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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

An ethnically divided society

In stable industrial societies, class integration should dominate ethnic integration. But, as has been noticed in countries with active immigration, the boundaries between ethnic and social differentiation very often coincide, especially with the first generations of migrants. Estonia's employment system bears the clear stamp of ethnic differentiation. The main reason is typically Soviet: namely, the subordination of nearly 90 per cent of the industrial economy to an all union department. Even though Estonia does not have industrial raw materials and has scant labour reserves, several labour- and material intensive enterprises were constructed. From the beginning, the authorities planned for the use of foreign labour.

Within the Soviet Union there was a general practice of dispersing millions of people from different groups among different regions. Ethnic variegation of labour groups was seen as a measure for internationalism and friendship among nations. For Estonia, however, this policy conclusively destroyed the country's ethnic balance and created the economic basis for colonization. This is not to deny the importance of an industrial economy for the socio-economic development of Estonia. However, we need to point out the very contradictory consequences which Soviet industrialization has had in the social and ethnic spheres. In a rational economic system, capital is seen to move to areas of relatively lower-level development, where opportunities for growth are greater. This has been the case in the capitalist countries of Europe, where, in some instances, uneven technological progress has been compensated for by capital flows to less developed regions. This has a tendency to increase development in less-developed regions and to speed up the growth of new technologies and of a highly qualified labour force.

In the Soviet Union, these processes were very often the opposite. From more developed regions in Russia, economic sectors were relocated into the periphery, while retaining their administrative adherence to all-Union departments. Once in place, these units became alternative social structures and "pumps" drawing in constant migration. At the same time, in Central Asia, Moldova, and Kazakhstan, this kind of cultural division of labour acquired a hierarchical - and in the Baltics, at first, "segmental" - character. Estonian society was able to withstand this structural expansion for 10 to 15 years, but not after the abolition of the Councils of National Economy in 1965 and after the polarization of employment among groups of nationalities became more pronounced. Thus, by 1988, the share of Estonians in industry had fallen to 40-42 per cent (in 1948, it had been 69 per cent), railway transport to 20 per cent, shipbuilding to 0.12 per cent. However, in agriculture, culture and the arts, the percentage of Estonians was 85 per cent, and in state leadership over 70 per cent.15

In principle, such a distribution of labour among nationalities does not necessarily represent a source of conflict. That, however, presupposes that the economy constitutes an integral entity situated in one territory, with all the enterprises performing according to uniform rules of management. In Estonia the situation was different. The segmental division of labour grew into a hierarchical division of labour between two language groups because of the preferences exercised by all-Union enterprises, especially in the military industrial sector. Incidentally, between 1945 and 1985, capital investments in Estonia of industrial plants closed to the public made up nearly 40 per cent of the basic investment in enterprises under the jurisdiction of the central authorities. Large-scale enterprises engaged in the defence industry have for decades been such collectives, where Estonians are either totally absent or their share is infinitesimal. These are branches of the economy requiring relatively high craftsmanship, where, in general, a greater number of engineers, technicians, and professionally educated workers are employed than the average in civilian industry.

The drop in the number of Estonian nationals in main branches of industry was caused by the imbalance of economic life as a whole, as well as its isolation from local sources of labour. Also relevant were the adaptational difficulties Estonians experienced in labour collectives with heterogeneous cultural and communication structures. Labour was recruited throughout the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the near-total ax-territoriality of the central departments brought about a situation where even some specialists of trades and professions taught in Estonia were recruited from outside Estonia under the central scheme of distribution of cadres from the other Soviet republics.

Furthermore, Soviet ideology promoted the preferential development of basic branches of industry. Industrial workers and particularly workers in large-scale industry and industry of basic branches were granted, a priori, the role of bearers of the main political values of socialism. This was reflected in the streamlining of the composition of the Communist Party, which was carried out up to the quite recent past. Thus, the workers at such enterprises became representatives of public interests, and people were under the tutelage of the state and the central power. All this meant that the ethnic communities in Estonia occupied different places in the social system; hence, the difficulties now involved in consolidating ethnic groups and achieving a rapprochement of interests on the basis of an Estonian-centred concept of further development.