Sat May 17th, 2008 at 06:44:32 PM EST
Like in most former parts of the Soviet Union, Russian is a widely spoken language in the Baltic state of Estonia, and a significant portion of the Estonian population are ethnic Russians who immigrated during the Soviet-era. Estonia is a small country, home to about 1.3 million people. Approximately 26% of those are Russians. Finnish author and journalist Leena Hietanen has written a book provocatively entitled Viron kylmä sota, Estonia's cold war, in which she takes Estonia to task for its treatment of the Russian minority living in Estonia.
Promoted by Migeru
In an interview with Finnish daily Hufvudstadsbladet (May 9th, 2008) Hietanen, who has worked in Tallinn for the past seventeen years, makes a number of notable claims that you rarely see in western media. Chief among them is the one hinted at in the title: the continued mistreatment of the Russophone minority in Estonia could potentially lead to a "Russian Kosovo in Estonia", that is ethnic tensions with "the west" supporting one side and Russia supporting the other that will ultimately lead down the same path as the ongoing Serbia/Kosovo dispute.
She further compares the situation of the Russophone minority to apartheid in South Africa or that of the Palestinian population, echoing Russian sentiment in the matter (see for example this 1993 article in the New York Times). Says Hietanen:
116 000 människor i Estland är statslösa och saknar medborgarskap. Ytterligare 130 000 är ryska medborgare. Vi har att göra med en minoritet på 250 000 människor utan medborgerliga rättigheter i ett EU-land. Och detta godkänner man i Bryssel!
116,000 people in Estonia are stateless and lack citizenship. Another 130,000 are Russian citizens. We are dealing with a minority of 250,000 people without citizen rights in a EU country. And this state of affairs is approved of in Brussels!
It should of course be noted that Hietanen is unabashedly pro-Russian, and makes no pretence otherwise. She explicitly states that she did not strive to be objective in writing her book. But this nevertheless serves to illustrate a contention often brought up at ET: whether extending EU membership to countries with significant shortcomings in human rights is at all a wise idea. Instead of being able to dangle the carrot of potential EU membership to encourage improvements and reforms, we have now internalised the issue, with seemingly little political will or ability to address it.
In a 2003 article (pdf), David J Smith of Glasgow University discusses minority rights in Estonia in the context of the then soon-to-be enlargement of the European Union. Smith sees a deliberate attempt by many of the driving forces behind the rebirth of the Estonian state in the early 90s to disenfranchise the Russian minority. Following Estonia's declaration of independence in 1991, a large portion of those who settled in Estonia during the Soviet-era became essentially stateless, and remain so to this day. Merely 35% of the Russian minority have Estonian citizenship, the rest have either Russian citizenship or "undetermined citizenship", as it is euphemistically called. This would make 65% of the Russian minority ineligible to vote in Estonian parliamentary elections and giving them a disproportionately small influence in Estonian politics. Smith notes that
In legal terms, Estonian minorities policy is entirely consistent with the [Council of Europe] [Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities]. In their approach to the settler issue, Estonian state-builders thus consciously sought to exploit the absence of any universal framework for minority rights, employing the very arguments that a number of EU member states had used in order to avoid any far-reaching minority rights obligations to their own immigrant populations.
Amnesty International issued a report in 2006
, calling upon Estonia to end discrimination of the Russian-speaking population, while commending efforts to assist the Russophone population in learning Estonian. A significant amount of the Estonian populace has an inadequate knowledge of the sole official language of Estonia, which obviously puts them at a great disadvantage.
The ethnic tensions in Estonia received short-lived international attention after the bronze statue conflict of 2007, or Bronze Night as it has since been dubbed. The conflict was also the impetus for Hietanen to write her book; she views it as a missed opportunity for the Estonian government to engage and integrate the Russian minority. Instead, she fears the damage done by the Estonian government may be irreparable:
I dag är det osäkert om de 116 000 ens önskar bli estniska medborgare. De kanske föredrar att få ryskt pass.
- Och då uppstår frågan hur Estland ska hålla ihop sitt land om en betydande minoritet inom landets gränser inte uppfattar landet som sitt hemland?
Today it's uncertain whether the 116,000 even want Estonian citizenship. Perhaps they would prefer a Russian passport.
– And then the question arises how Estonia will hold its country together, if a significant minority within the borders of the country doesn't view the country is its home country?
Hietanen also criticises the inaction of Estonia's northern neighbour Finland. It would probably be way too much to ask of the current Finnish government to play any sort of constructive role; Finnish foreign policy have recently taken a marked turn towards Atlanticism and NATO, likely to the detriment of its relationship with Russia. Though in light of Estonia's desire to be part of the Nordic community and close economic ties to Finland and Sweden, Finland could potentially be very influential.
In a sad irony, she claims that she is having ever greater difficulty getting her articles, which she characterizes as defending Russians, published in Finnish newspapers. It's funny, had she written an article criticising Russia and had difficultly publishing it, it would be considered "finlandisation"
This is not to minimise or trivialise the trials that Estonia had to endure during the Soviet-era. But, as Hietanen herself notes:
...ett förtryck idag [kan inte] försvaras med historiska argument. Gamla oförrätter kan aldrig motivera nya.
...oppression today cannot be justified with historical arguments. Old injustices can never justify new ones.