Opinion: Poster campaign non-story in itself, but could prove watershed

Kristina Kallas (Estonia 200) has had a busy week, but not an aimless one. Her and her party's actions may bear fruit yet.
Kristina Kallas (Estonia 200) has had a busy week, but not an aimless one. Her and her party's actions may bear fruit yet. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

This week's headlines have been dominated by a poster campaign supposed to highlight the ongoing divided society existing in Estonia, ie the split between Estonians and the Russian-speaking minority. This has been something of a storm in an eggcup, however, and won't make much of an impact on polling day in March, assuming that was even its intention.

The party behind the ads, which appeared on hoardings at a busy tram stop in central Tallinn, Estonia 200, has been unapologetic in the aftermath of controversy which, by and large, it is right to have done. The party's leader, Kristina Kallas, in particular has been subject to scrutiny and has not backed down on the necessity of the posters, which evoked a putative apartheid or pre-civil rights era American South-style segregation, proclaiming ''only Estonians here'' and ''only Russians here'' (in both Estonian and Russian languages).

The offending posters (all the major political parties pursue a frenetic outdoor campaigning period, which under electoral law has to stop around six weeks before the elections, ie. in late January) were swiftly taken down, with Ms Kallas appearing in several media outlets, including ETV's current affairs show Ringvaade, to explain herself and the party's actions. Her main defence has been that the issue is a serious one which has been unresolved and yet which no other party currently seems to want to tackle. Moreover, she says, the posters were cleared by Tallinn city government and thus did not infringe any electoral advertising laws.

Age-old question

Leaving aside the city government's role in this, Ms Kallas is right about one thing at least. The issue is a major one, which has not gone away. Writer Anatol Lieven even went as far as calling the ''Russian'' minority dangerous, back in the mid-90s (he was talking about the Baltics, including the Kaliningrad exclave where they are of course the overwhelming majority). Moreover, it needs to be addressed at elections as much as the rest of the time. This, Estonia's oldest problem, pre-dates the much more recent migration ''crisis'' literally by decades, arguably by centuries, and involves significantly far higher numbers of people. Many people relocated to Estonia under the EU's migration location plan, and other schemes, have left the country already. The numbers in the first place were pretty negligible even in proportion to Estonia's population size, as in, measurable in hundreds. Compare that with Estonia's ''Russian'' population, which, measurable in the hundreds of thousands, has consistently made up just under 25% of the population of the country over the past couple of decades, and close to 50% of Tallinn (before we factor in Russian tourism, which oscillates wildly but can bring huge numbers of Russian speakers to Tallinn at times).

This is of course before we even get to the timing, reasons for and manner of the arrival of the bulk of Estonia's (and Latvia's) ''Russian'' population, or at least their antecedents.

The divided society and the position of the Russian minority here explains so much about why Estonian society is as it is at present. On the question of whether Ms Kallas was guilty of whipping up a controversy for controversy's sake, or unnecessarily rocking the boat, it is harder to apportion culpability. She says noone else was doing it (which is true, given the new, slimmed-down Centre Party, traditionally the go-to party for the Russian vote but now consolidating its standing as an authentically ''Estonian'' party) and therefore Estonia 200 ''had no choice'', as she puts it.

Backlash is the real boat-rocking

More than that, the backlash has been the real overreaction, more than the initial campaign. The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) has been, and is being, far more provocative with slogans such as ''a secure Estonia'' but has not been called out for it to the same degree. I was critical of Ms Kallas' handling of EKRE in a previous piece; on this issue she is much more on the money.

There are two curious phenomena at play here, to my mind. One is the self-referential, almost obsessive raking over of what it is to be Estonian vis-a-vis ''the others'', and the place of the latter here. This is no doubt the lot of smaller countries, and/or those which are divided along lines of one description or another – northern Irish society and media displays a very similar tendency. This has even percolated its way into the, very much smaller, far more heterogenous minority which I am plugged into, the expats of non-Russian, non-former Soviet bloc origin.* Indeed, my attention was drawn to this first on a social media group made up of a combination of expats and of Estonians who like to police what the former do online (that's a topic for another piece).

The same kind of navel-gazing ran amok, as outrage turned first from a knee-jerk reaction to the poster campaign being all about them, ie. the overly sensitive expats, being told ''only Estonians here'', to an almost equally shrill disbelief that the controversy, revolving as it did around the Russian minority, was not all about them after all. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking it was nothing to do with the Russian population at all; dissenting voices from this have been notably absent in Estonia itself, though it has inevitably gifted Russian propaganda channels in the Federation itself with hours and hours' worth of material.

The other, even more intriguing characteristic brought to the fore in all this is the ''don't rock the boat'' mentality. Under this mind set, annoying doing something controversial is not being ''nice'', and one ought to do something ''more calmly''. This latter charge has certainly been put to Kristina Kallas (as on a micro-scale, it has been to me, a couple of times I've dared to raise my voice in opposition to something).

This has the effect, even if not the intention, of shutting down debate, almost of a sort of dumbing down but at the same time it's never very obvious where the arbiters of what might be going a bit too far get derive their authority from. It can even come across as being rather haughty and patronising, and in any case isn't applied consistently – an Isamaa/Pro Patria MP, Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits, herself a Russian-Estonian for instance, likened the Estonia 200 poster campaign to drawing attention to domestic violence by physically striking a woman, to make the point. This is way over the top, not to mention in rather poor taste (domestic violence is a serious blight on Estonian society), but in any case demonstrates that the boat-rocking is done every bit as much, or more, by those making the accusation.

At the time of writing, Irene Käosaar, director of the Integration Foundation, which aims at Estonian-Russian integration, was one Estonia 200 member who fell on her sword, quitting the party after the episode. Whose advice she was taking, why she waited a couple of days to resign and what the point of the gesture was, again, is not clear.

Katri Raik's (SDE) invoking of Godwin's law I'm not even going to dignify with column inches.**

Marketing stunts not necessarily bad thing

Are the posters attention seeking, an electioneering marketing stunt? Probably, but again the party is not alone in this, is not the worst offender and probably won't gain (or lose) significant numbers of votes nationally. Kristina Kallas must have predicted some sort of reaction, misjudging more the scale, than the fact of it.

As I've already stated, a largely absent clear voice in the general babble seems to be what ethnic Russians themselves think about the campaign and the issue. Most of the controversy has been in and amongst Estonians, and again as noted, expats, though this may simply be my perception moving in the circles I do (I do not speak, still less read, Russian very well). Even if they have been a silent as I think, there are serious implications here too. First, the episode highlights the Tallinn-centric nature of society, the media, and the political scene; the poster campaign was not a nationwide one.

Regional politics are not strong here, however, and outside of Tallinn, tension between the two national groups is not the same, since the proportions are seldom 50:50 and in absolute terms the numbers are much smaller. The two societies have a symbiotic relationship in Tallinn, in other words, and need to communicate in day-to-day living, business, work, education and many other areas.

Only one other Estonian town is over 100,000-strong (Tartu) and it, and many of the other settlements, small and large, is overwhelmingly Estonian. The major exception is in Ida-Viru County towns, where the proportions are reversed in favour of Russians, and a handful of other, formerly industrial places dotted around.

Online communication is considerably more ghetto-ised than even this, so it's really only on the streets of Tallinn where Estonian speakers and Russian speakers interface with each other a lot.

More important, and this really is a problem, it reminds us of the lack of a ''Russian'' political party nowadays. Whereas once Centre was the obvious pick, and still has a residual Russian-based support which it is hardly likely to intentionally alienate, this has been ebbing somewhat, most notably on Narva city council where Centre was forced to get rid of councillors wholesale following a corruption scandal.

What we don't want is the ''Latvianisation'' of Estonian politics, with multiple ''Russian'' parties taking the field. The only real alternative is for mainstream parties to become more accommodating to the minority even as the latter doesn't want to play ball, and behaves irresponsibly, sometimes even immaturely. Perhaps Estonia 200 is on the brink of a move towards that, either alone or with other parties. If so, the birth could hardly have been more complicated.


*Though the categories are not clearly defined. A lot of younger people from, say, Latvia, Lithuania or the Czech Republic are to be found in these expat circles.

**An internet adage asserting that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches''.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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