WORLD

Aliens at home

Estonia’s Russians feel second-class

MALCOLM GRAY August 2 1993
WORLD

Aliens at home

Estonia’s Russians feel second-class

MALCOLM GRAY August 2 1993

Aliens at home

WORLD

ESTONIA

Estonia’s Russians feel second-class

With her blond hair and fair complexion, 14-year-old Svetlana Yasova could easily fit into Estonian tourism ads promoting the Scandinavian atmosphere of Tallinn’s Vanallin, or Old Town. “I was born in Tallinn,” said Yasova as she gazed at the crowds of tourists pulsing through the cobblestone streets in the centre of the Estonian capital earlier this month. “I grew up here, and I do not want to live anywhere else.” But Yasova is one of Estonia’s 500,000 ethnic Russians, a potentially explosive genealogical legacy from the Soviet past in the now-independent country of only 1.6 million people. With the tightening of residency, language and citizenship requirements, Yasova and other Russian speakers have become anxious about their future in Tallinn. Yasova’s father is one of about 17,000 active and former Soviet soldiers still present in the Baltic state, and the Estonian government is adamant that such living reminders of Soviet occupation should return to Russia— and take their dependents with them.

The fact that many people, like Svetlana Yasova, were born in Estonia but are now classified as aliens is just one example of the country’s shaky—if steady—unshackling from Soviet-imposed Communist rule. Soviet citizens flocked to the tiny Baltic republic after the Second World War, lured by jobs in the massive defence plants that the Kremlin was building. In many instances, newly arriving Russians moved into the vacated flats of ethnic Estonians who had either fled the 1940 Communist takeover or were deported to Siberia by former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Now, in a country four-fifths the size of Nova Scotia, the Estonian government is reasserting its ethnic character. Tallinn has refused to grant those post-invasion immigrants automatic citizenship—even though one third of the local Russian-speaking community publicly supported Estonian independence before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The Russians say they are being treated like second-class citizens; the Estonians reply that they are merely trying to restore national norms that have been damaged by 50 years of annexation.

Such echoes of history are now reverberating on both sides of the Russian-Estonian border. In Tallinn, many Estonians regard local Russians as colonialists who did not have to worry about such cultural niceties as mastering the vowel-laden Estonian language. Late last month, the Estonian parliament passed its third law on citizenship and language. And the latest law, requiring non-ethnic Estonians to apply for five-year residency permits or leave the country within two years, sharpened an already tense confrontation with Moscow. The 25 million Russian speakers who have been left stranded outside of Russia’s borders by the Soviet Union’s collapse are an explosive nationalist issue that Russian President Boris Yeltsin cannot afford to ignore. Despite being an early supporter

of Baltic independence, Yeltsin harshly denounced the citizenship laws on June 24, complaining that Estonia was erecting a system of apartheid. In a blunt reminder that Russia was still the dominant power in the region, Yeltsin added: ‘The Estonian government has forgotten certain geopolitical and demographic realities.”

For now, the Russian side still has the means—and might—to make those reminders. One day after Yeltsin’s comments, in a development that Russian energy officials blandly maintained was caused solely by Estonia’s failure to pay its heating bills, Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to the Baltic nation. After the government in Tallinn hastily agreed to pay $9 million in overdue charges, the Russians unblocked the pipeline that supplies natural gas to Estonian homes and factories. The four-day blockade prompted Estonian officials to add appeal procedures to their new citizenship law.

But Estonia is moving rapidly away from its economic dependency on Russia. Two-thirds of the country’s imports—including fuel—now come from the West and, last year, Finland replaced Russia as Estonia’s biggest trading partner. Russia’s share of Estonian imports has dropped to 18 per cent from 56 per cent. “Natural gas is one of the last things that Russia can cut off,” said Estonian nationalist journalist Hans Luik. “Moscow is doing us a favor. Now, we will turn to the West for our natural gas, too, and become even more economically independent than we are now.”

In fact, Estonia leads the other former Soviet republics in emerging from the fools’ paradise of Communist economics. Building on linguistic and cultural links with Finland, 80 km to the north across the Baltic Sea, Estonia was the first to bail out of the ruble zone. After re-acquiring control over gold reserves that were saved from the Red Army advance and stored abroad in 1940, the Estonian government last year used that bullion to back a new national currency, the kroon (rhymes with moan), pegging it at a rate of eight to the German mark. Minor fluctuations aside, the kroon has held steady at that level since then, and the country’s foreign currency reserves have more than doubled to $352 million.

Tight money policies and austerity programs have resulted in inflation rates of less than three per cent a month—an accomplish-

ment that ranks as a post-Soviet economic miracle. Russia, by contrast, has edged close to monthly inflation rates of 50 per cent—the accepted threshold for hyperinflation—during the past year. In addition, Estonia’s skilled workforce and relatively low wages— the average is about $100 per month—have won praise from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as one of Eastern Europe’s best bets for foreign investment.

The signs of economic revival are clearly visible in the centre of Tallinn, a well-preserved maze of cobblestone streets dating back to the Middle Ages. There, store windows in freshly repainted buildings are filled with imports ranging from Finnish butter to Japanese stereos; there is even an outlet for a U.S.-based chain of Victoria’s Secret lingerie boutiques, offering such

items as silk camisole tops for 299 kroons ($30). And in courtyard cafés tucked next to Lutheran churches, tourists seeking a Baltic experience at non-Scandinavian prices compete for seats with local and foreign dealmakers. “Every Estonian knows that our country was more prosperous than Finland before the war,” said Matti Kallas, 32, a confident, well-dressed businessman who ships Russian scrap metal through his country to the West. “Now, we are hurrying to make up for the 50 lost years that we spent in a Soviet wilderness.”

Still, life has become more difficult for minimum wage earners and pensioners whose incomes are stuck at about $30 per month. And even though the government is

making serious attempts to transfer staterun industrial enterprises to private ownership, ethnic Russians working in Estonia have been particularly hard hit by the shift back to capitalism. The reason: many were employed at inefficient, overmanned plants that needed Soviet subsidies, raw materials and a union-wide market in order to survive. On a park bench in the centre of Tallinn, 33year-old Boris Volgov and his wife Kira, 30, now have the time to sit and ponder the passing of such socialist dinosaurs—which also killed off their own state-supplied jobs. Living on the charity of retired parents, the couple worry about a controversial clause in Estonia’s new residency requirements: jobless applicants can be refused permission to stay in Estonia. “I was born here and I want Estonia to be independent,” said Kira. “But I feel that I am being punished for crimes that the Soviet system committed against this country.” Similar feelings of bitterness and discrimination are also widespread in Narva, an industrial centre on Estonia’s northeast border with Russia. There, most of the city’s 80,000 residents are Russian—and almost all of the workers among them have lost their jobs in now-shuttered defence factories and textile plants. To protest Estonia’s new citizenship laws, local politicians have initiated a campaign for more freedom for their rust belt region. That drive included a referendum on July 17 in Narva and the nearby town of Sillamae, where more than 97 per cent of voters supported autonomy from Tallinn. The Estonian government declared the poll illegal and accused referendum organizers of falsifying the results, saying that less than half the population had actually voted.

But Narva Mayor Vladimir Mizhui already has drawn ominous comparisons between his city and the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, where Slavs, who complained of ethnic persecution last year, waged a short, sharp war and effectively seceded from Moldova. “There has been no bloodshed in Estonia—yet,” said Mizhui. That is now Estonia’s greatest challenge: how to emerge from the wreckage of communism without sliding into the ethnic chaos now staining other former Soviet republics.

MALCOLM GRAY