Estonia fights back against pro-Russia messaging
TALLINN — The future security of Estonia could in part depend on how convincing people like Igor Kalakauskas can be.
Kalakauskas, a Russian-speaking history teacher from the capital Tallinn, is several years into an intermittent media push to convince his fellow Estonian Russophones to get behind their own democratically elected government and reject the overtures of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In petitions and editorials, Kalakauskas has called Putin a “monster” whose brutal invasions of Ukraine have cost thousands of lives since 2014.
Estonia is a member of NATO, but the country’s civilian and military leadership remains concerned that Russia could launch an attack, possibly under the cover of “defending” the interests of the 300,000 Russian speakers who live in the Baltic state of 1.3 million.
Kalakauskas is a fairly rare example of a Russian speaker in Estonia prepared to speak out in public against Putin and his claims that a “nazi” regime in Kyiv must be toppled. Kalakauskas fears that such rhetoric could be easily repurposed to justify aggression against Estonia.
“The events in Ukraine have shown that the darkest scenarios cannot be ruled out,” Kalakauskas said.
But Kalakauskas is facing a challenge to convince his target audience.
Since Moscow began its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has saturated state-backed Russian-language television news broadcasts — widely available in Estonia — with anti-Ukraine propaganda, and its effects are visible.
In a recent discussion on a popular Facebook group called Tallintsi, which loosely translates as Tallinn Residents, a member called the frontline Ukrainian town of Sumi “a nest of fascists.” Another said Ukrainian refugees should be sent home.
In the mainly Russian-speaking Estonian town of Kohtla-Järve, local media reported last week that a group of schoolchildren had cut Zs — a rallying symbol for Russian troops in Ukraine — into their hair.
“Among the Russian-speaking inhabitants of our country there are those who believe Putin,” Kalakauskas said. “Some consider the aggression which has been unleashed in Ukraine as an act of justice.”
For Estonia’s government, damage done to societal cohesion by pro-Kremlin messaging targeting Russian speakers could have security implications, experts say.
“Societal cohesion is one of the prerequisites for a nation to be resilient, so it is not enough to have a lot of military power — like NATO allies in your country — society must also be cohesive to be resilient during a crisis,” said Dmitri Teperik, chief executive of the Tallinn-based think tank the International Centre for Defence and Security.
Teperik said his research suggested that Russian-speaking Estonians have fragmented into three groups following the outbreak of full-scale war in Ukraine: a small pro-Ukraine group, a small pro-Kremlin group, and a larger group that is reluctant to take a position, preferring to see the conflict as “not our war.”
The pro-Ukraine and pro-Kremlin groups are currently trying to win over the group in the middle, Teperik said.
“Now we can see a battle over hearts and minds,” he said.
The Estonian government is also an active player in the battle to control the narrative. In 2015, it launched ETV+, a popular Russian-language competitor to Moscow-backed television stations. A day after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, Estonia banned four Russian stations and a Belarusian outlet. Last week, the Estonian foreign ministry expelled three staff from the Russian embassy for “undermining Estonia’s security and spreading propaganda justifying Russia’s military action.”
The debate over the war in Ukraine is part of a larger discussion over national allegiances that has ebbed and flowed in Estonia in recent decades, as it has in Baltic neighbor Latvia, another EU and NATO member where a Russian-speaking minority makes up around 25 percent of the population.
During the Soviet period, hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers were moved to the two Baltic states as part of an effort by Moscow to “Russify” the region.
After regaining independence in 1991, Estonia sought to strengthen its ethnic Estonian national identity by making knowledge of the Estonian language a requirement for citizenship.
Around 76,000 of those who didn’t qualify for Estonian citizenship — or chose not to take it — still have no official citizenship today, while around 80,000 Estonian residents have taken Russian citizenship.
Over recent years, Russia has sought to strengthen ties with Estonia’s Russian speakers, based on what it calls its “compatriots” policy. Under the auspices of foundations such as Russkiy Mir, or Russian World, the Kremlin has pushed cultural links with Russian speakers abroad, but also made vague promises to intervene, possibly militarily, to protect their rights.
“Compatriots living abroad have the right to rely on the support of the Russian Federation in exercising their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights and preserving their identity,” the Russian government said in a 1999 policy document.
Russian speakers in Estonia often complain that they are marginalized and call on the Tallinn government to strengthen the position of the Russian language in society and support Russian language education. Russian media often amplify these claims.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas visited the largely Russian-speaking eastern border town of Narva and pledged to increase funding for roads and schools.
On the streets of Tallinn, many Russian speakers were reluctant to talk about the war in Ukraine for fear of reprisals against family and friends in Russia. But many seemed opposed to the conflict.
One woman buying a picture frame in the heavily Russian-speaking suburb of Lasnamae called the war “just awful.” She said she blamed Putin and called for an immediate cease-fire.
Outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn’s Old Town, scores of anti-war posters were pinned to a fence. Several were in Russian.
“I am not ashamed to be Russian but I am ashamed that one of us, the abomination Putin, is murdering in the name of Russkiy Mir,” one said.
Another said simply “No to war” — the slogan of the anti-war movement in Russia.
For his part, history teacher Kalakauskas continues to push his anti-Moscow, pro-Tallinn message and this week sent in a new draft editorial to a Russian language news site.
“I can’t shake the feeling that a significant number of my compatriots are not yet able to assess the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Europe,” says the first line of the draft.