The Corner

Setting the Stage

Estonian Public Broadcasting:

A Russian newspaper says that Russian activists will hold two demonstrations in Tallinn in April to express solidarity with the Crimea and southeastern regions in Ukraine and “support the possibility” of holding a separatist referendum in northeastern Estonia [a part of the country heavily populated by ethnic Russians]. Estonian authorities say the rallies are likely to be marginal, [against] a background that has thus far been unreceptive to attempts to sow tensions.

“Two meetings will be held in Tallinn, organised by the association Russkije v Estonii (Russians in Estonia),” reported the Russian daily Izvestia.

“The first is planned in front of the Russian Embassy on April 12, and the second demonstration will take place on April 20 in front of Parliament,” the paper said in an unclearly attributed passage. “At this one, the organizers want to point to the fact that most Estonian cities were founded by Russians or have been part of Russia. This concerns Tartu (Yuryev), Narva, Tallinn (Revel). It is also planned to raise the question of the option of holding a referendum on self-determination.”

I’ll spare readers the ancient city chronicles, but Estonians or their forbears have been in this land for thousands of years. Even if we exclude the Soviet occupation, it is true that what is now Estonia was part of the Russian empire for two centuries (then again many nations spent time in that particular jailhouse), but — if we want to play the history game — we should note that there were also extensive periods of rule by Swedes, Danes and Teutonic Knights, none of whom appear to be dreaming of empires reborn.

Back to Estonian Public Broadcasting:

The paper also interviewed historian David Vseviov, who said the events will not have any particular impact.

“It’s a free country here and people can assemble where they want and when they want,” Vseviov told Izvestia.

The Estonian national security agency said the individuals who organised the demonstrations are known to them as provocateurs. Office director Andres Kahar told Delfi: “We have nothing more to say but that two Russian extremists – (Dmitri) Linter and (Juri) Zhuravlyov – are trying to ratchet up tensions, using fictitious organizations and movements as window dressing.”

Linter played a part in the April 2007 riots [triggered by the transfer of a Soviet war memorial to another location}, although he was not convicted of any wrongdoing. But the other, Zhuravlyov was involved in looting – such as in the Westman shop on a main commercial street – and received probation after being convicted for stealing a half case of beer, uudised.err.ee reported. Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Marko Mihkelson told Postimees that the “pro-Kremlin” demonstrations in Tallinn are attempts to sow tension and should be disregarded by the public, saying it was no surprise that special services in Russia would include Estonia in their destabilization attempts.

Sadly, Estonia can expect more of this sort of nonsense. With the country a member of NATO (one of the few, incidentally, that pays its fair share), Russian trouble-making will (cyber attacks apart) likely primarily consist of fomenting disorder within Estonia’s borders, and, specifically, among the country’s ethnic-Russian population, almost of whom are Soviet-era settlers or their descendants. I posted a bit about them here. Stirring this group up may prove more difficult than Moscow likes to imagine. As I noted the other day, Estonia’s ethnic Russians live far better, and enjoy much more in the way of political freedom, than they would across the border in Russia itself. And they also enjoy the ability to travel and work anywhere within the EU (Estonia is a member of the EU).

At the same time, it’s important not to underestimate the potential problems that could arise. To generalize, many of the Russians in Estonia are not, as one smart and unillusioned Estonian told me last week, “happy.” The experience of finding that the nature of the place in which you were born (or had lived, perhaps for decades) had profoundly changed — as was the case when Estonia recovered its independence in 1991— must have been profoundly disorientating for Russians cut off from their compatriots and their hinterland by the Soviet collapse. And enough of that sense of alienation may have endured to make those who feel it vulnerable to the appeal of their mother country, especially when that country appears to be on the rise, an appeal that may well be sharpened if rising tensions in the region lead to a mutual cooling in relations between Estonia’s two main ethnic groups.

And these tensions will doubtless be reinforced by the messages being spewed out by Russian TV (which is available in Estonia). For an idea of what that Russian TV in propaganda mode can be like, check out this Radio Free Europe story here. One Russian friend (resident in the U.S.) recently decided to spend some time in the company of TV programming from his homeland, It was, he told me, incredible in both senses of the word.

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