Interview: Estonia has overlooked a generation of young Russians

Erik Kalda.
Erik Kalda. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Erik Kalda, executive editor of Ida-Viru County newspaper Põhjarannik, tells Vikerraadio in a recent interview that Estonia let slip a generation of young Russians, who studied in Russian schools in the 1990s and early 2000s and later turned out to chant "Rossiya" and run riot during the Bronze Night, slip through the cracks.

The City of Narva was recently ordered by the government to rename five streets that bear the names of Red Army soldiers. The change was meant to enter into force from September 1, but Narva City Council managed to vote against it in August. The Narva City Government nevertheless changed the street name signs, which culminated in a successful no-confidence vote against Mayor Katri Raik. What is the status of these street name signs? Has Narva reinstalled the old signs or will it stick with the new names?

I don't think we will see a return to the old signs. The August action was aimed at pleasing voters, to show that there are efforts to stand up to the government and its initiative of removing the names of heroes from the streets.

I do not see the possibility of those who voted against the name changes trying to reverse any of it – there is also no legal basis for something like that.

What is the mood in Narva? Many Narva residents, both Estonian and Russian, took to the streets to support Katri Raik. Which camp is bigger?

It's difficult to say. Look, people in Narva can sport very different mentalities. Those living west of Narva are quick to think that most people who live there are Putin supporters, pro-Russia etc.

It is believed that around 30 percent of Narva residents are pro-Russia, 30 percent pro-Estonia and 30 percent do not feel strongly about matters which became even more pronounced after the start of the Ukraine war.

The latter might also try to consciously stay away or demonstrate that politics does not interest them. The truth is that we don't know what goes on in the minds of people who say nothing.

Is the makeup of the city council representative of this cross-section of society? Or do the Putin supporters have the upper hand there? They even wanted to rename their council group United Narva, which is a clear nod to United Russia. The majority is now held by Center Party members.

I would be more cautious about labeling people as Putin supporters, pro-Russia or pro-Estonia. People have different ways of interpreting and understanding things. For example, a person can be anti-Putin but also oppose the removal of the Narva tank monument, while still being in favor of the Estonian education transition. How should we label them?

As concerns the Narva City Council, the 2021 elections showed that change is possible in Narva. Katri Raik got what amounts to a powerful mandate in Narva, taking 4,500 votes for a real breakthrough.

Where Raik fell short was her ability to keep her team together – there were defections, members were poached etc. The balance of power was always in flux.

It is an achievement that Raik managed to stay in power for as long as she did – two years since the elections – considering the constant maneuvering it took, as she has admitted herself. It was a tightrope act, while it was a solid effort for a first try.

Katri Raik has admitted that she found herself gravitating toward positions she would never have found ethically acceptable in the past. Do one's surroundings have an effect on the person?

I don't know about environmental effects, but the political culture in Narva is distinct. Not just in Narva, the political culture was also different for a long time in Kohtla-Järve. I wouldn't be able to compare them to Tallinn where the Center Party has also long been in power.

What this tightrope act consists of is that a lot of people who gain access to power sport a rather different understanding of its purpose. I have noticed a kind of conviction that since I was elected, I must be special and, therefore, entitled to benefits and privileges.

Divide and conquer?

Yes. And the chosen ones turning up asking for things in exchange for supporting you. Many will come, and the leader will need to find a way to placate them, knowing just how fragile the balance in the council really is. It is very easy to lose power and find oneself in the opposition over a trifling matter. Choices need to be made.

Support not on ideological grounds but rather as a trade.

People might boast how they made the council courtesy of their convictions, but the mindset that as I have now gotten a seat at the table, I am better than everyone else – have more rights, privileges and are entitled to more benefits – is still very much alive.

Did the people of Narva come to love Katri Raik?

I cannot say, while looking at how they gave her red roses in the Town Hall Square, I suppose we might call it love.

Again, I would refrain from lumping Narva residents in together – there is both hate and love, indifference and umbrage, emotion and pragmatism. The full spectrum of human feelings we all contend with from day to day.

I cannot tell you about love. I hope that they don't love her too much, because things get dangerous when the people start to love their leaders.

They are blinded?

Yes. We know from our own tragic history how periods where the people's love and dedication for leaders were lauded were not the best of times.

There is talk that Jaan Toots might replace Raik as mayor. Does he have the qualities that the people of Narva want to see and what might those be?

I do not know Jaan Toots' qualities. I know he ran for the Riigikogu in Ida-Viru County in the ranks of the People's Union more than a decade ago. If memory serves, he was not successful.

But the fact no one knows him in Narva might end up serving Toots. Or it might hurt him. I cannot tell you, while I'm not sure he knows Narva that well either. He has already said that Narva is a complicated city and one he does not know in depth.

What should the mayor do to gain the people's trust in Narva?

I believe they need to have a clear idea of where the city is headed, which they also need to communicate to the people – tell them what they need to do for life to improve, as well as what might be the setbacks or negative consequences on that road.

It was very difficult to understand where the Center Party wanted Narva to go. There was constant confrontation with the government, messages of how the government in Tallinn wants us to fail, is not giving us money, wants to force Estonian on us etc. That we are protecting you and if you don't vote for us, there will be no one to protect you in the future.

I believe that the time of such rhetoric should be over, even though the forces that spent decades ruling Narva have recently returned. We have little reason to believe their way of doing things will change overnight...

When the tank was relocated, Narva residents demanded something in return. Has the dust settled now?

It seems like yesterday's news to me. Even if you bury a loved one, you do not still think of it every day a year later. You need to move on with your life, take care of your family, live in the moment and look to the future.

I believe that many Narva residents understand that living in the past holds little potential for improving things. Whether the tank is there or not does not affect people's daily coping and lives.

How many Narva residents might be living in the past, believing that the Soviet period was good and that Soviet symbols should be left alone and still revered?

A considerable number, while I would refrain from suggesting a percentage.

I have thought about what Estonia could have done differently – it seems to me that Estonia let a generation of young Russians fall through the cracks. People who went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s.

They were overlooked. The constitutional order changed, while the education system did not follow suit fast enough – Russian schools were left to their own devices and in the administrative area of local governments. No one really kept up with what was going on in those schools. News surfaced from time to time that textbooks came from Russia and were used in teaching.

Estonia had written Narva off?

Either that or the young and newly independent state was just too busy to reach everywhere. Problems were myriad, and we do not really grasp in hindsight how difficult it was to build Estonia into what it is today back in the 1990s.

That said, those young people should have been noticed much sooner. Thinking back to the events of the Bronze Night in Tallinn, Narva and Jõhvi in 2007, a lot of people, including students, turned out to riot and chant, "Rossiya, Rossiya." Why did they do that, having studied and often been born in Estonia...

Do we dare forecast how many people would take to the street to chant, "Rossiya" today?

I would very much like to hope that we would no longer see anything like that in Estonia today. Young people have changed, people in general have changed, including those who chanted, "Rossiya, Rossiya." Many say that they have since changed their stance, and that they used to feel differently about things back then. That Russia was something great and mighty for them and they had nothing they could latch onto or identify with in Estonian society. Estonians had their language and culture, for which we restored our independence, while it was much more difficult and a matter of identity for Russians.

The question of identity was a major problem for Russian-speaking people in the 1990s and later – there had always been a great country (the Soviet Union – ed.) that people felt a part of until it just disappeared. Suddenly, they were foreigners in another country where they were told to respect the local language and culture.

Sociologists have recognized this problem [of identity].

But the people who turned up to defend the tank; were they rather United Russia supporters or just worried about the memory of their loved ones?

There were different people there, and many were confused. Some had visited the site to party, while we were told it is a place of remembrance. Common sense does not equate remembrance with rituals of having fun and partying.

Others associated the site with different rituals. For example, newlyweds often took pictures there together and brought flowers. Perhaps some regretted its removal because they had fond memories with the tank from their youth.

National cultural canons differ – Estonians have never had such totemic sites that are visited when one gets married. But [Russian] people in Tallinn's Lasnamäe district go to the Russalka monument, and hang little padlocks on the bridge in Keila-Joa – Russian people feel the need to associate rituals with a location.

Possibly, while I would not label people based on their language either. There are Russians who think of themselves as Russians but speak perfect Estonian and associate with Estonians. There are those who only speak Russian but say they are Russian-speaking Estonians.

It is very easy to put people in boxes, suggesting that some do this and some do that. But as I have said, Ida-Viru County is very diverse, as is Narva. The national makeup of Ida-Viru County is diverse, and those communities are diverse in turn.

While putting people in boxes would make life easier, I'm afraid we cannot do that.

You mentioned that Estonia overlooked a generation in Ida-Viru County. Have we missed something again – it took everyone, including the Internal Security Service (ISS), by surprise this spring when politically radical Aivo Peterson and Mihhail Stalnuhhin did very well at general elections. What does that say about the mentality of our citizens, keeping in mind that only citizens can vote in parliamentary elections? They got a lot of votes.

You need to look at what Peterson and his people were saying. They did not say that the Republic of Estonia was bad, or that Estonians had built the wrong kind of country.

They said that war was bad, that they wanted peace and sided neither with Russia nor Ukraine. That was the mantra they kept repeating. They said that the Estonian government was doing the wrong thing.

Merilin Pärli and Erik Kalda. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

They were easy to identify with?

Now, when a Russian-speaking person who is confused in the wake of the war and who used to believe that Russia was a peaceful nation that only wanted the best for its neighbors and was fighting the forces of evil hears these men saying what they want to hear – that there are two sides to the conflict and that we should sue for peace – and promising to do the right thing... The message of not choosing sides.

How did people in Narva react when Aivo Peterson was arrested following suspicions of treason?

I believe there was a lot of confusion again. I kept an eye on reactions on social media – many were very disappointed as they felt the political movement (Koos – ed.) had duped them. They felt they could not understand the undercurrents that were driving these forces.

People were also left wondering about themselves I would imagine?

People felt bad for having voted for them. They were disappointed because they had not given them their support because they opposed Estonia. I'm sure many were loyal to Estonia. What they voted for were messages of peace and the government having taken the wrong line.

It has now been proposed to take away Russian citizens' right to vote in local elections in Estonia. This would mean cutting a lot of people off from elections in Narva, Sillamäe and a few other regions. Would it be the right thing to do?

I believe that stateless persons and citizens of other countries could not vote in Estonia before 1996. Very different people had been in power until then, and the 1996 elections saw the rulers change also in Kohtla-Järve, Narva and Sillamäe. That change was fossilized for the next 30 years.

Whether it should be done... Lawyers have already suggested that the Constitution probably does not allow it as the right to vote [in local elections] is given to all legal permanent residents.

I cannot say whether it would change anything for the better. Tensions are flying high because of the war and everything that comes with it one way or the other.

How many cars with Russian plates can be seen driving in Narva?

No more are being allowed to enter Estonia.

There are none left?

I have seen a few and wondered about what their business here is and how do they keep getting in. I know that the border guards are allowing Russian citizens to enter on humanitarian grounds and the like, even though they are not allowed to bring their cars.

Could Narva be sitting on a powder keg – could signals that we will confiscate cars with Russian plates or take away your right to vote eventually light the fuse?

I think that the people of Narva are largely unphased by the license plate ban as their cars have Estonian license plates complete with the EU flag.

And yet, Andrei Korobeinik (Center) felt it necessary to apologize to Russian citizens on behalf of the Republic of Estonia.

That was peculiar indeed. It was interesting to see the liberal wing of the Russian press [in Estonia] react so painfully. That we're your allies, while many of us drive cars with Russian plates, why are you putting pressure on us?

But is there an explosive situation taking shape?

I see no explosive situation or powder keg. Rather, there are concerns and perhaps uncertainty. Many who had clear ideological ideas involving Russia are still confused and anxious. Many have altered their views but are worried by looming changes, for example, in education.

While we may find enough teachers who speak Estonian, what are they to do in front of the class when no one can understand a word they're saying?

Estonia needs to do more in terms of explanation – how the education reform will happen gradually, what's the plan. Having children who study in Russian today switch to Estonian overnight is simply not going to work. We need to explain, talk and elaborate, while Narva also needs to be willing to listen.

It needs to face Estonia, which has become somewhat of a cliche now. It is not just that the Estonian government, state and people need to understand Narva, the city must also understand Estonia, what the country expects from it. Mutual understanding is achieved when both sides make the effort to understand. This never happened with the tank monument.

Did Raik fail at having Narva turn its countenance toward Estonia

I rather think she managed it. I do not know to what extent she is responsible for the change in Narva over the last couple of years, while she has played an important role as a mediator – bringing more Estonia to Narva and more Narva to Estonia.

Two years is a very short time in which to achieve meaningful change after 30 years of internalization and confrontation with the central government.

We are seeing perhaps the most serious attempt at switching to teaching in Estonian of the re-independence period. This topic was virtually frozen when the Center Party was part of the government. It was holding back the transition. Might it have been a conscious attempt at keeping their Russian-speaking voters isolated in terms of language and culture to make sure those votes don't go wandering off?

Their actions on the local level have given reason to believe this is a conscious activity – to keep the Estonian language out of schools, to not demonstrate enthusiasm for developing education in Estonian. It makes it easier to manipulate the community – it is easier to sell people half-truths and misinterpretations if they do not speak Estonian, and cannot navigate Estonian information space.

This in turn makes it possible to keep up the confrontation with the government – they are the enemy and we will protect you from them. That is how it has been for years.

There used to be election slogans in Narva and Kohtla-Järve where Center politicians promised to defend Russian education.

It amounts to doing your voters a disservice – they are artificially maintaining a barrier keeping people from better education and jobs.

But if power is your only goal, other things become second or even third-rate.

Young doctors spoke up last week, saying that they do not want to work as family doctors – they have spent a decade learning everything there is to know about the human body, while half their patients cannot understand the Estonian word for pain (valu) and expect service in Russian. And yet, the latter may easily include people who have lived in Estonia all their lives.

Yes, it is a problem. It's an unofficial issue in Ida-Viru County that you cannot effectively work as a doctor or police officer if you do not speak Russian. How will you help the person, even just offer them emergency services?

The police sometimes make sure at least one officer in a patrol speaks Russian.

The shortage of doctors is a general problem in Ida-Viru County, while finding bilingual doctors is even harder. I have no solutions to offer. For a time, doctors were brought in from Ukraine, Moldova and Russia. They did not speak Estonian at first but were obligated to learn the language by a certain date. I know Ukrainian doctors who have learned Estonian in a relatively short time because their motivation was that high.

It's a shame those who live in this country lack that motivation. Why is that?

One thing is the simple fact that if you live in a Russian-speaking community where you can take care of all your needs in Russian, you just don't need Estonian. People ask why should they learn the language or where might they practice it without an Estonian language environment.

Secondly, I'm not sure Estonia has done enough to explain how the fact affects their children's future, and their chances of getting into Estonian universities. Many young people used to go to university in Russia because they couldn't get into Estonian ones.

Why do Russian families still put their kids in Russian schools?

I would say that the trend is very much for putting your kids in Estonian schools, [the Estonian] language environment. Rather, it has been an irritation for Estonian parents who fear their kids will find themselves in an environment where Russian is heard more often than Estonian.

Estonian is a minority language in Narva.

It is indeed.

There are still parents in Tallinn who speak Estonian but prefer to have their children attend first grade in a Russian school.

I cannot see such a trend. People are very different. I have seen a parent drive around with a Ribbon of St. George on their car and still take their kid to an Estonian kindergarten. There are all sorts.

I think it is clear that parents have understood that their children need to know Estonian, at least in Ida-Viru County.

Do the state high schools in Narva have competent teaching staff?

Yes, I believe so. If not 100 percent, then definitely for the most part. A lot of effort has gone into making sure of that.

Is it possible to turn Narva back into an Estonian city?

But Narva is an Estonian city.

But a thoroughly Estonian-speaking one, where you could get by with speaking Estonian at the shops and where young people would want to speak Estonian among themselves?

By the way, come to think of it, I have done just fine speaking Estonian in the shops in Narva in recent years.

Another thing that baffled me was when an announcement was made in Estonian in a major Narva supermarket where all employees spoke Russian as their first language.

So it is slowly happening.

I do not think the change is possible in a day or two, considering the situation 30 years ago when most Narva residents had probably never heard Estonian being spoken in their lives. The situation is very different today, including people's mentality and convictions.

While Narva has plotted a course for Estonia, as you suggest, the Center Party has a new chairman in Mihhail Kõlvart – is Center plotting a course toward the Russian-speaking part of the population?

They are experimenting as they want to be a popular party to the liking of both Estonians and Russians.

But we all remember Center under Edgar Savisaar where Estonians were sent one message and Russians another, which was largely behind the success of securing votes from both. We'll see whether this practice will return.

Estonians have never been staunch Center supporters if we look at voter profiles.

Indeed. Their rating is not that great [in the voter group], and I do not know how Kõlvart's election has affected it.

While there has been news of people leaving Center after the chairman election, I cannot tell you whether they want to become a purely Russian party or not.

Center has already elected Yana Toom to its board – the road to the hearts of Russian-speaking voters seems open.

Center lost a lot of ground among Russians, also in Ida-Viru County, when Jüri Ratas started talking about the need to fight corruption and how it should be taken very seriously in Ida-Viru.

Which brings us back to the context we were discussing earlier where a person who makes a municipality council in Ida-Viru County feels they are entitled to certain privileges.

It is not the case everywhere and for everyone, but the attitude is tangible.

On the other hand, might it be good news that Mihhail Kõlvart was elected to head Center as it might help to marginalize the Koos Movement and the United Left Party that's trying to find its footing. That perhaps Center will succeed in engaging certain voters and pull support away from more radical forces?

I think it is good news that a Russian speaker has been elected to lead the largest political party in Estonia. It shows that democracy is alive and well in Estonia. Most members supported him – here is your chance to run the party and become prime minister if you can pull it off.

I dare not say whether Kõlvart is leaning more toward Russians or Estonians, while I'm sure he would like to unite them.

He even joined the Defense League.

Yes. So he seems to making the effort, at least on the surface, of coming across as a leader transcending nationalities. But we'll see whether he can keep a Byzantian style of management from returning to larger cities in Ida-Viru County, much as the situation was for 30 years – whether he realizes it is wrong and what he'll do to change things.

Why are Russian voters so partial to left-wing parties and politicians? Why is it so difficult for them to let go of an idea that never worked?

EKRE (Conservative People's Party – ed.) have also found a place in the hearts of many Estonians.

It is a question of messages – simple and clear messages. They may sound a little exaggerated to our ears, but if we look across the border at what is happening in the Russian language space, which people in Estonia also tune in to – the rampant homophobia, discrimination of dissidents and badmouthing of Western values... It has an effect on people's worldviews and convictions.

Young people today are perhaps a little less malleable, especially if they speak Estonian and navigate different language spaces – Estonian, Russian and English – for a more integral overview of things and an ability to sift out the truth.

How many Russian-speaking residents of Ida-Viru County read the Russian issue of Põhjarannik, watch ETV+ or listen to Raadio 4. How many get their media from Estonia, and how many still rely on banned Russian networks?

I'm sure many of them continue to tune in to Russian networks, while I'm not sure they do it just so they can see Putin every day. A lot of people probably catch TV series and entertainment shows.

Those propaganda networks are put together very craftily – they're not all out propaganda. A pinch here or there before returning to entertainment. The sharp stuff is watered down to lure in the audience.

How many readers do you have among Ida-Viru Russians?

We have two publications in Russian. We have a newspaper that runs three times a week. By the way, it is the only traditional newspaper in Russian in Estonia. We also have a free issue that runs twice a month and is mailed directly. So we can cover a good part of local information.

Do they read and keep up with the information you provide?

I hope so as our readership figures are solid. It is another matter how much of it they accept or are influenced by. But they are receiving information.

We are not pursuing propaganda. We let people decide for themselves, giving them different kinds of information on what is happening.

What should be done to improve the general standard of living in Narva? So that banks would finance real estate loans in the area for developments to become possible in the first place. As put by Katri Raik, the problem with Narva is that it is located in Narva, to suggest that banks do not see the city as a viable location for home loans, which has caused housing in the area to become outdated. To give the Kreenholm manufactory a new lease on life and make sure the green transition does not cost more jobs than it brings.

If I had an answer to that, I would soon be the next prime minister.

But I think that Narva should be treated as Estonia's third largest city, instead of treating it as an orphan who gets a sympathetic pat on the back every now and then but is quickly written off as a lost cause whenever it slips up.

In truth, Narva is a normal and rather exciting city. A lot of interesting things take place here, especially in recent years. It has an active, progressive and patriotic community that wants to see the city develop, which is evidenced in the 4,500 votes cast for Katri Raik at the last elections.

Merilin Pärli and Erik Kalda. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


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