Expert: Parties forgot lessons from integration programs in Ida-Viru County

Voting on Election Day at Värska Cultural Center, a polling place in Electoral District 11 (Võru, Valga and Põlva counties). March 5, 2023.
Voting on Election Day at Värska Cultural Center, a polling place in Electoral District 11 (Võru, Valga and Põlva counties). March 5, 2023. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

The recent Riigikogu election results in Narva, Ida-Viru County came as something of a surprise to many Estonians, with 44 percent of voters choosing protest candidates, who are well known for being pro-Kremlin. According to integration expert Irene Käosaar, the results reflect the fact, that political parties failed to apply the positive lessons learned from integration-promoting initiatives over the years.

The 2023 Riigikogu election results in Ida-Viru County stood out from those in the rest of Estonia. The takeaway message seems to be, that either voters in the region do not understand Estonian politics, or are not happy with things as they are. The results may appear even more disappointing in light of the significant amount of time and money spent on attempts to integrate Estonia's ethnic Russian population into the broader society.

However, according to integration expert Irene Käosaar, during the election campaign the various political parties seemed to forget everything, which has been done over the years to promote integration. In her view, this left voters in Ida-Viru County, most of whom are ethnic Russians, feeling they were left with a list of "dos and don'ts" that they were required to adhere to in order to be accepted in the society, similar to those promoted in the 1990s.

"Back then we were saying that they had to learn Estonian, get citizenship, be loyal to the state, and other such things. In fact, we have reached the 2020s with the knowledge that a person will integrate if they have the feeling that they are part of the country, that they are taken into account, that they feel they have a role to play here, and if they are asked (their opinion)," Käosaar said.

"I think there has been a bit of a shift in this regard in recent years. Our integration programs continue to do the same things, but the messages that are coming from somewhere at government level and which also appear during election campaigns, are, yet again that [ethnic Russians] have to think and feel in a particular way. And, if they don't, then they are against the state. I think that somehow this is what has got into people's minds," Käosaar added.

According to Narva City Councilor Vadim Orlov (Reform), thorny, yet important issues were largely avoided by the political parties in the election campaign. However, in his view, they should have provided the starting point for discussions with the people of Narva.

"It is difficult and complicated to explain. We would have encountered aggression from people no matter what, but [a discussion] would have significantly reduced the number of protest votes," said Orlov.

In his view, the results in Narva should not so much be interpreted as a vote in favor of a particular candidate, but rather a protest against Estonia's political parties, which seemed to be painting the locals as enemies of the state.

Orlov pointed out, that often all Russians were portrayed as being enemies of Estonia, who support Russia's war in Ukraine. "However, we have a very large number of Russian-speaking Estonians. In the rhetoric, distinctions could have been made between, for example, our Russian-speaking and loyal Estonians, and those who really are Russians and support [Russia's] aggression against Ukraine. If they could have been distinguished more clearly, then there would have been fewer protest votes," Orlov said.

"In fact, these people may not be pro-Kremlin or pro-Putin, and in fact, they may not be against the Estonian state at all," Käosaar said.

"They just have different opinions, and what has happened is that over the last few years they have got the feeling that they are not allowed to express their opinions, otherwise they are considered to be pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin, and anti-Estonian. And now, suddenly, quite unexpectedly, they had the opportunity to express their opinion completely anonymously and so they did just that. They are certainly not pro-war and they are not pro-Putin. However, they are perhaps not 100 percent of the same mind [as ethnic Estonians] on every issue, yet we immediately label them as being pro-Kremlin. And the more you tell people they are stupid, the more stupid the decisions they make will be," she explained.

According to Valeri, a Narva resident who voted for former Center Party member Mihhail Stalnuhhin, instead of communicating with the electorate, most of the parties simply came to Narva to preach their view of things. "If only they had listened to the people, at least a little, but they didn't. We had a lot of serious questions, which they quietly brushed aside, and nobody heard anything about," said Valeri.

In his view, Estonian political parties should be engaging with the ethnic Russian population all the time, not just during election campaigns. "They should start their campaigning not on election day or just before the elections, but throughout the year. At the moment, people can see that they are not being listened to."

However, with local elections looming on the horizon, the next reason to protest could be the desire for a special economic zone to be created in Narva.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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