In a recent study, analysts at Tallinn’s National Center of Defense and Security Awareness surveyed a representative sample of 2,800 young Russian speakers drawn from across Estonia. The analysis set out to determine the degree of their integration into Estonian society and their vulnerability to hostile information sources from abroad (Issuu.com, April 12). The study’s findings suggest that this group is less integrated than many had assumed and that their approach to Estonian institutions is often instrumental rather than driven by a shift in identity. Additionally, the analysis revealed that many young Russian speakers in Estonia think relations with Russia are more important than those with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for Estonian security. That does not mean that these young Russian speakers are disloyal and would not fight to defend Estonia, but rather that the basis of their attitudes is different than many originally thought.
When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, many Estonian leaders emphasized that integrating the Russian-speaking community was a fundamental requirement for securing the country. In this regard, Estonia has made significant progress: the share of non-citizens has fallen dramatically, both as a result of Russian speakers gaining citizenship and due to higher mortality rates among Russians than Estonians. Furthermore, increasing numbers of Russian speakers participate in and identify with the Baltic nation. Indeed, so much progress has been made that many confidently consider it irreversible, assuming that the rising generation of Russian speakers will become increasingly integrated into Estonian society and politics (see EDM, February 21, 2017).
However, the new study conducted by analysts Dmitri Teperik and Grigori Senkiv entitled, “Primary World-View Characteristics of Russian-Speaking Young Adults in Estonia,” serves as a wakeup call that the situation is more complicated. In fact, there is a real risk that Russian disinformation efforts could and already do resonate with this community in ways that could work to the detriment of Estonian and NATO security.
Estonia has focused on this question many times before (Emor.ee, February 12, 2019; Kaitseiministerium.ee, Fall 2018; Kaitsen.ee, May 24, 2018 and January, 26, 2019). But this new survey provides the broadest assessment yet of the worldviews of young Russian speakers in Estonia.
A major issue in understanding this demographic (aged 16 to 20 years old) is how its members regard the acquisition of Estonian citizenship. Nearly half (47 percent) take an instrumental view in terms of the ability it gives its bearers to travel abroad freely; although almost the same percentage (46 percent) do associate it with an identification with the country. Interestingly, a third of respondents said that they have not accepted Estonian citizenship, not because they do not want to stay in Estonia or because they do not identify with the country, but rather because a Russian passport makes it easier for them to travel to the East as well as to the West (Issuu.com, April 12).
Not surprisingly, these Russian speakers identify fellow members of their group as people they trust the most, giving those who appeal to them in that language a serious advantage. But on this as on other measures, the community is divided between those who live in Tallinn (professing greater willingness to trust foreigners or members outside their local community) and those who live in the northeast (who are least likely to trust non-locals). One measure of this dichotomy is that Russian speakers in the capital are far more likely to use Facebook, while those in the northeast are more likely to use the more insular Russian-based Odnoklassniki social media.
On top of that, there is a stark difference in opinion between Russian and Estonian speakers concerning security. Teperik and Senkiv agree that “the views and opinions of Estonian- and Russian-speaking residents of Estonia differ dramatically as far as global security is concerned.” For example, 70 percent of Estonian speakers in that country view the North Atlantic Alliance as the primary guarantor of the country’s security, as compared to only 29 percent of Russian speakers Moreover, only 29 percent of Russian speakers want a permanent NATO presence in Estonia, and two out of three (66 percent) say that establishing good relations with Russia is the best way to provide for Estonia’s security.
A difference in opinion also exists among Russian speakers in Estonia regarding national security. Russian-speaking residents of Tallinn are far more likely to view NATO as important than those living in the northeast. The latter is also far more worried about refugee flows and far more willing to believe Russian media on international issues. Nonetheless, nearly half of all Russian speakers support army service (young Russian women say that service in the army “turns boys into men”) and believe that people living in Estonia should resist militarily if Estonia is attacked by a foreign power.
However, the two analysts continue, 84 percent of young Russian speakers do not think that Russia poses “a genuine threat to Estonia’s security.” And many of them accept Russian propaganda about foreign policy issues. Thus, “just over half (52 percent) think that Ukraine is more to blame for the war there,” while “almost one in three blames Ukraine or the United States for that conflict.” The National Center of Defense and Security Awareness report concludes that “hostile propaganda has succeeded in influencing the opinions of the survey’s target group on the war in Ukraine.”
For Teperik and Senkiv, “The obvious question in the light [sic] of this is what other socio-political, socio-economic and value-related spheres could be affected.” Clearly there is a risk here, which Estonian defense planners and Estonians more generally cannot ignore. So far, however, Tallinn’s efforts to reach out to its Russian minority through the establishment of a Russian-language television channel have not achieved what many had hoped. Only a miniscule percentage of Russian speakers watch this media outlet. Consequently, other means will need to be tried, although Teperik and Senkiv do not suggest what they might be. Instead, the authors clearly hope that the data they have gathered will lead others to come up with something.