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Europe

For Estonia, EU Membership Isn't the only Identity Crisis

For Estonia and its Russian minority, the upcoming vote on EU membership is the latest stop on a long road of intercultural conflict. But right now, all ethnic groups are facing hardships.

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Will there be dancing in Estonia after the vote on EU membership?

About a third of Estonia's population is made up of Russian speakers, whose parents or grandparents came to the small Baltic state as migrant workers or students.

Yet since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonian nationals and the Russian-speaking minority have been at odds. Following its independence from the Soviet Union 12 years ago, there has been heated debate in Estonia over whether Russian speakers should get citizenship -- and especially over the demand that, in order to do so, they needed speak Estonian.

Social woes

Yet today, with the unemployment rate soaring at aproximately 10 percent and average monthly income of around €400 ($445), Estonians of all ethnic groups are affected by issues such as poverty and joblessness.

In the beginnning of the 1990s, many native Estonians "hoped most Russians would leave Estonia," parliamentarian Vladimir Vellmann told Deutsche Welle. He admitted that the idea was "naive ... now, most Estonians have come to accept that there is a large minority of people whose origins are Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian, etc. We have gotten used to one another."

Yet if you ask young or old Russian speakers in Estonia whether they feel they have equal rights in their country, they tend to say that the Estonians have it easier. When pressed for specifics, many say Estonians may have an easier time because of the language.

'It depends on the person'

Olga, an 18 year old who says she has no Estonian speaking friends or acquaintances, was born in the capital, Tallinn.

"I would say that Estonians have better opportunities. Its easier for them to have success in their own country," Olga said. Still, she conceded, "everything really depends on the person. If they try hard, and speak Estonian, maybe they have the same chances" as native Estonians.

According to parliamentarian Vellmann, whose own mother comes from Russia and whose father is Estonian, official discrimination no longer exists. "The best thing that Estonia has achieved is the complete disappearance of nationalism in daily life," he said.

It is critical that the country get rid of discrimination on a social level as well, Vellmann said. "If the state of Estonia is to survive, the newest generation of Estonians need to be raised as patriots," he said -- specifically, Estonian patriots in a European context.

"Estonia is simply too small to remain on its own," Vellmann said.

First Russians

Furthermore, an Estonian "yes" on EU membership would bring the first ethnic Russians into the European Union, Vellmann pointed out. "That could only be a benefit for Europe."

Opinion polls show more Estonians in favor of joining the European Union than against it, but the slim margin suggests a "yes" vote on referendum day is anything but certain.

Despite its enthusiastic hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2002, there is widespread skepticism about the benefits of EU membership. Many citizens of the formerly communist country suffered hardships in the transition to a market economy, and view EU membership as another painful transition.

Price increases and a loss of sovereignty are two reasons often cited by those who plan to vote against admission to the union.

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