Opinion digest: Sulev Vedler on the secret memo on Ida-Viru County (2)
In 2015, the Government Security Committee received a secret memo containing a dark assessment of the future of Ida-Viru County, Estonia's most northeastern and predominantly Russian-speaking county, which was compiled by Ilmar Raag, who worked as a strategic communicatins advisor at the Stenbock House at the time. Estonian journalist Sulev Vedler responded to the memo by compiling various reactions to issues it addressed.
Despite the assessment of various politicians and experts in related fields to the contary, including the opinions of current President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Andres Kasekamp, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, the three-page memo penned by Raag presented a view of Estonia's northeasternmost county that was in sharp contrast to the picture publicly painted by politicians and officials, wrote journalist Sulev Vedler wrote in an opinion piece published in Estonian daily Eesti Ekspress (link in Estonian).
Questions along the lines of "Is Narva next?" began to proliferate the media following the winter of 2014, when so-called "little green men" coming in from Russia took over Crimea and the regions surrounding Donetsk and Lugansk were dominated by pro-Kremlin rebels.
Raag's assessment of Ida-Viru County was not a positive one: "Ida-Viru County continues to russify and we have no evidence to indicate a reversal in this trend," read the memo. "If we don't do anything, then we are essentially losing that county and are risking the fact that in case of conflict with Russia, we would not be able to control the situation in Ida-Viru cities."
Following a wave of layoffs at large companies base in Ida-Viru County, including Nitrofert, Viru Keemia Grupp (VKG) and Eesti Energia, Raag updated his memo in February. "Despite more than a decade of various development plans or strategies, the narrarative of isolation from Estonia continues to dominate and socially we are talking about an environment which, based on analogies with other countries, is suitable for the development of violent radicalism," read the updated document.
Ida-Viru County: The next Eastern Ukraine or Northern Ireland?
As Vedler summed up, Raag highlighted two possible scenarios that could play out in Estonia's Ida-Viru County — an Eastern Ukraine-type scenario and a Northern Ireland-type scenario.
In describing the former, Raag highlighted the opportunity Russia would have in destabilizing the situation in Estonia by utilizing existing passive and active support already present in the northeastern county, with active supporters relying on not just passive supporters but indifferent parties as well, as was noticeable in Eastern Ukraine. He noted that the wave after wave of layoffs also served to strengthen the existing narrarative that the Estonian government doesn't care about the people living in Ida-Viru County.
In describing the Northern Ireland-type scenario, Raag described a situation in which no more than approximately 200 men would be required to form the core of a local terrorist network supported from across the eastern border.
Raag's memo also offered a counterinsurgency-type solution of a special program of at least ten years involving the more visible presence of power structures, greater involvement of local leaders as well as improvement upon current social and economic programs, adding that Estonia would have to admit that changing the social and economic environment in Ida-Viru County was beyond their abilities and in case of a crisis, Russia would bring in the necessary hostile fighters one way or another.
Ida-Viru County is not Donbas
Eesti Ekspress sought comments on the memo and its contents from a variety of sources, from communications consultant Raul Rebane and University of Tartu Narva College director Kristina Kallas to MP Viktoria Ladõnskaja (IRL), Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund regional director Anneki Teelahk and police chief Elmar Vaher.
Rebane, for instance, found that the memo was not altogether terribly overblown, and described a potential crisis situation.
Estonian Internal Security Service (KaPo) East Prefecture Chief Kalle Jänes, on the other hand, asserted that Ida-Viru County was not Donbas, and that the situation there was under control. "If nobody is brought [here] from the other side of the Narva River, nothing will happen," assured Jänes.
Vedler went on to describe how various ministers and public officials made a point to specially visit Narva and Ida-Viru County. He expanded on how it would perhaps be beneficial to address waves of layoffs and the country's consistently highest level of unemployment, a continuing relative mass exodus of the county's young, educated and Estonian-speaking residents and lack of job opportunities and leisure activities by increasing opportunities in the area, relocating more state institutions there as well as increasing the presence of local and state officials alike in the region and making sure that local residents felt as though their needs were considered or at least heard, among other suggestions.
Local residents, businessmen and officials alike also found that the city of Narva and Ida-Viru County in general had a great deal of potential, particularly as special programs and investments continued to be directed to the region, however they likewise admitted the combined tendency of locals to leave the region when possible and outsiders to not risk attempting to move into the area and integrate.
A number of people who spoke to Vedler cited the myriad ties generations of Russian-speaking Estonians had with Russia, right down to Russian media channels and news sources, as well as their problematic effects in creating a cultural divide, however likewise cited was the fact that younger generations' ties directly to Russia were on a decreasing trend.
Finally, Raul Rebane found that one had to consider the future of the region's residents, reported Vedler: "The question is, what will the generation after the next do — will he embrace European values or will Krõm Naš [Russian for "Crimea is ours"] remain?"