The Challenge of the Russian Minority: Emerging Multicultural Democracy in Estonia

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The Challenge of the Russian Minority: Emerging Multicultural Democracy in Estonia, Marju Lauristin and Mati Heidmets, eds. Tartu: Tartu University Press, 2002. 396 pp.

A new stage in Estonia's post-Soviet development began in 1998 when the state embarked on an official policy of nation building, seeking to integrate Estonia's large Russian-speaking settler community with the rest of the country. The expressed goal of this project was to create a democratic nation-state with a multicultural society. It emphasized naturalization for noncitizens through the acquisition of Estonian language skills while simultaneously offering opportunities for Russian speakers to maintain their own language skills and culture. This complex process is summarized in The Challenge of the Russian Minority. A collection of essays written by more than a dozen prominent Estonian scholars, this book contains a wealth of information on ethnic relations in Estonia. The nineteen essays cover a wide range of topics, including theoretical approaches to nationalism, the ethnic dimension of the economic transition from a command to a market economy, and the role of the media and educational system in the process of nation building and cultural integration.

The editors argue that the Estonian case deserves close attention because its success in achieving stability and averting severe ethnic conflict defies many of its expectations. Many observers predicted that conflict would emerge, given the sharp ethnic cleavage characterized by a potentially volatile mix of native Estonians' historic resentments and Russians' anger at their loss of status. Further tension was caused by a citizenship policy based on the legal continuity of the prewar Estonian state (made possible by the nonrecognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states by most Western governments). Based on a restored state approach, automatic citizenship was granted to prewar citizens of Estonia and their descendants, thereby excluding a majority of Russian speakers who settled in Estonia during the Soviet era. They were eligible for permanent residence permits but would have to apply for citizenship through naturalization.

The authors do not question the legitimacy of the restorationist approach to citizenship, but they do admit that it had exclusionary consequences for most nonEstonians (at least politically). They also point out that the starting point in 1991 was not a pre-existing integrated society in Estonia. Rather, the legacy of Soviet rule was that Estonians and Russians tended to live in mutual isolation. Russians enjoyed the benefits of a comprehensive cultural infrastructure that allowed them to live comfortably anywhere in the USSR without having to learn the local languages. Due to this Soviet legacy of ethnic separation, Russians would have remained linguistically excluded from the rest of Estonian society even if they all had been granted automatic citizenship in 1991. The Estonian integration model assumes that a common civic identity will be instilled most effectively among Russians who are culturally integrated and fully able to participate in all spheres of Estonian social life.

The theoretical assumptions of the model are summarized in chapter 3 by Raivo Vetik. In essence, the integration strategy seeks to move away from the Soviet legacy of the separation and isolation of the Russian community and to replace Russian with Estonian as the language of interethnic communication. The main tools for achieving this are a citizenship law that links naturalization with knowledge of Estonian and government plans for bilingual education to ensure that Russian children growing up in Estonia are able to speak the official language. This is why the integration approach is inclusive in nature; if the goal is to maintain the exclusion of Russians from mainstream society, then there would be no encouragement for them to learn Estonian.

A key question is what has caused the shift from the relatively more exclusionary or defensive posture on the part of Estonians in the early 1990s to the more liberal multicultural paradigm of the late 199Os? …