The truth about eSStonia

August 16, 2007

READ the Russian-language internet, and you will find Estonia portrayed as a hell-hole ruled by Nazi sympathisers who organise a grotesque form of apartheid hypocritically endorsed by the European Union.

“Nazi” and “apartheid” are strong words that should be used sparingly and precisely out of their original context—and probably not at all. (A good rule in most discussions is that the first person to call the other a Nazi automatically loses the argument.)

So it may be worth listing a few of the more grotesque unfairnesses and inaccuracies of the charge. Apartheid was the legally enforced separation of the peoples of South Africa, based on race (or more accurately, skin colour). Mingling of the races, from intermarriage to mixed swimming, was forbidden. Passed laws meant that blacks could not live in white areas. Apartheid was backed up by a ruthless secret police that on occasion murdered people, and had no hesitation in enforcing house arrest and exile.

Nazi sympathisers idolise Hitler, think that Jews invented the Holocaust (or, sometimes, that they deserved what they got), and believe that National Socialism was a glorious ideology destroyed by Judaeo-Bolshevism.

Absolutely none of that applies to Estonia. Not only do the authorities not prohibit contact between Estonians and Russians, they encourage it. Russians and Estonians mix freely everywhere. Some of Estonia’s top politicians, including the president and the leader of one of the main political parties have Russian family ties.

Estonians look back on the Nazi occupation with loathing. Their country was caught between the hammer and the anvil in 1939, and whatever they did, only suffering and destruction awaited them.

What really annoys the Kremlin crowd is that Estonians (like many others in eastern Europe) regarded the arrival of the Red Army in 1944-45 not as a liberation, but as the exchange of one ghastly occupation for another. That flatly contradicts the Kremlin’s revived Stalinist version of history, which puts Soviet wartime heroism and sacrifice at centre-stage, while assiduously obscuring all the historical context. Given how the Soviet Union treated Estonia in 1939-41, it is hardly surprising that those who fought the occupiers when they returned are regarded as heroes. But they were not Nazis, nor are those who admire them now.

Given how Soviet Union treated Estonia in 1939-41, it is hardly surprising that those who fought the occupiers when they returned are regarded as heroes

Secondly, Estonians (like Latvians and Lithuanians) do not accept that their pre-war statehood was ever extinguished. Russia may like to think that the Soviet Union magnanimously granted independence to the three “Soviet Baltic Republics” in 1991. But the Balts see it differently: they regained their independence. In that view they are confirmed, more or less enthusiastically, by most western countries, which never recognised the Soviet annexation of 1940, and in some cases continued to accredit Baltic diplomats in dusty and deserted embassies.

On that basis, the hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens who moved to the Baltic from the 1950s onwards were migrants settling illegally in occupied territories. Post-Soviet Lithuania granted them citizenship automatically. But Estonia and Latvia, where the demographic position was more precarious, insisted that they apply for citizenship if they wanted it, and pass a simple test in language and history.

This was not about ethnicity: Russians who lived in Estonia before the occupation (then around 10% of the population) and their descendants regained citizenship automatically. And it has worked rather well. Nearly 150,000 people have gained Estonian citizenship; only 8.5% remain stateless.

Fifteen years on, Estonia’s policy may be too tough, or just right, or even too lax. Compared to most European countries’ citizenship laws, it is quite generous. In any event, calling it “apartheid” is not only nonsensical, but stupidly insulting, to a country that has responded with intelligence and restraint to a devastating historical injury.

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