Squeezing the Baltic (2)

by Andrew Stuttaford

Right on schedule . . .

Reuters reports:

Russia signaled concern on Wednesday at Estonia’s treatment of its large ethnic Russian minority, comparing language policy in the Baltic state with what it said was a call in Ukraine to prevent the use of Russian. Russia has defended its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula by arguing it has the right to protect Russian-speakers outside its borders, so the reference to linguistic tensions in another former Soviet republic comes at a highly sensitive moment. Russia fully supported the protection of the rights of linguistic minorities, a Moscow diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, according to a summary of the session issued by the U.N.’s information department.

“Language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups,” the diplomat was reported as saying. Russia was “concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine,” the Moscow envoy was said to have added.

The text of the Russian remarks, echoing long-standing complaints over Estonia’s insistence that the large Russian minority in the east of the country should be able to speak Estonian, was not immediately available . . .

The reason that there is a large Russian minority in the east of Estonia is that that region, essentially situated around the city of Narva, was ethnically cleansed by the invading Soviets at the end of the Second World War. The Estonians who lived there were either killed in the fighting, murdered, deported or driven into exile, something that Moscow seems curiously unwilling to acknowledge.

Overall, Estonia’s ethnic-Russian minority — today around a quarter of the population (down from around 30 percent at the end of the long Soviet occupation) — live far better, and enjoy much more in the way of political freedom than Russians across the border in Russia itself. Indeed, the younger generation (or so I was told during the course of a visit to the largely Russian-speaking town of Sillamäe 18 months ago) have something of an advantage over their Estonian peers. They have a better grasp of Estonian than young ethnic Estonians have of Russian (the language of the former occupier) giving them a useful leg up in the employment market of what is de facto, if not de jure, a bilingual country.

That ethnic Estonians insist that their small country retains Estonian as the sole official language is neither shocking nor surprising. This scrap of territory is the only land that Estonians have left to call their own — and that only just. The fate of three vanished or vanishing languages — Old Prussian, Livonian and Ingrian — in their own neighborhood serve as a constant reminder of what could lie ahead for their own tongue.

And then there’s the question of citizenship. Considering that most of Estonia’s ethnic Russians were either colonists who arrived during the Soviet occupation (or children or grandchildren of those who did), this small (the population today is around 1.4 million), much bullied nation has adopted a remarkably generous approach to naturalization, insisting primarily that would-be citizens should show some command of Estonian (not the easiest of languages, but still . . .). If that sounds tough (and it’s not), imagine the situation if France had been occupied by the Third Reich for half a century and around thirty percent of the population in 1990 had been of German descent.

As it happens, large numbers of ethnic Russians have become naturalized Estonian citizens. Most of the rest opted for Russian nationality. And only around 6.5 percent of the inhabitants of today’s Estonia are of “undetermined citizenship,” a status that they hold, for the most part, by choice.

The Russian complaint is groundless.

No surprise there.