitants voted in a poll organized by a pro-Soviet organization to stick with the USSR. Immediately after the break with Moscow in 1991, there was a strong push for autonomy in Ida-Virumaa, a predominantly Russian-speaking region of the northeast. Russian troops stayed in Estonia until 1994. Meanwhile, the revived Estonian state was operating as the legal continuation of the interwar republic, a constitutional arrangement that denied automatic Estonian citizenship to those who had settled there during the Soviet occupation (or their descendants). The scars of Soviet rule were very raw. Estonia could indeed have become Bosnia.

That it did not owed much to (relative) Russian restraint, a product both of weakness and the comparative liberalism of the Yeltsin years. (A plaque honoring Boris Yeltsin was put up here in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, in 2013; Vladimir Putin will not be remembered so fondly.) Estonia’s Russians also understood that Estonia was headed West, a shift that promised something better than the lawlessness and seemingly perpetual economic crisis engulfing the land of their forebears. What’s more, Estonia’s new Western partners were adding to the pressure for more liberal citizenship laws. This was hard for a people with a dread that they might be the last of the last, but Estonians tend to be a pragmatic bunch: Naturalization has been made easier, although language, residency, and civic knowledge tests remain.

Of Estonia’s “Russian-speakers” (roughly 28 percent of the population), about half are Estonian citizens and some 25 percent are Russian citizens. Most of the rest are “noncitizens” holding what are known as “gray passports,” a status that Putin has denounced as “shameful,” although not so shameful that some of its holders don’t prefer to hang onto it. Unlike either Russian or Estonian citizens, they can travel visa-free to both Russia and almost everywhere in the EU (which Estonia joined in 2004). It is already easy for the children of gray passport-holders to become Estonian citizens. Next year it will be automatic. Not so for those where one or more parent is a Russian citizen (a twist resulting from the interplay of Estonian and Russian citizenship laws). To some, that risks storing up trouble for the future. To others, it involves too few people to be of significance.

Regardless of citizenship, permanent residents can vote in local elections and are entitled to the same social benefits as Estonian citizens, but the sense of exclusion still stings. Unable or unwilling to empathize with the Estonian fear that demography might finish what Stalin began, many Russian-speakers resent being required to apply for a fresh citizenship of the country in which they had lived (and maybe even been born) as full citizens of a now-vanished empire. “What have I to do with Stalin?” asked Valeri Tšetvergov of the Union of Russian Compatriots as we sat chatting in Narva, the most populous city in Ida-Virumaa and the third largest in Estonia.

Narva was a jewel of the Northern Baroque flattened during the Second World War, purged of ethnic Estonians (perhaps 4 percent of its population today), and rebuilt in Soviet concrete and gloom. Divided from Russia by an alarmingly narrow river, it is, along with Daugavpils in eastern Latvia, regularly identified as the next Crimea. “We have had a lot of journalists here,” sighed one local, as we discussed a slew of recent articles about her adopted hometown.

Talk to Estonians working on the country’s defense, and they will argue that Putin’s interest in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia–NATO members since 2004–is concerned less with re-creating Moscow’s old imperium than with using these three small countries’ vulnerability to break the North Atlantic Alliance, a pillar of that American global preeminence to which the Kremlin so objects. If NATO’s collective security guarantee fails in the Baltics, it fails everywhere. For it to fail in the Baltics, Putin knows that he has to give NATO members an excuse not to respond to Russian aggression there. A purported insurrection by the area’s Russians demanding a purportedly fairer deal might just do the trick On the face of it, that’s not an impossible ambition. Some 20 years ago, I attended a meeting between Estonia’s then-foreign minister and a group of Scandinavian investors. Asked somewhat condescendingly about the relationship between ethnic Estonians and the country’s Russians, he replied with characteristic Estonian bluntness that they did not “get on.” This was more, he explained, than anger about the past. Starting with separate school systems, the two populations had, so far as was possible, lived separate lives throughout the Soviet period.

They continue to do so. “Voluntary apartheid” was the description I was given in Tallinn earlier this month. To take one indication, compared with most of the European USSR, rates of intermarriage in Soviet Estonia were low. Using neighboring Latvia as a post-independence benchmark, they still are, a phenomenon reinforced by language, social class (many of the Russian settlers were industrial workers), profound cultural differences, and geography. Russian-speakers may dominate Narva, but a young ethnic Estonian in the education ministry told me that she remembers few Russians from her childhood in Tartu in the southeast. Tallinn’s large Russian-speaking population is mainly concentrated in suburbs some distance, geographically and otherwise, from the city’s fairytale center.

Estonian governments do not appear to have been too uncomfortable with, in the Canadian phrase, these “two solitudes,” a division that in effect helped preserve the Estonianness of their state. Estonia’s Russians may not have been “happy,” to borrow the delicate word used by one Estonian journalist to me last year, but apart from an outbreak of rioting that followed the relocation of a Soviet-era statue of a Red Army “liberator” from central Tallinn to a military cemetery in 2007, there had been no interethnic violence.

Yes, the pace of naturalizations slowed dramatically in the 2000s, but it was hoped that the Russian problem would slowly fade as the Soviet generation died off and younger Russians gradually integrated into independent Estonia, the only country they had ever known. That integration was taking longer than anticipated was of no great concern until Russia’s war with Georgia. Anxieties were then heightened further by the annexation of the Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, and Putin’s declaration of some sort of protectorate over a loosely defined “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) beyond Russia’s borders, a world that comprised Russian-speakers everywhere, including, certainly, some or all of modern Estonia.
But Narva is not Donetsk in 2014, a city in a failing state. Narvans know that they are paid more than their kin across the river in Russia. Their lives are better, and, for that matter, longer. The same is broadly true of most of Estonia’s Russians. Moreover, as much as ancestral tradition and Russian television (Ainar Ruussaar of ERR, Estonian Public Broadcasting, told me that a large number of the country’s Russian-speakers live within a “Russian information space”) might lead many ethnic Russians to applaud Moscow’s adventures abroad, the devastation in eastern Ukraine has been a powerful reminder that Russian “liberation” is nothing to aspire to.

But over the longer term their loyalty to Estonia will need to be built on more than relative prosperity and fear of the alternative. ERR will shortly be launching a Russian-language television channel, but it will struggle to compete with the lavishly funded and dangerous dream world of Russian TV, where “fascist” Estonians are a regular nightmare. Estonia’s culture ministry will also be working hard on its latest integration efforts, even if there is a whiff of midnight basketball about them, well-intentioned, but the issue of language, so central to the survival of the Estonian people, will continue to bedevil a state too small and too fragile to be bilingual but too weak (and, in some respects, too liberal) to force through a properly functioning alternative. Sixty percent of the curriculum in Russian-language upper secondary schools now has to be taught in Estonian, but finding teachers willing and able to do so to a high enough standard is a challenge. Their pupils would have done better to have begun with intensive immersion in the language at an earlier age.

Efforts to create an idea of Estonian nationality independent of ethnicity have faltered, something reflected in data that suggest that only around 50 percent of Russian-speakers have achieved a reasonable degree of integration. That the nominally Estonian Center party (a party with close ties to Putin’s United Russia) has flourished by fostering a solid “Russian” vote has not helped. That’s not to suggest that the other 50 percent are ready either to rebel or to welcome the arrival of Crimea-style “little green men” (they clearly are not), but there are always, said one Russian-Estonian to me in Tallinn, enough disaffected “guys who live with their mothers and spend too much time in the gym” to make mischief if Putin wants them to give him an opportunity.

Estonia’s task–and NATO’s, as well–is to make sure that he is not tempted to try.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.