Ethnic Russians in the Baltics

May 21, 2014 | 15:44 GMT

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Ethnic Russians in the Baltics

Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, Stratfor has noted that one of Russia's many levers in dealing with the European Union is the potential use of ethnic Russian minorities in European countries to generate social unrest and political instability. Among the members of the European Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are key countries to watch because of their sizeable Russian minorities and significant cultural, historical and political ties with Moscow. Russian minorities constitute more than a quarter of the population in Estonia and Latvia and around 6 percent in Lithuania. Many ethnic Russians live in large cities, enhancing their ability to organize protests. In Lithuania, Russians make up roughly 15 percent of the population of the capital Vilnius and a third of the population of Klaipeda, the country's third largest city. In Latvia, Russians make up roughly 40 percent of the population of Riga. The figures in the Estonian capital of Tallinn are roughly the same.

Since the Baltic states became independent, many ethnic Russians in the region have struggled to gain citizenship. Over time, certain citizenship rules have been softened, but a large percentage of ethnic Russians, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, still have non-citizen or alien status. Roughly 7 percent of Estonia's total population and 13 percent of Latvia's are non-citizens and barred from voting in national elections. The recent events in Ukraine sent a warning to the Baltic states, although Moscow is unlikely to take military action against the three former Soviet republics due to their membership in NATO. However, Moscow's ability to manipulate Russian minority populations, along with the possibility of trade blockades and the potential exploitation of the Baltics' dependence on Russian energy, remains a significant threat. So far, pro-Russia demonstrations in Latvia and Estonia have been rather small, and some Russian minorities even held anti-Russia demonstrations. Still, the prospect of greater social unrest is not out of the question, and local politicians will still try to appease these minorities for electoral reasons.