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TALLINN – Estonia’s future security may depend in part on how persuasive people like Igor Kalakauskas can be.
Kalakauskas, a Russian-speaking history teacher from the capital Tallinn, has faced intermittent media pressure for several years to persuade his Estonian Russophones to side with their own democratically elected government and reject Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offers.
Estonia is a member of NATO, but the country’s civilian and military leaders remain concerned that Russia could launch an attack, possibly under the guise of “defending” the interests of the 300,000 Russian-speakers living in the Baltic state of 1.3 million inhabitants live.
Kalakauskas is a fairly rare example of a Russian speaker in Estonia willing to speak out publicly against Putin and his claims that a “Nazi” regime in Kyiv must be brought down. Kalakauskas fears that such rhetoric could easily be repurposed to justify aggression against Estonia.
“The events in Ukraine have shown that the darkest scenarios cannot be ruled out,” Kalakauskas said.
But Kalakauskas faces the challenge of convincing its target group.
Since Moscow began invading Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has saturated state-sponsored Russian-language television news programs — which are widely seen in Estonia — with anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and the effects are visible.
In a recent discussion on a popular Facebook group called Tallintsi, which loosely translates to “Tallinner residents,” one member called the Ukrainian front-line town of Sumi “a nest of fascists.” Another said Ukrainian refugees should be sent home.
In the mainly Russian-speaking Estonian town of Kohtla-Järve, local media reported last week that a group of school children had Zs – a collective symbol for Russian troops in Ukraine – cut into their hair.
“Among the Russian-speaking residents of our country, there are those who believe in Putin,” Kalakauskas said. “Some see the aggression unleashed in Ukraine as an act of justice.”
For the Estonian government, the damage to social cohesion from pro-Kremlin messages targeting Russian speakers could have security implications, experts say.
“Societal cohesion is one of the prerequisites for a nation’s resilience, so it’s not enough to have a lot of military power – like the NATO allies in your country – society must also hold together to be resilient in a crisis,” said Dmitri Teperik, executive director of the Tallinn-based think tank International Center for Defense and Security.
Teperik said his research suggested that following the outbreak of the full-blown war in Ukraine, Russian-speaking Estonians fragmented into three groups: a small pro-Ukraine group, a small pro-Kremlin group, and a larger reluctant group want to take a position and prefer to see the conflict as “not our war”.
The pro-Ukraine and pro-Kremlin groups are currently trying to win over the group in the middle, Teperik said.
“Now we can see a battle of hearts and minds,” he said.
The Estonian government is also an active player in the struggle for narrative control. 2015 it is started ETV+, a popular Russian-language competitor to Moscow-backed TV channels. A day after the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February in Estonia forbidden four Russian stations and one Belarusian branch. Last week, the Estonian Foreign Ministry expelled three Russian embassy employees for “undermining Estonia’s security and spreading propaganda justifying Russia’s military action.”
The debate over the war in Ukraine is part of a larger discussion of national affiliations that has ebbed and flowed in Estonia over the past few decades, as well as in Baltic neighbor Latvia, another EU and NATO member, which has a Russian-speaking minority makes up about 25 percent of the population.
During the Soviet era, hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers were relocated to the two Baltic states as part of Moscow’s efforts to “russify” the region.
After regaining independence in 1991, Estonia sought to strengthen its ethnic Estonian national identity by making knowledge of the Estonian language a requirement for citizenship.
Around 76,000 of those who did not qualify for Estonian citizenship – or chose not to do so – still do not have official citizenship today, while approximately 80,000 Estonian residents have acquired Russian citizenship.
In recent years Russia has sought to strengthen ties with Russian-speaking Estonians on the basis of what it calls its “compatriots” policy. Under the umbrella of foundations such as Russky Miror Russian World, the Kremlin has pushed cultural ties to Russian-speakers abroad, but also made vague promises of possible military intervention to protect their rights.
“Compatriots living abroad have the right to rely on the support of the Russian Federation in exercising their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights and in protecting their identity,” the Russian government declared in a 1999 directive document.
Russian speakers in Estonia often complain that they are marginalized and call on the Tallinn government to strengthen the position of the Russian language in society and to support Russian language education. Russian media often strengthen these claims.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on Tuesday Visited the largely Russian-speaking eastern border town of Narva, pledging to increase funding for roads and schools.
On the streets of Tallinn, many Russian speakers were reluctant to discuss the war in Ukraine for fear of reprisals against family and friends in Russia. But many seemed opposed to the conflict.
A woman buying a picture frame in the heavily Russian-speaking suburb of Lasnamae called the war “just awful.” She said she blamed Putin and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Dozens of anti-war posters hung on a fence in front of the Russian embassy in Tallinn’s old town. Some were in Russian.
“I’m not ashamed to be Russian, but I’m ashamed that one of us, the abomination Putin, is killing in his name Russky Mirsaid one.
Another simply said “No to war” – the slogan of the anti-war movement in Russia.
For his part, history teacher Kalakauskas is continuing his anti-Moscow and pro-Tallinn message, sending a new draft editorial to a Russian-language news site this week.
“I cannot shake the feeling that a considerable number of my compatriots cannot yet assess the extent of the tragedy that is taking place in Europe,” reads the first line of the draft.
https://www.politico.eu/article/estonia-fight-back-pro-russia-propaganda/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Estonia resists pro-Russian embassies – POLITICO