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Estonia - Russians

Russians are concentrated primarily in the northeast of Estonia, where many were settled in connection with the development of the extensive oil shale industry. In 1945, by resolution of the then State Defence Committee of the USSR, the construction of a new oil shale processing complex was begun in Kohtla-Järve under the slogan “Gas for Leningrad”. From 1948 domestic gas, manufactured from oil shale, was pumped to St. Petersburg.

As of January 1, 2011, 84.2% of Estonia's population held Estonian citizenship, 8.7% were citizens of other countries (primarily Russia), and 7.1% were of undetermined citizenship. In Estonia, 68 percent is ethnically Estonian, and about 30 percent is ethnic Russian. Over the years Moscow tried to exploit the ethnic Russian minority because the Baltic republics did not offer citizenship to people who had been moved in by the occupying power, and consequently many of these people are without passports.

Of the approximately 450,000 Russians in Estonia, about 150,000 are what is described as stateless people. They aren't citizens of Estonia or Russia or any country. When Estonia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians who wanted to be Estonian citizens had to apply and pass an Estonian language exam. Many Russians resented being required to apply for citizenship in a country where they had lived for so long. Some returned to Russia, or chose to apply for Russian citizenship and remain in Estonia. The rest don't have any citizenship.

The rocky history with neighboring Russia was the main reason that sixty-nine percent of ethnic-Estonians supported NATO membership, according to a poll by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But the same poll indicated that among the Russian-speaking population of Estonia, support for NATO membership was barely 30 percent. Many ethnic-Russians in Estonia believed membership in NATO would lead to increased defense spending that will hurt the economy. For example, they feared pension payments won't increase and medical care wold cost more. Other Russians in Estonia said Estonia should be spending more time and energy on helping its Russian speaking population integrate into the country instead of spending money on joining NATO.

In 1979, ethnic Estonians comprised 64.7 percent of the population, and Russians accounted for 27.9 percent. Ten years later, the Estonian share had fallen to 61.5 percent, while the Russian share had risen to 30.3 percent. Russian colonization of Estonia began in the 18th century, but the greatest migration of ethnic Russians followed World War II when thousands came to work in industry. Russians are concentrated primarily in the northeast of the republic, where many were settled in connection with the development of the extensive oil shale industry. In 1989, about 47 percent of the population of Tallinn was Russian and 41 percent was Estonian. In Tartu, in contrast, 72 percent was Estonian and 22 percent Russian. At independence, more Estonians spoke Russian than vice versa. As would be expected, the share of Russian speakers increased from 50 to 59 percent between 1979 and 1989, while the share of Estonian speakers declined by 2.1 percentage points to 67.4 percent.

At independence, Russians were disproportionately represented in the higher paying sectors, such as industry and transport, while Estonians predominate in the lower paying sectors, such as health and education. This pattern, which was repeated throughout most non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union, was the result of the long-continued Soviet policy of sending highly skilled Russians to republics outside Russia in order to staff new industrial enterprises.

In 2000, the Government of Estonia approved the "State Integration Program for 2000-2007," which called for reducing the number of Estonia's stateless residents, a "substantial" breakthrough in teaching Estonian to Russian-speakers and full participation of non-Estonians in all levels of society. Out of a total population of 1.4 million people, Estonia has 387,000 Russian speakers; 97,000 of whom are Russian citizens and hold Russian passports, and 108,000 are legal residents of Estonia, but have no citizenship at all (they are stateless). The remaining 182,000 Russian speakers have Estonian citizenship (either by their families living here between 1920-1940, or through naturalization since 1992).

Russian-speaking students who graduate from Estonian public high schools all receive the language certification required to enroll in Estonian universities. Many of their parents, however, do not speak enough Estonian to obtain citizenship or hold a public service sector job. The parents are often Russian citizens or "stateless" gray passport holders. Many Russian students express frustration with the fact that their parents, who have lived and worked in Estonia 20-30 years or more and held local citizenship during Soviet times, must now learn Estonian in order to apply for citizenship. Some complained that their parents had lost jobs and income as a result. Language remains one of the most divisive issues. Students and other members of the ethnic Russian community complained that in Estonia "integration" has seemed more like "assimilation."

For the first time since 1991, following the 2003 elections the new Estonian parliament did not contain a Russian party. Though the Russian speaking community makes up more than one-third of Estonia's population, none of its parties gained enough votes to make it into parliament.

Tallinn's so-called "Bronze Soldier" carried considerable baggage. A wooden memorial erected at the site in the aftermath of World War II was blown up (supposedly by a group of Estonian school girls who then received eight years imprisonment for their deed). The current monument, with the inscription "To those who perished in WWII," has been in place since 1947. In recent years it has come to symbolize the chasm between Estonian and Russian understanding of recent history. Russians considered it "their" monument of victory over fascism in the Great Patriotic War, Estonians as a monument to the Soviet occupation.

On 10 January 2007, the parliament approved a bill giving the government legal authority to relocate the graves of Soviet soldiers and the adjacent Bronze Soldier statue from their current location in central Tallinn. Shortly after 9:30PM 26 April 2007, police ordered a crowd of 1,000-1,500 individuals to disperse. The evening TV news had just signed off at 9:30. When the crowd refused, the police began to use riot control equipment including tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. Extensive looting and vandalism ensued. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) estimates that approximately 600 of the demonstrators participating in the rioting. Press reports indicate one fatality, 44 demonstrators and 12 police injured badly enough to require treatment, and roughly 300 people arrested, and released shortly thereafter. The fatality was reportedly due to one demonstrator stabbed by another. The majority of injuries were reportedly the result of broken glass. At 3:40AM in the morning, an emergency government committee met and ordered the Bronze Soldier be removed. Most of the rioters were Russians. On May 1, the Bronze Soldier was placed in its new location in a military cemetery. The statue was in good condition, in a respectful and dignified location, and surrounded by flowers and peaceful visitors.

As of 01 August 2011, according to government statistics, 98,915 persons, or 7 percent of the population, were of undetermined citizenship -- de facto stateless. The UNHCR had reported that in January the number of stateless persons was 100,983. Nearly all were ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, or others who became stateless upon the demise of the Soviet Union. In 2010, according to the NGO Estonian Cooperation Assembly, 24 percent of the country’s ethnic minorities were of undetermined citizenship, or stateless, 50 percent were citizens of Estonia, 23 percent were Russian citizens, and 3 percent declared themselves citizens of another state.

Nearly all stateless persons were long-term residents; they could vote in local, but not parliamentary, elections. There are statutory procedures that offer opportunities for obtaining citizenship, but some human rights observers regarded them as inadequate. In the case of newborn children, the legal chancellor recommended reversing the law in order to grant automatic citizenship to the children of legal residents but permit children to be stateless at the request of their parents. Individuals of undetermined citizenship were eligible to apply for naturalization, but must pass language and civics tests. In 2010, 54 percent of those taking the test at the level required to acquire citizenship passed. Authorities have adopted policies, such as funding civics and language courses and simplifying the naturalization process for persons with disabilities, to facilitate acquisition of citizenship by those stateless persons who wish it. Although many residents preferred Russian citizenship or statelessness to Estonian citizenship, some human rights observers continued to criticize the government’s integration policies as too one sided. In its annual report for 2010, the EHRC noted that the continuing fall in the rate of naturalization was unlikely to be reversed unless the citizenship law was liberalized.

Ethnic Russian political parties first developed in Estonia during the late 1980's, primarily in opposition to the Estonian independence movement. During the mid to late 1990s, several new Russian political parties emerged with platforms more focused on issues related to ethnicity. Russian parties were first represented in the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament) in 1995. During the 1999 parliamentary elections two ethnically based parties, the United People's Party and the Russian Unity Party, ran on a joint ticket and received a combined 6.8 percent of the vote, earning them six seats in the 101-seat Estonian parliament.

Even though one-third of Estonia's population is Russian-speaking, Estonia has no strong Russian political parties. The few ethnic Russian parties that have formed have remained on the margins of politics. Russian-centric Party leaders in Estonia tend to be fanatical and base their platforms solely on polarizing issues like the Bronze Soldier. Instead, largely because it is the only Estonian political party reaching out to Russian speakers, the opposition Center Party has attracted the most support from ethnic Russians. Center reaped the benefits of this support in the October 2009 local elections, when a greater number of ethnic Russians voted and overwhelmingly voted for the Center Party. As a little over half of Russian speakers in Estonia are not Estonian citizens, however, the Center Party was not be able to cash in on Russian votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections, where only Estonian citizens can vote.


Estonia's main Russian-speaking regions are the north-east (around Narva), the Tallinn suburb of Lasnamae, and the Old Believer communities along the shore of Lake Peipsi. In the Ida-Virumaa County (aka Ida Viru County), in north-east Estonia on the border with Russia, 84 percent of the population is Russian-speaking and 47 percent either hold Russian citizenship or are stateless. Although ethnic Estonians are a minority in the region, 73 percent of residents under the age of 15 are Estonian citizens. Russia has exerted its influence in this particular county through Russian-language media imported from Russia, as well as by training teachers. Idu-Virumaa County has 13.5 percent of Estonia's population (179,000 people in the county), and generates 16 percent of GDP. The county population is 80 percent Russian-speaking. Idu-Virumaa has 100 percent of Estonia's chemical and oil shale industry, 95 percent of electricity production, and 53 percent of total industry.

The Russians mastered Narva in Livonia in 1558, and thereby gained an opening into the Baltic Sea. They thereupon erected it into an emporium or staple port for the trade of Russia with most of the rest of Europe. The Hanseatic merchants hereupon removed their comptoir from Revel, where it had been fixed, since the Muscovites had barbarously driven them from Novogrod. The Russians removed the staple to Narva, which, as far as related to their own trade, was, in a great measure, in their own power to do : yet the great master of the Teutonic Knights of Livonia, (for there was still such a title in Livonia, though he of Prussia was long since secularized) and also the Archbishop of Riga, made grievous complaints to the Emperor Ferdinand of the great injury done to the empire.

Astolphe marquis de Custine wrote in 1844 that "Narva is the only interesting point between Dorpat and St. Petersburg. Though the town has only 5000 inhabitants, less than that of many Russian villages, yet many a large town might appear uninteresting and unattractive compared to the lively, compact little Narva. It is a thoroughly German town, with an old imperial constitution and similar privileges to those of Riga and Reval. Being on the boundary between Estonia and Russia, Narva has been the scene of numberless sieges, bornbardments, battles, and blockades. As at Riga and Dorpat, B Russian incrustation has fastened upon the old German foundation of Narva. The Russians all dwell on the righthand side of the river, round the ruins of their old Ivangorod, and the Germans on the left side of the Narova, within their walls."

The city of Narva in the Ida-Virumaa County accounts for 10 percent of Estonia's exports and 65 percent of its transit. Narva is on the Russian border, just across a small river from Ivangorod, and has a population of 67,000, 97 percent of whom are Russian citizens. The Narva Power plant produces much of Estonia's electricity. Narva, along with the Lasnamae district in Tallinn, are the main homes to Estonia's Russian minority. Narva was rebuilt almost entirely after World War II and settled by migrant Russian blue-collar workers. As such, Narva very much feels like a Russian city. Despite Narva being an ethnically Russian city, the city has few ties with neighboring Ivangorod. The two have a joint project rehabilitating the river's banks, but that is the extent of practical cooperation.

Rumors in 2008 about separatists in Narva declaring independence, or the Russian embassy handing out passports to thousands of ethnic Russians in northeast Estonia, were dismissed them as old-school Russian disinformation. They attributed such stories to the same group of activists, the so-called 'Nightwatch,' directed by Moscow, who have been linked to the 2007 Bronze Soldier demonstrations.

In March 2014 the Defense Ministry set aside 1 million euros for the construction of a Defense League building in the eastern border city of Narva. Minister Urmas Reinsalu said Estonian state defense must be visible in Narva, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, and the decision to fund the project now was taken with the current security climate in mind. Narva had 200 home guard members, including Estonians, Russian-speakers and other ethnicities. Construction work was expected to begin in September with a 2015 opening.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2016 17:43:56 ZULU