Friday, 27 April 2007

Tension in Tallinn

This morning I wake to news of riots in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, following protests by ethnic Russians against the removal of a Soviet-era war memorial from the city centre. Giuliano, an Estonian blogger, is waiting for the government spin to begin, now that the event is over. His assumption that the riots were a flash in the pan is rather naive and ignores the ethnic issues that culminated in a night of violence where 1 person died, 43 are injured and more than 300 were arrested.

Tallinn is the home of Skype software development and was my second home for about a year. It is a city of stark contrasts, between the freezing dark winters and the warm bright summers and between the charming, higgledy-piggledy medieval buildings of the old town and the ugly, utilitarian suburbs of the soviet era.

Estonians are very proud of their achievements and so they might be. After centuries of subjugation by various neighbours, they have emerged as a beacon of economic stability and vibrancy in the post-Soviet Baltic states. But, lurking under the surface, is something dark and sinister which Estonia has failed to recognise or address.

The problem no Estonian wants to deal with is that of the ethnic Russians who were left behind when the iron curtain collapsed. Under the Soviet regime, ethnic Russians were the cream of Estonian society, holding the best jobs, living in the nicest houses, children attending Russian-speaking schools and not mixing with lowly Estonian children. Ethnic Russians make up more than quarter of the Estonian population, and almost half of the population of Tallinn.

There is an apartheid system in operation I discovered. Ethnic Russians are not entitled to Estonian passports and have become, to all intents and purposes, stateless people imprisoned in a nation that despises them. They are issued with national identity cards but the field for nationality remains blank unless they pass an Estonian language exam. For many of the older ethnic Russians, this is almost an insurmountable task - Estonian is a very old and grammatically complex language. A sign at the entrance to the Tallinn Summer Fair last year offered discounts to pensioners but was limited to Estonian pensioners only.

Ask any Estonian and they will tell you proudly that they have forgiven the ethnic Russians and they are all one big happy family. The facts belie this fairytale however. Ethnic Russians have become a new underclass in Estonia, doing menial jobs when they can get them with many turning to prostitution and crime in the absence of any viable alternatives. Native Estonians blame them for being lazy and naturally criminal and seem blind to the damage this apartheid segregation causes; to their communities, to their international reputation and to the long-term stability of their society.

Tensions were heightened this Spring in the lead up to parliamentary elections, with politicians playing to these deep social divisions to gain the emotional upperhand at the polls. The promise to remove the war memorial was a ploy used by the winning nationalist party in their campaign and trouble has been brewing since.

Yet the Estonian police seemed completely unprepared for the trouble that ensued. According to a friend in Estonia, they stayed in place surrounding the statue, expecting everybody to get fed up and go home. Instead, there were pitched battles through the streets of the capital between native Estonians and ethnic Russians, accompanied by damage to property, cars and general looting.

The EU wants the problem sorted quickly, adding to the stress of a government that seems incapable of facing up to the complexities of the situation. They have called in the army to stop ethnic Russians travelling to the capital today from eastern Estonia against a backdrop offury in the Russian parliament, which is threatening to sever diplomatic relations with its Baltic neighbour.

Will this crisis help Estonia wake up from its torpor and start facing the demons of its Soviet past? Can Estonia afford not to?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. thanks for naming it...i am a foreigner living in tallinn...and yeah, since i am here (since two years), i can feel that underlayig "operating apartheid system"...bought recently an apartment and came along some apartment seller who praised their houses with sentences "and here live only fine estonian people, no russians" !!!

  3. don't know why the first comment author deleted the comment but thanks for your comment Thomas.I worried about expressing my opinions in this blog for fear of offending good friends in Tallinn - but what the hell - the truth must out. Your experience is so typical - Estonia must learn that it takes more than hard work to contribute to the European project, fairness and equality are also necessary.

  4. What kind of country are we talking about here?

    What kind of country lies down for so long and does and says nothing?

    "That's ok, wave your red flag, the flag of the men that killed my family, because, hey, I'm tolerant?"

    "That's ok, speak to me in Russian, because I'll do anything to make you happy, and why should you learn Estonian anyway?"

    "That's ok, deny what the USSR did here was criminal, because, hey, we all have different interpretations of history, right?"

    No real country acts that way. You know what the Norwegians and the French did with their traitors after WWII? They shot them.

    But guys that worked against the resoration of independence in 1991? They get a living permit and they are free to work with Russian nationalist youth groups.

    Sounds more like the Dutch way, if you ask me.

    As for apartheid, look, why is the onus on the Estonian authorities to magically make the situation disappear. It's one they inherited from Soviet population transfer.

    They didn't create apartheid in Estonia, they inherited it. The idea of 'closed towns' where only 'trustworthy nationalities' could live -- Narva, Paldiski -- is a legacy of the Soviet era.

    The problem is how to combat that amidst cries from international groups to basically not be proactive (Amnesty) and the meddling hand of Russia, which sees any attempt at integration as discriminatory, because Russians should be served abroad as at home.

    I've been living here off and on, and I have met ethnic Russians of varying success.

    Some have citizenship, are successful in their endeavors, are tri-lingual, and basically, benefit from the position Estonia is in.

    Others sit around and drink vodka all day.

    So is it the government's prerogative to make sure that all Russians succeed in Estonia, and how do they do that, faced with this linguistic and cultural abyss?

    I've been to this point it seems like a hundred times. And this is the point that the Estonian government must address and has tried to address.

    bought recently an apartment and came along some apartment seller who praised their houses with sentences "and here live only fine estonian people, no russians" !!!

    Not very tactful, are they? I'm sure German couples like to settle down into Turkish neighborhoods in Germany. Or Swedes into Serbian neighborhoods.

    Yes, it's racist alright, but it's also not just an Estonian phenomenon.

    I don't like it, but occasionally it's nice to see it out in front of me in the open, rather than have someone try the classic racist means of communication --whispering about it in secret.

  5. @giustino---"--whispering about it in secret. " I am not whispering, I also tell me Estonian friends what I think about their society and I do not only criticise! There are plenty of things I like in Estonia...And for me, I do also criticise German society when ever it is necessary, I do critcise the German government in regard of their (none)actions towards the grwowing fascism and nationalism in Germany, for the mistakes made during the integration of the turks and greece, italiens and whomever came to Germany...But i see the tendency that Estonia will repeat the same integration mistakes as Germany and France did...Thats why I am concerned and raise my voice!<-- let me come back to that apartment example: Imagine me, foreigner, my girlfriend, native russian speaker but estonian speaking too, succesful in estonian business-environment (and thats is a hard job for native russian speakers in estonia to succeed in a public institution!!!) meeting that apartment owner and he looks in our eyes and said, also to my girlfriend who still has an accent "only fine estonian people here, no russians"...i was close to say, in this case he should let more foreigners in to raise the value of that property... and giustino, something personal, I am reading your blog since a while and, I do not whisper in your ear now, I would also tell it to you while drinking a sound like an "estonian falcon" but I got the impression you don't like that political trend not that much in your homeland,do you?!?

  6. -->Not very tactful, are they? I'm sure German couples like to settle down into Turkish neighborhoods in Germany. Or Swedes into Serbian neighborhoods.<--Maybe not many german couples want to live in neighborhoods where with mostly turkish population, but many do too...just go to berlin and take a closer look!!!...but your turned upside down the question, the question should be (as the turks are the minority and the russians the minority in estonia)-->how many estonian would allow russians in the neighborhood???...and to the turkish thing in Germany, I honestly do not see anyone, won't allow turkish neighbors in germany...even if the wouldn't like it, THEY WOULD NOTHING DO OR SAY AGAINST IT JUST BECAUSE NOT TO DISCRIMINATE

  7. Guistino - while I agree with you that the honesty is refreshing, I beg to differ on your other points. Just because Estonia inherited an apartheid system doesn't make it right for them to prolong it. And your comment about vodka drinkers smacks of the racial stereotyping that feeds the status quo. Most of the drunken excess I have witnessed in Tallinn is the flotsam and jetsam that litters the streets early in the morning, the party animals from the EasyJet flights.

  8. Triona,

    I agree with you that Estonian politicians have been far from successful wrt integration of ethnic minorities into the Estonian society. We don't have a public-law russian-language TV channel. We have nearly no Estonians teaching at russian-language schools. And then we express our astonishment about why the local Russian-speaking population fails to integrate.

    However, there's a good saying in Finnish: "maassa maan tavalla" -- follow the customs of the land. Should I decide to move to Finland or Spain or any other country, I'd take the trouble to learn the local language instead of demanding the locals to speak to me in Estonian. Should I decide to move to Iran, I would not demand the right to take a day off work because of a Christian religious holiday.

    And that's exactly where the welfare societies fail. They're so obsessed with being politically correct and non-discriminative that they've started to limit the rights of the aboriginals to exercise their traditional ways of living which some of the immigrants might find offensive.

    If you don't like the way people think, speak, or act in another country, stay at bloody home. It's as simple as that.

  9. wolli..what are you talking about? a lot of the rioters gave interviews in estonian, there are schools for native russian speaking kids where the instruction language is ESTONIAN...these kids out there were born here as well as there parents and gradparents...estonia isn't just their host-country!...the bottom line is, as long as you have a slavic family name you are pretty much fucked !!!

  10. Thomas, I think you're wrong. Being a Russian (or having a Russian name) is not stopping you from being a member of the Estonian society. At least in the circles I know about.

  11. Apartheid is defined as: "An official policy of racial segregation formerly practiced in the Republic of South Africa, involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites.".

    This is not what is going on in Estonia. To compare Estonia to what happened is SA isn't fair.

    There is no official policy to segregate Russians. Russians can apply for citizenship if they pass a language and history test, something which almost every other nation requires in one sort or another. The USA requires a test be passed (in English) and that you take the pledge of allegiance, in the UK you have language and security requirements, etc. Estonian is a hard language to learn but Justin posts often in Estonian and has only lived in the country on and off, difficulty is no excuse. Those that have lived here for 40 years should have been able to pick it up by now.

    While there is unofficial discrimination such as Thomas describes with the apartment this is not everywhere or everyone. And you can't honestly tell me that this doesn't occur in a large number of countries where minorities face barriers, I don't think Estonia is any worse off in this respect than the UK or USA, it's just a smaller country which makes it more visible.

    Estonia does have a lot of issues with it's past that it needs to confront as you said in your post. But it's difficult to do that when Russia has yet to admit that it ever occupied Estonia and continues to act aggressively towards Eesti.

  12. Wolli - well said - lack of public policy on the one hand, and lack of willingness to integration on the other - leads to explosive feelings as you guys are currently suffering. Conflict resolution is never easy - as an Irish person I'm only too keenly aware of this. To move forward it must move from the position that one side is right or the other to a recognition that both sides are wrong in some respects.

    Andres - not sure I agree with your definition of apartheid and I know that there is no English language requirement for UK residency which has very lax cultural requirements. But residency is not the issue here - we are discussing people who are second, even third generation Estonians - isn't it time to recognise the pluralistic nature of your society (for whatever historical reasons) and to show sensitivity to the cultural perspectives of all concerned. Such an approach will undermine the impact of Russian interference.

  13. You can become French by getting French citizenship. You can only become Estonian by being born to Estonian parent(s). You can indeed become an Estonian citizen but in this country, "nationality" and "citizenship" are two different concepts.

    Speaking of second- or third-generation Estonians is therefore misleading in most cases. What you meant are second- or third-generation residents of Estonia.