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Monday, June 18, 2007

Russian Minority in the Baltics

From Bloomberg recently:

Baltics' Russian Integration Engulfs EU in Disputes

By Leon Mangasarian and Ott Ummelas

July 31 (Bloomberg) -- Aleksei, a Russian in the Estonian capital Tallinn, longs to become a citizen of the Baltic state, where he was born. There's one snag: The 31-year-old taxi driver, who asked that he not be identified by his last name, failed the language exam when he applied for citizenship.

Difficulties integrating ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia -- former Soviet republics whose populations are one-third Russian -- are contributing to tension with Moscow. Russians rioted in Tallinn over the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial in April, leaving one dead and 153 injured. Pro-Kremlin protesters in the Russian capital replied by attacking the Estonian embassy.

Since Estonia and Latvia joined the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004, any spat with the Kremlin risks becoming an international crisis, adding to disagreements over issues such as U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in eastern Europe.

``The EU is now engulfed in the historic disputes that these countries have with Russia,'' Oksana Antonenko, senior fellow and program director for Russia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in an interview on July 27.

Perceived threats from Russia -- and 20th-century history -- fuel demands in the Baltic states for stronger security guarantees from NATO, the EU and the U.S.

Retaking Control

The Soviet Union occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940 under a secret agreement with Nazi Germany. From 1941 to 1944 they were occupied by Germany, with the Soviets retaking control in 1944 until the countries regained their independence in 1991.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians settled in the region during the Soviet era. Estonia and Latvia didn't grant these Russians automatic citizenship after independence. Instead, the two countries require applicants to pass language and other citizenship tests.

About 29 percent of Estonia's 1.3 million people belong to the Russian-speaking minority. Half don't have Estonian citizenship; and according to official figures, 126,000 of these people are stateless and have no passport.

In Latvia, 36 percent of the 2.3 million people are Russians, Belorussians or Ukrainians; and 424,000 are stateless or have ``non-citizen Latvian passports.''

Free of Contention

Things are different in Lithuania -- the third Baltic state and also a NATO and EU member -- where 6 percent of the country's 3.4 million people are Russian. Lithuania gave citizenship to all residents, and the country is largely free of Russian minority contention.

Alexander Rahr, at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, says the EU is partly to blame for Estonia's and Latvia's ethnic strains, because it didn't demand better integration policies before letting both countries join.

``If the EU had helped win over Estonia's Russians for its values, the chance for Russia to use these people for dirty games would be marginal,'' he said. ``Of course Russia will try to use a radical minority in this group to raise tensions.''

Some analysts, though, say granting citizenship to Estonia's Russians might have delayed EU and NATO entry.

``The homogeneity of the Estonian community allowed for very painful reforms to be carried out fast,'' said Andres Kasekamp, the head of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. ``The Russo- phone community would have undoubtedly voted for left-wing political parties, which would not have favored rapid economic reform.''

`Discord and Distrust'

Antonenko said Estonia and Latvia must accept some responsibility for the tension because they dragged their feet on integrating the ethnic Russians and ``are not prepared to overcome old rivalries and share the EU spirit,'' she said.

When Estonia relocated the war memorial from the center of Tallinn to a cemetery on the edge of the capital, Putin criticized the move as sowing ``the seeds of discord and distrust.''

Putin followed his words with action. Transit of goods from Russia, mostly oil and oil products, fell 22 percent in May and 15 percent in June, Estonian officials said. Several Estonian companies, including AS Kalev, a 201-year-old confectionery maker, have said exports to Russia had to be halted since the start of May because of a boycott by Russian retailers.

Estonia was also hit by attacks that disabled Web sites, which Estonian President Toomas Ilves said were traced to the Kremlin. The Estonian government called on NATO to defend it against Russian ``cyber attack.''

Rally Voters

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Putin is using the spat with Estonia to rally voters before Russia's March 2008 presidential election.

It's ``easy'' to create ``this sense that the Baltics are our enemy and we should not allow them to disrespect us like this,'' Lipman said.

Last month the U.S. warned Russia it had to handle its ``deep and difficult'' relations with the Baltic states ``in an honest and civilized way.''

``The past is not forgotten, but it need not determine the future,'' U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said June 14 in a speech on the Baltic states in Washington. ``Threats, attacks, sanctions should have no place'' in the countries' relations with Russia.

For Tallinn taxi driver Aleksei, there may still be a happy ending.

``I am learning Estonian again, and at some point I want to try applying for Estonian citizenship again because this is my home,'' he said. ``This is where my roots are.''

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