Most ethnic Estonians glad to be back in the western club


TALLINN LETTER:Relations between ‘locals’ and ‘incomers’ in the European Capital of Culture are not always smooth, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

THE UFO that appeared above Tallinn on New Year’s Eve surely helped convince any doubters that 2011 would be a special year for Estonia.

When dawn broke on January 1st, the shining disk and its “alien” pilot may have disappeared from the crane that suspended them over Tallinn, but it was still a changed city – it was now a European Capital of Culture and the euro was its currency.

If the reintroduction of the kroon in 1992 marked Estonia’s escape from the Soviet Union and its rouble the previous year, then its replacement with the euro signifies the latest stage in the Baltic state’s march away from Moscow and towards deeper integration with Europe.

Despite a crushing recent recession, the vast majority of ethnic Estonians are glad to be back in the western “club” they see as their natural home, and feel no nostalgia for four decades of Soviet rule that brought oppression, purges and a militarisation programme that made much of the country’s Baltic coastline off-limits as a sensitive border zone.

Occupation also brought an influx of people from other parts of the Soviet Union, under a resettlement programme that Josef Stalin hoped would dilute Estonian resistance to his rule.

For those people and their descendants, Estonia’s break with Moscow and its dash into the EU, Nato and the euro zone is a more ambiguous journey.

Russians make up about a quarter of Estonia’s population and almost 40 per cent of Tallinn residents, and while their language is heard alongside Estonian everywhere in the capital and Russian visitors feel comfortable here, relations between “locals” and “incomers” are not always smooth. Many Russians complain about discrimination and bemoan a citizenship law that requires them to show knowledge of Estonia’s constitution and a grasp of its tricky language. The upshot is that about 8 per cent of Estonia’s residents – some 100,000 people, the vast majority of them ethnic Russians – have no citizenship and cannot vote in state elections or hold certain jobs.

“Never mind the kroon, sometimes I still miss the rouble,” said Siberian-born Lyudmilla, who sells newspapers and cigarettes from a kiosk in central Tallinn. “There were positive things about the Soviet times – no one worried about losing their job and I would have been on a decent pension now, instead of still having to work. We loved Russia but Russia abandoned us when the Soviet Union collapsed,” she continued. “We get no support from Russia and we do have problems here sometimes, especially at election time.”

The last spike in ethnic tension came in 2007, when Russians rioted in protest at the transfer of a Soviet war memorial to a new location, killing one person and injuring dozens. The riots were followed by a major cyber assault on Estonian government websites, and many analysts concluded that the rioting and sophisticated computer attacks were orchestrated by nationalist groups in Russia, the Kremlin’s security agencies or a combination of the two.

The latest scandal to shake Estonian-Russian relations struck at the heart of Tallinn amid final preparations for the adoption of the euro and its year as capital of culture. In a report leaked to the press, Estonia’s security services claimed Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar had secretly sought €3 million from Vladimir Yakunin, Russia’s powerful railways chief, a close ally of premier Vladimir Putin and a suspected former KGB officer.

The intelligence agency said Savisaar wanted the money to fund his Centre Party ahead of March general elections and that his links with Moscow made him a danger to national security.

Savisaar denies the charges, insists he only sought €1.5 million from Yakunin to help build a Russian Orthodox church in Tallinn, and denounces the case as a bid to smear him and ruin his party’s election chances. Estonia’s president has suggested he will bar the Centre Party from power as long as it is suspected of seeking illicit funding and is led by Savisaar.

The run-up to the March 6th election is likely to fuel tension between Tallinn and Moscow, increasing scrutiny and strain on Estonia’s Russian community.

But Maris Hellrand believes she and her colleagues may have an antidote to ethnic strife.

The spokeswoman for Tallinn’s capital of culture year thinks the city’s hundreds of special events will help bring Estonia’s people together, celebrating diversity while encouraging unity. “We have many projects targeted at out national minorities – not just Russians but Georgians, Ukrainians, Armenians and others – and Russian artists will be taking part,” she said.

“We are organising lots of community-orientated projects which – without being planned this way – are actually becoming integration projects. It’s one of the great benefits of this cultural celebration and we should make the most of it.”