In light of last week's clashes in the capital and the post-mortem spinning that began almost immediately afterward, many in the English-language readership have been given inaccurate depictions of what the demographic situation in Estonia is, and how this feeds into local, and international politics.
A Multi-Ethnic Country
To begin, let me make a broad statement. Estonia has been multiethnic for centuries. Estonians themselves are a distinct ethnic group, but the territory of Estonia has been home to a variety of other ethnic groups, most prominently Swedes, Germans, and Russians.
To complicate matters, the process of Estonian integration is also centuries old and predates any kind of "draconian" citizenship laws from the early 1990s. Most Estonians are not 'ethnically pure' Estonians. Instead, they have some ancestors from a variety of different countries.
Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand, who is holed up in the Estonian embassy in Moscow right now, is not an ethnic Estonian. She is half Latvian and half Russian by birth. Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar is also half Russian. Lennart Meri, Estonia's second president, was Swedish on his mother's side. And the blood lines between the Baltic Germans and the Estonians are notoriously intertwined.
To make matters even more complicated many of Estonia's Soviet-era Russian-speaking community have also followed this established path of integration. They have perhaps married into Estonian families or simply "Estonianized."
Two examples of this come from the same family. Estonian politicians Mihhail and Aleksei Lotman are the sons of the St. Petersburg-born semiotician Jüri Lotman. By ethnicity they are Russian Jews. Yet Mihhail is in the rightwing Isamaa-Res Publica Party, and Aleksei serves in the Green party in the Riigikogu. Hence, their ethnic origins have not precluded them from achieving rather prominent places in Estonian society.
Those that are of mixed backgrounds in Estonia are quite often multilingual. In addition to Estonian they know Russian and perhaps English. Those with ties to other minorities may speak Finnish fluently or Swedish. In fact, in the Noarootsi district in western Estonia, there is a Swedish-only high school. This is in an area where there are only 50 ethnically Swedish people living there.
Despite Estonia's multiethnic heritage, the country is still rather homogenous. In 13 of Estonia's 15 counties, ethnic Estonians comprise more than 80 percent of the population. This is the case of Estonia's second largest city, Tartu, as well. As people watching the news last week saw, the main centers of the ethnic Russian population are in Tallinn and in Ida Viru county in northeastern Estonia. Estonia is 69 percent ethnic Estonian and 26 percent ethnic Russian. Most of that 26 percent are located in these urban areas.
Tallinn is an interesting example of how demographics can change rapidly in Estonia. In 1989, nearly 500,000 people lived in Tallinn. Last year, it was home to 396,000 people. Six years previous in 2000 it was home to 400,000 people. Of those 4,000 people that were lost in six years, the population decline was greatest among ethnic Russians.
While the ethnic Estonian population numbers about 216,000 people in Tallinn, the ethnic Russian population numbers about 144,000. In six years, the ethnic Estonian population declined by 1,000 people, while the ethnic Russian population declined by nearly 3,000. One could insert statistics from the 1970s here to show an inverse effect of ethnic Russian population growth, but I do not have access to those statistics.
It is my interpretation that rather than feeling stronger in Estonian society with the backing of a resurgent Moscow, Estonia's Russian community in Tallinn is actually feeling weaker as the demographic balance shifts every year in the favor of ethnic Estonians. Hence, monolingual Russophones are encountering the reality of their minority status on a more frequent basis. This increases the frustration that led to things like last week's riots.
Another factor is that Estonian politics are controlled by individuals that do not come from areas adjacent to large Russian minorities. Andrus Ansip is from Tartu. Mart Laar was born in Viljandi. And, as we all know, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born in Stockholm, though he never apparently pursued citizenship there.
Hence, in the recent controversy, it has been Tartu politicians, like Ansip and Minister of Defense Jaak Aaviksoo, that have been making decisions that impact the lives of Tallinn residents, where Edgar Savisaar, widely considered to be more in tune to the feelings of ethnic Russians, since he technically is also one, has condemned their activities. You'll notice that other Tallinners, like Reet Aus, a fashion designer whose grandfather actually designed the Bronze Soldier, have called the removal policy a bad choice. In this instance, you could think that cosmopolitan Tallinn is being held captive by provincial politicians. It is an argument that could be made, though I decline to make it.
Stereotypically, monolingual Russians feel like they are looked down upon by Estonians, while Estonians are quietly distressed by the longterm inability of Russians to adapt to the Estonian culture on their own and their continued admiration for forces that were historically hostile to the Estonian people, like the USSR.
Carrots and Sticks
Estonia's post-1991 integration policies have both condemned and praised. One overlooked fact is that they have been working. Estonia's stateless persons decline every year, and currently only 9 percent of residents lack citizenship, compared to 32 percent just 15 years ago.
Estonia's politicians have employed a carrot and stick approach to goad monolingual Russians into integrating into Estonian society. However, these Russians that have yet to integrate see it mostly as stick and stick. Since they don't have citizenship they cannot vote on the policies that effect them the most.
Estonian school reform is another hot issue. Dealing with a monolingual minority that has difficulty in obtaining high paying jobs and status in society has spurred Estonian politicians to endore a high percentage of education in Estonian at the public school level. This has created additional pressure on ethnic Russians in Estonia.
Again, it becomes complicated, because to succeed in Estonia, knowledge of Estonian is an asset, but since obtaining that knowledge is difficult, some monolingual Russians see it as a discriminatory hurdle to "weed them out" of political and economic participation.
Therefore it remains controversial, although some in the Estonian Russian community that have integrated openly call their kin "their own worst enemy" for not acknowledging some basic facts about Estonia.
To complicate matters monolingual Russian speakers receive most of their news from Kremlin controlled Russian media. Since 1991, Russia has conducted an anti-Estonian propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the country in the international arena with a longterm goal of bringing it back under its control. I would not like to believe this, but after reading hundreds of stories in the Russian media, I can only conclude that this is the case.
In my opinion, Russian foreign policy generally views its neighbors through a 19th century lense of "spheres of influence" and seeks to control them as a matter of course, despite what value they may actually add in end. Russian nationalists also believe that they have a right to control territories that one belonged to the Russian empire in the 19th century. Swedish businessmen perhaps think similarly.
A Lack of Leadership
While Estonian Russians in Estonia are at the center of some distressing trends -- a chauvanistic Kremlin, population decline, government pressure -- they have yet to organize and work effectively with local authorities in a potent way.
Kremlin-supported parties in Estonia actually face declining support, even as more people naturalize. "Thought leaders" like Dmitri Klenski -- who speaks Estonian, but spouts Stalinist history -- get media attention, but cannot get elected.
Edgar Savisaar's Center Party is an ethnic Russian stronghold, yet at the same time it hasn't made the group any promises to reverse language laws or citizenship requirements. And, moreover, nobody is really sure of what this group wants politically.
Some want to become an official minority, with Russian as a state language. But there are ethnic Russians that oppose this too and put their kids in Estonian kindergartens to get ahead. There are even some who still think that Estonia "belongs" to Russia, and are waiting for the "red ship" to come and continue the slow eradication of the Estonian people.
Russification and Estonia's Neighbors
As a final note, it's worth mentioning that Estonia's eastern Finnic neighbors that remained in Russia after 1918 have been largely assimilated into Russian society and have lost the characteristic that distinguished their ethnicity, their language.
Over the past 80 years the number of self-described Ingrians -- a Finnic ethnic group residing in the vicinity of St. Petersburg for millennia -- dropped from 26,100 to 300. As is noted here, due to the Second World War, "Physical extermination and russification had achieved their purpose: post-war generations of Izhorians have no knowledge of their native tongue."
The example of their ethnic kin in Ingria has left Estonians with a deep fear of the same thing happening to their land. Some extreme Russian nationalists openly joke about the extermination of the Estonian people, or the death of Estonian as a "small, obscure" language, feeding this fear and reinforcing people's support for the country's language and citizenship policies.