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Broken international agreements, historical cleavages, and Russia’s use of both hard and soft power in the Baltic states have caused some analysts to worry that another conflict in Eastern Europe awaits. Fearing that the Kremlin will launch a Crimea-style military intervention, the media has fixated on rising Baltic military spending—expected to reach $2.1 billion by 2020. Yet, the most pressing threat to the Baltics is not the possibility of conventional warfare in the upcoming months. Rather, it is Russia’s ability to use soft or sharp power to achieve its aims.
Central to Russia’s soft power capabilities is the issue of Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority population, largely a legacy of the illegal Soviet occupation (1940-1991). Estonia’s multiethnic Russian-speaking population comprises roughly 30% of Estonia’s total population of 1.3 million people, of which, an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 individuals are stateless and carry the grey passport that denotes undetermined citizenship. While stateless residents make up a small percentage of Estonia’s total population, Estonia does contain the 10th largest stateless population by state in the world. Statelessness and Russian-speaker integration more broadly continues to be a major issue of contention both internally between majority Estonians and Russian-speakers and externally between Estonia and the Russian Federation.
This ongoing contention continues to be reflected in the everyday experiences of many Russian-speakers, who perceive group-based discrimination in Estonian society and noted incidents of instability or volatility. Such incidents include, but are not limited to, the failed 1990s regional autonomy referendum in Estonia’s predominantly Russian-speaking northeast; the 2007 Bronze soldier riot, which was sparked by the removal of a Soviet-era statue in Tallinn and led to the death of one individual, the arrest of over 1,000 people, and the first Russian cyberwar; and an attempted self-immolation of a Russian pensioner in protest of the Estonian government. The status and wellbeing of Estonian Russian-speakers have provoked the Russian state in the past to voice official concern. Such everyday experiences and noted incidences illustrate an underlying fracture that the Russian state could potentially influence through soft power.
While historically the security concerns of Central and Eastern European states have been at odds with the rights of their minorities, regional institutions now view minority integration as a means for de-escalating interstate conflict. Specifically, in the Baltics, NATO, the OSCE, and the EU have identified grey passports, socioeconomic disparities between Russian-speakers and titular populations, and the naturalization process as key policy challenges. For these organizations, the adoption of stable integration policies is imperative to mitigate the risks associated with targeted hybrid warfare.
Estonia has followed the recommendations of its regional partners and gradually introduced more favorable integration policies for its Russian-speakers. While simultaneously promoting national security as the top policy objective, the government has increased its efforts toward facilitating Estonian language-learning and naturalization. While comparative data suggests that Estonia has progressed well in social, political, and economic integration, debate still surrounds the appropriate path forward.
Current Policy Developments
In its 2020 Vision, the Estonian government identified three objectives to aid the integration of minorities: (1) increasing the openness of Estonian society towards multiculturalism, (2) supporting minority cultures and languages, and (3) adapting integration policies for new and incoming minorities. The current focus with regards to Russian-speakers is to increase naturalization rates of youth and those with undetermined citizenship through reformed naturalization laws and language acquisition planning.
The continued use of language exams as a prerequisite for naturalization poses the greatest challenge to the integration of Russian-speakers, particularly stateless Russian-speakers. While naturalization reform has made it much simpler for youth to become citizens, older generations are still required to meet at least a B1 level of Estonian proficiency. For some Russian-speakers, the time and money required to complete Estonian language classes presents too significant a burden. For others, the requirement of naturalization—despite being born on Estonian territory—provokes a stigma of being classified as “secondary citizens.”
Incentives to preserve the grey passport have arguably also hindered the success of the naturalization process. There are some practical benefits to having undetermined status, such as travelling cost free across both the EU and Russia, where Estonian citizens must get visas to visit Russia. This dissuades some individuals from acquiring citizenship. Regardless of these benefits, having access to political participation at the national level remains a civic right that Russian-speakers should enjoy. The reduction in undetermined citizenship has been an ongoing goal for both policymakers and representatives of the Russian-speaking community.
The language of instruction in schools is central to integration debates. In Estonia, the minority group is allowed, albeit with some restrictions, to choose the primary language of instruction. However, tensions have emerged over allowing Russians to regulate their own language acquisition, creating an immersion program for both Estonian and Russian students, and/or assimilating Russian pupils into the Estonian language.
In accordance with Estonia’s integration goals, the government has settled on the following: as long as schools teach 60 percent of subjects in Estonian during grades 10-12, Russian-language schools may operate. However, these schools lag in educational standards due to a lack of institutional support, understaffing, and insufficient bilingual teaching capabilities. Furthermore, the introduction of the 60/40 bilingual split in tenth grade exacerbates the difficulties of weaker Russian-language students. As a result, the families of Russian students strongly oppose the government’s proposed benefits of the 60/40 policy.
Lastly, recognizing that an ethnic divide in media only fuels polarization, the government aims to integrate the information spaces between Estonian- and Russian-speakers. With the implementation of the 2007 Estonian Public Broadcasting Act, Estonia Public Broadcasting (ERR) became responsible for meeting the information needs of all populations in Estonia. It established ETV+ as an alternative Russian-language channel to combat targeted disinformation campaigns from external Russian broadcasting. Interestingly, despite significant funding and access gaps between Russian-speaking and ethnic Estonian journalists, Russian-speaking journalists see themselves as potential mediators between the two communities.
Thus, while the Estonian government has made strides toward achieving its objectives, public opinion remains divided. Some regard the government’s efforts as too invasive and assimilatory, while others believe they are insufficient to counter the alienation of Estonia’s Russian-speakers.
Integration Outcomes: Local Perceptions
What does integration policy look like to Estonia’s Russian-speakers? Examining the impact of these policies as perceived by their target community is critical to gauging policy effectiveness.
Our research shows that Russian-speakers vary in how they understand citizenship and integration. When asked to assess the value of citizenship in Estonia, around half deemed it important. Research shows that Russians tend to value the acts associated with being a citizen—i.e., voting, civic engagement, volunteering, protesting, etc.—more than its legal status. This mixed perception of citizenship’s value is illustrated by naturalization statistics, which reveal a steady decline since 2005. When asked about the naturalization process, the majority of Russian-speakers stated that learning the Estonian language should be a requirement. However, many noted that naturalization is difficult, particularly due to current language requirements and process length.
In our interviews, Russian-speakers demonstrated ambivalence toward citizenship in their perceptions of integration. While a select few voiced positive impressions of integration, most expressed more negative attitudes. Some Russian-speakers saw no distinction between integration and complete assimilation, thus illustrating the divisive and politicized nature of integration policy. For example, one individual asserted that the Estonian government was “forcing people to learn Estonian and to become citizens.” Others suggested that integration is ineffective because it neglects integral aspects of everyday life, like basic interactions between ethnic Estonians and Russian-speakers. One disillusioned Russian-speaker went as far as to say,
Integration in Estonia. . . . It’s dead. . . . I can actually tell exactly the date when the integration was over . . . April 26, 2007 [date of Bronze Soldier riots]. So, as of April 26, it became apparent to me in 2007 about my role in this society and about my possibilities – what I can achieve and cannot achieve in this society.
This same individual, among others, shared a sense of Estonia’s “two inequitable societies.” Estonian- and Russian-speaking communities lack daily interactions and shared information spaces, particularly in the predominantly Russian-speaking northeast. We heard stories of Russian-speakers changing their surnames to better integrate. One individual explained, “I know that some people have a negative attitude towards me because I changed my surname from a Russian one to an Estonian one. . . . But it just gives you some kind of benefit.” Overall, the prevalence of such negative attitudes toward integration illustrates a critical need for policy “resuscitation.”
While it is easy to ignore Estonian integration policy within the current geopolitical context, security and integration in Estonia deeply intersect. Both are bellwethers of stability, especially as the government derives political legitimacy from notions of democracy, equality, and justice.
To implement effective and well-received policies, officials must rectify the views of national security experts with the experiences of Estonia’s Russian-speakers. We propose the following recommendations in geopolitics and security and in minority integration and perceptions.
Geopolitics & Security
Hybrid threats continue to pose a security risk to the Baltic states. Cyberwarfare and disinformation counter-campaigns must be present on the government’s agenda. Studies on information consumption reveal that Russian-speakers a) prioritize entertainment over news and b) are skeptical of both Russian and Estonian news broadcasting. Estonian broadcasting companies must therefore deliver programming that matches the entertainment interests of Russian-speakers. They should also market ETV+ as a tool for cultural exchanges and language-learning—both for Russian-speakers and ethnic Estonians.
Social and digital media play an increasing role in information consumption. For example, fake news targeted toward Russian- and Estonian-speakers in Estonia, shared or perpetuated via social and digital media, may influence Russian-speakers’ perceptions of the Estonian government. Recent research shows that Estonians are the least critical of fake news and its potential dangers among EU residents. Measures are needed to ensure active participation among both ethnic Estonians- and Russian-speakers in information integration.
Our interviews further revealed the vulnerability of Russian-speakers in national discussions surrounding security and defense. Fixating on the threat from Russia, officials often wind up alienating Estonia’s Russian-speakers. To prevent ethnic stereotyping in mainstream society, officials must take caution to separate the Russian government and the Russian people as two distinct entities. Similarly, in discussions of Estonia’s posture toward Russia, policymakers should include a diverse array of Russian-speaking perspectives, which have often been absent in such conversations.
Minority Integration & Perceptions
Recognizing that naturalization has become easier for youth, we recommend greater accommodation for Russian-speaking adults with undetermined citizenship. Through long-term, fully or partially funded language classes, the government can increase levels of Estonian proficiency and ease the naturalization process. The government should also prioritize consultation with Russian-speakers who feel disenfranchised by the requirement of naturalization. Not only will this help mitigate tensions, but it will allow the government to develop more inclusive and equitable processes to better reflect the community-wide challenges faced by Russian-speakers.
As acquisition planning continues to fuel grievances between Russian-speakers and Estonian policymakers, proponents of the 60/40 education policy must address the concerns of Russian families. To allocate teaching resources, the Estonian government should a) direct more funding to Russian schools and b) ensure that Estonian and Russian teachers are adequately trained so that neither language group is systematically disadvantaged. To promote the holistic integration of Russian-speaking youth, the government should consider full-immersion programs, informal language learning classes, and exchange programs that encourage active collaboration between ethnic Estonians and Russian-speakers.
The Integration Work Continues
Estonia has introduced key multidimensional integration policies to bridge more effectively Russian-speakers with mainstream Estonian society; however, much work remains. Estonia’s naturalization process, in particular, has undergone various amendments that have allowed for easier access to citizenship. However, it continues to be measured as more restrictive than its fellow EU member states, with the exception of Latvia, which shares somewhat similar policies and national concerns.
The geographic concentration and separation of Russian-speakers, particularly in the northeast, reflect a need to better integrate Russian-speaking areas. For example, President Kersti Kaljulaid has unexpectedly committed to relocating her office to Russian-majority Narva for one month in 2018, building upon past efforts to relocate state institutions to the region. These efforts highlight a path forward. However, the challenge remains to balance responsibly the local perceptions and input of the Russian-speaking community with the overall security of the state.