April 25, 2008 / 12:14 AM / 9 years ago

In Estonia, Russian chill persists

NARVA, Estonia (Reuters) - Estonia's medieval fortress at Narva glowers at a corresponding fort over the border in Russia, a symbol of tensions between the nations and, for some, of friction between Estonians and their big Russian minority.

In this town on the far northeast fringe of the European Union, surrounded by flat countryside in a region pock-marked by slags of oil shale, 85 percent of the population are Russian speakers.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, they and others in the 300,000-strong Russian-speaking community of the tiny Baltic state of Estonia faced a choice: integrate and become Estonian or, in the eyes of the law, remain a non-citizen.

Their status has long been a source of contention with Russia, and relations soured overtly after April last year when Estonia moved a Soviet-era Red Army war memorial, sparking riots in the capital Tallinn and anger in Moscow.

Saying Estonia's action showed disrespect to the fighters of fascism, Russia retaliated with steps that dampened trade flows and knocked Estonia's economy.

A year on, Mikhail Stalnukhin, the head of Narva city council which lies just across the river from the Russian town of Ivangorod, uses charged language to describe community ties.

"After April (of 2007) there is a Cold War," said the politician, a member of the Centre Party and in opposition to Estonia's ruling centre-right coalition.

A typical Russian would now think Estonians do not care about them, he said. The Russian view would be: "A year ago I thought we had different histories but a common future, now I don't think that."

Narva's 13th-century bastion may be at the sharp end of the concerns, but in all about 100,000 Russian-speaking people remain in a literal grey zone in Estonia: as non-citizens their passports are grey, not the citizens' blue.

Some, like Olesya Zeel, a Russian speaker from the nearby town of Johvi, have opted for integration. But as the Baltic state's relations with Moscow remain strained, thousands are taking Russian citizenship instead, which some worry may give former ruler Russia a potential lever in Estonia's affairs.

Zeel, 33, decided when she was in hospital after giving birth to her first child that her future was in the country of 1.3 million people which joined the EU in 2004, and that if she wanted to study and work she had to make a choice.

"In the ward were two Estonian girls. They talked to each other and I did not understand," said Zeel, now the mother of two children.

"I felt ashamed that I live here, they could understand me, but I can't understand them."

When Estonia was in the Soviet Union, Russia was the lingua franca and many Russian speakers who came during 50 years of Soviet rule did not learn Estonian. This was particularly the case in the industrial northeast.

The Russians' lack of language was a source of resentment among Estonians, combined with a feeling too many Russians lived in the small country, from where many thousands were deported to Siberia during the rule of dictator Josef Stalin.

Zeel opted to break through that barrier. Taking a test on the constitution and learning the language, she became one of the roughly 147,000 Russian-speakers who have achieved citizenship by naturalization.

But while she echoed a common view that it is the older generation of Russian speakers in particular who have problems adapting to the post-Soviet world, Alexander Dombrovsky has already at 15 seen his future elsewhere.

"Integration? I'm not bothered about it," he said in Tallinn. "I'm thinking about leaving, to Russia, with my father. Estonia is not my country. I can understand Estonian very well, but I don't see Estonia as my home."

Reliable data on how many Russian speakers feel like him are hard to come by, given that estimates vary even on how many citizens of Russia live in Estonia: there are about 95,000 according to Estonia, but Russia says there are about 147,000.

INTEGRATION FAILED?

Since April 27, 2007, the tensions have been in the open.

There were no official reprisals after the removal of the World War Two Red Army monument -- which Estonians saw as a symbol of Soviet occupation -- to a military cemetery near the city centre.

But trade flows from Russia fell, including volumes of heavy fuel oil by train from Russia through the port of Tallinn. In 2007, the amount of liquid cargoes going through the port -- comprising mainly fuel oil -- fell 7 percent.

Coal shipments halved in 2007 to 3.7 million tonnes. Total cargoes at the port fell to 36 million tonnes from 41 million.

Amid the tensions with Russia and continual debate about Russian-speakers at home, some people feel the country's goal of integrating Russian speakers has failed.

"The Russian language community in Estonia is a completely independent, amorphous group of people, not active," said Sergei Stepanov, editor of the Narvskaya Gazeta newspaper in Narva.

He said the state had effectively discarded such people, leaving them in their own world, watching news from Russia itself, reading Russian websites and not engaging with Estonia.

Integration Minister Urve Palo, speaking in her office in the picturesque Old Town in the heart of Tallinn, is less bleak.

"People tend to think that the April crisis showed that we have failed in integration," she said, but noted that last year's protests only drew 2,000 Russian-speakers, or a total of about 3,000 if Estonian youths were included.

"Not everybody lives separately. Of course there are people who are not interested in each other. But in Estonia it is very common that people work together in the private sector," she added, citing a large bank, Hansabank, where Russian speakers work alongside Estonians.

She said the government had recently adopted a new integration program that would further efforts to reduce the number of non-citizens. "I don't think they (people with Russian citizenship) are against Estonia," she added.

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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