Aha Moment

Conceputalizing a Russian Minority: A Case Study of Ethnic Conflict in Post-Soviet Estonia

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the international community’s watchful gaze has turned away from Eastern Europe and its Soviet environs. Instead, debacles in the Middle East and South China Sea are among the most highly publicized and hotly contested issues in the world, and Eastern European states are relegated to global obscurity and internal insecurity.

For a region of such geopolitical importance, this relegation is unfair and unproductive. Eastern Europe, physically and culturally, is the crossroads of the East and West. Since dialogue on American-Russian relations is ubiquitous both in the Ivory Tower and at the kitchen table, it is nonsensical that the region placed squarely in between these two global powers is rarely discussed in international discourse. Studying Eastern Europe would aid scholars and laymen alike in understanding Russia, one of the key players on today’s global stage.

Whenever the region does manage to break into international coverage, it’s usually reserved for negative portrayals of its faltering post-socialist regimes. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula made waves in the West, as did Viktor Orbán’s repressive and xenophobic rise to power in Hungary. The international community only appear to care about investigating events in Eastern Europe when the events pose severe and external threats to the region’s stability — it is purely logical for scholars to take time researching, reflecting, and learning about Eastern Europe before conflict erupts, in order to mitigate the costs of conflict once they materialize.

This drive sparked my passion for researching the Baltic states, specifically Estonia. The three states have been comparatively successful since the USSR’s demise in terms of political and economic development, especially when compared to countries in the Balkans that underwent similar transitions in the post-socialist era. But Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia still face an endemic lingering issue in these states on how to properly integrate a sizable Russian ethnic minority into their respective civic societies.

The concept of a Russian minority intrigues me. As someone who grew up entirely in the United States, it is a common cultural motif that the Russians are strong and powerful, and their nation is something to be weary or suspicious of. Take the depictions of Russian President Vladimir Putin that frequent American media outlets: they portray Putin as masculine, strong-willed and exceptionally powerful. It is extremely difficult to conceptualize of Russians as a minority given their seemingly irrepressible dominance, yet the status of ethnic Russians in the Baltics resembles that of a subjugated class much more so than a powerful one.

Images like these show President Vladimir Putin projecting strength and assertive dominance. While clearly staged, their ubiquitous appearances on US media outlets make it difficult to conceptualize a society where Russians are weak or disadvantaged. (Courtesy photo – ABC News)

The fate of ethnic Russians in post-Soviet Baltic states is diametrically opposed to this Western phenomenon of Russian dominance. Once all three states restored their independence in the early 1990s, all made swift moves to re-solidify the superiority of ethnic Balts and disenfranchise Russian ‘occupiers’ who had emigrated to the Baltic states during the Cold War[1]. [MG1] Baltic politicians implemented a series of stringent anti-Russian policies, ranging from the passage of so-called ‘language laws’[2] — which limited the usage of foreign, non-Baltic tongues in civic life and employment — as well as the elimination of citizenship for thousands of ethnic Russians, which remains a severe problem for over 80,000 individuals in Estonia[3].

It is difficult to reconcile the miserable experiences of ethnic Russians in Baltic society with the narratives of dominance portrayed in Western media. Nevertheless, it is imperative that observers recognize the failure of Baltic states to sufficiently integrate Russians into civic society, and that we strive to understand the relationships between poor integration and various societal outcomes.

The aim of understanding this failure drew my attention most closely to Estonia. Estonia is prone to ethnic tension due to the presence of a sizable Russian minority, which consists of about a quarter of its national population. The harsh treatment of ethnic Russians has occasionally led to violent outbursts, most notably in the 2007 Bronze Night Protests that erupted over disagreements regarding a controversial Soviet-era statue in Tallinn. 

This river marks the border between Narva, Estonia and Ivangorod, Russia. The two countries have had a tumultuous relationship since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the treatment of ethnic Russians has only exacerbated tensions. (Courtesy photo – James Hill for The New York Times)

I am interested in determining what structural factors are responsible for driving conflict between ethnic Balts and ethnic Russians. I determined that linguistic differences were a major contributor to tension as the lack of a lingua franca between the two groups prevented meaningful integration, an argument suggested by both ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians alike[4]. However, I failed to see how this difference could be the primary way of understanding the conflict, as ethnic Russians with little knowledge of the Estonian language express a willingness and desire to learn the language in many research studies — if unique linguistic heritage was the driving force of conflict, I’d expect to see a fierce reluctance to learn Estonian, which does not appear to exist among ethnic Russians.

I developed a hypothesis for what drives ethnic conflict in Estonia. This hypothesis rests on the assumption that ‘ethnic conflict’ can be most effectively condensed into ‘hate crimes’ as a means of statistical observation as it is difficult to gauge an abstract concept like conflict without first determining a concrete measurement.

This determination allowed me to mirror my research off a similar paper that attempted to link ethnic conflict (in the form of hate crimes) and political polarization among ethnic groups in interwar Poland[5]. Using this paper for inspiration, I developed the following research question, which I will discuss more in my next blog post: Does political support for pro-Russian parties among ethnic Russians in Estonia predict higher crime rates on a county-by-county basis?

[1] Kadri Leetmaa, Tiit Tammaru and Daniel Baldwin Hess (2015), “Preferences Toward Neighbor Ethnicity and Affluence: Evidence from an Inherited Dual Ethnic Context in Post-Soviet Tartu, Estonia”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105:1, 162-182.

[2] Jennie Schulze (2009), “Estonia caught between East and West: EU conditionality, Russia’s activism and minority integration,” Nationalities Papers – The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity.

[3] Tacita Vero (2007), “Many ethnic Russians in Estonia have gray passports, live in legal limbo,” Slate Magazine.

[4]  Gerli Nimmerfeldt (2009), “Identificational Integration of Second Generation Russians in Estonia”, Studies of Transition States and Societies.

[5] Jeffry Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg, “Deadly Communities: Local Political Milieus and the Persecution of Jews in Occupied Poland” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3, March 2011, pp. 259-83.