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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder7. From centre-periphery conflict to the making of new nationality policy in an independent state: Estonia
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentFrom country to borderland, from nation to minority
View the documentAn ethnically divided society
View the documentThe language issue
View the documentWho has been the minority since august 1991?
View the documentConclusion

Who has been the minority since august 1991?

Estonian society is leaving behind a situation in which Estonians were a minority of a great power without the legal protection afforded minorities in contemporary Europe. It is interesting to note that until recently, nations have competed with other nations for dominance or at least equality of status, whereas today the number of pretenders to the position of "minority" has increased suddenly. This indicates that the immanent qualities of all groups of peoples and the pluralism of culture are finding increasing acceptance. However, translating this phenomenon into the language of laws and standards demands more precise formulation - and this is no simple task, as is shown by discussions on defining the term "minority" in the Commission on Human Rights' Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.18 For Estonia this problem is of great importance, since the condemnation of settlement colonization - the UN General Assembly resolution of 8 December 1987 - has not yet been enacted. The European Convention on Minority Rights (Article 1) has defined minorities as "any group in a numerical minority within the population of the given state that is not in a leading position, whose members differ from the rest of the population by their ethnic characteristics, and who demonstrate a sense of solidarity oriented towards preserving their own culture, traditions, and language."

As in all countries where there has been extensive immigration, in Estonia it is important to distinguish between "settled" minorities and "recent immigrants" - especially since the republic had a chance to regulate immigration beginning on 1 July 1990. Another important factor needs consideration: in international practice migrant workers, refugees, non-nationals, and stateless persons do not belong to the category of minorities. But Estonia, like other former Soviet republics, lacked a legally-determined citizenry of its own. This explains many of the tensions between the two nationalities - Russian and Estonian - from the start of the movement of liberation in 1988.

The state of Estonia, having regained its independence, is only now starting to form its own citizenry according to the act of citizenship of the Estonian Republic of 1938, which was re-enacted on 26 February 1992. Only after determining a citizenry can one solve the problems of national minorities. On the psychological level, however, everything proves to be much more complicated.

Political developments during the past three years have increased the opposition of the two national-language communities, and that will have influence also in the near future. These clashes were generated by Estonian attempts to get rid of the status of a reigning minority in their own country, while on the other side much of the Russian-speaking community sought to maintain its position. The struggle against Estonia's regaining its independence was, in fact, directly led by the central power, especially the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This is no longer secret. The sad part of it is that through advantage being taken of the uncertainty, through the prejudices characteristic of great powers, and simply through ignorance, many non-Estonian residents were drawn into action against Estonia. Here we should stress the dependence of the Russian labour force on the administration of the enterprises, because several all-Union enterprises were the last ones to be reached by democratization. Although the Communist Party lost its actual power over Estonia in 1989-1990, in the local all-Union units it remained valid until the August 1991 coup d'├ętat.

The "monolithic behaviour" forced upon the Russian community and weak differentiation enabled all-Union-minded movements and Communist parties to speak demagogically in the name of the whole Russian population, the working class or the "minority." In formal terms, the counter-Estonian movement was organized as an alternative to the Estonian National Front's perestroika-minded programme, but in essence it revealed the strategy of the central power of the Soviet Union towards the Soviet Republics in the arena of political competition. Estonia's striving for sovereignty was publicly set against the non-Estonian population for the first time.

This was expressed very clearly in the documents of the International Movement of Estonia. In autumn 1988 came a re-organization of the Estonian Supreme Soviet into a bicameral system- a House of Representatives and a House of Nationalities, where the number of Estonians and aliens would be equal and where both houses would have a right to veto.19 Parallel to the International Movement another movement emerged - a structure promoting all-Union interests. All Union enterprises belonging to different authorities formed the Joint Council of Work Collectives of All-Union Enterprises in Estonia. Together with its declared economic tasks, this council started to play the role of a political organization right from the start. One of its demands was the creation of a two-chamber body for self-government - with deputies from enterprises forming a separate chamber with equal rights to a chamber chosen through territorial elections.

This was the first time in the history of Soviet Estonia that the all union industrial enterprises came openly into the political arena and exposed their political functions in the national republic. From then on, the all-Union enterprises were the ones that enacted new local laws and steps towards decreasing the power of the central authorities in Estonia. The so-called militarized brigades of workers operated under the aegis of the Joint Council.

Why were tensions in Estonia never accompanied by physical violence? Perhaps because, relying on the well-known forbearance of Estonians, people built their hopes on the idea that the experiences of Lithuania, Latvia, and Moldova would not be echoed in Estonia. The Estonian scenario seems to have provided mainly organizational forms of silencing. The preliminary work had been done in Tallinn's enterprises of citizen-insubordination campaigns, and the period saw the creation of the Deputies' Inter-regional Soviet for all levels. This Soviet declared on 14 September 1990: "Until the Union contract is concluded and ratified by the new constitution of the Soviet Union, the Inter-regional Soviet will not observe the legislative acts ratified by the Estonian Republic, which violates the constitution of the Soviet Union in force, and the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

On 7 September 1990, the Soviet claimed that the policy of the Estonian Republic's political leadership was aimed towards liquidating the socialist social order, workers' socialist achievements, and the political rights and freedoms of the citizens. Therefore, the Soviet proclaimed itself ready to perform the will of those inhabitants of Estonia who saw their future and that of their children in a socialist Estonia, sovereign and of equal rights, in a family of fraternal republics united into a new Union.20 The alternative power founded in Estonia received unofficial recognition from the central authorities of the Soviet Union. This is evident in the fact that Soviet deputies took part in the all-Union sitting of the Deputies' Congress, as well as in the informal discussions that generally preceded the talks between the official delegations and experts of the Soviet Union and the Republic of Estonia (from autumn 1990 till July 1991). The important step of institutionalizing this alternative power was made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of Estonia, which had by then declared itself independent. This step also received acceptance from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with the secretary being elected as a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Supreme Soviet.

These steps combined to provoke the mutual alienation of the Estonian and Russian communities within Estonia. However, the Estonian democratic movement for independence, including the National Front, could not unite the considerable number of democratic and Estonian-friendly non-Estonians. Thus, much of the Russian community in Estonia found itself aligned with those supporting the unitarian centre. It is worth noting that although 69 per cent of the "Estonian-minded" were born in Estonia (according to the census of 1989), only 37 per cent "identify themselves" with Estonia.21 It is understandable, therefore, that the prospect of the breakup of the Soviet Union or the secession of Estonia increased uncertainty and solidarity with the central power. A public opinion poll taken in 1990 showed that only 16 per cent of non-Estonians supported complete national independence for Estonia. This proportion held good during the independence referendum on 3 March 1990, where only one-fifth voted in favour of re-establishing the national independence of Estonia. When we add to that the fact that in the Supreme Council of Estonia on 20 August 1991, all the deputies of the so-called Russian faction voted against national independence, the picture of the cleavage within Estonian society is clear.