Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Ethnic Russians are mostly in the main industrial towns in the north-east of the country bordering the Russian Federation. They numbered 351,178 people in the 2000 census, accounting for 25.6 per cent of the total population, and an estimated 345,168 in 2006 (Estonian Statistical Office). They also constitute the majority of the non-citizen residents of Estonia.
Various Russian communities have lived in Estonia over the past 1,000 years. Earlier communities consisted of traders, religious and political dissidents and settlers. Until the 1940s, these communities remained small, comprising some 8.2 per cent of the population. Following Estonia’s incorporation into the USSR, large number of ethnic Russians migrated to Estonia, to work as factory workers, state and communist party administrators, military and police personnel. By 1989, they comprised almost one-third of the total population. Ethnic Russian migration into Estonia and this population’s demographic growth formed a key issue on which Estonian nationalists mobilized during the perestroika period. The official Estonian definition of independence in 1991 as the restoration of the interwar Estonian republic, and not the formation of a new state, was used to justify a selective citizenship policy excluding post-war migrants and their descendents from automatic citizenship. The ethnic Russian community was the principal target of this policy, and its members have accounted for the majority of the non-citizen population in the country.
That ethnic Russians compose the majority of non-citizens in Estonia is clearly illustrated in the fact that in 2000 Estonian citizens accounted for less than 50 per cent of the resident population in areas of compact ethnic Russian settlement, including Sillamäe, Narva, Kohtla-Järve, Maardu, Paldiski, Loksa and Narva-Jõesuu cities and in Vaivara municipality. Estonians thus make up just 20 per cent of the population in Ida-Viru county, the main administrative unit of northeast Estonia.
Fears that ethnic Russian discontent could escalate into violence have for the most part not been borne out, due to the absence of large-scale political mobilization by the Russian-speaking population, prospects of economic prosperity not least through membership of the European Union and pressure to amend less conciliatory legislation from international organizations. Despite at times fierce rhetoric on both sides during the early 1990s, a pragmatic realization of the benefits of compromise has prevailed. Thus while the Estonian government has undertaken numerous steps to facilitate the social and then political integration of its Russian community, ethnic Russians in Estonia have by and large consented in the absence of effective alternatives to the requirements imposed on them to acquire citizenship rather than opt for separatism. Nonetheless, discrimination against Russians as non-Estonian speakers exists at various levels, particularly at higher levels in public sector employment.
Treatment of ethnic Russian non-citizens continues to be a major issue domestically and bilaterally with the Russian Federation. In 2007, when the Estonian government decided to move a monument to the Red Army from its central location in the capital, the issue galvanized the Russian minority, who viewed it as a slap at their role in Estonia. Three nights of rioting in Tallinn, encouraged by hostile rhetoric from Moscow, amply demonstrated the Russian community’s simmering anger.
Non-Estonians, especially Russians, allege occupational, salary and housing discrimination because of Estonian language requirements. Those who desire language instruction confront problems stemming from an insufficient number of qualified teachers, lack of funds, poor educational infrastructure and an examination process which some allege is arbitrary.
According to official data published by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2006 there are 34 newspapers and 20 magazines published in the Russian language in Estonia. Two of the country’s national TV channels offer regular Russian-language programming and five radio stations also broadcast in Russian. Internet resources in Russian are also widely available. According to official data Russian language education is available in public and private schools at all levels and 23 per cent of Estonia’s school children attend schools offering instruction in Russian. Ten per cent of higher education students study in Russian. Russians have, however, protested the requirement to introduce Estonian as the mandatory medium for core subjects such as Estonian history and literature.
Council of Europe assessments of Estonian compliance with the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities have observed the relative absence of members of national minorities from higher levels of public sector employment and disproportionately high levels of unemployment among national minorities (especially young women), problems affecting first and foremost Estonia’s Russian minority.
Updated June 2015