Moscow is again stirring the pot in northeastern Estonia, trying to pit the ethnic-Russian community there against Tallinn. And it is doing so in the classic tradition of Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid” war: specifically, Russia is using a report prepared by the Estonian Security Police that leaked to the press in order to blame Tallinn for that group’s problems. On the one hand, Moscow is trying to exacerbate relations between the ethnic Russians and Estonians to keep that country off balance. And on the other, it is seeking to raise questions among Estonia’s Western allies about the internal stability of this Baltic republic as well as sow uncertainty about how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should respond to any further Russian troublemaking in Estonia.
Ever since Moscow’s violent aggression began in Ukraine in early 2014, many asked where Putin would strike next; and Estonia was promptly identified as a likely target. Even though this country is a full-fledged member of NATO, it has a sizeable ethnic-Russian community whose relationship with ethnic Estonians has been troubled in the past. That community consists of two distinct parts. The first group is Russian-Estonians in the capital. Many of them are well educated, hold good jobs, learned Estonian, and have increasingly become full citizens of Estonia. The second group—Russian-Estonians in the northeastern portion of the country (particularly the county of Ida-Virumaa)—tend to be working class and older, and they have shown little interest in learning Estonian or integrating into the broader Estonian nation.
Because the latter are located on the Russian border and watch Russian television, many in Moscow feel that they potential allies in Putin’s plan to build “a Russian world” (“Russkiy mir”). Indeed, at one point, Western speculation about the possibility that Moscow would move into this region became so widespread that some began to ask whether any in the Western alliance were ready “to die for Narva,” the largest city in that region (Estonian World, June 16, 2015). Such concerns have been on the wane in recent months, but now a pro-Moscow commentator has reopened the issue. Writing for the online portal RuBaltic, directed at ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries, the author, Laima Katse, argues that the aforementioned leaked Estonian document “has done ten times more for the isolation and radicalization” of ethnic Russians in northeastern Estonia “than so-called Kremlin propaganda and Russification” (RuBaltic, September 16, 2016).
Katse—who in the past had repeatedly signaled new directions in Moscow’s policies toward the Baltic countries—says the leaked document reveals that Tallinn’s security police has “come to the conclusion that in the event of a conflict” with Russia, the Estonian government “could lose control over the 150,000 people in Ida-Virumaa, which has been ‘thoroughly Russified.” She adds that “for the destabilization of the situation, even a small network of approximately 200 ‘local terrorists’ would be sufficient” (RuBaltic, September 16).
This report and the fact that it was leaked may be nothing more than an effort by the security police to overstate the existence of an enemy in order to justify calls for a bigger police budget, Katse admits. Yet, she asserts that such conclusions nonetheless “spit on the 60,000 Russian speakers who live in the region and who suffer from “objective problems” that the Estonian government has caused in some cases and failed to address in others.
“The unfavorable social-economic situation of the region,” the pro-Moscow commentator says, “is a suitable milieu for a protest explosion… The level of unemployment and crime in Ida-Virumaa is the highest in the country. Pay is the lowest—20 percent less than the Estonian average.” Its population losses are the highest and it has the lowest life expectancies. And unemployment is surging given the collapse in oil prices, which negatively impacted the local shale oil industry, where most of Ida-Virumaa’s ethnic Russians work or have worked in the past, she claims (RuBaltic, September 16).
Katse’s article is a mix of truth and falsehoods. Ida-Virumaa, one of the 15 counties of Estonia, indeed does have problems. Its population, approximately 70 percent of which are ethnic Russians, has been suffering from economic problems. And this population has been falling from 221,000 in 1990, to an estimated 146,000 this year, as a result of Russians leaving for the Russian Federation as well as due to higher mortality among ethnic Russians than among ethnic Estonians (Stat.ee, June 10). But in contrast to the Estonian security police report, which talks about a small number of potential terrorists, Katse commits the sociological fallacy of ascribing to all members of this community the most negative and anti-Estonian attitudes. In fact, the ethnic Russians in Estonia, even those in the northeast, have long life expectancies and better incomes than ethnic Russians in neighboring Russian Federation regions like Pskov oblast.
And yet, the RuBaltic commentator does not leave it at that. She contends that the Estonian security police wants to increase the role of law enforcement agencies in Idu-Virumaa while not doing enough to improve the social and economic problems of that community. And she maintains that the police particularly does not want to recognize the region’s ethnic Russians as a community that should be given equal status to others. In fact, these are exactly the same kinds of arguments Russian propagandists made before Russian forces went into Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas. Of course, this does not mean Moscow will necessarily follow the same scenario in Estonia’s northeast; but the parallels suggest that the danger to Estonia from Russia has not passed and may be growing worse.