Ethnic Russians in the Baltic States

Apr 11, 2014 | 15:43 GMT

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Ethnic Russians in the Baltic States

As a result of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia is likely to make greater long-term efforts to preserve cultural and linguistic links with ethnic Russians living in the Baltics and will try to undermine ongoing efforts to integrate them into their respective countries. Whether ethnic Russians would actually choose to join Russia if a Crimea-style referendum were held in the Baltic states, however, is unclear.

Ethnic Russians, especially from the younger generation, have come to enjoy the benefits of economic integration with Europe (which, among much else, opens the door for visa-free travel and employment opportunities elsewhere in the European Union for Estonian citizens). When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, 32 percent of the population was considered stateless. These stateless individuals mainly included people who had not lived on Estonian territory prior to 1940, e.g., during the Soviet era. This percentage has dropped as people took advantage of paths to Estonian citizenship, such as by gaining a certain level of Estonian language proficiency. By 2012, the Estonian population consisted of 84 percent Estonian citizens, 7 percent Russian citizens, 7 percent stateless people and 2 percent with citizenship from a country other than Estonia or Russia.

Nonetheless, the integration of ethnic Russians has proved problematic in Estonia and the Baltics in general, especially as they try to lower the use of the Russian language in schools. Latvia's recent decision to implement a three-month ban on Russian broadcaster RTR adds to the Russian-speaking minority's grievances. In the current environment, pro-Russian political parties and Russian interest groups in the Baltics can capitalize more easily on feelings of marginalization by highlighting the actions Ukraine's interim government is taking to weaken the position of Ukraine's Russian minorities and the efforts Russia is making to protect the ethnic Russians. The Ukrainian crisis thus provides an impetus for the Russian minority to demand stronger rights and greater autonomy for regions dominated by ethnic minorities.