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Integration and security: Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority

It is no surprise that the international community has become more preoccupied with the diplomatic relations between Estonia and Russia. While interest in the country’s political affairs is not particularly new, the increasing tensions between the Baltic states and Russia continue to alarm those who fear the possibility of conflict.

June 12, 2017 - Silviu Kondan - Articles and Commentary


Fraught relations between the European Union and Russia have emerged at a time of increasing uncertainty regarding the EU’s collective capacity to protect both its citizens and its borders from hybrid security threats. In Europe, a number of occurrences involving cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns have alarmed policymakers who must now broaden their activities to include the deterrence of hybrid threats. For some, this now includes addressing cyber vulnerabilities and prioritising ethnic inclusion as measures to impede the exploitation of existing societal cleavages.

Within Estonia, minority rights and security become the defining themes that influence integration policy. The separation of diplomatic and constructive agreements between Estonia and Russia means that the Russian-speaking minorities are centralised in discussions relating to security and integration. Estonian policy-makers must therefore consider how to effectively balance increased security concerns with the need to respect the autonomy and rights of the Russian-speaking minority. 

The Russian speaking minority*

Soviet occupation of Estonia between 1940 and 1991 left major demographic legacies. While a small number of Russian-speaking minorities were present in the country prior to 1940, by 1991 roughly one-third of the population was of Russian-speaking decent.

Upon independence, Estonia established language and citizenship laws that were foundationally based off the jus sanguinis, or “right of blood” principle. Those who did not reside in Estonia prior to 1940, which encompassed most of the Russian speakers, were left without citizenship and were required to either claim Russian citizenship or to naturalise as Estonian citizens.

Showing a clear desire to join the EU from the onset of their independence, Estonia soon began to adopt revisions to their citizenship and language policy in order to conform to European Union accession requirements and to stabilise its geopolitical security. For Europe and the West, moderating Estonia’s integration policy has become a geopolitical investment for the continent, with the aim to achieve this through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE), the EU accession requirements and through the NATO security goals.

Minority rights and integration

Over the last few decades, the Estonian government has promoted quicker and more accommodating naturalisation processes, specifically for newborns and children. However, the fact that the naturalisation process still exists has dissatisfied many who question the disproportionate investment of time, effort, and money needed to acquire the same citizenship that an Estonian equal is granted by birth. For others, acquiring a Russian citizenship or remaining with undetermined citizenship has proven to have certain financial and travel benefits and has been more practical compared to the completion of the Estonian language tests required to naturalise.

Similar sentiments have surrounded the implementation of the “60/40” education policy which mandates the increase of Estonian language teaching to 60 per cent of the curriculum for Russian schools beginning in grade ten. Some parents have publicly objected to this policy, believing that the shift would hinder their children’s educational development and their Russian fluency; many believing that without adequate staffing and resources, their children would be unable to professionally function in either Russian or Estonian. Russian teachers have also felt pressured to comply to curriculum standards while also teaching enough Estonian to pass the required “language inspections”.

Estonian integration policies, despite making large strides, continue to drive debate and discourse surrounding nation-state policies and minority rights.

Societal discontent

Traditionally, the integration of Central and Eastern European (CEE) states into European bodies was an effective method for the inclusion of ethnic minorities. However, as these processes induced institutional adoption, they did not necessarily build societal and ideological foundations that would translate into an equal socio-economic footing and the respect for the autonomy of minorities.

The Estonian government’s Integrating Estonia 2020 outline points to figures showing less trust in state institutions for Russian speakers, as well as higher rates of unemployment. The outline also indicates a general absence of regular contact between the various ethno-nationalities in the country. Similarly, the 2016 Mapping Statelessness in Estonia report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals highly pessimistic views amongst Russian speakers with undetermined citizenship towards the labour market, their inclusion in society, their political involvement and their freedom of movement.

It is important to note that Russian speakers in Estonia, for the most part, enjoy living in the country and position themselves closer to Europe than to Russia. This, alongside better opportunities for a stable livelihood, does indicate a differentiation of context between the Russian speakers in the Baltics and those in Ukraine, regardless of discontent towards integration policies.

However, some still accuse the Estonian government of implementing a “creeping” assimilationist agenda. This agenda, with further geopolitical motivations, places integration as the responsibility of the minority with the partial support of the government. It does not promote mutual effort towards integration amongst the residing citizens of the state but facilitates assimilation into a dominant society. Policies become standardised through Russian speakers identifying with the Estonian nation-state, their abilities to comprehend the Estonian language, and their attainment of Estonian citizenship. These policies, considered as progressive by some, continue to be questioned by others who see them as discriminatory.

The steps taken by the government to promote integration must also be understood in relation to Estonia’s history as a state that was left with major demographic divisions following its independence and re-integration into Europe. Contemporarily, Estonia continues to pursue the integration of its minorities amidst a hard-pressed relationship with Russia. More so, during a time of frequent global uncertainty across the worldcaused by cyber-attacks and disinformation, it is understandable that states must consider ethnic grievances as an entry point for foreign interference.

Security threats

Contemporary political research on Estonia is becoming synonymous with discussions surrounding securitisation, geopolitics and the Russian threat. Estonia has been deemed the most economically successful Baltic country, boasting an impressive 2.2 per cent GDP expenditure on defence this year. Alongside its Baltic neighbours, Estonia has pressed NATO to prioritise their security concerns surrounding Russia using the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict, the intervention in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea as examples of the potential results of Russian aggression.

Security experts are now urging NATO and the Baltic governments to approach securitisation beyond traditional understandings of conflict. Instances of hybrid security threats have brought new challenges for militaries which now require the integration of multiple sectors and industries. In fact, it has been a decade since Estonia faced its own widespread cyber attacks propelled by the Bronze Solider Crisis. This incident caused the collapse of multiple websites, banking systems and online communication platforms.

More recently, reports on Baltic power grids and hacking have shown that the Baltic states are particularly susceptible to Russian interference. At the same time, Estonia continues to discover instances of Russian espionage, which raises questions regarding the intention of Russian intelligence operations.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration’s murky relationship with NATO member states and the continuous inquiries into the administration’s possible ties and sympathy towards Russia, has undoubtedly contributed to further scepticism amongst European security experts. While the NATO alliance will continue despite uncertainty surrounding the United States’ security guarantee, the vulnerability of the Baltics without US support is considerable.


Russia has been accused of perpetuating disinformation to legitimise its own military actions on several occasions. The use of disinformation is one strategy that continues to be of concern due to its ability to cause internal disruption and mistrust amongst citizens.

The invasion of Crimea, which exemplified Russia’s ability to instigate pro-Russian demonstrations beyond its borders and to garner local support for annexation, has caused large-scale tensions and distrust between the Russian-speaking minorities and the Ukrainian government. Official Russian media reports, using disinformation tactics, were accused of falsely portraying the Ukrainian people as aggressive, violent and immoral.

The methods of disinformation used during the Bronze Solider Crisis have also been reported as part of Russia’s strategic exploitation of ethnic divisions. Following demonstrations spurred on by the removal of a Soviet-era statue, Russian media reports portrayed the Estonian state as a re-emergent fascist government that infringed upon the Russian-speaking minority.

In Estonia, a country with a rocky history between the ethno-national majority and the Russian-speaking minorities, the psychosocial effects caused by such attacks can have dire outcomes on the state of ethnic relations in the country. While the situation in Estonia is distinct from that of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, many are still wondering if Russia’s disinformation campaigns will trigger a similar irredentist movement in the future. As such, it is understandable that the government is being urged to implement stronger policies that deflect Russian disinformation flowing into Estonia and that facilitate a stronger Estonian affiliation amongst the minorities.

Measuring success

Measuring the success of integration policies in Estonia depends on the way in which success is understood. For some, success can be measured by advancement in socio-economic well-being and the autonomy of minorities. For others, success is measured by a decrease in exposure to propaganda and through an increase in the naturalisation and language proficiency of the Russian speakers.

At a time of uncertainty, the government must balance these approaches and decide what path it hopes to take in protecting all of its citizens from potential instability. It is conceivable that the guise of integration is being used as a securitisation technique to minimise the potential eruption of conflict, rather than serving as genuine progress toward inclusivity, but the threat of hybrid attacks, especially those involving disinformation, should not be underestimated. Estonia’s history and its proximity to Russia will undoubtedly continue to influence all aspects of government decision-making and policy implementation.

*The term “Russian-speaking minority” refers to the minority groups from across the Soviet Union who settled in Estonia during migratory flows. This includes ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Georgians, etc.

Silviu Kondan is a student at the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. 

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