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Russians Of Narva Not Seeking 'Liberation' By Moscow

  • Tom Balmforth

A couple looks over the river from Narva toward Russia. Are Estonia's Russians looking wistfully toward the motherland as well?

A couple looks over the river from Narva toward Russia. Are Estonia's Russians looking wistfully toward the motherland as well?

NARVA, Estonia -- Aleksandr Brokk calls himself an "Estonian patriot." His family has lived in the country for generations and he makes his living running a successful tech park.

Like the vast majority in the sleepy eastern Estonian border city of Narva, Brokk is an ethnic Russian. And while he's proud of his language and heritage, all he needs to do is look across the river at the dilapidated Russian fortress city of Ivangorod to know which side of the border he wants to live on.

"People come and go. When you cross into Ivangorod, straight away you can see the atmosphere there," Brokk says. "Who is going to want to join that?"

Brokk's opinions are not an anomaly here. In Narva, Russian is the lingua franca, Russian media is the main source of news, and orange-and-black St. George ribbons symbolizing military victory adorn cars.

But the Russians of Narva, who make up 88 percent of the city's population, call the European Union and NATO their home. And while they may feel the emotional tug of Moscow and certainly have their grievances with the Estonian government in Tallinn, few say they want to follow the example of Crimea and join Russia.

Most here have become accustomed to their stable and predictable lives on the EU's eastern frontier.

Oleg Uglov, who heads NTT, a table-tennis-racket manufacturer, and is one of Narva's most successful entrepreneurs, praises the lack of corruption, the security of property rights, and the ease of doing business in Estonia.

"You can feel confident they won't come for your [business] tomorrow, they won't take anything away or change the laws in such a way that it's really difficult to do business," Uglov says. "In this way Estonia overall is a good country to live in and to do business in general. You can get insignificant problems or certain serious failings in any country."

How Would Narva Vote?

When Russia expressed "concern" in the UN Human Rights Commission on March 19 that Estonia was marginalizing its ethnic Russians, many took notice and worried that Moscow would expand its policy of stirring up its neighbors' Russophone populations for geopolitical gain. Local journalist Roman Vikulov believes that a referendum would prove that Narva's Russians are loyal to Tallinn.

Local journalist Roman Vikulov believes that a referendum would prove that Narva's Russians are loyal to Tallinn.

But local journalist Roman Vikulov, a reporter for the weekly "Viru prospekt," says he's certain that if Narva held an independence referendum similar to last month's in Crimea, the result would be very different.

His idea goes to the core of the sentiment in the Russian community: the wish to finally put to rest tensions between Russians and Estonians that have festered since independence. In fact, Vikulov believes that such a referendum -- although highly unlikely to take place -- would prove that Narva's Russians are loyal to Tallinn.

"There is a certain mistrust of residents of Narva and the northeast. There is an expectation that, one day, at some critical moment, local people will turn their back on Estonia and toward Russia and do exactly what they did in Crimea, that is, to vote to be in the Russian Federation," Vikulov says. "I am certain a referendum here would provide precisely the opposite result."

Good Citizens, Bad Citizens, ...Or Not Citizens?

To be sure, ethnic Russians in Estonia have their complaints -- most of which revolve around issues of language and citizenship.

The vast majority of ethnic Russians in Estonia moved there after Soviet forces occupied the county and forcibly incorporated it into the U.S.S.R. after World War II. In the 1940s, tens of thousands of Estonians were sent to Siberian labor camps, where many perished.

Prior to the war, just 9 percent of Estonia's population was ethnic Russian. Today about 25 percent is.

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, those who moved to the country after World War II, mainly Russians, were not automatically granted citizenship. Instead, they were required to "naturalize," a process that includes passing an Estonian-language test.

In Narva, just 46.7 percent of the city's residents are Estonian citizens, while 36.3 percent hold Russian passports. An additional 15.3 percent are "gray" passport holders with neither Russian nor Estonian citizenship. In effect, this means that less than half of Narva's residents can vote in national elections. Vladimir Cherdakov, a famous Russian musician from Narva, resents that his wife cannot acquire Estonian citizenship.

Vladimir Cherdakov, a famous Russian musician from Narva, resents that his wife cannot acquire Estonian citizenship.

The citizenship issue has long been a bone of contention for ethnic Russians like local rock musician Vladimir Cherdakov. He says it is "very unpleasant" that his wife, who has lived her whole life in Estonia, cannot receive citizenship because she doesn't speak Estonian.

Aleksandra, a 22-year-old ethnic Russian university student who declined to give her last name, is studying to be a primary-school teacher. She says language requirements make it harder for her as a non-native Estonian speaker to get employment in the public sector.

As someone who has lived her entire life in an independent Estonia, she says she feels trapped between two worlds -- not quite Russian, nor fully Estonian. "We are an island, cut off from the world. We don't belong either to the Russians who live in Russia or to the Estonians here. We are a little community with its own order," she says. "Now I speak to some Russians from Russia and we have moments when we do not understand one another."
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And although they are not keen on joining Russia, many here say they supported Moscow's recent annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Vladimir Alekseyev, 67, who heads the Narva Energia labor union, condemns the West's support for the Euromaidan uprising that ousted Ukraine's pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych and praises what he calls Crimea's act of "self-determination."

"Everyone could see, and Europe couldn't help but see, that this was the will of the absolute majority of Crimea's residents to join and reunite with Russia -- to return to Russia," Alekseyev says. "There was no annexation here. That's a lie. This was a normal process. And the reaction of the West has not been constructive -- extremely unconstructive."

'I Love This Country'

With Russian television dominating the airwaves in Narva, some worry that ethnic Russians here could easily be incited. Ants Liimets, a prominent Narva politician, doesn't think Estonia's Russians have become radicalized.

Ants Liimets, a prominent Narva politician, doesn't think Estonia's Russians have become radicalized.

Ants Liimets, 59, a prominent member of the city legislature and leader of Narva's Estonian community, says Russian "propaganda" could create a problem. But he adds that the absence of street protests here shows Narva's Russians have not been radicalized.

Indeed, many feel themselves integrated.

Aleksandr Pavlov, a 56-year-old ethnic Russian who has lived in Narva since the 1970s, is a volunteer with the Estonian Defense League, the "Kaitseliit," a national volunteer paramilitary that is subordinated to the Defense Ministry. Pavlov does not speak Estonian well, and yet he calls himself an Estonian patriot in no uncertain terms.

Still, many worry what would happen if the current East-West tensions escalate into a broader conflict between Russia and NATO. How would they behave?

"How am I supposed to behave? I am patriot of Estonia. I love this country and I was born here," Brokk says. "I grew up and live here. I am a Russian man. If some kind of action was to start, how should I behave? Would it be civil war? No, we are different countries. This is why I don't even allow this thought into my head."

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