Putin’s Encore: Russian expansionary policies in Estonia

By Michelle Kelrikh

Until recently, Estonia was a mere dot in the Northern Baltic, the property of the Danes, the Swedes, and, until the early 1990s, the Soviet Union. But since gaining independence in 1991 it has made a name of itself despite its tiny population of 1.3 million (the same number as the population of Dallas, Texas). This new member of the European Union (Estonia joined in May of 2004) boasts the invention of Skype and the first use of safe web voting in elections and digital citizenship. Yet the country’s entrance onto the world stage has been accompanied by new dangers: in April 2007, a series of major cyber-attacks shut down websites of the Estonian Parliament, banks, and ministries, followed by the September 2014 kidnapping of Estonian security official Eston Kohver. Both incidences were traced back to Russia, an ominous aggressor in the wake of the Crimean crisis.

Estonia’s ties to Russia extend further than its Soviet-occupied past, but even with roughly a quarter of Estonians tracing their roots to Russia, the Russian-Estonian population “neither desired nor believed that anything similar [to the Crimean situation] would or could occur in the Baltic,” David Smith, a Professor of Baltic History and Politics at the University of Glasgow, argued. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty magazine, Oleg Uglov, an ethnically Russian table tennis manufacturer in Estonia, praised the ease of business transactions and the lack of corruption in the country. “You can feel confident they won’t come for your [business] tomorrow, they won’t take anything away or change the laws in such a way that it’s really difficult to do business,” Uglov said.

The Estonian government is increasing its efforts to make Uglov’s pro-Estonian sentiment commonplace to counteract Russian advances. This can be difficult given the weakness of Estonian identity among its isolated Russian communities, some of which are 90 percent Russian. In these communities, children attend school where Russian is the primary language, and everyone engages with the Russian media.

The battleground of the war of Russian encroachment lies in citizenship. David Cameron, director of EU studies at Yale, contended that Russia “had been making noise for some time about offering Russian citizenship and some financial support to those who don’t have Estonian citizenship.” Estonia is disadvantaged in the tug-of-war for Russian-Estonian citizenship. In 1992, about 32 percent of ethnic Russians in Estonia were stateless. At the time of Soviet independence, proficiency in Estonian, ranked by the US State Department as one of the three most difficult languages to learn, was required, as well as a mastery of the Estonian Constitution. The stringency of these requirements was so severe that when Estonia first applied to join the European Union in 1995, the EU postponed Estonia’s membership until it relaxed its citizenship procedures.

The easing of the citizenship process has largely been a success: the number of stateless Estonian residents had dropped to a mere 7 percent by the end of 2013. Kristo Ment, an Estonian student at Yale, explained that the Estonian government “provides subsidized language programs, and the amount of Estonian one needs to know is far less than it used to be.” Estonia has also launched a joint Russian-language Baltic TV channel to attempt to disseminate Russian media dominance. Ment believes that the Estonian government is doing enough to help its Russians become Estonian citizens, if they so desire.

But Cameron does not think this is sufficient to resist encroachment. “There can be no doubt that language has been used and is used now deliberately to exclude the ethnic Russians from citizenship.” Although citizenship is now more easily attainable, Putin has used the continued isolation of ethnic Russian communities to criticize the Estonian government for failing to meet its responsibilities to its Russian peoples. Russia ostensibly is trying to protect the Russians abroad, but in light of the Crimean crisis, Putin’s ambitions may be more far-reaching.

Regardless of whether or not Putin wants Estonia, it remains difficult to predict whether he will pursue it. In April 2007 and September 2014, Russia showed its aggressive tendencies. And with a bully as large and stubborn as Russia, David Smith argued that the tug-of-war over Russian Estonians may be irrelevant: “The Ukraine crisis shows us that if Russia [cared to] to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Baltic States, it would do so regardless of the wishes and concerns of local Russian inhabitants.” But Estonia is not another Crimea: the country has important allies in the European Union and NATO. The future for the Baltic battleground may uncertain, but it looks likely that Estonia and the European Union will be fighting back.

Michelle Kelrikh ’17 is an Ethics, Politics, & Economics major in Morse College. Contact her at michelle.kehlrikh@yale.edu.