Estonians and Estonia’s Russians: still two worlds apart

April 24th, 2008 - 11:46 am ICT by admin  

Tallinn (Estonia), April 24 (DPA) When Russian youths smashed and looted stores in the Estonian capital Tallinn last April, Karmen Minenko found herself at the heart of Russia. “Friends in Moscow seriously planned to look for a new citizenship for me after it happened,” the Estonian businesswoman told DPA in accented Russian.

“My boss even considered buying Mexican citizenship because he didn’t want to part with a good manager.”

Minenko divides her time between a job in Moscow and family in the southern Estonian city of Tartu where her 17-year-old daughter and husband Artur live.

Artur Minenko, a former Soviet army man, is from the Russian enclave Kaliningrad. He came to Estonia with the Soviet army, married a local girl, and stayed. Under Estonian law, he is a man without citizenship, like many other Russians in the small Baltic nation.

The two days of rioting last year unmasked deep divisions in the Estonian society where a quarter of the 1.35 million people are ethnic Russians.

Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union from the end of the Second World War until 1991. During that period, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians moved to Estonia.

When Estonia regained its independence, it ruled that residents whose families had settled there in Soviet times could only receive citizenship if they passed exams in Estonia’s language and history.

The policy was greeted with outrage, as over 250,000 ethnic Russians found themselves declared “resident non-citizens,” with no right to travel or vote in national elections.

In the 17 years since, the integration process had come to be seen as a success. In 2006, officials announced that more than half the original non-citizens had now naturalized.

Last April, however, served as a rude awakening to that image when Estonia’s nationalist government ordered the relocation of a Red Army war memorial from a Tallinn square to a war cemetery. Protests against the relocation turned violent when an estimated 2,000 mostly Russian demonstrators rampaged through the streets, looted shops and battled with police.

“The events reflected isolation of the two communities who are able to look at the same events in history differently,” Tanel Matlik, the director of the publicly-funded Integration Foundation told DPA.

Ethnic Estonians and Russians continue living in two separate worlds, reading different press, watching different TV news channels, and having little contact with each other. A Gallup poll in November showed that among the 27 European Union member states, Estonian residents had the least contact people of different ethnic backgrounds.

The interpretation of history also continues to split the tiny country. Estonians saw the memorial as a monument to their state’s illegal occupation by the USSR, but many Russians continue to see it as a tribute to Russians’ sacrifices in World War II, and a part of their heritage.

Estonia has no domestic Russian-language television, leaving its Russians largely dependent on Russian official sources that are often marked by their negative portrayal of Estonian events.

Later this year, Estonian government plans to launch the second public television channel tailored specifically to a Russian audience. The riots had forced the issue up on the agenda.

Marginalized Russian groups such as Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch) whose members stand accused for the inciting the inter-ethnic hatred last April see the government’s efforts of integration as ‘a crime,’ they tell DPA.

Following the government’s decision to relocate the monument, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s rating shot through the roof. The same decision, however, caused a painful distrust of the government among the non-Estonian population, spilling into people’s households.

In the wake of the riots, friends who used to think of the former Soviet Army soldier and ethnic Russian Artur Minenko as an Estonian started turning away from him.

“Many disappointed Estonians took on the position that all Russians are morons … I was really surprised by that,” said Minenko.

Unfortunately, it is more of a rule than an exception. And it also leads to quarrels with people with whom you thought you were good friends,” he told DPA.

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