Estonia: Itching for Eestimaa:

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 2 13:38:47 UTC 2007

Itching for Eestimaa: A blog about the world's only post-communist nordic

teisipev, Mai 01, 2007
Demographics and Estonia: An Overview

In light of last week's clashes in the capital and the post-mortem
spinning that began almost immediately afterward, many in the
English-language readership have been given inaccurate depictions of what
the demographic situation in Estonia is, and how this feeds into local,
and international politics.

A Multi-Ethnic Country

To begin, let me make a broad statement. Estonia has been multiethnic for
centuries. Estonians themselves are a distinct ethnic group, but the
territory of Estonia has been home to a variety of other ethnic groups,
most prominently Swedes, Germans, and Russians. To complicate matters, the
process of Estonian integration is also centuries old and predates any
kind of "draconian" citizenship laws from the early 1990s. Most Estonians
are not 'ethnically pure' Estonians.  Instead, they have some ancestors
from a variety of different countries.

Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand, who is holed up in the Estonian
embassy in Moscow right now, is not an ethnic Estonian. She is half
Latvian and half Russian by birth. Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar is also
half Russian. Lennart Meri, Estonia's second president, was Swedish on his
mother's side. And the blood lines between the Baltic Germans and the
Estonians are notoriously intertwined. To make matters even more
complicated many of Estonia's Soviet-era Russian-speaking community have
also followed this established path of integration. They have perhaps
married into Estonian families or simply "Estonianized."

Two examples of this come from the same family. Estonian politicians
Mihhail and Aleksei Lotman are the sons of the St. Petersburg-born
semiotician Jri Lotman. By ethnicity they are Russian Jews. Yet Mihhail is
in the rightwing Isamaa-Res Publica Party, and Aleksei serves in the Green
party in the Riigikogu. Hence, their ethnic origins have not precluded
them from achieving rather prominent places in Estonian society. Those
that are of mixed backgrounds in Estonia are quite often multilingual. In
addition to Estonian they know Russian and perhaps English. Those with
ties to other minorities may speak Finnish fluently or Swedish. In fact,
in the Noarootsi district in western Estonia, there is a Swedish-only high
school. This is in an area where there are only 50 ethnically Swedish
people living there.

Geographically Homogenous

Despite Estonia's multiethnic heritage, the country is still rather
homogenous. In 13 of Estonia's 15 counties, ethnic Estonians comprise more
than 80 percent of the population. This is the case of Estonia's second
largest city, Tartu, as well. As people watching the news last week saw,
the main centers of the ethnic Russian population are in Tallinn and in
Ida Viru county in northeastern Estonia. Estonia is 69 percent ethnic
Estonian and 26 percent ethnic Russian. Most of that 26 percent are
located in these urban areas. Tallinn is an interesting example of how
demographics can change rapidly in Estonia. In 1989, nearly 500,000 people
lived in Tallinn. Last year, it was home to 396,000 people. Six years
previous in 2000 it was home to 400,000 people. Of those 4,000 people that
were lost in six years, the population decline was greatest among ethnic

While the ethnic Estonian population numbers about 216,000 people in
Tallinn, the ethnic Russian population numbers about 144,000. In six
years, the ethnic Estonian population declined by 1,000 people, while the
ethnic Russian population declined by nearly 3,000. One could insert
statistics from the 1970s here to show an inverse effect of ethnic Russian
population growth, but I do not have access to those statistics. It is my
interpretation that rather than feeling stronger in Estonian society with
the backing of a resurgent Moscow, Estonia's Russian community in Tallinn
is actually feeling weaker as the demographic balance shifts every year in
the favor of ethnic Estonians. Hence, monolingual Russophones are
encountering the reality of their minority status on a more frequent
basis. This increases the frustration that led to things like last week's

Another factor is that Estonian politics are controlled by individuals
that do not come from areas adjacent to large Russian minorities. Andrus
Ansip is from Tartu. Mart Laar was born in Viljandi. And, as we all know,
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born in Stockholm, though he never
apparently pursued citizenship there. Hence, in the recent controversy, it
has been Tartu politicians, like Ansip and Minister of Defense Jaak
Aaviksoo, that have been making decisions that impact the lives of Tallinn
residents, where Edgar Savisaar, widely considered to be more in tune to
the feelings of ethnic Russians, since he technically is also one, has
condemned their activities. You'll notice that other Tallinners, like Reet
Aus, a fashion designer whose grandfather actually designed the Bronze
Soldier, have called the removal policy a bad choice. In this instance,
you could think that cosmopolitan Tallinn is being held captive by
provincial politicians.  It is an argument that could be made, though I
decline to make it.

Stereotypically, monolingual Russians feel like they are looked down upon
by Estonians, while Estonians are quietly distressed by the longterm
inability of Russians to adapt to the Estonian culture on their own and
their continued admiration for forces that were historically hostile to
the Estonian people, like the USSR.

Carrots and Sticks

Estonia's post-1991 integration policies have both condemned and praised.
One overlooked fact is that they have been working. Estonia's stateless
persons decline every year, and currently only 9 percent of residents lack
citizenship, compared to 32 percent just 15 years ago. Estonia's
politicians have employed a carrot and stick approach to goad monolingual
Russians into integrating into Estonian society. However, these Russians
that have yet to integrate see it mostly as stick and stick. Since they
don't have citizenship they cannot vote on the policies that effect them
the most.

Estonian school reform is another hot issue. Dealing with a monolingual
minority that has difficulty in obtaining high paying jobs and status in
society has spurred Estonian politicians to endore a high percentage of
education in Estonian at the public school level. This has created
additional pressure on ethnic Russians in Estonia. Again, it becomes
complicated, because to succeed in Estonia, knowledge of Estonian is an
asset, but since obtaining that knowledge is difficult, some monolingual
Russians see it as a discriminatory hurdle to "weed them out" of political
and economic participation. Therefore it remains controversial, although
some in the Estonian Russian community that have integrated openly call
their kin "their own worst enemy" for not acknowledging some basic facts
about Estonia.

To complicate matters monolingual Russian speakers receive most of their
news from Kremlin controlled Russian media. Since 1991, Russia has
conducted an anti-Estonian propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the
country in the international arena with a longterm goal of bringing it
back under its control. I would not like to believe this, but after
reading hundreds of stories in the Russian media, I can only conclude that
this is the case. In my opinion, Russian foreign policy generally views
its neighbors through a 19th century lense of "spheres of influence" and
seeks to control them as a matter of course, despite what value they may
actually add in end. Russian nationalists also believe that they have a
right to control territories that one belonged to the Russian empire in
the 19th century. Swedish businessmen perhaps think similarly.

A Lack of Leadership

While Estonian Russians in Estonia are at the center of some distressing
trends -- a chauvanistic Kremlin, population decline, government pressure
-- they have yet to organize and work effectively with local authorities
in a potent way. Kremlin-supported parties in Estonia actually face
declining support, even as more people naturalize. "Thought leaders" like
Dmitri Klenski -- who speaks Estonian, but spouts Stalinist history -- get
media attention, but cannot get elected. Edgar Savisaar's Center Party is
an ethnic Russian stronghold, yet at the same time it hasn't made the
group any promises to reverse language laws or citizenship requirements.
And, moreover, nobody is really sure of what this group wants politically.

Some want to become an official minority, with Russian as a state
language. But there are ethnic Russians that oppose this too and put their
kids in Estonian kindergartens to get ahead. There are even some who still
think that Estonia "belongs" to Russia, and are waiting for the "red ship"
to come and continue the slow eradication of the Estonian people.
Russification and Estonia's Neighbors As a final note, it's worth
mentioning that Estonia's eastern Finnic neighbors that remained in Russia
after 1918 have been largely assimilated into Russian society and have
lost the characteristic that distinguished their ethnicity, their

Over the past 80 years the number of self-described Ingrians -- a Finnic
ethnic group residing in the vicinity of St. Petersburg for millennia --
dropped from 26,100 to 300. As is noted here, due to the Second World War,
"Physical extermination and russification had achieved their purpose:
post-war generations of Izhorians have no knowledge of their native
tongue." The example of their ethnic kin in Ingria has left Estonians with
a deep fear of the same thing happening to their land. Some extreme
Russian nationalists openly joke about the extermination of the Estonian
people, or the death of Estonian as a "small, obscure" language, feeding
this fear and reinforcing people's support for the country's language and
citizenship policies.


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