Since the events in Ukraine, the Estonian government has pushed for an increased NATO presence in the north east of the country.
This small Baltic republic is nervous. Politicians and citizens are starting to ask some uncomfortable questions: will the Kremlin try to destabilize Estonia too? And will the country’s large Russian minority remain loyal to Estonia?
Those questions are particularly pertinent in Narva, a city just over the border from Russia.
The Estonian armed forces are made up not just of Estonians but also ethnic Russians, some of whom speak mainly Russian.
Lieutenant Nikolai Predbannikov is a Russian speaker. He says they do have policies to encourage the integration of Russian-speakers into the Estonian army
“We organize special language training for those who struggle with Estonian. In addition there are military personnel who understand both, Russian and Estonian, and they are able to translate specific military terms, when necessary.”
But for many the crucial question is this: are Russian speakers in the Estonian armed forces ready to defend their country against potential agression from the East?
Lieutenant Predbannikov thinks they are.
“As far as I am concerned it’s not about the nationality or ethnicity of the the enemy. Whoever brings the sword will fall by the sword.”
The fear among some is that, guided by Moscow, ‘little green men’, that is to say armed fighters with no insignia, will slip over the border into Estonia, just as they did in Crimea.
Civil society is worried, Russian-speakers included, who make up around a quarter of the population. In Narva, Ivan Laverentjev is one of them, but his loyalty is to Estonia. So much so that he drafted an open letter signed by numerous Estonian Russian-speakers of all political shades.
“The purpose of the memorandum is to send a message that we, Russian-speakers living in Estonia, don’t want to see those famous ‘little-green-men’ come here like they did in Ukraine in Crimea… People here want to live in an independent Estonia, not in some kind of ‘New-Russia’.”
Estonia is going to increase its use of Russian-language media to communicate with the public according to Ilmar Raag. As a filmmaker he worked with famous French actor Jeanne Moreau. Now he supports the Estonian government in its efforts to counter foreign media manipulation.
“We are concerned of hostile information operations,” says Raag. “How to counter Russian propaganda. We think that the first step should be by raising awareness… in order to recognize immediately what are straightforward lies.”
Oleg and Tatjana are both native Russian speakers. Among their friends only very few would prefer to live under the rule of the Kremlin, they say. In Narva, Oleg says it is only a few elderly people who would like to join the Russian Federation.
“People who are now in their fifties or older… they lived most of their life in the Soviet Union and that’s why they’re more used to that way of life than me. I am probably half-Estonian now, I was born here in Narva, I grew up here..”
While their son David took Estonian citizenship at birth, Oleg and Tatjana still have grey-coloured “alien passports”. Being busy with children and work, they never got round to learning Estonian very well nor to preparing properly for the citizenship exam.
“If the government want’s more people to get Estonian passports, if they want more Estonian citizens, they need to simplify the citizenship-exams so that we can get the Estonian passport”, says Tatjana
David gets good grades at school. In Narva 90 percent of people are Russian-speakers – and there are many Russian schools where 60 percent of classes are taught in Estonian, and 40 percent in Russian. Politicians are now talking about introducing Estonian earlier, at Kindergarten level.
David’s parents support the idea and would like to see more native Estonian-language teachers in Narva. They say they want their kids to become truly bilingual and not be regarded as “aliens”.
At a military parade in Narva many different armies and languages are evident. That is because Estonia is a member of NATO. Many Russian speakers think that is the reason it will not suffer the same fate as Ukraine, but not everyone agrees.
“Our Ida-Viru region here is mostly Russian speaking, if the government were to limit the use of Russian language by law, than anything could happen.” said one woman.
“No, no, no! It is not possible, it couldn’t be allowed to happen, countered this man. “We are all peaceful people. That is because we live here together in peace.”
Narva’s Russian speakers gather to watch the military parade in honour of Estonia’s independence. Many carry Estonian flags. It seems that the inhabitants of Narva are loyal to Estonia and that there are no separatist tendencies today. The elections – just a few days ago – confirmed the country’s pro-NATO orientation.
But Narva is in a difficult position. Given the tense geopolitical situation, some foreign investors have put their business plans on hold.
Narva is twinned with Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, at present in pro-Russian separatist hands. Recently the city council received a letter from the rebels.
Vyacheslav Konovalov is an international advisor to the council:
“What the Donetsk rebels asked us to do was to provide support and claim that the Ukrainian government is corrupt and criminal. Of course, as this letter had a letter-head with the ‘Donetsk People’s Republik’, we simply could not, respond.”
Mihhail Tverskoi distributes “Let’s speak Russian” stickers. The native Russian-speaker left Estonia 14 years ago to pursue his career as financial controller, but he remains Russian language lobbyist for Estonia.
Based in Belgium, he visits his home country every two months, not just to meet friends, but also to check on product labels.
He manages a mail box for complaints from Russian speakers, and lobbies for Russian to be included in court proceedings, hospitals, schools and shops.
Recently, Estonia passed a new law on product labeling-rules but he says there is further to go.
“I think that the problem is that with some products there are ingredients that could be harmful – for instance if you suffer from allergies. It’s important that all consumers have all the necessary information in their own language, meaning Russian speakers need information in the Russian language.”
But despite the efforts as bilingualism, in some places there are worries that the stability could be broken.
Olga Dik, a mother of four, lives in welfare housing in Narva and makes a living as cleaner. She knows a lot of ethnic Russians, and fears that one day there could be problems.
“Yes, there is such a fear that one day Russians might rebel or push for riots, discontent, or something like that. Everyone has their own opinion on that and me, as a mother, I fear for my family… I would say that in Narva an estimated 30 percent of Russian-speakers would be glad to join Russia.”
Is there a communication war ongoing between the Russian Federation and the West? You can listen to the full interview in English using this link.
Find our why many Russian speakers in the country remain loyal to Estonia. Listen to the interview in Russian through this link.
The eastern Estonian border city of Narva, close to Russia, suffers from the current geopolitical tensions, heightened by events in Ukraine. Fine out how investors are reacting by listening to the interview in English with the city’s International Advisor, Vyacheslav Konovalov. Click this link.