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Friday, November 19, 2010

Emerging ethnic democracy in Estonia and Latvia

Emerging ethnic democracy in Estonia and Latvia

Published in: Magda Opalski, ed., Managing Diversity in Plural Societies: Minorities, Migration and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Europe, Ottawa: Forum Eastern Europe, 1998


Vello Pettai, Columbia University
Academic Center for Baltic & Russian Studies

Estonia /ɛsˈtoʊniə/ (·) (Estonian: Eesti), officially the Republic of Estonia (Estonian: Eesti Vabariik), is a country in Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia (343 km), and to the east by the Russian Federation (338.6 km). The territory of Estonia covers 45,227 km2 (17,462 sq mi) and is influenced by a temperate seasonal climate.
In the six years since independence was restored in the Baltic states, identifiable patterns of political development have begun to emerge. The adoption of new constitutions, the holding of repeated parliamentary elections, and the formation of stable political organizations are progressively institutionalizing modes of political interaction in the three states. With a significant period of time now passed since the restoration of independent statehood, it is the task of social and political scientists to begin to investigate these patterns both in their origins and details, as well as from a comparative perspective to illuminate their significance.

The choice here of ethnic democracy as a characterization of the Estonian and Latvian political systems is a provocative one. There are many, for example, who would challenge the use of "ethnic" as a modifier. They would say that there is only parliamentary democracy in both countries. There are others, meanwhile, who would question the term "democracy". Their argument is that the disenfranchisement of over a million mostly Russian-speaking residents in both countries smacks more of exclusionary ethnocracy than real democracy. The mystery of post-independence politics in Estonia and Latvia is that both sides are right.

The concept of ethnic democracy is not new. Its geneology goes back as far as Juan Linz’s classic typology of regimes. Since then it has been applied to numerous other cases, most notably Israel and Malaysia. Finally, it has also already been discussed in the context of Estonia and Latvia with some limited results. This chapter will therefore seek to pull together these divergent strands, while analyzing more in depth the implications and dynamics of such a regime. The main thesis will be that while ethnic democracy seems highly anomalous, precarious, and controversial as a political regime, its prospects for survival in these two countries have stabilized appreciably since the regimes’ most tense period of institutionalization in the early 1990s. The ethnopolitical structure of these two countries was dramatically altered by the adoption of restrictive citizenship laws and the severe skewing of political participation toward the Estonian and Latvian communities. This policy was intended, moreover, to re-establish a core degree of Estonian and Latvian nation-statehood in these republics despite the large mostly-Russian minority communities which had developed during the Soviet era. However, as I will seek to show in this chapter, the structures of ethnic democracy in these societies themselves have so far proven sufficiently effective in molding current and future ethnopolitical trends that little change or instability may in fact be anticipated.

The Estonians are a Finnic people, with the Estonian language exhibiting many similarities to Finnish. The modern name of Estonia is thought to originate from the Roman historian Tacitus, who in his book Germania (ca. 98 CE) described a people called the Aestii. Similarly, ancient Scandinavian sagas refer to a land called Eistland, close to the Danish, German, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian term Estland for the country. Early Latin and other ancient versions of the name are Estia and Hestia. Esthonia was a common alternate English spelling prior to independence.
The chapter is divided into five parts. First, I will discuss the conceptual background behind the term "ethnic democracy". In addition to reviewing the existing literature on the topic, I will analyze in particular Graham Smith’s use of ethnic democracy in relation to Estonia and Latvia and point to some further specifications that are needed. Secondly, and more specifically, I will argue that in order to understand the applicability of the term "ethnic democracy", it is necessary first to describe the full context in which Estonia, Latvia and their ethnic politics must be viewed. Drawing on the work of Rogers Brubaker, I will begin by stressing the broad pressures for nation-building and preferential ethnic policies which arose in all of the former republics of the USSR before and after independence. Taking this into account, Estonia and Latvia, in their nationalist aspirations and policy goals, were and are no different from other states. In the midst of these states, however, Estonia and Latvia are unique in the far-reaching success that their ethnic policies have had. Thus the sea change in ethnic politics that these two countries have experienced in the space of six years has been sufficiently striking as to warrant special classification.

Third, I will offer an analysis of the consequences of this ethnopolitical shift and its initial perturbations in 1992-94. The institutionalization of ethnic democracy in Estonia and Latvia through exclusionary citizenship laws included its share of crises and tense moments. However, by 1997 the regimes had settled into a period of stabilization, which, even though this stability posed problems of its own, represented nevertheless a different array of challenges than whether the two regimes would survive or not. In contrast to some other theorists of ethnic democracy , I will argue that in the Estonian and Latvian cases there was no necessarily inevitable confrontation ahead between the subordinated Russian minorities and the dominant Estonian and Latvian majorities. To be sure, the situation was not about to be fully re-equilibrated by a dramatic improvement in the ethnopolitical status of Russians in the two republics; however, neither did the two societies face an immediate political breakdown as a result of open Russian resistance or further Estonian/Latvian nationalism. Instead, Estonia and Latvia faced a different dichotomy involving potential stagnation over time. On the one hand, the opportunities created for the non-citizen popuations to learn Estonian or Latvian and become naturalized citizens were intended quite genuinely by the two states to integrate these excluded groups into the new Estonian and Latvian societies and thus slowly normalize the initial ethnopolitical distortions. On the other hand, the slow pace of this integration through 1997 meant that in reality little if anything would change in terms of ethnopolitical relations until well into the next century. While the mechanisms for improving the skewed political regimes were in place, their effect in the short term would be sluggish at best, meaning that Estonian and Latvian ethnopolitical dominance would continue largely unhindered.

Fourth, I will address briefly the non-citizen or Soviet-era immigrant populations themselves. The identities of these people both as individuals and as a corporate group were influenced heavily by the Soviet system. Again relying on Rogers Brubaker, one can see the clear obstacles which they face in adapting to ethnic minority status in Estonia and Latvia. Yet, recent survey data in both countries reveal that on a psychological level, a significant amount of change has already taken place.

Lastly, looking beyond the two countries themselves, the role of Russia and of the West must also be noted. Russia has so far played a disruptive role in the ethnopolitics of Estonia and Latvia. It has frequently come across as out-of-touch with the real situation on the ground and has, according to local non-citizen leaders, done greater disservice to these populations with its threats and accusations against Tallinn and Riga than it would have through a more reasoned policy. Western involvement has also been hamstrung by its obligation to recognize the right of Estonia and Latvia to implement their own citizenship laws and by a desire to see the speedy withdrawal of Russian troops from the area. Its concern for ethnic politics in both countries, however, has come through in numerous pronouncements and recommendations.

Ethnic Democracy

What is "ethnic democracy"?

To many ears, it may sound like an oxymoron. Oxymorons are combinations of two words, which, by virtue of their contradictory meanings, do not logically stand together. As such, oxymorons seem to make little analytical sense, much less have any conceptual value for something like social science. Yet precisely in the realm of politics, where individuals compete for the distribution of societal values, power, and resources, many strategems employed to secure these aims may indeed seek to wed the imposssible. "Ethnic democracy" as a concept and political system fits this bill. As a system of majoritarian political rule in multiethnic states, its aim is to effectively secure the values, power, and resources of a given society for one ethnic group. That is, in a context of significant multiethnicity, a particular political structure is put in place to guarantee disproportionate political (and perhaps other) dominance to one particular ethnic group (often the titular group). At the same time, ethnic democracy seeks to meld elements of participatory democracy with that domination, frequently as a reflection of the superordinate group’s own democratic values or history. There may be an entirely free and open political process, which however is restricted to or dominated by one ethnic group and which is largely meant to serve the ethnopolitical interests of that one group.

Ethnic democracy as a word combination found one of its first uses in Juan Linz’s famous typology of regimes. Linz used it to describe states such as South Africa or Rhodesia under apartheid. Given the explicitly racial bases of these regimes, one might well call these states ethnocracies. However, as Linz noted, the existence of broad participatory democracy among the ruling ethnic (white) groups did merit consideration in the analysis, for it was a particular nuance to the otherwise exclusionary situation. More recent theorizing about ethnic democracy has focused on the case of Israel and its apparently contradictory combination of democratic participation for all minorities together with an explicit designation of Israel as a purely Jewish nation-state. That is, while the country’s sizeable Arab minority (some 18% of the population) has broad rights to participate politically and has been native to the soil for centuries, no contestation has been permitted of the fundamental character of the state as for and in the name of the Jewish people. Thus, a limit to the system exists.

The tension in such systems is usually palpable. While formal democratic procedures may exist for all residents or citizens, there remains a dominant ethnic hierarchy of rule, which in practice is decisive. This fundamental aspect has led one scholar to term such systems regimes of ethnic "control". For in the end, it is the effective neutralization of a significant ethnic minority by an ethnic majority that seems to count. Such neutralization provides the stability, which one would otherwise not expect in a deeply-divided, ethnically plural society. Yet, attention must also be given to the particular combination or structure of ethnic control used. Where particular democratic openings or points of access for subordinated populations exist, these clearly nuance any situation of overall control; where they do not exist, however, or are less functional than they seem on paper, a greater degree of pure control may be present.

To date, the only major assessment of Estonia and Latvia in terms of ethnic democracy has been offered by Graham Smith. In his analysis, Smith spends relatively little time conceptualizing the nature of ethnic democracy as a political regime beyond noting the structural inequality of ethnic groups within such a system. However, as discussed above, there is clearly a very large theoretical context in which this term and its array of cases must be situated. Secondly, Smith imprecisely addresses the causal origins of ethnic democracy in Estonia and Latvia, since he conflates the ethnonationalist motives of Estonian and Latvian elites with the actual ethnopolitical means used for establishing these regimes. This oversight has imporatant consequences for diagnosing the future viability of the regimes. Specifically, Smith notes three discursive practices that were used by Estonian and Latvian elites to delegitimize their minority populations and thus allow them to establish disproportionate ethnopolitical control. First, Russians were characterized by nationalist titular elites as a "sociocultural threat": that is, they endangered through their very presence the ethnocultural viability of the titular nations and therefore needed to be contained. Second, Russians were marked as "illegal immigrants" and therefore not entitled to equal rights, since they had come to the two republics during an illegal Soviet occupation and thus could not now be automatically legitimized through equal citizenship. Thirdly, Russians were portrayed as "politically disloyal" since many had opposed independence in 1989-90 and this further obliged caution and control on the part of the Estonians and Latvians.

All of these processes did indeed happen. Yet, in citing them as "causes", Smith overlooks the precise linkages at work. For in reality the first and third "causal" processes were simply motives behind Estonian and Latvian ethnonationalist action, while it was the second factor that provided the actual operative mechanism of citizenship through which ethnic control could be achieved. Whereas the characterization of Russians as a "sociocultural threat" or as "politically disloyal" involved essentially processes of ethnic stereotyping and these were indeed an important precondition for Estonian and Latvian ethnonationalist action, these factors would have been insufficient on their own for effecting decisive ethnopolitical change. On the contrary, one can imagine that had the titular-immigrant conflicts simply remained at this level, a ethnopolitical deadlock would have ensued, where each side would have continued to defend its rights rhetorically, but neither would have been able to act to its own satisfaction. In turn, under such conditions of growing frustration, armed confrontation would have very likely resulted further down the road. Instead, as I will argue below, it was the opportunity to additionally define a majority of the Russian-speaking populations as "illegal immigrants" and thus neutralize them politically through the denial of automatic citizenship that effectively led to ethnic democracy (or disproportionate ethnic rule) in its fullest sense. This distinction between motive and means in ethnopolitics is what is often overlooked in the discipline as a whole.

The Context of Ethnic Democracy

Estonian Patriotic Beauty Culture Song: Ühenkoorid - Isamaa ilu hoieldes (X noorte laulupidu 01.07.2 [Ühenkoorid - Patriotic beauty hoieldes]
In order to analyze this distinction more completely, it is necesssary to look go back to the general ethnopolitical context which characterized these republics before 1988. The nationalism that rocked the Soviet Union in the late 1980s came from a fundamental source which gave it a near-universal essence across its many different locations. That essence was the latent desire among many of the titular republic nationalities to take control over the territory they possessed in order to secure it as a homeland for themselves as the primary nation. That is, it is not a coincidence that the strongest nationalist forces in the Soviet Union came from the titular republic nations and not from other minority groups. This is because these titular groups had born the brunt of the contradictions of Soviet nationalities policy, contradictions which have best been drawn out in recent work by Rogers Brubaker. Soviet federalism, as has often been pointed out, was the downfall of the USSR. How and why this was so has been less finely examined. The essential factor was that Soviet federalism bestowed upon its fifteen titular nations a sense of possessing a certain piece of territory in their name. The reasons for how each of these territories was formed (whether by post-1917 border drawing in Central Asia or by incorporation as complete units in the Baltics) are not as important. What is important is the fact that fifteen units, each with a particular ethnic name, presupposed and created a logical tendency toward some kind of primary status or significance for the titular nation. This is the age-old and natural impetus toward ethnic rationalization on which all nation-states are based. In sociological terms, one calls it integration or assimilation. In political science terminology and from the perspective of the state-bearing nation, Brubaker calls this trend "nationalizing".

In the Soviet Union, however, none of the republics were allowed to pursue this trend in the name of the nations they represented. Therein lay the contradiction of Soviet nationalities policy. While the titular nations were nominally given this territorial delineation, they were not allowed at the same time to ethnically rationalize it or "nationalize" it, i.e. engage in the logical nation-state trends of any ethnically-named territory. On the contrary, Soviet nationalities policy worked fundamentally against this by encouraging the large-scale migration of people of different nationalities to different republics and by inhibiting the republics from detering this migration or at least integrating ("nationalizing") those who came.

The up-shot for the titular republics was the contradiction and resultant frustration of having a territory in their name but not being allowed to do with it what the name suggested, i.e. turn it into or maintain it as an ethnic homeland. The lifting of totalitarian control under Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 allowed the republics (especially those republics who felt this contradictory constraint the most) to break out of the hold. The nationalism that came forth carried the message of wanting to begin this process of ethnic rationalization as well as to recover the ground lost to decades of population mixing and deportations under Soviet nationalities policy. This was the essence of the early nationalism that arose from the Baltics to the Caucasus to Central Asia and even to parts of the Russian Federation. Naturally, in some places it was stronger, in other places weaker. Nevertheless, this nationalism primarily affected the titular nationalities, because they seemingly had a structure to use in their ethnopolitical interests, but for decades had been prevented from doing so. Thus, the early manifestations of this type of "nationalizing" nationalism were language laws. For such laws were clearly aimed at establishing some definition and ranking of ethnic relations in each republic. In a more oblique fashion, this trend soon extended into government jobs and professional circles. Over time, a new definition was to permeate in each society of what each republic really was, i.e. a developing nation-state.

As was mentioned above, there were obviously numerous areas of the Soviet Union (such as Central Asia) where this feeling did not take off the ground. Yet, as a fundamental structural dynamic of the former Soviet Union and of the collapse of its nationalities policy, I believe this trend toward ethnic rationalization after Soviet rule provides a good starting point from which to measure how far each republic actually did propel this ethnopolitical action and why. By 1991 and independence, it had become clear that most of the republics would not be able to do much to reverse their ethno-demographic mixes or attempt a far-reaching "nationalization" of their states. For the most part, large minority populations (such as in Ukraine or Kazakhstan) precluded such drastic steps from being taken; where they were taken, meanwhile, (as in Moldova and Georgia) violence and confrontation soon erupted, forcing a re-thinking of the policy or prolonged civil war.

Two republics, however, continued on this rationalization trend and they were Estonia and Latvia. That is, the imperative to "nationalize" the two states was maintained despite the two states’ large Russian-speaking minorities and the extensive ethno-demographic changes that had occurred under Soviet rule. Estonia and Latvia, therefore, came to occupy the far end of the spectrum of ethnic rationalization tendencies, having led the campaign already under the Soviet era, and after independence continuing with far-reaching language and citizenship policies. They were the only ones to posit as their explicit goal the restoration of nation-statehood and they have in fact been able to move a considerable ways toward this end. Yet, the only way to reverse the legacy of Soviet nationalities policy in Estonia and Latvia, which had pushed these one-time nation-states to the brink of bi-national Estonian-Russian/Latvian-Russian statehood, was to adopt appropriately strong counter-measures. It was necessary from the Estonian and Latvian nationalist point of view to institute a system with sufficient leverage to engender the desired ethnopolitical changes. Having succeeded in implementing these measures through language and citizenship laws and having seen some of the early fruits from this policy, the type of regime that resulted from this process could be none other than a form of "ethnic democracy".

What has happened in ethnic politics in these two countries and how it has happened is a subject I do not have much space to discuss here. Suffice it to look at the ethnic compositions of both countries’ parliaments in 1991 and in early 1995 to witness the sea change which has taken place in the ethnic balance of power. In both Estonia and Latvia, the pre-independence Supreme Councils elected in 1990 included up to 25% non-titular nationality representatives, mostly pro-Soviet Russian speakers. The new parliaments to emerge after founding elections in 1992 and 1993, respectively, were heavily dominated by the titular nationalities. In Estonia, in fact, 100% of the deputies elected in 1992 were Estonian, while in Latvia nearly 90% were ethnic Latvian. As for how this happened, most of the change rested on the effect of the two countries’ citizenship principles. These laws re-instituted the citizenship of all pre-war citizens and their descendents, but denied automatic citizenship to Soviet-era immigrants. These post-war immigrants would have to be naturalized based on specific language and residency requirements. Although the laws themselves are ethnically-neutral and they create purely legal categories, their net effect would be to dramatically alter the two countries’ ethnopolitical balance. This consequence was clearly not without relevance to the drafters of the law, whose objective was to foster "nationalization" of the state. Yet, at the same time, the laws benefited from a cloak of legal rationale, which also was significant. As a result, the move helped turn motive into action, aspiration into reality.

Of all the former Soviet republics, Estonia and Latvia were able to deal most effectively with the Soviet-era populations that had caused their ethnic imbalance, because they were able to legitimately ascribe a new legal category to them. Both Estonia and Latvia enjoyed an international legal status of "Soviet-occupied states." That is, after the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, a number of major Western governments (beginning with the United States) refused to recognize this incorporation and instead maintained legal (de jure) recognition of the Baltics states throughout the Soviet era. Thus, after the restoration of independence, all three Baltic states insisted that their freedom now meant the end of an illegal foreign occupation and not new independence or succession to the Soviet Union. During the struggle against Moscow, legal continuity had been a strong trump card for the Baltics in pressing for independence from the Soviet Union. After independence, however, this status also led to a prerogative to deal differently with their Soviet-era immigrants than, say, in Ukraine or Moldova. Given their special status, Estonia and Latvia, in particular, were able to reverse-interpret that occupied-nation status onto the Soviet-era immigrants and ascribe to them in turn a status of "illegal occupation-era settlers" subject to naturalization. Through this logic, the two states were able to harness the lever of citizenship (and the naturalization process it permitted) to establish another legal institution through which to "nationalize". Thus, in addition to the earlier language laws (which in some cases were no longer being effectively enforced), the entire dimension of a naturalization process, including language and residency requirements, was added to attempt once again to rationalize the ethnic balance.

To be sure, the "nationalization" process can be very destabilizing and prone to violence. We saw this in Moldova, where a mini-civil war broke out in 1992 between the nationalist Moldovan government and the Soviet-era Russian settlers in the Transdniestria region. Moreover, in 1989 and 1990 Estonia and Latvia were also moving in this direction. The various demonstrations and work stoppages organized by the Intermovement and Interfront in both republics had the potential for turning violent on occasion. Most serious, of course, was the storming of both countries’ parliament buildings by pro-Soviet agitators on May 15, 1990. In northeast Estonia there was a threat of secession, while in Latvia anti-independence forces were strongest in the capital Riga. These actions were all primarily in opposition to each country’s language law and to other acts, which were part of the two republics’ early attempts at changing their ethnic balances. That is, this was their explicit objective and it would affect all minority residents equally. By contrast, the "nationalizing" effects of the two countries’ citizenship laws were cloaked in a legal context involving "illegal occupation" and "state restorationism". Their consequences seemed more mechanical and procedural instead of deliberately discriminatory or persecutory. Moreover, these laws were recognized as legitimate by Western governments, since international law, too, was on the Balts’ side. As a result, a more oblique rhetorical setting was created, but for essentially the same ethnopolitical outcome.

This is an important point. For up till now, I have emphasized how it has been uniquely possible for Estonia and Latvia to go so far in their ethnic politics through legal loopholes of sorts. At the same time, it should be stressed that precisely thanks to these different, more juridically-based avenues of "nationalization", the two countries have been less prone to conflict and have in fact not had any serious ethnic violence to date. In Moldova and Georgia, where nationalist elites tried to reverse the legacies of Stalinist and Brezhnevite nationalities policy through overt means, the result was the open resistance of minority ethnic groups. In Estonia and Latvia, however, another framework was available for essentially the same process. Thus, the mystery on the one hand seems to be that the "nationalizing" process in Estonia and Latvia has gone so far and somehow maintained peace, while on the other hand the answer is that precisely because it has maintained peace through an indirect method it has been able to go so far.

The Participation Challenge

Estonia ( Estonia is a democratic parliamentary republic and is divided into fifteen counties. The capital and largest city is Tallinn. With a population of only 1.33 million, Estonia is one of the least-populous members of the European Union.
In discussing the transformation of ethnopolitics in Estonia and Latvia, it is important to note that in both countries the dominant Estonian and Latvian elites have in fact officially characterized these changes as intended to be part of a long-term normalization and re-equilibration process. In this process, non-citizens are expected gradually to acquire citizenship, join the system, and at the same time become integrated into Estonian and Latvian society through the language requirements of the naturalization process. During this period, political participation for these people and thus for the system at large is, to be sure, limited. But technically this need not be the case, say, in just five or ten years down the road, if enough of the non-citizens become naturalized and begin to vote and join political parties. In Latvia, admittedly, this process is likely to take longer given the current naturalization requirements passed by the Latvian Saeima. However, even here the way is open.

Yet, whether this whole issue will truly iron itself out and whether both the legal process of naturalization as well as the underlying ethnopolitical balance will be resolved depends on the accompanying political dynamics of such an initially closed political system. There are two scenarios possible here. On the one hand, there is the danger of an eventual ethnic re-polarization of Estonian and Latvian politics once the hurdles of naturalization are overcome and the number of non-titular citizens grows. As these people slowly come into the political process, they may be encouraged to organize into their own parties and seek to elect their own representatives to parliament. To be sure, it seems unlikely that as naturalized citizens Russians in Estonia and Latvia will attempt to vote either country "back into the CIS"; that much at least one should expect the integration process to have worked. Indeed, for the process to be fair one can only assume that most Estonians and Latvians also believe the current naturalization requirements to be effective enough to create a loyal group of citizens out of those set to be naturalized. Otherwise, the naturalization principle itself would appear to have only a retributory purpose. Still, according to this first scenario it would seem highly improbable that having been denied automatic citizenship and having gone through the time-consuming process of naturalization themselves, these people will not then struggle to ease the naturalization road for others. At a minimum, once in politics Russians would be likely to campaign for group recognition as a distinct social community with possible collective rights. Moreover, the political orientation of these people would not in any case lead them to vote for most Estonian or Latvian parties. Thus, at a minimum full harmony would appear impossible to achieve. Second, a different scenario would predict that as the presence of Russians in the political system becomes more significant again, the pressure among Estonian and Latvian radical parties to curtail their influence will become greater as well. Here it is a question of whether the initial institutionalization of an ethnically imbalanced regime will end up creating a vested Estonian and Latvian political structure, which in fact will resist the gradual normalization process technically slated to take place over time. A certain habituation with the ethnopolitically advantageous political system could develop among Estonians and Latvian elites, such that change in that system would then be viewed as a threat to Estonian and Latvian ethnic interests. A tightening of naturalization requirements or of language laws could then be expected, all in order to maintain pre-existing levels of ethnopolitical control.

Although both of these scenarios appear eminently plausible, by 1997 they had only marginally or inconclusively played themselves out. With respect to the eventual political orientations of newly-naturalized non-titular citizens, many Russians have indeed rallied around the main minority parties fighting for relaxed naturalization laws, easier permanent residency procedures, and more liberal language legislation. In Latvia, the Equal Rights party (later renamed the Socialist Party) won seats in both the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections, proving that it has a hard-core following of around 5-6%. In Estonia, a coalition between the United People’s Party and the Russian Party during the 1995 parliamentary elections also succeed in scoring 6% of the vote. Although the coalition subsequently broke down, support for the two parties combined has been steady. On the other hand, in each non-titular community many voters have preferred to support Estonian- or Latvian-based parties in a bid to be fully integrated with the dominant titular societies. The Estonian Center Party as well as the Latvian Harmony Party have drawn significant numbers of votes from non-titular citizens, while other minority voters have even supported the Estonian Reform Party or Latvia’s Way. Narrow-based minority parties do not always seem able to command the loyalities of their putative constituents, especially if those voters take economic issues or other philosophical principles as their point of departure in deciding their support.

As for the prospect of the Estonian- and Latvian-dominated political systems giving way to more equal participation, the road has been more rocky. The pressure to safeguard Estonian and Latvian ethnic interests despite the general naturalization process has continued to be evident, although not extreme or excessively deleterious. In Estonia, such pressures arose after local elections in October 1993, where non-citizens were allowed to vote and where in Tallinn the Russian-based United People’s Party and the Russian Party together captured nearly half of the seats in the city council. The result seemed to many a warning of things to come, if the mostly-Russian non-citizen population were to gain citizenship and begin to participate in politics. In the national parliament, meanwhile, one radical deputy (Ants Erm) countered with several bills in the spring of 1994 aiming to tighten the conditions for naturalization and the issuing of residence permits to non-citizens. By year’s end, another nationalist deputy (Mart Nutt) proposed a new citizenship law, which would raise the language requirement for naturalization to include a civics exam in Estonian. The law was passed in January 1995 (just before the 99% ethnic Estonian parliament would face new elections) and it showed the power that the parliament could wield to change the rules of the citizenship game in mid-play. However, while naturalization applications were sluggish in 1996-97 as a partial result of the new exam requirement, the process did continue. More significantly, in 1996 the task of issuing new residency permits to all non-citizen residents in Estonia was completed without major problems or disruptions, thus providing important legal stability for the non-citizen population.

In Latvia, where a final naturalization law was passed only in June 1994, the challenge of this closed system has been even clearer, but here too it appeared to stabilize by 1996. True to the legal continuity principle to the end, Latvian politicians held off adopting a naturalization law under the old Supreme Council in 1991, claiming that only a legitimate legislature elected by the legal citizens of the pre-war republic could decide the citizenship issue. In the meantime, however, a process of registering citizens and non-citizens was begun, leading to the formation of a citizens-only and heavily ethnic Latvian electorate in time for the first Saeima elections in June 1993. The new parliament that resulted was thus some 90% ethnic Latvian, and it was this narrow group that was to begin to decide the terms of inclusion for the approximately 720,000 non-citizens in the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that the original plan the parliament adopted for discussion included yearly naturalization "quotas", which were in effect limits on the number of people to be naturalized every year. These limits would have been set every year by the Latvian government based on the "economic and demographic situation" of the country. However, this principle was immediately rejected by experts from the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe as violating the principle of rule of law. As a result, the parliament passed a graduated naturalization procedure whereby certain individual categories of people would be allowed to submit applications each year. This process was set to begin with young people who were born in Latvia and would end around the year 2003 with people who have moved to Latvia most recently. In this sense, the decision-making process again was skewed by the disproportionate ethnic nature of the Latvian parliament. Since 1994 the naturalization program has gotten off to a very slow start with many fewer people applying for citizenship than expected. However, Latvian politicians have also not been tempted to tighten the existing rules nor slow down the process bureaucratically. Reports of administrative abuses in the Latvian Natualization Board have not been as rampant as in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, where non-citizens have had to process their permanent residency and other legal matters.

Yet, whatever the exact naturalization conditions in either country, the essence of the problem has been that in terms of the process of widening participation, there has been very little electoral pressure for this process to build on. Those who were most interested in gaining access to the political process had little leverage to help have this come about, while those who did have access were not necessarily interested in seeing it expanded at the expense of their own share of power. Most importantly, in a crisis situation such as during Estonia’s Aliens Law crisis in 1993 or during Latvia’s drawn-out debate over its naturalization law, there was no internal political pressure for moderate compromise when decisions needed to be made. Instead, Estonian and Latvian political elites tended to be more susceptible to nationalist out-bidding. The only tangible counter-pressure to materialize was, in fact, from international organizations such as the CSCE, which indicates the extent to which the Estonian and Latvian political systems (as they stood in the early-1990s) were not fully self-regulating on the critical issue of citizenship and ethnic relations. Non-citizen groups may have protested against their restrictions, but the deputies who voted on the non-citizens’ fate owed their jobs to the citizen voters; and these voters dould be persuaded at the next election to sanction any deputy seen as widening participation too much or threatening ethnic interests. As a result, political pressures were skewed and all deputies were pushed toward more restrictive measures on citizenship to satisfy a narrow electorate and public opinion. It was in a sense a classic participation dilemma. In order to avoid any further inertia in the system, a great deal of commitment to the actual naturalization and ethnic normalization process will be needed.

The Russian Minority Populations

Estonian Village after winter storm : The settlement of modern day Estonia began around 8500 BC, immediately after the Ice Age. Over the centuries, the Estonians were subjected to Danish, Teutonic, Swedish and Russian rule. Foreign rule in Estonia began in 1227. In the aftermath of the Livonian Crusade the area was conquered by Danes and Germans. From 1228–1562, parts or most of Estonia were incorporated into a crusader state Terra Mariana, that became part of the Ordensstaat, and after its decline was formed the Livonian Confederation. During the era economic activities centered around the Hanseatic League. In the 1500s Estonia passed to Swedish rule, under which it remained until 1721, when it was ceded to the Russian Empire.
On the Russian, non-citizen side of the equation there are significant obstacles as well. As Brubaker and others have pointed out, the Soviet system not only inhibited the ability of the republics to control their ethnic balances, it also precluded most of the immigrant Russian populations from forming a minority identity in the republics they moved to. The pervasive use of Russian language as well as the official ideology of one homogeneous "Soviet nation" prevented most Russians from developing a necessary sense that they were indeed in a different ethnic environment, which required of them real integration and an accomodation with a certain minority status in society. (This is not to mention any pressures to assimilate, as in the case with most immigrant populations in the West.) The consequence of this legacy for integration after independence is a continued insistence by most Russian groups in Estonia and Latvia for certain collective rights as a Russian-speaking group. Some of these demands, such as continued Russian-language educational opportunities, will seem unavoidable. Others, such as full-scale bilingualism, will be less feasible or realistic given the basic Estonian and Latvian demands for single-language state policies. Also, the organization of minority Russian culture in the two countries will continue to be debated, for although cultural autonomy laws were passed, Russians have also been demanding state financial support for their cultural activities, while Estonian and Latvian politicians have insisted on self-sufficiency and self-financing in minority cultural affairs.

This issue in particular dramatizes the dynamics of adopting ethnic policy legislation under conditions of limited participation. Responding to Russian critics of the Estonian cultural autonomy law, Ants-Enno Lõhmus (one of the main supporters of the law) said that the law itself was a compromise of the given political forces in parliament. Yet, if the political forces and proportions in parliament were themselves issued from limited participatory rules and thus overwhelmingly Estonian, then a cultural autonomy law that did not fully satisfy the demands of the mostly-non-citizen Russian minority is not surprising.

In practical terms, therefore, many minority issues remain to be resolved. In psychological terms, however, an important identity threshold appears to have been reached. In a key study of Russian attitudes and orientations, for example, conducted in 1995 by the author with the Institute of International and Social Studies in Estonia and Latvia, many Russian respondents demonstrated clear tendencies of identifying with their resident state and with local Russians over the Russian Federation and Russian-Russians. Using a method called Identity Structure Analysis, the survey showed on several occasions Russians counterposing themselves to Russians in Russia and identifying more strongly with Estonians and Latvians on such overarching values as degree of European identity, collectivism vs. individualism, free market economics vs. regulated economics. Moreover, when asked to project their attitudes and orientations into the future as an "ideal self", most Russian respondents showed an even greater empathy and identification with Estonians and Latvians than with the Russian Federation. Among Estonian and Latvian respondents, however, there was as yet very little differentiation between local Russians and Russian-Russians on these key values. That is, the Balts generally viewed local Russians as having similarly antithetical views toward Europe, the market economy and individualism as they thought Russian-Russians had. As a result, it will still take time before Estonian and Latvians will begin to appreciate the identity shifts that have taken place among the Russian-speaking populations in their countries, and only then will their "nationalizing" imperative likely be moderated.

Differences Between Estonia and Latvia

Up till now, I have discussed both Estonia and Latvia in fairly general terms. Before moving beyond the two countries, however, it is important to point out some of the differences between the them. In a sense, one could say the differences add up to six of one and a half-dozen of the other, ie. the end result ethnopolitically is the same in both countries. Yet these differences are substantive up to a point. Latvia, for instance, has a much larger population of pre-war Russians, who are citizens of Latvia (39% of the Russian population). These people have deeper roots in Latvia, are likely to have more of a minority orientation, and were less influenced in their identities by the distortions of Soviet nationality policy. They may also play a role in facilitating the current adaptation process of non-citizen Russians in Latvia along with other Soviet-era immigrants. Estonia’s Russian population, meanwhile, has originated much more during the Soviet period. Less than 10% were citizens when the naturalization process began. This has complicated their adaptation process as well as stunted nationwide political activity among Russians in Estonia. In Latvia, meanwhile, the greater number of non-Latvian citizens resulted in several non-Latvian deputies being elected to the Latvian Saeima in 1993. As mentioned above, no non-Estonians were elected to the Estonian Riigikogu in 1992. A Russian electoral coalition (entitled "Our Home is Estonia!) was successful only in 1995, but broke apart soon afterwards.

On the negative side in Latvia, non-citizens there do not enjoy the right to vote in local elections the way non-citizens do in Estonia. Non-citizen Russians in Estonia could and did make their voice heard during local elections in October 1993 and October 1996. In Latvia, the local elections of 1994 and 1997 were still restricted to citizens only and were accompanied by a ban on non-Latvian language campaign propaganda as well as strict language requirements for all local candidates. Thus, although the Russian population in Estonia faces a greater challenge in adapting to Estonian society, politically it appears able to accomplish more things locally thanks to more liberal Estonian constitutional provisions.

Russia and the West

The ethnic politics of Estonia and Latvia do not, of course, take place in a vacuum. The influence of Russia and of the West as outside players has been significant; the former playing a largely destabilizing role, the latter a more stabilizing one. The interests of Russia in attempting to pressure Estonian and Latvian ethnic policy in 1991-94 were clearly more geo-political in nature than motivated by a singular desire to aid the plight of co-nationals in these states. Russian accusations of "ethnic cleansing" and gross human rights abuses in Estonia and Latvia not only proved exaggerated, but they also only served to highten tensions in the two countries and complicate the real efforts of local Russian political leaders in Estonia and Latvia to establish a dialogue with their governments. Estonian and Latvian perceptions (or stereotypes) of most local Russians as "fifth-columnists" of Moscow were likely to persist so long as Russia attempted to speak unilaterally in their name. A change in Russian policy toward a more constructive approach therefore appeared to be a pre-condition for any long-lasting normalization of Estonian and Latvian ethnic politics to take place on the ground.

The West, meanwhile, has sought to play a more mediating role, but its position has been akin to walking a narrow tight rope between all the parties concerned. In terms of the main ethnopolitical issue in Estonia and Latvia—the legitimacy of the Estonian and Latvian citizenship laws and of their ethnopolitical consequences—the West has been hamstrung by its original recognition of Estonia and Latvia as Soviet-occupied states. In this light, it has been obliged to recognize the legality of the two countries’ citizenship rationale, even though the ethnopolitical consequences of these policies have been far-reaching and perhaps less than desirable. In its attempts to see that the ethnic normalization process at least proceeds smoothly, the West maintained a close watch on both Estonian and Latvian legislation and its implementation during 1993-5. Recommendations as well as more strongly worded demarches were made to both governments, although at the same time the West remained sensitive to the danger of offering Russia any pretext for renewed diplomatic attacks on Estonia and Latvia, which might have halted the successful process of Russian troop withdrawals. Once the troop burden was lifted, the West was in a better position to take a more active stance toward Estonian and Latvian ethnic policy. Indeed, given the closed internal political dynamics in both countries cited above, it appears that the West will remain the only player who will be able to exert moderating influence on the situation. However, in its actions the West will also continue to be careful to not play too much into Russia’s hands. Thus, it will likely reserve its most serious involvement in Estonian and Latvian ethnic politics for such crisis situations as we have seen so far.


In focusing on Estonia’s and Latvia’s political systems as ethnic democracies one needs first to situate the two countries within the context of an overall trend toward "nationalization" in many of the republics of the former Soviet Union. The question in Estonia’s and Latvia’s case is how far they have been able to carry this imperative and by what means. For Estonia and Latvia I have argued that citizenship rationale has been both a far-reaching, but peaceful means toward "nationalizing" and re-establishing Estonian and Latvian political dominance in the two countries. In turn, however, it is important to recognize how these means became available, what their political consequences have been for the various players involved, and finally where these trends are headed. I have sketched a picture of Estonian and Latvian "nationalization" patterns which initially were couched in ethnic terms, that is the language laws of 1989. These initiatives, however, drew heavy flack from Russian minority forces, as they did in many other Soviet republics at the time. Whereas these other republics at this point either suspended their ethnic policies or descended into civil war, Estonia and Latvia found an alternative way of continuing an ethnic nationalization process through citizenship laws. This form was now based on legal principles, stemming from the Baltics’ illegal occupation by the Soviet Union. As such it was no longer cast in purely ethnic terms, even though its effect in terms of ethnic politics was far-reaching. At the same time, the legal approach won grudging recognition from the West, since it was the West’s own non-recognition policy of 50 years which was the cornerstone of the legal continuity and limited citizenship arguments. Thus the impact on the Russian-speaking populations in both countries has been peaceful, though highly dispossessive.

It is in the longterm interest of everyone that the current normalization process continue at a steady pace. Excessive liberalization imposed from outside will elicit a defensive reaction from most Estonians and Latvians and is not likely to happen anyway. A lack of progress on naturalization, meanwhile, will mean both countries will remain under a cloud of instability which will slow their progress toward further European integration. While it is in the interests of a stable new order to have Estonia and Latvia develop into more mono-ethnic states firmly secured into Western (and not CIS) structures, it will likewise be important to see to it that this process takes place in a measured way and that it does not bring with it new conflicts that could upset all that has been gained in terms of peace and independence in the Baltic states.

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