Ilmar Raag: Perpetual opposition

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Ken Mürk / ERR

Every society has, at any given time, around 10-20 percent fundamental opponents, irrespective of constitutional order and the nature of protests. It pays to keep in mind that whatever one might say, someone somewhere on the other side of society will interpret their words in the exact opposite way, Ilmar Raag writes in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The surprise in the Estonian media after the United Left Party and independent candidate Mihhail Stalnuhhin performed well at Riigikogu elections in Ida-Viru County was somewhat surprising in turn. As if we did not know who these people were before. But as pointed out by my good friend Arp Müller, most people are perhaps not preoccupied with social analysis. Therefore, allow me to comment on some general tendencies in social conflict.

A peculiar fact first: the lion's share of society remains passive in any conflict. It is more accurate to say that the vast majority of a society's members is always primarily interested in personal survival strategy.

Let us take the example of World War II in Estonia and look only at numbers. Around one million people lived in Estonia before the war. Between them, the Soviet Union and Germany had mobilized around 100,000 men by the war's end, which is around 10 percent of society. While this seems low on the one hand, with 90 percent of society not participating directly in the war, it also suggests that the number of active combatants does a poor job of describing [the extent of] a crisis.

But the controversies run deeper than that. While the Red Army's 8th Estonian Rifle Corps mobilized some 30,000 men, memoirs and lore suggest they included very few ideological communists who wanted Stalin to win. Yet, they were on the battlefield at some point and probably pulled the trigger.

The same goes for men who fought in German uniforms. Episodes again suggest that most Estonians did not go along with Hitler's cult, even though they were more motivated to fight the Red Army. War theoretician David Kilcullen uses the term "accidental guerillas," meaning that every army has a significant number of men who do not feel strongly about the ideological goal of the war.

Perhaps the best such example concerns young Estonian men who fought in Afghanistan as conscripts during the Soviet period. They did not go over there voluntarily, they cared nothing for doing their "international duty" and yet they were in the mountains there, rifles in hand. One can imagine they were hardly fanatical combatants.

Signals of something similar are coming from Ukraine regarding people Russia has mobilized for the war. People with no real motivation to fight but who are still there, as leaked FSB classified documents suggest around 70 percent of people in Russia do not support the war but are disorganized and fearful of repression.

However, we are interested in another pattern. It tells us that every society has, at any given time, around 10-20 percent fundamental opponents, irrespective of constitutional order and the nature of protests. It pays to keep in mind that whatever one might say, someone somewhere on the other side of society will interpret their words in the exact opposite way.

We deem it natural that societies are rarely in agreement in the conditions of democracy, while it is still emotionally difficult to accept that one's own community includes people who find one disgusting, inane, stupid and probably also a traitor. We ignore it during stable times as people tend to get their joy from their inner circle.

In the community of Estonia, the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) has managed to unite the protesters whose number can also swell in the conditions of polarization, as we have already seen. But the core protesters still count for 10-20 percent of society, irrespective of topics and motivation.

Very logically, the exact same dynamic exists in the Russian community, where anti-Estonian attitudes have existed in the same proportions in surveys at least since 2014. However, the question of identity also enters play here, as how should one be a Russian in the Estonian nation state?

Off the top of my head, I would speculate that 10 percent of Estonia's Russians are greater patriots than most Estonians.

Next come around 40 percent of younger Russians for whom personal self-determination is more important than Russian identity. The possibility to get the best possible education and job. Their behavior is similar to that of Estonians in Canada, the U.K. or Sweden. They learn the local language, attend local schools and may end up working in local administrative structures.

After them come 30 percent who just don't care. As long as they are allowed to live their lives. And finally, we have some 20 percent for whom their Russian identity matters a great deal. For as long as they remained part of the Center Party politically, they were lost in the greater mass. Rather, no one could really pinpoint the center of the Center Party.

The war in Ukraine forced everyone to position themselves more clearly. Jüri Ratas' wing was too radical in its condemnation of Russian aggression for that protest-minded segment of the Russian community. For them, pinning the blame on Russia amounts to violent efforts to redefine their identity. The same would be difficult to bear for anyone.

And this is where we come to an insurmountable conflict. Condemning Russia's aggression matters a great deal to Estonians. The situation entails the danger of radicalization. However, the solution for Estonians lies not in going after the perpetual Russian opposition but rather caring for and protecting everyone else. Military stabilization operations teach us that attacking the enemy can be less effective than protecting one's own and allies.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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