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Estonia reaches out to its very own Russians at long last

Estonia's large Russian-speaking minority has long felt marginalized by Tallinn politicians, but as the country celebrates its centenary, change appears to be afoot. Isabelle de Pommereau reports from Narva.

On Wednesday Marina Kossolapova felt doubly honored. That day Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid awarded the school choir director a prestigious medal to honor her contribution to Estonian culture. And the president came to her, to her town, a neglected Russian enclave on Estonia's eastern border with Russia. 

"But this attention should have come a long time ago," says Kossolapova. Originally from Chelyabinsk, close to the Ural Mountains, she's among Estonia's estimated 300,000 Russian speakers, most of whom were brought in from the USSR's four corners in Soviet times. 

Marina Kossolapova

Choir leader Marina Kossolapova received a medal of honor from the Estonian president at home in Narva

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, Russian speakers felt like second-class citizens. They had lost their identity overnight when the Soviet citizens became the resented "occupiers."

Independent Estonia took a hard line on them, granting citizenship only to those who lived in Estonia before 1940 — that is practically no one — and making the passing of a difficult language test a condition for becoming Estonian.

Read more: Baltics battle Russia in online disinformation war

How to give Russian speakers a better place in society became a thorn in Estonia's side. And it took on national security significance after Russia's annexation of Crimea raised fears about the Kremlin using its strong media apparatus to divide loyalties among Russian speakers and threaten national cohesion.

In that context, President Kaljulaid's visit, on the eve of Estonia's 100th birthday on Saturday, marks a "huge symbolic milestone," says Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn. "It shows that Estonia truly treats Narva as part of Estonia and the inhabitants of Narva as part of the Estonian people." 

"The Ukraine conflict acted as a wake-up call," says Raik. It helped focus the nation's attention on the issue of Russian speakers' loyalty, says Raik. "Do they feel at home here? Do they feel loyal to the Estonian state?"

Read more: NATO in Baltics learns from Ukraine's mistakes

Making Russian communities better

From the banks of the Narva River one can see the Russian flag waving from Ivangorod, a medieval fortress across the water. From there it's only 135 kilometers (84 miles) to St. Petersburg.

Narva, on the dividing line between the European Union and the Russian Federation, is a place where conflicting visions of history — and the world — still play out. Narva residents feel the Soviet army "liberated" Estonia from Nazi Germany in 1944, but Estonians say it began a long painful occupation. Narva politicians say the new NATO presence in the Baltic States has created unnecessary tension with Russia.

"But when I hear shots and military exercise across the river, I feel safer with NATO," says Katri Raik, director of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences [no relation to Kersti Raik]. The academy is based in Tallinn but set to open a new military cadet training facility in Narva later this year.

Hermann Castle (left) in Narva, Estonia, and Ivangorod (right), a fortress across the Narva River in Russia

Narva and its Hermann Castle (left), across the river from Russia's Ivangorod fortress (right), is set on the edge of the EU

Here, people tend to watch Russian television. And many admire Vladimir Putin. But moving across the Narva River, where the streets are potholed and corruption is rampant, is not an option, locals say.

Read more: Baltics offer 'budget' route into European Union

Ivan Sergejev, who recently returned to his native Narva from New York to become its city architect, says that what's needed in Narva is to "create a climate where people feel welcome to live and to be more involved in the nonprofit sector." Complaining about the lack of cultural venues and nonprofit activity, Sergejev spearheaded a move to turn Narva's many vacant factories into creative industry hubs.

There are signs of that taking off. Allan Kaldoja, for example, is replicating in Narva a theater model he initiated in Tallinn, where he turned a vacant Soviet factory into a successful theater venue called Vaba Laba. "Mr. Putin helped us by attacking Ukraine, because politicians started saying, 'Oh yes, we have Narva — we have to do something about Narva!'" Kaldoja says. "Before that nobody really cared."

Narva's own Vaba Laba theater, now under construction, is slated to house theater groups from Petersburg and Moscow as well as after-school theater workshops for local children. The offices of the Estonian Integration Foundation, an agency that promotes learning the language, is due to move to Narva at the end of the year, officials say. A new arts residency program at the old Kreenholm factory has brought local people and artists together and injected life into a depressed neighborhood.

Russian- and Estonian- speakers meet at a 'language coffee' in Sillamae, Estonia

On a recent Saturday morning, locals in the town of Sillamae met to speak in Estonian with a retired Estonian schoolteacher

The Estonian president, too, has thrown her weight around in Narva. In January she said she'd move her offices here for one month in 2018, and she helped launch Narva's bid to be nominated European Capital of Culture when it is Estonia's turn to receive the honor in 2024.

Read more: Estonia buoys cyber security with world's first data embassy

"A process has begun: The people of Narva have found themselves as a community, and the people of Tallinn want to help the people of Narva function as a community like everyone else in Estonia does," Kaljulaid said.

The attention "has been really inspiring for the community," says Aleksandr Openko, the assistant principal of a Russian-speaking school here. That motivated him to attend the independence ceremonies with a big group of pupils on Saturday. Only years ago, barely anybody bothered to attend, he said. "It's like the changing of the guard," he says.

A new voice for Russian speakers

Until recently Estonia was ruled by the center-right Reform Party. Reform politicians made Estonia the first former Soviet state to join the eurozone in 2011 but implemented austerity measures that hit Russian speakers particularly hard. Feeling disenfranchised, most Russian speakers turned to the Center Party. But former leader and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar's ties with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party led other parties to rule out cooperating with it.

Zuleyxa Izmailova

Zuleyxa Izmailova says Estonians should stop using the 'Russian issue' to divide the nation.

Savisaar's recent ousting paved the way for new wind in the Center Party, which saw Juri Ratas become the first Center Party prime minister in the young country's history. Although Ratas pledged to ease citizenship rules and invest in the depressed border region's economy, he reaffirmed Estonia's commitment to the EU and NATO.

"For years at every election, Reform politicians came up with the same stories: 'There are Russians and there are Estonians: If you are Estonians, you should vote for us; everything coming from the east side is bad,'" says Zuleyxa Izmailova, chair of Estonia's Green Party and Tallinn's deputy mayor. "We're too small a country for us to be divided into smaller communities.

Language bridge

"What Narva — and Estonia — need are bridges," says Anna-Olga Luga, a Russian-speaker from Sillamae, a former closed town on the Gulf of Finland near Narva where the Soviet regime worked on the atomic bomb.

Years ago as a student she saw how difficult it is for Russian speakers to learn Estonian. Taking things in her own hands, she set up "language coffees" at the local library. On a recent Saturday morning, a retired Estonian schoolteacher who'd heard about Luga's initiative on the radio came to chat with locals in Estonian.

Luga felt like a lonely warrior for a long time. But the new venues being created in Narva give her hope that there will be real bridges connecting Estonia's residents — its Russian and Estonian speakers.

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