How has the Russian speaking minority in Estonia changed?

How has the Russian speaking minority in Estonia changed?

Interview with Andrey Makarychev, Russian professor living in Estonia, who said that the number of applications for Estonian citizenship has risen since the start of the war among the Russian speakers. Our interview from Estonia where society changes significantly since the war started.

The Russian border is only about 55 kilometers from Tartu where you live. Can you feel the cold breath of Moscow?

This is a long story of relations between Estonia and Russia, of course and it was almost immediately after the regain of independence. I'll just ask you a question. Who do you think was one of the most popular geopolitical scholars in Estonia in the 1990s?

I guess Samuel Huntington.

For sure. Estonians were sympathetic with an idea of civilizational distinction, as opposed to civilizational hybridity: the border is the border, and they are on the western side of it being part of western and transatlantic community. They don’t want to be in between, in a position of vulnerable marginality, and that's the idea that dates to post 1991. They wanted to be part of the collective West and now what happened with this war is that this desire from a geopolitical theory transformed into a matter of necessity.

Still, there is some kind of hybridity within Estonia, right?

Well, there is a significant Russian speaking community, and you can imagine that if you have this community while having a situation of war spreading the ideas of the ‘Russian world’, you feel the pressure which takes many different forms. One is the information propaganda that is a hybrid threat: between Russia and Estonia, there is a river with cities located on both sides of it: Narva, an Estonian city with 95% Russian speaking population and Ivangorod, a Russian city. On the 9th of May – celebration the victory of WWII in Russia – in Ivangorod a huge screen was constructed that broadcasted Russian patriotic music referring to a blend of nationalism and imperialism. If you have a huge screen on the other side of the river, it is a visual and acoustic invasion, a kind of semantic signal that Russians are here, and they'll stay here forever. It's a combination of geopolitical, psychological and information pressure.

Yes, and in this case, Estonia quickly put an end to the availability of Russian-language TV programmes and radio broadcasts. Freedom of speech was widely denounced in this case. What is your position on the issue?

Technically, still people can watch many Russian channels through Internet. In the 21st century, it is impossible to completely build an information wall – if people want to watch, they will find ways and means.

In the meantime, the situation of the Russian-speaking community is also in question.

When the war restarted on the 24th of February, the Estonian Russian-speaking community was afraid to be accused of being Russians because when they realized what Russia did with Ukraine, they just saw huge negative feelings about Russia that might be projected onto them. They wanted to avoid this saying: yes, we speak the ‘language of Putin’, but we did not contribute to this aggression; we are part of Russian culture, but we did not do anything wrong–don't blame us for what Putin did. However, many of these people still supported many Russian foreign policies, ideas and actions, so they're kind of in between. On the one hand, they negate the war, but not to the extent of acknowledging that Putin is an aggressor. This duplicity makes their position very vulnerable and inconsistent.

How can a society like this act as a united organ? After Ukraine was attacked in Latvia, the Russian-speaking minority has completely turned its back on Russia, condemning the aggression, cutting ties with the Putin regime, and a huge change was taking place. What is the situation in Estonia?

The situation in Estonia is similar. I did some field research in political anthropology. I was observing what Russian speakers do, how they react, what they say publicly or privately. The first trend is a desire not to be blamed and stay aloof, the second trend is a polarization within the Russian speaking community. Statistically the number of applications for Estonian citizenship has risen since the start of the war among the Russian speakers. Basically, this means that more Russian speakers would like to identify themselves with Estonian citizenship. In the meantime, there’re people who are still complaining because of language policy while thinking that there is a kind of language discrimination towards them– that's what polarization is about. They don't like the Estonian government and their opinion might be quite radical in some cases.

Also worth mentioning are the Russians who are fleeing the darkness of Putin's regime to Estonia...

After the war restarted, what happened in Estonia is a growing number of people who left Russia before the ban was introduced by the Estonian government. That was in August 2022, when even people with Schengen visa could not enter Estonia that with two other Baltic states introduced an unprecedented measure of cancelling the already existing Schengen visas. Yet there is still a significant number of Russians in Estonia who are explicitly anti-Putin and anti-war, not only because they're afraid to be conscripted. Many of them are civic activists. The Russian community is changing, for more than one year, you could see people from Russia who want to be part of Estonian community and the Western society. Some of them have their own media resources, blogs, and social networks, they organize public events in Russian. I don't overestimate the importance of them, but they produced a completely different discourse in Russian language: those people who were always a little bit reluctant to accept the Estonian government having a feeling of being sidelined or marginalized now started to open towards the Estonian government.

You left Russia ten years ago and now you are living in Estonia. Now, that resettlement would be impossible.

After the war restarted, because of the growing number of people who left Russia a ban was introduced by the Estonian government. That was in August 2022, when even people with Schengen visa could not travel, like my brother, who lives in Russia. Estonia with two other Baltic states introduced unprecedented measure of cancelling the already existing Schengen visas and some other ways of settling in Estonia.

In your opinion, is it a mistake to close the borders?

It's a very complicated and controversial question. I don’t know whether it's a mistake or not.

What are the major Estonian arguments?

The first argument is ethical: it's unacceptable that people from a country that kills other people in Ukraine would take advantage of coming to Europe, enjoy our sunny beaches and have fun. It is quite controversial but still it’s a moral algorithm. Germans after the World War II had the experience of being treated like that. The second argument is more practical: there's nothing you can do here, go back to Russia, and clean the mess. It's your country, and democracy implies that you take the future of your country into your own hands.

One can say: “I'm beyond politics. What can I do? I'm just a small little man.”

On the one hand, the Polish Solidarność in 1980 gave an example of effectiveness of political actions. On the other hand, the Baltic states, being parts of the Soviet Union, could do very little against the Soviet regime until it started crumbling in Moscow.

Maybe an argument on social and national security?

Could be. I think there is one more psychological dimension that is a kind of sense of fatigue: we in Europe don’t expect any longer that much from Russia. Now all our expectations are crushed, just leave us alone whether you are ‘good Russian’ or not. There's a combination of different factors that explains this decision.

Dr. Andrey Makarychev is Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and Associate Senior Researcher at CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). His areas of expertise are Russia-EU relations, post-Soviet countries, mega-events in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and issues of biopolitics. His record of previous institutional affiliations includes George Mason University (Fairfax, VA), Center for Conflict Studies (ETH, Zurich), Danish Institute of International Studies (DIIS), and Nizhny Novgorod Linguistic University. He was hosted by MCC Budapest. 

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