Tanks for the memories: War upends ethnic relations in Estonia

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NARVA, Estonia — Anna Gisser was out for a stroll through Narva’s leafy Siivertsi park last week, when the 82-year-old pensioner was stopped by two policemen and told to wait. 

Workers were in the park loading a Soviet-era tank memorial onto a truck and carting it off to a museum — part of Tallinn’s effort to remove what for ethnic Estonians glorifies half a century of brutal Soviet occupation, but what local Russian-speakers feel commemorates fallen Red Army soldiers from World War II.

“I feel disgusted,” said Gisser, a Russian-born former energy construction worker who has lived in Estonia since 1957. “For me, this is about memory … they’ve disrespected my very being.”

Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told POLITICO that Soviet monuments are “a public order risk” that had the potential to “establish a divide inside society” and therefore their removal “was badly needed” to “avoid tensions.”

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The tank removal shows how the war in Ukraine is straining the delicate relationship between the Estonian government and the Russian-speaking minority that makes up around one-quarter of the Baltic country’s population of 1.3 million.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Narva, a city of 54,000 that sits just across the Narva River from Russia’s Ivangorod — joined by the now anachronistic-sounding “Friendship Bridge.”

The city, which changed hands between Danes, Swedes, Poles, Germans and Russians over the last millennium, was where Estonia ratified a military agreement under pressure from the Soviet Union in 1939, ending its first run as an independent nation. Razed to the ground by the Germans, the mineral-rich area then became a Soviet industrial heartland where thousands of Russians were sent to work — something that ethnic Estonians saw as a colonial effort to swamp them with Russian settlers.

Around 85 percent of Narva’s people are ethnic Russians and for two decades following Estonia’s independence and the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Narva and Ivangorod embarked on joint construction projects and cultural initiatives. The city was also one of the main trading arteries between Russia and Estonia — with trade between the two countries totaling almost €3 billion last year.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine is tearing those ties apart.

The city suspended cooperation with Ivangorod, said Denis Larchenko, a member of the Narva city council. He said locals even mounted small protests outside the Russian consulate at the start of the war.

“For Narva, it was a unique thing,” he said, “because usually, we don’t have so many people who go out on the streets.”

Despite that small demonstration, for Estonia’s government, the war is reopening the issue of Russian minority integration.

Anna Gisser | Victor Jack/POLITICO

“Among the population of Estonia, definitely suspicion has risen towards the Russian-speaking population,” said Kristjan Kaldur, a senior analyst at the Institute of Baltic Studies, adding that Soviet monument removals and Tallinn saying Russian people are also to blame for the war in Ukraine is angering ethnic Russians.

In an op-ed marking Estonia’s Day of Restoration of Independence on Saturday, the country’s President Alar Karis acknowledged that “trust must be restored between Narva and the government.”

“Russia’s war revived those monuments’ forgotten meaning,” he said of the T-34 tank, while adding: “Estonia is a country for us all, with all our differences.”

Estonia’s integration policy has a patchy history. For the first decade of independence, the government approached ethnic Russians in an “exclusionary” way with restrictive citizenship and language laws, Kaldur said.

“[There] was an assumption that perhaps, if we behave harshly with them, then they’ll go back home,” he said. “If you fast forward to today’s situation, we can still see that this feeling of being socially excluded from Western society has definitely roots there.”

At the turn of the millennium, the government switched to trying to integrate Russian-speakers primarily through Estonian language learning, which was still a “one-way street,” Kaldur said. By the mid-2000s, there were genuine efforts made to boost investment and cultural exchange programs.

However, many Russian-speakers remain stuck in limbo, holding Estonian passports but no citizenship, which requires an Estonian language test. That means around 65,000 people — so-called gray citizens — can access public services, but have limited voting rights. More than 7,000 people are still gray citizens in Narva, according to the mayor’s office.

It also doesn’t help that the city and the wider Ida-Virumaa region it sits in, once a stronghold for the country’s oil shale production and textile manufacturing, has faced deindustrialization and underinvestment, said Triin Vihalemm, a sociology professor at Tartu University.

Aliens or allies?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine six months ago prompted the Estonian government to step up its efforts in the region. 

Tallinn quickly banned Russian state TV channels, while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas visited Narva in March to announce new funding for roads and schools.

But Tallinn’s moves to pull down six Soviet memorials in Narva and restrict cross-border travel last week are ripping the town apart and angering the local population. 

Flowers and candles laid down at the site where the T-34 tank used to be, one day after its removal l Victor Jack/POLITICO

“From the perspective of some countries’ security, maybe it’s a needed step,” said Narva’s Larchenko, “but at the same time, if I’m talking as a human being … it’s difficult to understand.”

The local government collapsed late last week after one councillor sent a letter to Kallas threatening legal action over the tank removal, according to Larchenko.

The views on the Soviet past are deeply divided. While a third of Russian speakers back the idea of relocating Soviet monuments to museums, 84 percent of ethnic Estonians think that’s a good idea, according to a recent poll.

It’s also sharpening anxieties among local Russians, who say they feel targeted by the government and worry they may even face deportation. A foreign ministry spokesperson said the government is “never going to deport” citizens or residents of Estonia, calling it: “Scare talk fueled by Kremlin trolls.”

In fact, the number of Russian-speakers applying for Estonian citizenship more than doubled since the war began, to 383 compared to 149 for the same period last year, according to Estonian police.

Efforts to remove traces of Soviet culture come at the same time as Estonia is cracking down on the ability of Russians to enter the country.

With flights to the EU suspended, Estonia was one of the few open gateways into the bloc — 247,798 entered Estonia in the first half of this year, compared to 68,626 in the same period in 2021.

Close relatives from Russia will still be allowed to cross the border under rules that went into effect last week, but Russians are still worried.

“It’s stupidity,” said 66-year-old Vasily Naoumov, a pensioner who’s lived in Narva his entire life. “It’s only people that will suffer — businessmen, hoteliers.”

Despite worries about the loyalty of Estonia’s ethnic Russians, and occasional efforts by Moscow to inflame separatist tensions, the region’s much higher standard of living than in Russia, more economic opportunities and muted access to the Russian infosphere make separatist sentiment almost non-existent in Ida-Virumaa, said Kaldur.

But that doesn’t mean the two communities see eye-to-eye on the danger from the east. In a poll conducted after the war in Ukraine began, 88 percent of Russian-speakers didn’t see Russia as a security threat, a view shared by only 28 percent of Estonian-speakers.

The day after the Soviet tank was taken down, locals, some of them crying, decorated the site with flowers and candles.

“What rights do we have?” Gisser said. “We built everything here, we brought our children up here.”

But then she added: “I have respect for Estonian people … I am loyal to them … I don’t feel a difference between Russians and Estonians.”