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Baltics: Analysis From Washington -- Ethnic Identity, Political Loyalty

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than half of the ethnic Russians in Estonia -- both citizens and non-citizens alike -- now place their trust in the Estonian government, a finding that suggests that such political loyalty may increasingly outweigh their ethnic attachments and even that they have decided to link their fate with that Baltic country.

The Estonia-based Saar Poll Company on Wednesday released its annual "Baltic Barometer" survey. Conducted by Glasgow Professor Richard Rose, this year's study found that 62 percent of ethnic Russians living in Estonia had a positive evaluation of the Estonian government. In neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, local ethnic Russians rated the governments of the country in which they lived 39 percent and 42 percent respectively.

At the same time, this poll found that the support of ethnic Russians for the Baltic governments was not as deep as it was broad. Asked to evaluate the government of the country in which they live on a scale of plus 100 for the most positive to minus 100 for the most negative, ethnic Russians in Estonia averaged out at plus nine, while ethnic Russians in Latvia were at minus ten and those in Lithuania were at minus seven.

And the poll results suggested that these differences were closely linked to assumptions about how well ethnic Russians and the local titular nationality have done economically in the past and how well they expect to do in the future. In Estonia, 28 percent of ethnic Russians and 28 percent of ethnic Estonians said that they were doing better now than five years ago, and both groups expressed optimism about their country's economic future.

The situations in Latvia and Lithuania in this regard are somewhat different, the findings of this poll indicate. In both of these countries, fewer ethnic Russians or members of the titular nationality felt they had done well over the last five years and fewer expected to do as well in the future.

These findings call attention to three important developments, all of which challenge assumptions that many analysts and governments made a decade ago when the three Baltic countries recovered their independence.

First, in this region as elsewhere around the world, ethnic identity is only one of the identities individuals have, and in many cases it may not be the most important.

Many people in the Baltic countries, in Russia and in the West assumed that the presence of large numbers of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia and a smaller number in Lithuania would prove to be the biggest problem for these states. And many of these people argued that policies specifically designed to address the needs and status of ethnic Russians there were the most necessary precondition to the integration of these groups.

In fact, such policies have played a role, but in many cases, they overstated the importance of ethnicity in the lives of both Russians and non-Russians. No one in either group was only ethnic; instead, members of each were a matroshka doll-like combination of identities, ethnic, political, economic and many others as well.

Consequently, this poll suggests, it has been the general policies of the three regimes rather than the ethnically specific measures which have played the greatest role in bringing these groups together.

Second, national economic success both in absolute terms and relative to others may be the best predictor of political behavior for both majority and minority ethnic communities.

Clearly, one of the major reasons that many ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries increasingly put their trust in the governments there is that they are doing so much better economically than their co-ethnics in the Russian Federation.

That is a powerful factor leading many of them to look to Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius rather than Moscow. But at the same time, it is a reminder that this ethnic situation could change quickly were the economic situation in these three countries to deteriorate or were conditions in Russia to dramatically improve.

And third, while the Baltic countries are diverging in this as in so many other areas, the three increasingly are setting themselves apart concerning the relationship between ethnic and political identities from the situation in the 11 non-Russian former Soviet republics.

Ten years ago, many analysts and officials in the East and West typically talked about "the Balts" and either downplayed or ignored the ways in which Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were different. Such an approach was inappropriate then, and events since then have made it even more inappropriate with each passing year.

But the ability of the governments of these three very different countries to gain loyalty from ethnic Russians does underscore a continuing commonality among the three, even with the variations reported by the Saar poll this week. Compared to the post-Soviet republics, all three Baltic states have made important strides toward becoming genuine civil societies where individuals can be successful regardless of their ethnic background.

And their successes in that effort not only provide the basis for cooperation across ethnic frontiers within each of them but also for cooperation across state frontiers among all three.

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