The Russians Are Coming!

Have the Russians have found a back door to the EU via Estonia?

September 6, 2000

Have the Russians have found a back door to the EU via Estonia?

Top Russian generals are debating whether they should treat NATO as an enemy — or aim to join it at some point in the future. Such talk gives indigestion to foreign policy strategists in Washington. The United States also can’t quite decide as to whether Russia is a true partner in the G-8 — or whether she is a rogue state against which the Star Wars anti-missile system will eventually be deployed.

Meanwhile, Russians are on the fast track to join the European Union. There is still some uncertainty about the exact date, and a few residual squabbles with the EU bureaucrats in Brussels. However, most of the conditions for membership have already been met — well ahead of other applicants, such as the Poles and the Czechs. At the latest, full membership is expected by 2004.

Are you surprised? Or, rather, astonished?

You shouldn’t be. We’re not talking about Russia proper, of course — but about the nearly half million ethnic Russians who will become EU citizens when Estonia joins. Not counting pockets of Russian émigrés living in parts of former East Germany, it will be the first large chunk of Russian speakers officially to become Western.

Some 28% of Estonia’s population of 1.5 million are native Russians — and a substantial number of them are in the capital, Tallinn. Eastern Estonia, around the city of Narva, is so completely Russian that you risk getting beaten up for using the Estonian language.

By the standards of the former Soviet Union, Estonia is doing extremely well. The economy is in private hands, but the process of privatization has not created a class of greedy kleptocrats along the lines of Russia’s oligarchs. Estonia was spared both the financial market gold rush in the mid-1990s and the ensuing collapse and debt default. A peg to the euro ensures stability for the kroon, the local currency. Per capita GDP, at around $4,000, is three times as high as Russia’s.

Russians living on the Russian side of the Narva River, in a dumpy town called Ivangorod, look with envy at their richer cousins in Narva on the Estonian side. Despite the presence of the international border, Estonia has been supplying Ivangorod with electricity and other municipal services, getting no payment in return.

In a recent non-binding referendum, Ivangorod voted to secede from Mother Russia and join Estonia. The vote was especially poignant since between the World Wars, when Estonia was last independent, the eastern bank of the Narva was also Estonian.

But Russians in Estonia don’t feel welcome. They do not share fully in the country’s relative prosperity. To get a job they must speak Estonian — a variant of Finnish and one of the world’s more esoteric tongues. Few Russians bothered to learn it before independence, since in the Soviet times you could get along just as well knowing only Russian.

As a result, unemployment among Russian-speakers is high. Since schooling is now conducted in Estonian as well, educational standards, on the contrary, are low.

Worse, the 1992 law grants automatic citizenship only to those people whose families had lived in Estonia before 1940. In Narva, less than 10% of the population qualified for citizenship under the law. The status of many Russians remains in legal limbo.

Residents of Narva have even talked about seceding from Estonia and joining Mother Russia. Relations between Tallinn and Moscow remain tense.

The EU has been telling the Estonian government to treat its Russians fairly. After 2003, the underemployed and poorly educated Russian minority will become Brussels’ problem. Russia is certain to keep a watchful eye over the Narva River.