For Estonia's Ethnic Russians, Ties to Moscow Fading

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

TALLINN, Estonia, May 8 -- The passion that erupted in this storybook capital city and on the streets of Moscow in the past two weeks because of divided understanding of a shared history left Igor Britikovski cold.

The 23-year-old ethnic Russian, who is an Estonian citizen, had never visited the bronze statue of a Soviet Red Army soldier whose relocation from central Tallinn to a military cemetery on April 26 sparked riots by ethnic Russians here and a siege of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.

"None of my friends or me were against moving the monument," said the engineering student, who will graduate in June. "We are against the violence and what happened at the embassy in Moscow."

Estonia was part of the Soviet Union for close to five decades, a period many Estonians view as an occupation. Large numbers of Russian civilians moved here, often resented by the locals. When independence came in 1991, the Russians found themselves a vulnerable minority and sometimes continued to look to Moscow to defend their interests.

But the cross-border debate of recent days, for all its fury, has disguised a growing distance between Russia and some of those ethnic kin 16 years later, concerning not just history and the fate of the statue but, increasingly, the place of ethnic Russians in an independent Estonia.

The social integration of Russian speakers, who make up nearly a third of Estonia's population of 1.3 million, has been fitful and sometimes harsh, especially for older Russians. But it is spawning a new generation that no longer sees Russia as a motherland.

"My parents are Russian, we have Russian traditions, but Estonia is my home," said Britikovski, who speaks fluent Estonian. "I can work with Russians, but work in Russia, live in Russia? Hardly. I don't feel any discrimination here."

But others continue to feel like outsiders. "They let us live here, but with major obstacles," said Larisa Neshadimova, an activist with the group Night Watch, which held vigils at the statue to prevent its being defaced by Estonian nationalists. "When I supported independence for Estonia, I didn't think there would be so much discrimination."

Willingness to debate the past has often been much greater here than in Russia. "The Russian community in Estonia, its overwhelming majority, understand the tragedy of Estonia in the 1940s," when the Soviets took control of Estonia in collusion with Hitler, said Vladimir Velman, a member of Parliament. In 1941, the Nazis invaded; the Red Army drove them out in 1944 and stayed.

But Russian community leaders also insist that memorializing victory in World War II is not an attempt to rewrite history. "Remembering the heroism of the Soviet soldier is not a celebration of Soviet power, the evil imposed by Soviet policies," said the Rev. Igor Prekup, an Orthodox clergyman. "These are different things."

In interviews with ethnic Russians, there was often more dismay than anger at recent events.

"To be honest, there's nothing bad about the relocation, a military cemetery is a better place," said Igor Reino, 36, a Russian speaker with an Estonian father who laid flowers at the statue with his daughter. "I just wished they had waited until after May 9 to move it. That would have been more civilized." Russia celebrates the World War II victory on May 9.

Modestly larger than life with its head bowed in grief, the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier, created 60 years ago by an Estonian sculptor using an Estonian model, seemed an unlikely catalyst for the anger it has inflamed.

But for two weeks the clash of two historical certainties -- the Soviet Union liberated Estonia, or the Soviet Union annexed and occupied Estonia -- has been demonstrated through the furor over the statue's fate and sparked rhetorical barrages between Tallinn and Moscow.

The Estonian government said the statue symbolized the Soviet seizure of the country. It had also become a touchstone for ethnic Russian extremists and had to be moved, the government said. The Russian government, which maintains that the Baltic States, including Estonia, voluntarily joined the Soviet Union, said the statue's removal from a center city park was an insult to those who died liberating Estonia from the Nazis.

The standoff continued Tuesday as Russian diplomats boycotted an official wreath-laying ceremony at the statue's new location, saying they would hold their own ceremony Wednesday. Russian officials also announced that they would cut passenger train service between St. Petersburg and Tallinn, citing low numbers of riders.

For Russia, the dispute underlined what Moscow views as ongoing discrimination against ethnic Russians in Estonia.

But Estonian government officials champion their integration policies and note that the number of people without citizenship has dropped from 450,000 12 years ago to 100,000 today. The number of Russians speaking Estonian has increased from 15 percent in 1991 to 40 percent today, a figure that increases to nearly 60 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds.

"Of course there's still a lot to do, but integration has been successful," said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. "The parents of Russian children are putting them in Estonian schools because they want their children integrated into this society."

This integration has been sped by controversial policies of compulsion. Speaking Estonian is a requirement for employment in many parts of the public and private sectors. Depending on the responsibility of the work, people have to obtain a language certificate at one of three levels -- basic, for instance, for a taxi driver but advanced for a doctor.

Officials from a language inspectorate conduct spot-checks of workers to see if they speak Estonian. If they fail, they are forced to get certified or face loss of their jobs. Amnesty International has condemned the policy as "repressive and punitive in nature." And it has alienated some Russians who say it is unforgiving of an older generation who could not easily adapt to change.

"It's humiliating and oppressive," said Prekup, the clergyman. "The state says it's integration, but as a matter of fact it's assimilation."

Alexey Vovrenko, 64, said he lost his job at a prison canteen in 2005 because of language issues. "I passed the basic level, but at my age, it was very difficult to raise my language skills to the next level," he said. "I don't think it was right."

But Vovrenko's daughter, a doctor, and his granddaughter, a high school student, both speak fluent Estonian as well as Russian, he said. "Life will be much easier for my granddaughter," he said, noting that she also is learning German.

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