Saturday, February 25, 2006


Estonia is the northernmost one of the small republics on the Baltic Sea, on Russia’s northwest, just south of Finland. It has a population a 1.5 million, split between ethnic Estonian speakers who represent about 65% of the population and ethnic Russian speakers who represent 29%. The remaining 6 percent’s ancestors emigrated to Estonia from all over the Soviet Union, starting during Stalin’s rule.

The roots of the conflict between Estonia and Russia stretch back only to the Russian revolution. Prior to 1917, Estonian had been nominally ruled from afar by Sweden, Poland, Germany and Russia. The real power lay with the descendents of German knights who first invaded Estonia in the 13th century to convert the pagans there to Christianity. These landowners formed the Baltic “Ritterschaften,” or “corporations of the nobility” and controlled the economy of Estonia This arrangement lasted until Emperor Alexander I of Russia released the serfs from bondage to the land in 1816. Following this limited emancipation, Estonian nationalism began to come into being. (Kasekamp, pg4)

A group of idealistic German scholars came together to establish a “Learned Society” and to further the goal of secondary education in the indigenous Estonian language. Other Estonian societies sprang up to promote local interests. It was not until a national Estonian language newspaper began publication in the 1860’s calling for greater freedoms for Estonia from Russia. Eventually Russia became alarmed by these expressions, and moved to impose Russification on Estonia to remove the lingering influence of the German aristocracy in the 1880’s. This movement had the ironic effect of removing the larger German influence without completely replacing it with Russian influence, a development which allowed the local Estonian identity to flower. (Kasekamp, pg5)

Although the Russian Czar remained in control of Estonia through 1917 when Germany began to advance on the capital Tallinn. Estonia declared its independence, and fought off, in turn the Kaiser’s forces then the Red Army until 1920, when the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty with Estonia, establishing the Republic of Estonia, which oriented itself away from Russia and toward Great Britain, Germany and the Nordic Countries. However, in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union make a pact which resulted in the subjugation of the Estonian people. Stalin deported thousands of Estonian elite to Siberia, and relocated many Russians and Ukrainians to Estonia. This upheaval sowed the seeds of resentment. The authoritarian rule of the Soviets suppressed the rage of the Estonian people, but with the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia began to assert itself and eventually won its “reindependence” in the bloodless “Singing Revolution.” (Carter Center, pg42)

Since “reindependence,” there has been internal conflict in Estonia, at the “Confrontation” stage of the “life cycle of conflict.” This conflict is essentially ethnic with the Estonians lined up against the Russians. There exist large parts of Estonia, especially near the border, with virtually no Estonians. Some towns are 95%+ Russian speaking. Nonetheless, the newly installed Estonian parliament enacted citizenship rules requiring fluency in Estonian and restrictive voting requirements and restrictions on officeholders that essentially disenfranchised all the ethnic Russians. The Estonian government considered these late arriving Russian a security risk, a risk exacerbated by the presence of thousands of Russian troops who continued to be garrisoned in Estonia.

Out of concerns for the “human rights” of ethnic Russians in Estonia, the new Russian government offered citizenship to any ethnic Russian in Estonia without requiring those individuals to return to Russia. This ethnic struggle could be framed as one between human rights and security. (Birckenbach) The Estonians saw the unassimilated population of Russians living in their midst, and the large garrisoned Russian Army forces as a direct and overt threat to their newly won independence while the Russian Estonians perceived a loss of rights in place that for many had been their only home. This disenfranchised group look for a benefactor and found one in the neighboring country, Russia. Tensions were present both internal to Estonia and between Estonia and Russia. Officials from the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), one of the regional actors mentioned in the packet, recognized that this conflict had real potential to lead to ethnic bloodshed or a cross-border war. In an attempt to forestall these outcomes, the OSCE appealed to the Carter Center for Conflict Resolution Program to devise a program to reduce tensions. (Neu, pg11)

The Carter Center decided to convene workshops of 40 participants and smaller groups of 12, equally weighted between ethnic Estonians, ethnic Russians from Estonia and Russian Russians. These groups met over the course of three years, from 1994 to 1997, to discuss their perceptions about the problems in Estonia and between Estonia and Russia. The groups consisted of people from all walks of life, interested in facing the challenges of Estonia. (Neu, pg21)

The participants identified certain key areas for resolution:

-The need for Russia to acknowledge its 1940 annexation (occupation) of Estonia.
-The importance of having a shared understanding of Russia’s and Estonia’s histories.
-The need to treat elderly Russians fairly in gaining citizenship.
-The importance of Russians making good-faith efforts to learn Estonian language and culture.
-The value for the Estonian government to make good-faith efforts to provide Estonian language classes at a reasonable cost.
-The need to allow the Russian speaking community access to the media and politics.

Given the different perceptions harbored by the ethnic Russians and the ethnic Estonians, it was soon apparent that different groups were going to require different approaches to resolve the conflicts. The Estonians felt that the Russians, given the history, were evil and considered Estonians as lower class. Any resolution for the Estonians would have to address their emotional revulsion towards the Russians.

The Russians could not understand the animosity of the Estonians. From the Russian perspective, the Estonians were ungrateful and whiny for not leaving Estonia if they were so unhappy. The Russians required cognitive resolution because they did not learn the history of Soviet occupation of Estonia and they had no idea the Estonians resented the presence of to Russians so much. Over the course of the years of workshops in Estonia and the United States, the participants were able to address the needs of all sides and begin moving towards resolution of difference that could be applied to the wider population of Estonia.

The conflict boiled down to this: “the Russian speakers wanted to return to pre-1991 Estonia, and the Estonians wanted the Russian speakers to leave.” (Neu pg32) Clearly, this problem required reframing of the problem, something that the conflict resolution specialists from the Carter Center were able to provide. The solution hinged on the Estonians being willing to accept Russian presence, provided Russians made some effort to integrate, and the Russians being willing to learn the Estonian language and to integrate into society.

Birckenbach, Hanne-Margaret, “The Role of Fact-Finding in
Preventative Diplomacy.” International Journal of Peace Studies, July 1997.

Kasekamp, Andres, The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia. (St
Martin’s Press; New York) 2000.

Neu, Joyce and Volkan, Vamik, Developing A Methodology For
Conflict Prevention: The Case Of Estonia. (Carter Center; Atlanta) 1999.