''Is Estonia a racist place?'' is a question which has been repeatedly raised on expat online forums recently, with claims arising that this is indeed the case in the apartment rental market and expats living in Estonia often reporting getting rejected by a potential landlord/lady. Those commenting sometimes state their belief that this rejection is due to the colour of their skin. A recent piece on online magazine Estonian World condensed some of these reported experiences. But comments sections often generate more heat than light, so how do we go about sifting the facts from the feelings?
Here, Wouter De Tavernier brings balance and clarity to the issue, from an almost uniquely qualified perspective, being as he is both an academic researcher working on discrimination issues, and an apartment owner and landlord in Tallinn, and makes good use of concrete data, suggesting ways we can all move forward, Estonians and non-Estonians, landlords and tenants alike.
A hot topic
Few debates in the expat community in Estonia get so heated as those about discrimination and racism in the Estonian apartment rental market. Many 'non-Western' foreigners in particular feel dismissed by landlords all to easily when they express their interest in an apartment.
Others argue on the contrary that it is difficult for anyone, regardless of their origins, ethnicity or religious affiliation, to find appropriate accommodation in Tallinn, or take offence at the suggestion that racism might indeed be deeply entrenched in Estonian society. The result is very often a dialogue of the deaf, not bringing us any closer to an adequate understanding of the problem, let alone a solution. From my position both as a researcher working on issues of discrimination and being a landlord of an apartment in Tallinn myself, I hope to be able to share some insights that can bring both positions closer together and work towards a solution.
Discrimination and perception
Discrimination and racism are serious accusations, and very tricky ones to make for a very simple reason: usually, discrimination is not objectively observable. Unless someone explicitly states that they will not let their accommodation to, say, Muslims, it is not possible to know for certain whether or not you have been discriminated against.
Discrimination and perception of discrimination are two very different things. Sometimes people think they have been discriminated against in situations where they were not; other times people have been the victim of discrimination without even noticing it. Without a 'smoking gun' or case of blatant racism, it is impossible to assess discrimination in individual cases. This explains why it is so difficult to prove discrimination in court and why so few cases go to court in comparison to the high levels of prevalence of discrimination found in scientific studies.
Unlike the courts, these studies assess discrimination at a higher level: Society as a whole. You cannot say that an individual being denied an apartment is unequivocally the result of racism, but by using experiments you can analyse if, for instance, a person with an Arab-sounding name is less likely to get a positive response to an application than a person with a Western European-sounding name.
Discrimination trigger bingo
This does not mean that discrimination does not exist in looking for accommodation. It is rather safe to assume that, indeed, it does. And since several characteristics of the rental market in Tallinn are known triggers of discrimination, an educated guess would be that discrimination comparatively is rather substantial. Going though the list of causes of discrimination, the rental market in Tallinn appears as a 'discrimination trigger bingo'.
First, any kind of application process is vulnerable to discrimination. Discrimination largely happens when dealing with people one does not know. This gap in knowledge about the individual tends to be filled in with stereotypes, personal preconceptions and ideas about how the group the individual belongs to is believed to be in practice.
Studies assessing discrimination in hiring processes, for instance, find that several types of discrimination are rampant in response to application letters, but that once an individual is invited for a job interview, discrimination drops drastically. At that point, one has enough information about the individual to no longer have to rely on stereotypes to make an assessment.
Furthermore a second argument applies to rental markets in general. In many instances it is rational for a landlord to prefer native over foreign renters, leading to what is called 'statistical discrimination'. It is easier for non-nationals, and especially non-EU-citizens, to disappear in cases of conflict about unpaid rent or damage, meaning that there is a higher financial risk involved in letting accommodation to foreigners.
Moreover, since it is a rather tedious process to get new renters, landlords tend to prefer individuals who would stay for a longer period. Since expats and international students are not known for their stationary lifestyle, natives would naturally be preferred tenants simply from a practical perspective.
This is connected to a third trigger: The current tightness of the rental market in Tallinn. When we are looking for new tenants, we easily receive as many as 20 expressions of interest within just a few hours after putting the advert for the apartment online.
Given this abundance of potential tenants to choose from, it makes a lot of sense for a landlord to make a 'secure' pick. I would assume that elsewhere in Estonia, where demand for rental accommodation is not as high, discrimination would be much less prevalent.
Discrimination is not only linked to stereotypes, but also to prejudice. Whereas the former refers to (supposed) knowledge about certain social groups, the latter is of a more emotional nature: it refers to feelings about other social groups. Logically, we are more likely to discriminate against individuals belonging to social groups we have negative feelings towards.
A quick look at some data from a Eurobarometer survey below, with Estonia's score in red, collected in October 2017, shows us that Estonia can be found at the mid-point of Europe in terms of both to what extent respondents feel comfortable with immigrants and to what extent they have interaction with immigrants, significantly ahead of most other post-communist states (neighbouring Latvia falling close to Estonia in the survey) and even ahead of a couple of western European states.
Respondents feel 'comfortable' with immigrants. Source: Eurobarometer.
Respondents interact with immigrants. Source: Eurobarometer.
Finally, one of the most consistent findings in the scientific literature is that contact, and more precisely positive contact experiences, reduces stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination towards specific social groups. When 'the other' becomes less unknown, when we learn that we have no reason to fear them; when we see that they are not as different from us as we had thought, we are more likely to treat them as equals. From the Eurobarometer data, we can see a sharp East-West divide in terms of contact with immigrants. In terms of interaction with immigrants, Estonia confirms its aspiration as 'leader of the pack' of post-communist states, having caught up with the tail-end of the West, on this topic consisting of Germany and Finland.
A way forward
It seems reasonable to conclude from this data that Estonians are not exceptionally racist, but also that there still is a long way to go. Individual attitudes and ideas do not change overnight, but there are a few possible ways to push the issue forward or work around it. When witnessing open discrimination, we should call people out on their actions and make clear that this is not acceptable, and if need be file a complaint at the Estonian Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner (www.volinik.ee).
We cannot control the situation of the Tallinn rental market of course, but we could look for ways to reduce a landlord's risk in taking foreign tenants. Political action might include setting up a guarantee fund; individual expats could try to find someone who is willing to guarantee the lease. And when applying for accommodation, potential renters could try to seek personal contact in order to avoid stereotypes being applied to them as a result of a lack of information. In the meanwhile, we as expats can all do our bit to reduce discrimination by taking responsibility for our actions and giving Estonians these positive contact experiences as well.
Wouter De Tavernier is a postdoctoral researcher, working for the Centre for Comparative Welfare Studies, Aalborg University (Denmark). He is from Belgium, is married to an Estonian and has been living in Tallinn part-time for the last five years.
Editor: Andrew Whyte