One of the key factors in the Ukraine crisis has been the role of the sizeable ethnic Russian population in the country. David Smith writes on the implications the crisis might have for two other countries with significant Russian populations: Estonia and Latvia. He notes that while citizenship policies in both countries have been unpopular among ethnic Russian communities, the focus has largely been on increasing the rights of Russian speakers rather than questioning the existence of the Estonian or Latvian state. Nevertheless, he argues that nationalist forces on both sides of the debate may seek to exploit the situation in Ukraine in pursuit of their respective agendas.
Ukraine remains in a state of high tension, following the occupation of key installations in Crimea by Russian troops. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin claims that the despatch of military units was justified by the need to protect the interests and physical welfare of Russian citizens and so-called compatriots (ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers) living in Crimea and other southern and eastern parts of the country. The deepening of the Ukrainian crisis has prompted reflection on its potential wider implications, not least for Estonia and Latvia, where Russian-speakers make up around a third of the population.
While many Russian-speakers living in these countries can trace descent back to the period of inter-war Baltic independence and beyond, the majority are Soviet-era migrants and their descendants. Following the restoration of their statehood in 1991, Estonia and Latvia did not extend automatic citizenship to people in this category, arguing that they had arrived as a result of an illegal annexation and subsequent fifty-year occupation by the USSR. While many have since undergone naturalisation as citizens, more than half of Soviet migrants and their descendants still hold either local ‘alien’s passports’ or passports issued by the Russian Federation.
These citizenship policies have been unpopular amongst local Russian-speakers, and have been loudly condemned by Russia, which denies that the 1940 Soviet takeover of the Baltic States amounted to an occupation and accuses Estonia and Latvia of engaging in systematic ethnic discrimination. Domestic and international frictions have also arisen over language and education policy, as both states have sought to break with the bi-national Soviet legacy and give greater prominence to majority language and culture. Divergent interpretations of the Second World War, too, have come into play, as witnessed by the unrest that occurred in Estonia following the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial in 2007. Ethnic divisions arising from the Soviet past thus continue to pose a challenge to social and political cohesion in both countries.