Saarts: Integration policy shifts into overdrive

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: ERR

We needed three decades and the most unusual crisis situation of the past century to prove what has really been known for decades – that Estonia's Russians care about the country they inhabit, Tõnis Saarts says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Does anyone still doubt Estonian Russians' contribution to overcoming the coronavirus crisis and loyalty to the state? Estonian Russians observed social distancing rules just as Estonians did. Thousands of Russians worked 12-hour days on the front lines of the crisis, just like Estonians.

People who speak Russian as their first language often had the toughest and most responsible tasks in the crisis and performed wonderfully. Let us highlight if only the brilliant contribution of Dr. Arkadi Popov and the calm and effective actions of Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart that probably left most of Tallinn's citizen with the feeling that the city was "well kept."

Whereas it is worth noting that both men managed to communicate more empathically and clearly with the public than many ethnical Estonians from the cabinet.

What's sad about all of this is that it took us three decades and the most unusual crisis situation of the past century to prove it. To prove what we have known to be true for decades – that Estonia's Russians care about the country they live in. That the vast majority of them are loyal and are not awaiting instructions from Moscow to set about undermining the Estonian state and destabilizing our society.

Indeed, the crisis almost did away with national boundaries and we could say the integration project came along in strides.

However, the fact that Estonian Russians managed to demonstrate they can be trusted in such situations to even the most national conservative Estonian was not at the heart of this progress as the true quantum leap took place in terms of communication. For the first time in three decades, we witnessed the birth of a common information sphere to unite the two language communities.

Several studies suggested that interest of Russian-speakers in Estonian media grew noticeably. Because official information was communicated in two languages, no one was left in the dark. The question now is whether media institutions can maintain this newfound surge in interest and trust credit and make it work for themselves in a sustainable manner. A lot is riding on that in terms of integration – possibly everything.

The crisis also boosted Russian-speakers' faith in the capacity and neutrality of the Estonian state – no one was treated differently in the crisis just because they were Russian. Unfortunately, this trust in national institutions might not last very long because it is clear the looming economic crisis will hit Russians harder than it will Estonians.

This is first and foremost due to their labor market position as Russians often have a lower professional status than Estonians and tend to work in sectors where unemployment is forecast to grow drastically. However, it is difficult to imagine anyone succeeding in hitching growing socioeconomic dissatisfaction to the buggy of nationality-based conflict as Estonians will also suffer from the recession.

Additionally, Russian-speaking people still regard the Center Party's government as standing closer to them than any previous coalition. Herein lies an important difference compared to the previous economic crisis when many Russians felt the country was run by a government that was downright hostile to them.

And yet, all it would take for progress made on the integration front to disintegrate would be for a member of the government to say something along the lines of: "We will only help Ida-Viru County once regions inhabited predominantly by Estonians have been taken care of."

This newfound togetherness of national communities hardly comes as good news for right-wing parties that are itching to play the traditional "Russian card" at the upcoming local elections, especially in the capital Tallinn. However, the call to arms of "Let us reclaim the capital from the Russians!" will likely leave a lot of voters indifferent this time around as they simply won't see the problem this aims to solve.

The most important question in a situation where the "Russian card" no longer works is what could take its place. Provided established parties cannot come up with a more thought-provoking and mobilizing topic, the air will be filled with the Conservative People's Party's (EKRE) marriage referendum (whether to define marriage as being between a man and a woman on the level of the Constitution – ed). All it means is that old polarizing topics will be replaced with new ones.

Still, we should take joy in the ice breaking regarding at least one major confrontation. The coming decade will tell whether it is temporary or permanent.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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