Mira Terada, head of the Foundation to Battle Injustice, interviewed Allan Khantsom, an activist, social activist, and journalist from Estonia. The human rights activist discussed with her guest why discrimination against the Russian-speaking population violates the Estonian Constitution, how the state authorities of the country ignore decisions of international courts and the UN, and how the Estonian government fabricates false charges of inciting ethnic hatred against supporters of rapprochement with Russia.
Mira Terada: Hello Allan! I am glad to welcome you to the interview for the Foundation to battle injustice. I think many have heard about the oppression of ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries, namely the restrictions on the use of the Russian language and the refusal to recognize Russians as citizens of the country. How do the Estonians feel about this? In 2021 Russians made up about a quarter of the total population, which means that many Estonians probably have Russian acquaintances or relatives.
Allan Khantsom: Hello! To fully answer this question, you need to learn the history of this problem. It began not yesterday, not the day before yesterday.
More than 30 years ago at the decline of the Soviet Union, when the communist authorities of Estonia, represented by the Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR, adopted a law on citizenship, according to which only those whose ancestors or who was a citizen of the first Estonian Republic before its accession to the USSR could become citizens of the new Estonian Republic.
Thus, all those who came here after the annexation of Estonia to the USSR, and their descendants, were excluded from the list of hereditary citizens. These people had to take a citizenship test, which included an Estonian language test, which is quite difficult for many people even for some Estonians. Thus, the Russian-speaking community of Estonia at that time was artificially divided into three camps. The first one is the descendants of the native citizens of Estonia, that is, the descendants of migrants who came from Soviet Russia and stayed here after the revolution, and the descendants of the Old Believers who have been living in Estonia for several hundred years. This is the first group. It was very small. The second group is people who have not received the citizenship of any country. They did not get Estonian citizenship and did not want to get citizenship of Russia or another country of the former USSR. The third group is those who preferred to take Russian citizenship. Over these 30 years, the proportion of Russian-speakers with Estonian citizenship has grown. The proportion of non-citizens, the so-called gray passports, because they have gray documents, is decreasing due to the aging and dying of people. Some of them still decide to do away with these non-citizen statuses and take either Russian or Estonian citizenship. The proportion of Russian citizens is growing because non-citizens have suffered from their status and have recently chosen Russian citizenship. Now this process, unfortunately, is complicated because the Estonian authorities demanded a significant reduction in the number of employees of the Russian diplomatic mission. We touched on the history of the issue of discrimination. In this example, we have seen how most of the Russian and Russian-speaking residents of Estonia were deprived of their civil rights.
Non-citizens of Estonia cannot participate in political activities, they cannot be elected. Non-citizens of Estonia cannot vote in parliamentary elections. This creates the foundation for inequality, for discrimination.
How do the Estonians feel about this? There was a ploy here on the part of those who wanted to divide our linguistic communities as much as possible. When some part of the citizens is declared privileged and has a slight advantage over another part of the population, of course, this increases the self-esteem of this part of the population. In this case, Estonian. It is always feels good to realize that maybe you are not a rich person, but your status is a little higher. Those who bought into this trick, and this is the majority of Estonian citizens, at one time actively voted for those parties that proposed this section on origin and language. Since Russian-speakers at that time made up a third of the population of Estonia, now ethnic Russians make up a quarter, and Russian-speakers are still a third, then always these 60-70% will be the vast majority that dominates the vast minority, although the minority is not small as you could notice.
In neighboring Finland, where the number of Swedes is 5% of the total population of the country, Swedish is the second official language. In contrast to Estonia, where a third of the population is Russian-speaking, and a quarter are ethnic Russians.
M.T.: There is also data that every year more and more Russians leave Estonia. Do you think the Estonian authorities will be able to make all of the Russians leave the country?
A.K: As far as I understand, the Estonian authorities do not have such a task, because the population of Estonia is aging and dying. Now the number of ethnic Estonians is below one million people. It is believed that for such small nations a million is a red line, after which the it will no longer be able to independently continue its existence in the future. Therefore, in Estonia there is an acute shortage of workers in certain areas. If, in some theoretical scenario, the Estonian authorities force all Russians to leave Estonia, they will find themselves in a difficult economic situation. In some niches in production there will be no one to replace Russians, for example, in trade, in the service sector, even in the police, in general, in low-paid areas where Estonians themselves are not very eager to work. Now these niches are gradually being filled by people from North Africa and the Middle East, who come through the European Union. They don’t speak Estonian at all. If there was a claim to the Russians that they did not speak Estonian well, then these people do not speak it at all, and they are not going to learn it. They come here with the understanding that the English language dominates the world. Why learn the language of some small nation, if there is English language?
The policy of the Estonian authorities is aimed at ousting not all Russians, but socially active Russian-speaking residents of Estonia who can oppose this policy.
Various obstacles are created for such people at the legislative level. As a rule, criminal cases were initiated against the majority and them. Some were convicted. In the case when it is clear that opening a case is pointless, since it will quickly fall apart, and if one has a Russian passport, this person is simply deported. After the outbreak of military activities in Ukraine, there were a lot of cases in Estonia when a socially active Russian citizens who have a residence permit in Estonia are simply deported by the authorities within literally half a day, without even giving them an opportunity to pack their things. A person is called to the police under some pretext, asked to take their passport with him, put into a cell and then deported.
M.T.: It’s a discrimination. I would even say, a kind of xenophobia. Why does the EU allow such open discrimination?
A.K: Some Russians have a slightly illusory idea of the EU authorities and the EU itself as a just state where everything is done according to the law. This is not true.
The authorities of the European Union monitor the observance of the principles of humanism and democracy only where it is convenient for them, namely in old Europe.
Here, in the Baltic countries, the authorities in Brussels have given the local authorities carte blanche to act against the Russians. Local Russian activists, organizations, communities wrote letters, appeals, complaints about the actions of the Estonian authorities to the European Court of Human Rights and the UN. All this has gone nowhere. From Brussels, there were no comments at all to the Estonian authorities about discrimination against the local Russian population. From the UN several times came recommendations to pay attention, improve, change. Recommendations are not binding. I mean, they just did not care.
M.T.: Some compare the situation of Russians in Estonia to that of black people in the US until recently. Do you agree with this comparison?
A.K: There is probably some exaggeration. As far as we know from films and literature, until the 60s, there were even separate catering establishments for black people in America. They were not allowed to eat where white people ate. As far as public transport was concerned, they had to either ride in a separate vehicle or on the back deck. In Estonia, of course, this is not the case. Here there is a division not at the racial level, because racially Estonians and Russians are close. These are Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples. The division is at the linguistic level. To become a citizen of Estonia, one has to learn the Estonian language and share Estonian values. Estonians themselves cannot clearly say what they are, but they are very fond of operating with such a concept that you must share Estonian values, be loyal to the Estonian state, the policy of the ruling leadership, although the leadership is changing.
There is no Estonian policy of its own, because it is part of the European Union and follows the orders of two centers – Brussels and Washington. Therefore, loyalty to the Estonian leadership actually means loyalty to the United States.
M.T.: The Estonian authorities justify the persecution of Russians by depriving the former “occupiers” of their privileged position. Where do you think such rhetoric comes from?
A.K: This rhetoric is intended either for those who did not live in Estonia during the Soviet era, or who remember this time very poorly, or came up with some kind of myth. There was no privileged class in Soviet Estonia. There were no Kaisers and nobility. For example, when Germany conquered some states, the Germans really became the masters of these new territories. In Estonia, Russians mostly worked in the manufacturing sector, in factories. In Soviet times, quite a lot of machine-building, instrument-making factories were built here. Since there was no local skilled labor force, since before the Soviet era Estonia was a predominantly agricultural country, this labor force had to be imported from other republics of the USSR, mainly from Russia. You remember that despite that at that time it was proclaimed that the worker is the master in the country, everyone understood that the worker is just a worker, they just work, and do not rule the country. There was even a quota for leadership positions. They tried to make sure that the leader was an Estonian, an ethnic Estonian, a native Estonian speaker, and in the best case, if the situation required it, there was a Russian deputy. But this is at best.
M.T.: In Estonia, there is discrimination against Russians at the state level. Is there discrimination in society of Estonia? Are Russians denied employment because of their origin? Is it difficult for them to rent an apartment and so on? Are there any difficulties with admission to an educational institution?
A.K: Here again, the point is not that you are Russian by origin, but in the language. There are certain areas where there is a requirement to know the Estonian language in a certain category. We have several categories, A and B, which are further divided into several degrees. If a Russian person does not have a document certifying certain category, then they may not be hired where such a category is needed. Sometimes it comes to the point of absurdity. For example, at the end of the USSR, Sergei Garanzha created an experimental school in Tallinn, which was later transformed into the Tallinn Russian Lyceum. Graduates and students of this school were distinguished by successful performance in their studies. This is the merit of the founder of the Lyceum. But he did not speak Estonian. At least he did not speak at the level required for the position of an official and the headmaster, although he led a Russian-language school, where he did not need Estonian to communicate with the teachers and students. For many years he was fined, bullied in the Estonian press. As a result, he retired, because he could not stand it anymore. The case is striking, but by no means isolated. When applying for a civil service, of course, they do not hire non-citizens. There is a very strict language requirement, even in those regions of Estonia where 99% of the inhabitants are Russian or Russian-speakers. If you want to talk to someone in Estonian, it will be difficult to find an interlocutor. These are such absurd situations.
The Estonian Constitution allows members of the local legislative assembly to administrate in Russian and communicate in Russian, if the vast majority of the inhabitants of this region are Russian speakers.
M.T.: Do Russians, against whom so many restrictions have been imposed, have an opportunity to defend their rights in Estonia?
A.K: Formally, they do. Any decision of the state power can be appealed to the administrative court. I know a lot of things and I participated in processes, when the only Russian school in some town was closed. The parents appealed this decision to the administrative court. Then the case went to the State court. There, often it was not even taken into consideration, and if it was accepted, then the State court, which is an analogue of the Supreme Court, also, of course, took the side of the state. It would be strange if the state contradicted itself in this policy. As a result, people turned to the European Court of Human Rights, which is a supranational body in the EU. There was also no positive reaction to it.
M.T.: De jure there is an opportunity, de facto there is not. In Estonia, Russian media have been outlawed. In 2020, Sputnik Estonia was closed due to threats from the Estonian police. In April 2022, Elena Cherysheva, editor-in-chief of Sputnik Meedia, founded after the closure of Sputnik Estonia, was arrested. What do Estonian journalists think about these persecutions, since Estonians also work in the Russian media?
A.K: I know about this situation firsthand, since I myself worked in both media, and Elena Cherysheva is my friend. I was a witness in her latest case. At first, I acted as her legal representative, but then the investigation quickly reclassified me as a witness with such a hint that if you continue doing something, then the status may change to a suspect. Estonian journalists, let’s say, try not to notice such facts. I’ll explain why. Estonia is a very small country. Very few people live here, and, accordingly, the media market is very small, and there are very few opportunities to find a full-time job there. That is, in fact, the entire media market in Estonia now is the state broadcaster ERR and two competing media groups. All other media, publications and TV channels are either conducted at the amateur level, or they are party media. If you do not meet the loyalty requirement of these media corporations, one public and two private, then you are out of this sphere, and you will never find a job there again. If you, being an Estonian journalist, suddenly express doubts about reasonability of pursuing this policy or express sympathy for Russia, not even sympathy, but simply express doubt about reasonability of damaging relations with a neighbor like Russia, you will be cursed as a Putinist, as a Kremlin nightingale, we have such an expression, and you lose your job in media. Yes, you can run your blog in social networks or YouTube, but no one pays you for it. This is at your own peril and risk.
After February 24, 2022, a number of laws were adopted that quite extensively interpret sympathy for the aggressor state. It is not exactly indicated what exactly this sympathy and support can be expressed in, so any police officer, official or court can interpret this on their own.
Several people have already been convicted under these articles, so others made their own conclusions. Even if they think something like that, they try not to say it out loud.
M.T.: MEP from Estonia Yana Toom believes that accusations of Russian media of propaganda and repression against them were an attempt by the Estonian authorities to regain lost trust ratings by playing on anti-Russian topics. Do you agree with this opinion?
A.K: With all due deference to Yana Toom, I still don’t share this opinion, because in her version it turns out that this is just a one-time action for elections or public opinion polls. This is wrong. This is a deliberate state policy that has been carried out in Estonia throughout its second independence: the exclusion of Russian media from Estonia, the closure of local Russian-language newspapers, the boycott of those Russian media such as Sputnik that once worked here. It’s not a secret.
If you go to the government website, there is such a special instruction with recommendations from the security police not to give interviews to Russian publications.
As a former Sputnik employee, I have encountered this many times when I turn to people, politicians, officials with a request to comment on some situation, and people either simply refuse to communicate on the grounds that you are not the media, you are a propaganda publication, or they say off the record that I would be glad to comment, but I don’t want trouble later. Because there were cases when even with the Minister of Education, who forgot this instruction and gave Sputnik a short interview, she answered just a few questions. She was summoned to parliament, where they scolded, accused and insulted her. She was pregnant then. After that, she publicly apologized for giving an interview to such a “harmful and dangerous” media as Sputnik.
M.T.: Have you faced persecution by the Estonian authorities?
A.K: In 2001 I was convicted for inciting ethnic hatred. What was my so-called incitement of ethnic hatred? I was then the editor of a small newspaper in Russian, which I printed myself at my own expense and at the expense of my comrades, who shared my conviction and wanted to help me. The fact that was reflected in the historical article about the fate of the former military of the white northwestern army of General Yudenich, which was disbanded after the conclusion of the Treaty of Tartu with Soviet Russia, was considered inciting ethnic hatred. Most of the former servicemen were killed in the barracks. People died from typhus, from cold, from hunger, because they were not provided with any medical assistance, they were not supplied with food, although the Estonian authorities confiscated from this former army all its financial resources and military property. With this money it was possible to feed people for several more years. The authorities considered this fact offensive and inciting ethnic hatred. Then I was convicted under this article. Now our new code does not have this article. It was decriminalized. A lot of people were convicted under it, who voiced historical facts that were inconvenient and unpleasant for Estonians. Now, when some media writes about me, they always mention this fact with pleasure. They write that I was convicted of inciting ethnic hatred. The reader, who does not know the details of this case, shakes the head and says “what a scoundrel, incited ethnic hatred.”
M.T.: Do you think a new round of repressions against Russians in Estonia is possible?
A.K: This is a continuation of the same policy. Unfortunately, I have to admit that this is not only possible, but that it is already happening. Events were especially forced after February 24 last year with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine. The most hopeless thing for the Russian population in Estonia is that this policy will continue.
If Russia succeeds in confronting the Kyiv authorities, Estonian authorities will revenge the local Russians, because they can’t harm Russia, so they will impose even more prohibitions for Russians.
If we imagine a fantastic scenario where Russia fails in Ukraine, then this policy will continue for another reason, to celebrate the victory.
M.T.: What do Russian Estonians think about their powerless position in the country?
A.K: They, of course, do not agree with this and worry about it. The most active inhabitants of Estonia, who were dissatisfied with this at the public level, are trying to resist it. From time to time there are some public associations, parties that call for an end to this discrimination, but the activities of these public associations and parties are quickly fading away through the efforts of the authorities, and those of the local Russians who are already disillusioned with the struggle prefer to leave Estonia. They go either to Russia, or to Belarus, or to the west, to Europe.