ISS chief: No Russian 'fifth column' in Estonia

Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. While under the Moscow patriarchate, enthusiasm for the current regime in the Kremlin will not by any stretch be held with equal levels of enthusiasm by all devotees.
Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn. While under the Moscow patriarchate, enthusiasm for the current regime in the Kremlin will not by any stretch be held with equal levels of enthusiasm by all devotees. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Talk of a 'fifth column' in Estonia is moribund, head of the Internal Security Service (ISS) Arnold Sinisalu says, as reported by counter-propaganda site Propastop.

Sinisalu made his remarks in the context of May 9 – European Day in Estonia and the rest of the EU, "Victory Day" in the Russian Federation, referring to the end of World War Two.*

The term is sometimes used to label the Russian-speaking community in Estonia, which the Kremlin and its propaganda machine tends to in turn label part of the so-called "Russian world," the chief of the ISS, often known by its Estonian acronym Kapo, said.

The international media also often feeds into this, Propastop argues, by assuming that Russian speakers in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, in Ukraine and anywhere else Russian-speaking communities can be found, would be automatically aligned with Kremlin views.

This ignores the fact that Russian-speaking communities – as with expat communities more broadly – are often diverse, and will include many who oppose the Moscow regime, even having to leave the country as a result. An analogy might be found in expat British communities, where opinions will differ widely on, for instance, Brexit.

Tarring everyone with the same brush could thus be seen as unfair, and may engender resentment among those Russian-speaking people who do not want anything to do with the Putin regime and would be willing to help out in opposing it, yet get associated with it in any case.

In Estonia alone, "The fact is that the Russian-speaking population ... is very different," Arnold Sinisalu said, even between different population centers and communities inside Estonia.

"The Russian-speaking population of Estonia is very different. Their living environment is also very different. We cannot compare with each other Russian-speaking residents in the cities of Tartu, Võru, Maardu, Sillamäe, Narva, Tallinn – they all have different interests; they have been integrated differently.

In any case, a correlation between language, name and citizenship and political beliefs is an oversimplification.

"It must also be said that, often, how well a person speaks Estonian and what citizenship he or she has, this has no connection whatsoever with how he or she views the Estonian state, the politics of the Estonian state, political choices etc.," the ISS chief went on.

"This is much more multi-layered, and it would be wiser to leave all kinds of talk about a 'fifth column' aside. This is also confirmed by very different studies that have been carried out over the decades by researchers at the University of Tartu," Sinisalu added.

Nonetheless, it is true that there are some among the Russian community who view Russian Federation's activities, including the invasion of Ukraine, favorably.

The 20-60-20 rule

One way to model this is to use the 20-60-20 rule, Sinisalu argues.

This model was developed by Polish mathematicians and in essence states that there are 20 percent who, in a spirit of protest perhaps, will not go along with changes in Estonia. This could equate to those who view the Russian regime and associated symbolism favorably.

Even this group has ranges of opinions – Sinisalu put 10 percent of it as constituting actual activists, and the remaining 90 percent made up of passive supporters.

"But of course that shouldn't bother us too much, plus expressing your opinion is a constitutional right," Sinisalu added.

Back to the main 20-60-20, the second and largest category, the 60 percent, tends to go with the flow more and also hedges its bets on which direction society will head.

Finally there are 20 percent who, Sinisalu says, "are always progressive, who want change, and who support change. And, of course, there are different trends within these layers," Sinisalu's analysis went on. Broadly speaking these people could be seen as fully paid-up members of Estonian society, regardless of their ethnic origin.

Thus it can be seen, in Sinisalu's view, talk of a "fifth column" – the term dates back to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and refers to a significantly-sized group in society which is actively working in the interests of a hostile force – is inappropriate, when talking about Estonia.

Another term which is much misunderstood, Propastop reports, is "threats to national security."

For instance, Aleksei Ratnikov, a lawyer, argues that there is no clear legislative definition even of what security actually is.

Another lawyer, Vladimir Sadekov, agreed, noting that precedent takes, well, precedence, over statutes here.

"Each individual case is assessed by the court separately, because it is not possible to give any universal formula to assess what is actually a threat to the security of the state," Sadekov told ETV+ show "Insayt" (ETV+ is ERR's Russian-language TV channel-ed.).

Veiko Kommusaar, Undersecretary for Internal Security of the Ministry of the Interior, concurs, noting that there are several pieces of legislation, including the Citizenship Act, the Act on International Protection of Foreigners and the Weapons Act, where the term is referred to, in addition to its appearance in the Penal Code.

However, the laws do not describe exactly which actions of a person can lead to the accusation of endangering the security of the state, and it is as much as anything else the specifics of a case and the potential damage the individual's words and actions can lead to which is relevant.

"It's not that someone has an opinion on a certain issue. But how is this opinion supported, what actions, what practical steps does a person take in this context," Kommussaar added.

Harrys Puusepp, Head of Bureau at the ISS, also drew the distinction between indirect threats, such as influencing activities, and direct threats, such as terrorism or military attack.

Vladimir Sadekov noted that personal opinions should not be conflated with national security threats, keeping in mind the right to self-expression and certain inalienable rights.

Even in the case of the gains made at the March 5 Riigikogu election by the United Left Party (EÜVP), a pro-Kremlin organization, and its corollary Koos/Vmeste, whose members ran on EÜVP lists, must be seen in this light, the Propastop piece argues – in other words pro-Kremlin broadcasts, while an irritant, are not necessarily the main underlying cause for voting going the way it did; there are many more nuanced factors at play.

The original Propastop piece is here.

Propastop is a counter-propaganda site which serves to challenge Kremlin and other totalitarian narratives on events in Estonia and elsewhere. It is staffed largely by volunteer members of the Defense League (Kaitseliit), and carries articles in English, Russian and German, as well as in Estonian.


*VE Day in many Western nations is marked a day earlier, on May 8. That this is the case could be down to a variety of factors, including time-zone differences, a tendency within the-then Soviet Russian leadership towards suspicion and paranoia, ie., had the Germans actually really surrendered, and a desire to be different just for the sake of it.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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