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The EU should not leave Estonia’s Russophones in the cold

07 Dec 2023 - 11:49

By Julian Wood

The shell craters of the Donbas, Georgia and Moldova attest to Russia’s willingness to overrun international borders on the pretext of ‘protecting’ communities within a greater ‘Russian World’. These frozen legacies of the Cold War’s denouement serve as stark reminders of how discontent among ethnic and linguistic minorities can be exploited. They are why the European Union cannot ignore the plight of Narva, Estonia’s third-largest and easternmost city, where over 90% of its approximately 54,000 inhabitants are native Russian-speakers.

On 16 September 2023, the mayor of Narva was toppled, partly for replacing the long-divisive street names of the Soviet era. Years of socio-economic decline since they gained independence have left Narva’s citizens with mistrust and unease. It has rendered them vulnerable, disenfranchised and disengaged from the liberal pluralism intended to safeguard their lives.

The EU cannot afford to let democratic values become an unattractive alternative. So, how serious is the alienation in Narva, and what steps could the European Union take to heal this wounded community, located just 200 metres from Russia’s Leningrad Oblast?

Up to 7% of Estonia’s total population are holders of ‘stateless’ passports; trapped between Russian ethnicity and the stringent language requirements for Estonian citizenship

EU policymakers are aware of Narva’s difficulties. In the year 2023 alone, the EU Cohesion Fund allocated 521 million euros to Ida-Viru County – in which Narva is located – for enhancing its transportation networks, and an additional 354 million euros from the Just Transition Fund was designated for industrial decarbonisation.

This support is much needed. Ida-Viru County is the rusting core of what had been Soviet Estonia’s manufacturing and oil shale industries. Unemployment rates in the area are currently twice as high as in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, and life expectancy is nearly ten years lower.1 Estonia’s Russophone communities – constituting around 25% of the country’s entire population – are disproportionately situated in deteriorating apartment blocks and are afflicted by notably higher rates of addiction, cancer, and obesity.2

The region’s high unemployment and economic challenges might contribute to the nostalgia of Narva’s Russian-speaking population, seen in their preference for Soviet-style street names and significant attendance at Russian Victory Day parades (as during last May). Despite the city’s authorities forbidding the event, even Ukraine sympathisers participated in large numbers. Cross-border traffic is also increasing, as many Narvans buy their supplies in Russia to benefit from cheaper prices.

Yet, issues run deeper than economic strife. Following Estonia’s independence from the USSR, a substantial number of Russian workers in Ida-Viru County stayed put. As a result, up to 7% of Estonia’s total population are now holders of so-called ‘stateless’ passports; trapped between Russian ethnicity and the stringent language requirements for Estonian citizenship.3

Brussels must not only provide financial assistance but also bring dignity to Narva

The country’s Russian-speaking community is not a unified socio-political group keen on joining Russia. However, their connection to an “Estonian identity” reduces notably when they perceive systemic disadvantage, as reflected in their political ambivalence.4 Voter turnout is 15% lower than in Tallinn; a gap that will only widen if recent draft legislation is enacted, barring non-citizens from voting in local elections.5

Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that populism is on the rise. The Estonian National Conservative Party (EKRE) – now the country’s second-largest party – has recently shifted its pitch towards disgruntled Russian-speakers. Alongside a rather ambiguous stance on support for Ukraine, it has even promised to “Make Narva Great Again”.6

Brussels must not only provide financial assistance but also bring dignity to Narva. An effective approach would be to bolster the rights of Russian-speakers to use and work in their native language. The legal foundation for such actions is already in place. Estonia ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 1998. In 2022, the Framework’s Advisory Committee recommended reducing the number of “stateless” passports in Estonia and enhancing Russian-language education.7

Russian-speakers report a distinct sense of second-class citizenship. This should be deemed unacceptable for an EU that takes its values seriously

The European Union should take the lead in promoting and monitoring the implementation of this Framework, as it could significantly address ongoing issues. For example, it could help rectify problems such as the lack of digital resources for Russophone children during the COVID-19 pandemic and the known issues of segregation and inferior performance in their specialised bilingual schools.8

EU oversight could also ensure that language is not overlooked as part of urban regeneration. Less than two weeks before their mayor was dismissed in September, Narva’s City Council concluded a competition to re-design the city’s 20,000m2 Peetri Square. Yet submissions could only be in Estonian, freezing out local Russophone voices.

Nevertheless, things are slowly changing. In February 2022, the Estonian government initiated lasting financial support for high-quality Russian-language journalism at Postimees, the country’s oldest newspaper. This popular effort aimed to stop forcing Russophones to choose between poor-quality domestic offerings in Russian and Russian state media. Estonia is clearly trying to reach out to its largest linguistic minority, but needs EU assistance to bridge the gap.

Today, Russian-speakers report a distinct sense of second-class citizenship.9 This should be deemed unacceptable for a European Union that takes its values seriously. From Estonia to Latvia and beyond, the EU’s Russophones do not want the future to leave them behind. While the ‘Narva impasse’ in Estonia may currently be modest and manageable, it is in the EU’s interest not to look away. Rather, it must extend assistance, encouragement and the necessary political will to bring its Russian-speakers in from the cold.

This column was the winning contribution of our student column competition and was written by Julian Wood.

Julian is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, UK, researching religious violence in medieval Byzantium and Syria. Originally from Leeds in the post-industrial north of England, his first chance to vote was in the 2016 'Brexit' referendum that divided the community and the country. This experience left an enduring interest in regional socio-economic and cultural differences within nations, and particularly in how these manifest during elections. 


Student column
De winnaar van de laatste studentencolumnwedstrijd