Ethnic Russians today compose around a quarter of the population of Estonia and Latvia and about 5 percent in Lithuania. For the most part, these communities are made up of the descendants of migrants to the Baltics after the Second World War, whom the Soviet authorities deliberately compelled to move there. But in the post-Soviet era, the situation changed significantly. Many grandchildren of those first settlers began to consider these countries as their homeland.
Given the relatively small number of Russians, independent Lithuania in 1991 offered full citizenship to all of its permanent residents. Estonia and Latvia took a different tack—only those Russians who were able to learn the local languages received citizenship, the rest fell under the legal category of “non-citizens.” However, today, only 5–6 percent of the population still retains this status. Many of those individuals prefer to hold on to their “non-citizen” passport because it uniquely permits them visa-free entry to both the rest of the European Union and to the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, over the past 30 years, the process of integration of the Russian minority into Estonian and Latvian society has steadily increased (see EDM, February 21, 2017), and sometimes local ethnic Russians even achieved high political positions. For example, between 2009 and 2019, Nil Ushakov was twice elected mayor of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Many local Russians prefer to send their children to regular Estonian and Latvian schools rather than Russian-speaking ones to ease their future studies and careers. Therefore, in the Baltic States, there is no longer so much an ethnic split to speak of, but a generational one. Russian youth in the Baltic countries mostly feel “European” and consume daily news from the internet. Whereas, the older generation is used to television; they mostly watch Russian channels and so are strongly influenced by Kremlin propaganda.
The March poll in Latvia about the attitude to the Russian-Ukrainian war was, thus, quite indicative. If 90 percent of all ethnic Latvians expressed support for Ukraine, the opinion of the Russian respondents was divided almost in half: 22 percent of them (mostly young people) also backed Ukraine in the conflict, while 21 percent supported Russia; the rest preferred to remain neutral (LSM, March 10).
Trying to overcome such a split in his own country, Estonian President Alar Karis said at a February 26 anti-war rally in Tallinn, “This is not a war of the Russian people against Ukraine and Ukrainians. This is the war of President [Vladimir] Putin, who is afraid of freedom and democracy” (ERR, February 26).
The statement of the Tallinn City Assembly—led by the Estonian Center Party, about half composed of ethnic Russians—is also indicatory: “The city of Tallinn sharply condemns the military invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine with the assistance of Belarus and the illegal recognition of the occupied territories. The large-scale military actions launched by Russia in Ukraine are a crime against peace and are contrary to human rights, international agreements and the [United Nations] Charter… In cooperation with the Estonian state and civil associations, we provide assistance to war refugees who have arrived here from Ukraine, providing them with access to education, job opportunities and essential social services” (Tallinn.ee, March 7).
On April 5, Estonia announced the closure of the Russian consulate in Narva, a city bordering Russia. Recently, this consulate had become a center for propaganda and even distribution of aggressive pro-war symbols—flags and badges with the letter “Z.” The Latvian government followed suit and closed the Russian consulate in Daugavpils, a region where ethnic Russians make up about half of the population (EER, April 5).
The authorities in the Baltic countries tend to distinguish between the aggressive Russian state on the one hand and ethnic Russians on the other hand. For example, Latvia has stepped up to provide assistance to independent Russian journalists critical of the war and the Putin regime who have fled to Europe and seen their media outlets shut down or threatened with criminal prosecution. Indeed, Riga is now becoming one of the global centers of free Russian-language media (Svoboda.org, March 31).
Since the majority of Russians in the Baltic States confessionally identify themselves with the Orthodox Church, the Church demarcation that has begun there is illustrative in its own right. A stark ideological split has opened up between the Moscow leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and its dioceses in the three Baltic countries.
On April 3, the day after footage emerged of shocking war atrocities committed by occupying Russian soldiers in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Patriarch Kirill held a service at the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces and called for prayers to enhance the military’s “power” (Patriarchia.ru, April 3). In contrast, all three abbots of the Baltic Orthodox Churches, although subordinated to Kirill by jurisdiction, had been expressing fundamentally divergent views for weeks. Metropolitan Eugene of Tallinn and All Estonia called for the immediate cessation of the war and all possible assistance to refugees (Orthodox.ee, March 2). Metropolitan Alexander of Riga and All Latvia even used the word “aggression” (Pravoslavie.lv, March 6). But Metropolitan Innokenty of Vilna and Lithuania spoke most candidly: “We strongly condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine and pray to God for its speedy end. As you have probably already noticed, Patriarch Kirill and I have different political views and perceptions of current events. His political statements about the war in Ukraine are his personal opinion. We in Lithuania do not agree with this… We live in a free, democratic country. Lithuania is not Russia. This is a different state, a different society with its own spiritual and moral climate” (Orthodoxy.lt, March 17). If the Kremlin’s aggression continues, the Baltic Orthodox Churches could well raise the issue of their own autocephaly, following the example of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Today, TV channels airing Russian propaganda are prohibited from broadcasting to the Baltic States. However, bans alone are unlikely to solve the problem. On the contrary, “forbidden fruit is sweet” and such a situation can backfire—it gives Kremlin propaganda an opportunity to act from the standpoint of “defending freedom of speech.” According to many representatives of media community of the Baltic countries, with whom this author spoke in recent weeks, the Baltics need new Russian-language television and radio channels that would be able to surpass Kremlin propaganda in their popularity. But even by pooling their resources together, the small Baltic republics lack the capabilities in this regard—it may require a pan-European or even global effort.