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Issue No. 3, Aug. 1997, pp.24-27

Baltic Russians Take a Look at Themselves

Suppressed minority, fifth column or chess pawn? These are some of the labels used to describe the situation of the Baltic Russians. But their own voice is seldom heard. Interesting information is available in a rich growth of sociological investigations.

by Ebba Savborg-Romare, staff member of the analysis group of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Russians in the Baltic area have lately been the subject of many sociological investigations, opinion polls, research reports and studies. One important reason is, of course, that their situation is described very differently by e.g. official Russian representatives and mass media, by the governments in Estonia and Latvia and by representatives of the international community. Russians representatives describe them as being a suppressed minority whose human rights are violated. Many Baits see them as a potentially disloyal fifth column, a spearhead of Russian imperialist ambitions.

The Baltic Russians are seldom heard in political fora since most of them are without voting rights. This has created a situation where others may claim to express their views and may use them as pawns in a political game. To learn how the Russians in Estonia and Latvia look at their own situation, one must go to the interview studies which have been carried out by institutions and organisations in the Baltic area and elsewhere.

Such investigations must be handled with critical care. The questions shape the answers. The purposes of the studies differ, and hence the selection of participants and questions will differ. Although many of the studies circle around the same subjects, they are not always comparable. The questions are formulated differently, the selection of candidates varies, etc.

This article is an attempt to find answers in such studies to the questions of how the Baltic Russians view their identity and sense of belonging, the right to citizenship, their relations with Baits and their everyday situation today and tomorrow. The emphasis lies in Estonia. In the group "Russians" are included also those Ukrainians, Belorussians and other former citizens of the Soviet Union who reside in the Baltic area and who speak Russian.

Feeling at home

A great number of investigations show conclusively that a majority of Russians in Estonia and Latvia feel at home where they now live and that they would not want to move away. In a comprehensive study carried out in 1995 by the Scottish Strathclyde University, a total of 6.500 Estonians, Estonian-Russians, Latvians, Latvian-Russians, Lithuanians and Lithuanian-Russians were questioned on how they commonly look upon themselves. More than half of the Russians mall three Baltic states identified themselves first of all with the place or the areas in which they now live, while a little less than one third thought of themselves in the first place as "Russians". Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, on the other hand, identified themselves foremost with their Baltic identity.

The Estonian sociologist Iris Pettai asked Russians around Estonia to take a position on the following statement: "This is where my home is, I am used to live here and I would not live anywhere else." A total of 97% of those Russians who were without citizenship answered in the affirmative and - even more surprising - 86% of those Estonian Russians who have acquired Russian citizenship. Pettai's conclusion was that no more than 10% of the Estonian Russians could be seen as "disloyal" to Estonia.

Will stay

The independent Estonian institute Saar-Poll conducted an investigation among 1.500 Russian youths (18- 29 years old) and found that three-fourths considered Estonia as their home country. Another investigation carried out by sociologists at the Tartu University showed that two-thirds of all Estonian Russians definitely would want to remain. Ten percent were thinking of moving and 22% had not considered the question. The conclusion of the sociologists was that the Estonian Russians had "estonified" very quickly - not in the sense that they regard themselves as "Estonians", but rather as "Estlanders".

In the fall of 1996, The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) with head-quarters in Budapest conducted a large inquiry among 1.500 Estonian Russians in which a mere 9% of the participants expressed a desire to move permanently to another country. The politically most sensitive issue in the discussion on the situation of the Baltic Russians concerns the right to citizenship. In Lithuania, where only 9% of the inhabitants are Russian speakers, everyone was offered Lithuanian citizenship after the independence in 1991. Estonia and Latvia, where 35 to 40% are Russian-speakers automatically confers citizenship only upon those persons whose families were citizens before the Soviet annexation in 1940. The rest must pass approved tests in Estonian and Latvian, respectively, and show sufficient knowledge of the Constitution, etc.

Five years after regaining independence, only a minority of the Russians in both countries have become naturalized citizens. According to IOM, 88.000 Russians in Estonia have become Estonian citizens while 120.000 persons, mostly above 50 years of age, have gained Russian citizenship (which is obtainable without any test). Another 300.000 persons are officially without citizenship (stateless) of which 46% were born in Estonia. In 1995 Estonia introduced a new citizenship law. The following year the old Soviet passports were declared invalid and the authorities began issuing new aliens passports to non-citizens. In the same period the number of applications for Russian citizenship increased significantly. IOM's investigation was in part aimed at describing the reasons for this increase in the number of Russian citizens and to establish a picture of how non- Estonians look at their situation and their future.

Language is an obstacle

IOM's investigation shows that the most common reason for obtaining Russian citizenship is not an identification with Russia but a general reluctance to be stateless. Many also indicated that being a citizen makes travel abroad easier. Many did not opt for Estonian citizenship because they did not expect to qualify. Both the IOM report and other investigations carried out by Baltic institutions and the Strathclyde University show unequivocally that the demands of language proficiency is a big and for many Russians insurmountable obstacle to obtaining Estonian citizenship.

Why, then, do Russians not learn Estonian in order to pass the language test? According to the Strathclyde-investigation a clear majority (86%) of the Estonian Russians think that one ought to do it. The answer appears to be that many have tried - but failed. In the IOM investigation around 50% of the Estonian-Russians report that they have taken language courses, private tuition and studied at home. Of the 47% who report feat they have not tried, 30% report that they did not have the time, and a similar number say that Estonian is quite simply too difficult. Around 20% say that it is unnecessary to learn Estonian since everybody understands Russian.

According to the investigation by Tartu University the majority of the Russians find that the language test is too difficult. Only about one fourth of the interviewees believed they could pass the test. According to the Tartu sociologist, the most worrying fact is that the number of Estonian-Russians who do not think that they will be able to obtains Estonian citizenship within a reasonable time is increasing year by year. In 1994 only 19% of the interviewees believed they would not be able to pass the language test in Estonian. In 1995 this figure had increased to 42%. Last year this number had risen to two thirds of all interviewees.

Hopes for the children

The research reports indicate that the low level of language proficiency is more due to a lack of ability among the Russians than because of any resentment against the language itself. It is remarkable how many of the adult Russians have hopes that their children will do better. According to IOM, more than 90% of the Estonian-Russians answered the question "should Russian children learn Estonian?" with "Yes". The Strathclyde report show almost the same support for the principle that one should learn the language of the country.

The sociologists from Tartu writes in a report from North-eastern Estonia that "non-Estonians are dissatisfied with language teaching. They would support all improvements (teaching of Estonian in child-care institutions, certain lessons in Estonian in Russian schools, etc)". Also, there seems to be a keen interest in having children spending summer vacations with Estonian families.

Friendly relations

Relations in everyday life between Estonians and Russians in Estonia are fairly good. In the Strathclyde investigation, three fourths of the Estonians and two thirds of the Russians affirm that relations are friendly. The IOM report shows the same tendency. Both groups express a certain concern that conflicts may break out between the two groups in the future, but the majority regards the risk as small. Nationalist politicians in both Russia and Estonia are seen as a more tangible threat. The IOM report shows that more than half of the Estonian-Russians look upon disemployment, crime and economic worries as the most important problems in Estonia today, while only 15% mention tensions between Estonians and Russians.

Russians do not seem to experience "everyday-discrimination". Russians and Estonians have roughly the same average expectations for encounters with public institutions - i.e. greatest confidence in post offices and banks, and least confidence in housing agencies and the police. It is a common feature that Russians and Estonians have similar views on economic and social conditions, although Russians tend to be more dissatsified. The author of the Strathclyde report, Richard Rose, points out that differences within the two population groups are often greater than between them.

The answers differ on questions on the economic situation, presumably because the majority of Russians are industrial workers, often employed by large public companies which are doing badly or have been closed, while the Estonians are more evenly divided between different categories of employment. One fourth of the Estonians-Russian who took part in the Strathclyde investigation had been unemployed at least once during the past year, as compared to 11% of the Estonians. A significantly larger proportion of the Russians, as compared to the Estonians, had at some point been forced to make do without food or new clothes. Russians mostly live in rented dwellings, whereas the majority of Estonians own their houses.

Superficial integration

Most Estonian-Russians experience no particularly strong tensions in their day-to-day relations with Estonians, and do not expect these tensions to increase. Yet, two-thirds of them doubt if their children will have a secure future in Estonia, writes the researchers from Tartu University in a comparative study of the conditions in North-eastern Estonia from 1993, 1994 and 1995. The conclusion of the researchers is that the integration of the Russians into Estonian society continues to be "superficial and pragmatic".

One indication of the weak integration is that Russians seldomly have occasion to speak Estonian in their place of work. Only one fifth of the Russians from Tallinn said that they needed to speak Estonian as often as Russian. In Northeastern Estonia, where Russians are a significant majority, they have rarely any occassion at all to speak Estonian. Here, according to the sociologists from Tartu, only 2% indicate that they need Estonian in everyday life - 4% say they need Estonian occasionally for going to shops, while 73% say that they never have occassion to speak Estonian.

Moreover, Estonians and Russians seem to attribute different meanings to the word "integration". To Estonians, it implies an assimilation to Estonian culture and proficiency in the language. To Russians, integration means that "minorities have the same rights as Estonians".

Circulation decrease

The independence of Estonia in 1991 created completely new conditions of information for the Russian speakers. The retransmission of Russian TV-programmes from St. Petersburg ceased, while the number of Russian-language programmes on national Estonian-TV remained insignificant. The circulation of daily papers decreased dramatically, mostly because of rising prices. For Russians in Estonia this situation created and "information vacuum", writes the Estonian research institute Saar-Poll in a comparative study of the Estonian and Russian-language press. Russians are simply not geting enough information about Estonia, in particular because Estonian and Russian papers have different ways of reporting and often do not cover the same items.

Unlike Latvia, Estonian newspapers do not have Russian editions, points out Peeter Vares in the research report: Estonia and Russian, Estonians and Russians: a dialogue. He complains that Estonian television allocates only 15 minutes a day for news in Russian. According to Saar-Poll, the situation has lately improved somewhat with a Russian language television programme on Saturday mornings, but the problem of Russians living in an "information vacuum" remains.

Russians in Estonia and Latvia feel at home and want to stay. In principle they believe in learning the language of the country, but in practice they have not succeeded in doing so. The initial hope of becoming citizens is being replaced by growing disillusion. On this point, however, there is a clear generation gap: middle aged and elderly Russians have given up hope of honouring the language requirements, while the younger Russians have greater expectations. Nevertheless, the lack of existing opportunities for proper language education is a concern for many Russian speakers, in particular in North-eastern Estonia.

In their view of every day life the Baits and the Baltic Russians agree on many issues, and their mutual relations are comparatively devoid of conflict. However, one can hardly speak of any real integration.They differ considerably on the question of who should have the right of obtaining citizenship. As a consequence of the fact that most Estonian Russians do not qualify for the language test for obtaining Estonian citizenship is that an increasing number of Russians acquire Russian citizenship in stead.

This article appeared in "Briefing fran UD" no. 3/97, a periodical published by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has been translated from Swedish by the Commissioner's Office and reprinted with the permission of the author.


Rose, Richard and Maley, William: New Baltics Barometer II. University of Strathclyde 1995

IOM: Migration and Integration: A Survey of Estonia's Non-Estonian Citizens. International Organisation for Migration, Budapest 1996

Russkije Estonii glazami sotsiologov (The Russians of Estonia in the eyes of the sociologists). Tallinn 1996 (Summary in Russian of investigation by sociologists of Tartu University)

Nuzhna li integratsija inorodtsev(am)? (Is there a need for integration of (for) foreigners?). Tallinn 1996 (Report in Russian on investigations by Estonian researchers)

Estonia-sotsiologija-russkije-opros (Estonia-Sociology-Russians-Opinion Poll). Tallinn 1997 (Itar-Tass Summary of investigation carried out by the Estonian Saar-Poll)

The Attitudes of Town Residents of North-Eastern Estonia towards Estonian Reforms and Social Policy, a Comparative Study of 1993, 1994 and 1995. Tartu

Characteristics of the Ethnic and Social Development in Ida-Virumaa 1993-1996. Tallinn 1996

Saar-Poll: A Picture of the World Created by Estonian- and Russia-language Daily Newspapers from July 12-18 1996

Estonia and Russia, Estonians and Russians: a dialogue. Tallinn 1996

Rose, Richard and Maley, William: Conflict or Compromise in the Baltic States? RFE/RL REsearch Report vol. 3, no. 28, 1994

Kolsto, Pal: Integration or Alienation? Russian in the Former Soviet Republics. Report to WCCEES Conference in Warsaw 1995