Vienna, May 21 – Ethnic Russian protests against the taking down of a memorial to Soviet soldiers call attention to a development across the post-Soviet world: “the birth of diasporas” whose members are loyal to the states in which they live but are not prepared to integrate with the predominant population except on their own terms.
That represents a challenge first and foremost to the countries in which these communities live, posing a very different and much more difficult set of political problems for these states than the governments there have faced up to now or expected to be confronted by in the future.
But it also presents difficulties for Moscow officials who have typically viewed Russia speakers in “the near abroad” as their “compatriots,” people whose loyalty to the countries in which they found themselves after 1991 could be assumed to be less than their willingness to support the Russian government and move back to Russia itself.
In an essay posted online last week with the provocative title, “The Birth of a Russian Diaspora,” Moscow commentator Oleg Nemenskiy argues that what has taken place in Estonia reflects a broader “crisis in the integrative processes in post-Soviet states” (http://www.apn.ru/publications/print17097.htm).
Immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many non-Russian governments, often pushed by the West, assumed that they could fully integrate Russians and Russian speakers into the new or revived non-Russian nations they were working to promote. But those expectations have now proved to be completely “unrealistic.”
But Moscow’s earlier assumptions about these groups in the non-Russian countries have also proved incorrect. While some ethnic Russians in these countries have shown themselves to be more loyal to Moscow than to their host governments and a few have been willing to move to Russia, most have not done either.
Not surprisingly, Nemenskiy argues, the first exemplar of this crisis of expectations occurred in Estonia. First, most ethnic Russians there are quite willing to integrate into what they believe should be a multi-ethnic Estonia to get the benefits of economic growth there and access to the European Union of which Estonia is a member.
Second, Estonia’s own experience with a monument to Waffen SS officers erected in 2004 set the stage for the shifting of the Soviet war memorial a month ago. When the SS monument was taken down, at the urging of then-U.S. Ambassador Aldona Wos, Tallinn issued a statement that pointed to what was coming.
In taking down the SS monument, the Estonian government said that it considers “impermissible the appearance in Estonia of monuments which could be interpreted as an attempt to keep alive forever the memory of totalitarian occupation regimes,” something it and many others clearly believe includes the Soviet as well as the German occupation.
And third, having achieved its twin foreign policy objectives of the post-1991 period in 2004 – membership in the European Union and in NATO – the Estonian authorities decided to put more pressure on ethnic Russians there to integrate on Estonian terms, something many Russians viewed as a step toward “a mono-ethnic” country.
Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Estonia had expected that their new homeland would remain a multi-ethnic society and polity whatever the Tallinn authorities actually said. And Nemenskiy argues, they demonstrated in various ways that they were more prepared for integration on those terms than the Estonians were.
For such Russians in Estonia, the Bronze Soldier -- as the Soviet war memorial in the center of Tallinn is called -- symbolized their “(co)authorship in the Estonian state” and thus “the right to existence of a Russian national minority in this country.” When that monument was taken down, it thus represented an existential challenge.
“The Russian protest in Estonia was not directed against Estonian statehood or a manifestation of ‘imperialism’ or even more of ‘Russian separatism,” Nemenskiy says. “It was a protest against the mono-ethnic ideology of the state, [of] their right to live in Estonia and to be part of it and of the right to consider Estonia their own country.”
The Russians of Estonia, Nemenskiy continues, “did not want to annul integration.” Instead, what they wanted was for the program to continue as it has rather than to be redefined by the Estonian authorities. And most of them viewed the shifting of the war memorial as an indication that the Estonians were doing just that.
The Moscow commentator quotes the following observation of one participant on a Russian language Internet forum in Estonia to make his point: “None of the authorities understood that we – the Russians of Estonia – want a peaceful life, that we are loyal to our state [and] that Estonia is our motherland.”
But now, in the wake of the demontage of the Bronze Soldier, Nemenskiy argues, “the Russian-language residents of Estonia recognize that for further integration [in that country,] they must be its active subject, they must present themselves as a communal whole, and that autonomous rights are a precondition of their future.”
In short, the Russians and Russian speakers of Estonia must become a community with a “we.” That may be happening, he argues: One Russian schoolgirl there, on hearing how Estonians view the Soviet occupation, reportedly said “We understand this occupation differently” a comment that is especially important because of the “WE.”
That does not mean that Russian speakers in Estonia are going to become a fifth column for Moscow or even a single political organism, Nemenskiy suggests, but it does mean that they now form a community based on their identity, “which until now had been quite weak.”
Many will certainly take issue with Nemenskiy’s argument, but it represents an intriguing one, especially coming out of Moscow now. But what makes it particularly interesting is his suggestion that what has taken place in Estonia will soon occur in other countries as well, challenging both their regimes and the one in Moscow.