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Estonia’s Restrictions on Russian Citizens: Security Measures or the Rise of Russophobia?

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On July 28, 2022, the Government of Estonia announced that it had reduced the opportunities for applying for residence permits and employment visas for citizens of Russia and Belarus. In his statement on the subject, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu declared:[1]

“Russian citizens can no longer apply for a temporary residence permit or visa for the purpose of studying in Estonia. Belarusians can still apply for employment visas. Additionally, citizens of Russia and Belarus who are working in the country but have no legal right to stay in Estonia, for example while on a visa issued by another European Union (EU) Member State, will not be granted a temporary residence permit or allowed to work either.”

As Baltic states’ increased threat perception regarding the Russian-Ukrainian War, and Estonia has its share of this situation. In this context, in addition to global and regional sanctions and measures, states are also making moves to ensure their security. Estonia’s move in the matter of Russian citizens may be a sign that a Russophobia phenomenon has taken root in the country and that this sensitivity will deepen further.

Estonia has donated almost 40% of its annual military budget and more than 0.8% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to Ukraine. The country acts with the highest motivation to stop Russia, before taking its turn, by aligning with Ukraine. Moreover, it can be seen that all political parties in Estonia agree on supporting Ukraine. This can be viewed as a natural reflection of the historical processes between Russia and Estonia.

Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by the Nazi Germany, and again by the Soviet Union in 1994. The country, which gained its independence in 1991, still had lands belonging to the Russian Army, with Russia’s enginery and weapons not leaving the country until 1994.[2] Today, there are various Soviet-era military facilities in Estonia, just like in Ukraine. In this context, Estonia can still feel its past wounds with Russia; they share a profound history of relations, and thus, Estonia is alarmed by its perception of threat.

Moreover, there is also a border dispute between the two countries that still continues implicitly. With the start of the war in early February 2022, the parties took steps to resolve the dispute in question, but they remained inconclusive.

Estonia is one of the few countries previously occupied by the Soviet Union, with Russian people practicing the Russian culture living and working in its border regions intensively. Although the vast majority of these people have lived in Estonia throughout their lives, they have been under the influence of Russian television, politics and culture.[3]

The effect in question has led to different perceptions since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian War on February 24, 2022. Countries such as Estonia suspect that Estonia residents of Russian origin could be taken advantage of by the Moscow administration, since Russian head of state Vladimir Putin described himself as a defender of the Russians in his speech given on the morning of the beginning of the war.

It is reported that currently 25% of the Estonian population is ethnic Russian.[4] In addition, 81% of Estonians think that armed resistance is necessary in case of any attack, and therefore support the country to increase its defense expenditures. This shows that people increasingly consider war as a concrete possibility, and that they might be feeling the need to be prepared for interstate or civil attacks.

In this context, there is also an increase in hate speech against Russian people. So much so that, after the beginning of the war, Russians living in various European countries reported that they encountered hate speech. For example, “Russians are here-State Security Committee (KGB)” is written on the wall of a Russian person’s house in Czechia.[5] Similarly, it can be predicted that the phenomenon of Russophobia will rise in countries that host a dense Russian-origin community such as Estonia over time.

The proportion of Russians in Estonia makes them the largest ethnic minority in the country. Today, about 330 thousand ethnic Russians live in Estonia. This figure is remarkable for the country with a total population of approximately 1 million 300 thousand. Approximately 120 thousand of these 330 thousand people have Estonian citizenship. Approximately 100 thousand of them are Russian citizens. The remaining 100 thousand are people who do not have the right to citizenship, and thus don’t have all citizenship rights.[6] It will be increasingly difficult for those of Russian origin, especially those who do not yet have citizenship, to live in the country.

It is not the first time that the Russian population caused tension between the two countries. After Estonia gained its independence, a large part of the ethnic Russian minority in the country was not given citizenship due to the country’s citizenship policies. The reason for this was Russia’s military presence in the country. At this point, it can be said that Estonia uses the issue of citizenship against Russia, in order for them to withdraw from the country. At this stage, there is a concern that Russia will take advantage of ethnic Russians.

Unlike Ukraine, Estonia is a member of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In this context, the country is more integrated into Europe and the West. But as is the case for many states, it is dependent on Russia regarding its energy needs. As a matter of fact, Estonia asked for an exemption in the last EU sanctions, which called for cuts in the union’s natural gas consumption.

On the other hand, it is known that Estonia has not been in favor of Russia’s pipeline projects for a long time. The country leaders warned that Russia posed a threat from time to time, and that Europe’s being energetically dependent would cause problems. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the country feels partly secure, thanks to its EU and NATO membership. Therefore, Estonia is not an “open target” as much as Ukraine. For these reasons, it can be brave in its criticism of Russia.

Internal and external conflicts, border problems and land problems in the world increase the feeling of opposition towards a nation, community, minority or, at the very least, a group. The Afghans who fled the Taliban, the Chinese in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the people who were forced to emigrate by the Syrian Civil War have been experiencing such events. The Russia-Ukraine War, on the other hand, makes Russians a target in European geography, mostly due to the fact that the aggressor is understood to be Russia. The step taken by the Estonian Government is an indication of this. It is certain that the security concerns of the country and the Estonian people are way too serious to be ignored. However, it is obvious that the decision resulted in Russian citizens being perceived as potential Russian spies. This indicates that Russophobia will rise in many countries, especially in Estonia.

[1] “Estonia Further Limits Visas for Russians, Belarusians”, Err.ee, https://news.err.ee/1608669361/estonia-further-limits-visas-for-russians-belarusians, (Date of Accession: 29.07.2022).

[2] “Relations with Russia”, CountryStudies, http://countrystudies.us/estonia/22.htm, (Date of Accession: 30.07.2022).

[3] “How One of Russia’s Neighbors is Dealing with Putin’s Propaganda”, NPR, https://www.npr.org/2022/05/11/1096856581/how-one-of-russias-neighbors-is-dealing-with-putins-propaganda, (Date of Accession: 30.07.2022).

[4] “Estonia Demographics”, World Population Review, https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/estonia-population, (Date of Accession: 30.07.2022).

[5] “Russians Abroad: Blamed for a Regime They Sought to Escape”, The Moscow Times, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/04/russians-abroad-blamed-for-a-regime-they-sought-to-escape-a762, (Date of Accession: 30.07.2022).

[6] “In Estonia, Life is Good, Maybe too Good, for Ethnic Russians”, https://qz.com/344521/in-estonia-life-is-good-maybe-too-good-for-ethnic-russians/, (Date of Accession: 30.07.2022).

Cemre Çağla ATAMER
Cemre Çağla ATAMER
2017 yılında Aydın Adnan Menderes Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olan ve 2020 yılında aynı üniversitenin Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler yüksek lisans programından “Latin Amerika’da Entegrasyon Çabaları: AB ile Karşılaştırmalı Bir Analiz” teziyle uzmanlığını alan Cemre Çağla Atamer, 2021 yılında Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Latin Amerika Çalışmaları Anabilim Dalı’nda ikinci yüksek lisans programına başlamıştır. Halihazırda yüksek lisans eğitimine devam eden Atamer, iyi derecede İngilizce ve başlangıç seviyesinde İspanyolca bilmektedir.