Ethnic divisions in Estonia

The Man

Former Staff
Jul 2011

A set of posters in Estonia appearing to advocate ethnic segregation has stoked anger among members of the country's Russian minority and caused dormant ethnic tensions to resurface ahead of parliamentary elections in March.

The six posters appeared overnight on January 6-7 on both sides of a tram stop in the center of Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet republic in the Baltics that is now a member of both NATO and the European Union.

Three of the posters, reading "Only Estonians here," covered one-half of the tram stop. The others, pasted over the other half, read "Only Russians here." A column in the center of the glass-and-steel structure, which separated the two sides, had been colored red.

It was initially unclear who was responsible for the provocative slogans, which immediately provoked a backlash in a country where up to one-quarter of the population considers itself ethnic Russian and where tensions between the two ethnic groups continue to exist below the surface.

A separate message at the bottom of each poster listed two different phone numbers, one for Russian and one for Estonian speakers, and the words -- in both languages -- "call if you have questions."

Plenty of people did. When reporters from the independent daily Postimees rang, an automated voice message in Estonian mentioned the March 3 vote and said: "We, Estonians, should unite. Make sure you stand on the right side!" A call to the other number provided brought the same message in Russian, but with "Estonians" substituted for "Russians," Postimees reported.

By evening on January 7, the signs had been covered up with adverts for a joint production by Tallinn's Russian- and Estonian-language theaters. The new image showed two touching tongues, one colored with the Russian and the other with the Estonian flag, according to the Delfi news site. When RFE/RL called the number from the original posters, an automated message said the line was temporarily inactive.

'Highly Relevant'

On January 8, it emerged that the controversial posters had been the work of Eesti 200, a new, small party that has sought ahead of the upcoming vote to refocus attention on the ongoing issue of integrating Russian speakers into Estonian society. Eesti 200 leader Kristina Kallas told Estonian media that the uproar caused by the posters proved that the issue remained highly relevant for Estonia.

Both ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians appeared unimpressed. "Maybe they should split society as America once did between blacks and whites," one Facebook user wrote in Russian.

"They divided our society already in the 1990s, calling Russians second-class citizens," another Facebook user Anna Yerofeyeva wrote.

"Everybody feels disgusted. If I had to stand there and wait for the tram, where do I stand?" Ester Vaitmaa wrote on Facebook. "This type of labeling doesn't exist in schools and at work and this campaign ad did not seem well-intentioned at all."

During a TV debate organized by the Eesti Paevaleht daily on January 9, Eesti 200 members found themselves facing criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. "We saw that this provocation that you brought to the streets has reached the TV channels of the Russian Federation, where it's been used provocatively and without explanation," said Prime Minister Juri Ratas of the center-left Center Party during the debate.

And in a Facebook post, Viktoria Ladynskaya-Kubits, a Russian-Estonian representing the right-wing Pro Patria party, wrote: "You may just as well have hit a woman in the face and said the next day: 'You see, she is hurt now, and domestic violence is still a problem in society.'"

'Not Seen Since Apartheid'

Russian state media did indeed seize upon the poster campaign. "The modern world, the world in general, has seen nothing like this for years. Probably since apartheid in South Africa," a presenter on flagship news channel Rossia 24 said on January 9. The incident featured in Russian news programs throughout the day, culminating in a discussion on the popular 60 Minutes talk show.

Estonia's Russian minority is a legacy of the Soviet Union, which occupied the three Baltic states after World War II and settled them with thousands of Russians as part of a "Sovietization" campaign. The two sides live in relative peace, though Russian state media has traditionally stoked tension at times.

In 2007, a decision to relocate a statue of a Soviet soldier from the center of Tallinn provoked days of riots across Estonia that left one person dead and over 100 wounded.

The question of integrating Russians into Estonian society remains a fraught political issue -- especially during election time.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Russians in Estonia remain "non-citizens" after failing to qualify for citizenship after the Soviet collapse and much of the education system is split between Estonian-language and Russian-language schools.

During a TV debate held on January 9, Kallas, the Eesti 200 leader, admitted the poster stunt may have been ill-judged. "There were a lot of hurt feelings in the Russian community, I agree. We could not see that coming," she said. "But I think it showed that these wounds, regarding how the communities relate to each other, are very strong and have not fully healed."
'Only Estonians Here': Outrage After Election Poster Campaign Singles Out Russian Minority

Estonia is a tiny country of about 1.3 million souls, a quarter of that - ethnic Russians

You may think it is not a very important place, but they have kinda been at the forefront of the tensions with Russia for years now.

Back in 2007, Estonian authorities, perhaps under pressure of their nationalists and other members of the public maybe angry about the injustices perpetrated on them under Soviet occupation, wanted to remove and destroy a famous Red Army monument much venerated by the ethnic Russian population

Estonian nationalists, on other hand, had poured red paint (i.e. "blood") on it many times and such

It had caused confrontations with the Russians before.

This time, Estonian authorities claim that people from pro-Putin youth groups in Russia incited (mostly online but some might have even actually travelled into Estonia too) young people from the Russian neighbourhoods to riot, burn cars, and loot and destroy Estonian-owned businesses

After several nights of this rioting, which killed at least one person and injured dozens of Estonian policemen and many more civilians of either ethnic group (and I've seen online reports of other deaths not covered in the media as well...), Estonian officials, fearful of more violence and unrest, appeased the Russians by not destroying the monument but moving it, respectfully, to a Soviet military cemetery (it had previously stood right in the middle of downtown Tallinn), where, as in pics above, the Russians continue to lay flowers to it and what not

Also during that time, Estonia was on the receiving end of massive cyber-attacks originating from Russia (and Transnistria)

Another incident took place in 2014, when a high ranking officer of Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) Eston Kohver ended up in custody of Russia's FSB

The Russians claimed they arrested him inside their borders, and he had weapons on him. The Estonians said an FSB special forces squad crossed into their border and abducted Kohver, who'd been inspecting a border post. Regardless, the Russians put him on trial and sentenced him to 20 years for various supposed activities against the Russian state.

He was then later released back to Estonia, in exchange for a Russian spy, Alexei Dressen, who was released by the Estonians

Dressen, an ethnic Estonian from Russia, before his exposure and arrest, had infiltrated the KAPO, and was able to sent back to Russia lots of information on NATO activity in the Baltics, among other things.

And these spy games and exchanges of captured ones continue there, here just this past February 10, 2018, Estonian Raivo Susi, second left, and Russian Artern Zintsenko, second right, are seen during a prisoner exchange, at the Koidula border in southeastern Estonia, with camouflaged FSB men standing next to their van there, waiting to receive their guy, Zintsenko

In that sort of environment, of course, relations between ethnic Russian and Estonian communities in Estonia remain complicated... And who benefits from complicating them further? Moscow, of course... That is why I believe these "Eesti 200" people are probably paid by Russia to do these kinds of provocations over there...

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