The Eastern Chill


Good friends recently told us that their young son turned off the TV because the news was frightening him. He’s not the only one who has been scared. Georgia and South Ossetia may be a long way from Estonia, but even so we follow the Georgian conflict with a chill up our spines. Why?

  1. Slippery Language: Russia has stated that its reason for invading Georgia is to protect Russian Nationals who are being threatened there. While the status of Russian Nationals in Georgia may in fact be critical, the language is very slippery and could be used in other, less deserving situations as well … say Eastern Estonia, where the population is largely ethnically Russian. Can Russia invade a sovereign nation simply in order to protect its citizens? Who defines what constitutes a “threat” and is there a forum for determining whether force is in fact a justifiable response? At what point does “ethnic tension” (common to any multi-ethnic nation) translate to “ethnic threat”.
  2. Crying Wolf: Both Russia and Georgia are accused by the other of “ethnic cleansing”. Like the term “Axis of Evil” or “War on Terror”, the free use of this accusation has the dual effect of influencing popular opinion via hyperbolic headlines and simultaneously diluting the power of important and specific language to accurately identify the “real thing” and to prompt an appropriate response in the future.
  3. Loss of Moral Highground: This is not the first time that a large powerful nation has taken unilateral, pre-emtive military action while disregarding the world’s calls for calm and diplomacy. When the US ambassador to the UN recently condemned Russia’s military activity in Georgia – in particular attacks against civilians – the Russian ambassador fired back that such statements were entirely unacceptable coming from the US given its own military activities. Not long ago, America was in a position to make such statements but because of our hasty and miscalculated actions in the Middle East, we have relinquished the moral high-ground and given the world a new excuse for war with the doctrine of “unilateral pre-emtive strike”.
  4. Appeasing the Beast: Both Europe and the US have a vested interest in keeping Russia happy and have slow-footed and acquiesced on similar issues in the past. Based soley on the fact that Russia switched sides in World War II, they were allowed in the time of Stalin to get away with mass deportations and atrocious war crimes against their “near neighbors” with nothing more than a hand slap from the West. When economic interests and self-preservation trump “the right thing to do” osteoporosis begins to erode the spine of world’s “strong nations”. With Russia’s oil and gas resources helping to fuel the energy hungry first-world, nuclear armament still an open question, and a NATO trump card always up their sleeve, Russia is confident that it can keep the US and Europe walking on egg-shells while it makes its own rules in the rest of the world.

Taken together, such facts appear to some of Eastern Europe’s small and recently independent nations as “a cloud the size of a man’s fist”. No wonder people are shuddering.

For more clear thinking and analysis on the current situation, let me reference another expat (of another stripe) living in Tartu: To Die for Danzig?

6 thoughts on “The Eastern Chill

  1. living in the former and possibly future eastern bloc, do you feel tensions rising on behalf locals? not knowing my eastern estonian ethnic groups very well, do these ethnically russian estonians favor russia’s foray into georgia or do they hold to estonian sovereignty and integrity? that may be a question you are not capable of answering.
    the analysis is much appreciated. keep the good work coming.


    1. Your insightful and sensitive question highlights one of the deeper causative realities in this whole exchange which is also a reality in the wider world of Eastern European politics: namely, that the conflicts between European States are not necessarily reflections of conflicts between people groups.

      As with the United States, each politically distinct state is actually comprised of distinct people groups with distinct and sometimes competing concerns. In the States, we’re all basically immigrants (with different expiration dates) and so ethnicity – like denominational membership – is more an issue of branding while race and political leaning are the issues that tend to divide us. In Europe, ethnicity, history and language play a much larger role. More often than state loyalty, these are the lines along which people’s loyalties tend to be divided.

      So when you ask what the ethnically Russian people (and other minorities as well, I would assume) are saying about their own loyalties, I think you’re looking in the right direction both in terms of the Estonian and the Georgian circumstances. The question is, with whom do these people identify themselves ethnically and culturally? We can expect that Russian, Georgian, Estonian sound bites will reflect what the state wants us to hear. But your question goes to the heart of the human reality, the reality that matters within our borders.

      So here is my beginner’s understanding of the cultural breakdown in Estonia. Of the ethnic Russians in Estonia (cautiously, we might also include Belorussians and Ukrainians since they are Russian speakers):

      • some are pre-WW2 residents (most of whom are culturally indistinguishable save for their name);
      • most were moved into Estonia during the Soviet occupation with or without their consent;
      • another minority have immigrated since Estonian independence, some seeking opportunity, some fleeing persecution.

      Each of these groups has a distinct sense of identity and stands with their back in one direction and their face in the other for different reasons.

      My sense is that within Estonia, our ethnic Russian population is divided politically between a very small minority of vocal Russian-state loyalists who rally (or are rallied) from time to time to protest Estonian independence (e.g. 2006 Bronze Soldier Riots), and a larger majority who, if not considering themselves politically Estonian, are more likely to consider themselves politically near-European than near-Russian. In short, my sense is that our ethnic Russian population is in fact more of an ally than a threat.

      In Georgia, you’d need to ask the Ossetian Russians what they think about all this.

    2. S’pose I didn’t really answer your question … “what do our Russians think about the Russian military presence in Georgia?” Answer: I can’t rightly say. I haven’t had enough exposure to that population. Something I’m trying to remedy bit by bit.

      I think the answer partly depends upon the ethnic identity question I mentioned above. However, I noticed that a recent program on Estonian TV mentioned that due in part to the fact that there is no Russian language news program in Estonia, many Russians in the Eastern part of the country get their news from Russian sources. These sources are highly influenced by the state and so opinion in the East of Estonia tend to reflect what we’re hearing from the Russian politicians and diplomats.

  2. Sorry for getting scattered and not responding. Please forgive me.

    Given your brief course is Estonian ethnic minorities, I would deduce that Estonians are not as Balkanized as some in former Bloc countries. However, if my memory serves me (which it may not) in late 2006 early 2007, Russia via Gasprom restricted the flow of energy to Estonia in response to NATO involvement and broader participation in Europe, is that accurate?

    If so, does Russia act with impunity when dealing with Estonia? Do Estonians fear future reprisal for further movement towards Europe?

    Sorry a lot of questions there.

    1. @donald – Hey Donald, sorry it’s taken so long for a reply here. It is fairly clear here that Estonians live in a very real fear that if Russia decides to pressure the Baltics in the ways it has pressured states to the south, there is little we could do about it. However, my sense is that our situations are so different that it would be much more difficult to pull something like this off in Estonia. The Balkans still feel non-Western to the west while the Baltics have been in the EU for a good long while now and are quite integrated.

  3. one last note:

    when I said, “I would deduce that Estonians are not as Balkanized as some in former Bloc countries” I was meaning in comparison to say Serbia or Kosovo.

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