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NARVA, Estonia – Anna Gisser was out for a walk in Narva’s leafy Siivertsi Park last week when the 82-year-old pensioner was stopped by two police officers and told to wait.
Workers were in the park loading a Soviet-era tank memorial onto a truck and transporting it to a museum – part of Tallinn’s effort to remove what, to ethnic Estonians, glorifies a half -century of brutal Soviet occupation, but what local Russian speakers feel commemorates Red Army soldiers who fell in World War II.
“I feel disgusted,” said Gisser, a Russian-born former energy construction worker who has lived in Estonia since 1957. “For me, it’s a matter of memory… they disrespected my be same.”
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told POLITICO that the Soviet monuments posed “a risk to public order” which had the potential to “create a division within society” and that their removal “was therefore absolutely necessary” to “avoid tensions”.
The withdrawal of the tank shows how the war in Ukraine is straining the delicate relations between the Estonian government and the Russian-speaking minority which makes up around a quarter of the Baltic country’s 1.3 million population.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Narva, a town of 54,000 that sits just across the Narva River from Ivangorod in Russia – joined by the now anachronistic ‘Friendship Bridge’.
The city, which changed hands between Danes, Swedes, Poles, Germans and Russians over the last millennium, was where Estonia ratified a military agreement under pressure from the Soviet Union in 1939, ending in its first race as an independent nation. Destroyed by the Soviets and Germans during World War II, the mineral-rich region then became a Soviet industrial heartland where thousands of Russians were sent to work – what ethnic Estonians saw as a colonial effort to flood them of Russian settlers.
Around 85% of Narva’s residents are ethnic Russians and for two decades after Estonia’s independence and the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Narva and Ivangorod engaged in joint building projects and cultural initiatives . The city was also one of the main commercial arteries between Russia and Estonia, with trade between the two countries totaling almost 3 billion euros last year.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine is tearing those ties apart.
The city has suspended its cooperation with Ivangorod, said Denis Larchenko, a member of the Narva city council. He said locals even staged small protests outside the Russian consulate at the start of the war.
“For Narva, it was a unique thing,” he said, “because usually we don’t have so many people going out on the streets.”
Despite this small demonstration, for the Estonian government, the war reopened the question of the integration of the Russian minority.
“Among the Estonian population, distrust has undeniably grown towards the Russian-speaking population,” said Kristjan Kaldur, senior analyst at the Institute for Baltic Studies, adding that the removals of Soviet monuments and Tallinn said that the Russian people was also responsible for the war. in Ukraine angers ethnic Russians.
In an op-ed to mark Estonia’s Independence Restoration Day on Saturday, the country’s president, Alar Karis, acknowledged that “trust needs to be restored between Narva and the government”.
“The war in Russia revived the forgotten meaning of these monuments,” he said of the T-34 tank, while adding: “Estonia is a country for all of us, with all our differences.”
Estonia’s integration policy has an uneven history. During the first decade of independence, the government approached ethnic Russians “exclusively” with restrictive citizenship and language laws, Kaldur said.
“[There] was an assumption that maybe if we get tough with them they will come home,” he said. “If you fast-forward to today’s situation, we can still see that this feeling of being socially excluded from Western society certainly has roots there.”
Around the turn of the millennium, the government started trying to integrate Russian speakers mainly through learning the Estonian language, which was still a “one-way street”, Kaldur said. In the mid-2000s, real efforts were made to stimulate investment and cultural exchange programs.
However, many Russian speakers remain stuck in limbo, holding Estonian passports but no citizenship, which requires an Estonian language test. This means that around 65,000 people – the so-called gray citizens – can access public services, but have limited voting rights. More than 7,000 people are still gray citizens in Narva, according to the mayor’s office.
Nor does it help that the city and the wider region of Ida-Virumaa in which it sits, once a bastion of the country’s oil shale production and textile manufacturing, has faced deindustrialization and underinvestment, said Triin Vihalemm, professor of sociology at the University of Tartu.
Aliens or allies?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine six months ago prompted the Estonian government to step up its efforts in the region.
Tallinn quickly banned Russian state TV channels, while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas visited Narva in March to announce new funding for roads and schools.
But Tallinn’s moves to tear down six Soviet memorials in Narva and restrict cross-border travel last week are destroying the city and angering locals.
“From the security point of view of some countries, maybe it’s a necessary step,” said Larchenko of Narva, “but at the same time, if I speak as a human being…it’s difficult to understand.”
The local government collapsed late last week after a councilor sent a letter to Kallas threatening legal action over the removal of the tank, according to Larchenko.
Views on the Soviet past are deeply divided. While a third of Russian speakers support the idea of moving Soviet monuments to museums, 84% of ethnic Estonians think it’s a good idea, according to a recent poll.
It also heightens concerns among local Russians, who say they feel targeted by the government and even fear deportation. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government will “never expel” citizens or residents of Estonia, calling it “creepy talk fueled by Kremlin trolls”.
In fact, the number of Russian speakers applying for Estonian citizenship has more than doubled since the start of the war, to 383 from 149 for the same period last year, according to Estonian police.
Efforts to eliminate traces of Soviet culture come at the same time as Estonia cracks down on the ability of Russians to enter the country.
With flights to the EU suspended, Estonia was one of the few gateways open to the bloc – 247,798 entered Estonia in the first half of this year, compared to 68,626 in the same period of 2021 .
Close Russian relatives will still be allowed to cross the border under rules that came into effect last week, but Russians are still worried.
“It’s stupidity,” said Vasily Naoumov, 66, a pensioner who has lived in Narva all his life. “Only people will suffer – businessmen, hoteliers.”
Despite concerns about the loyalty of ethnic Russians in Estonia and occasional efforts by Moscow to stoke separatist tensions, the region’s standard of living much higher than in Russia, more economic opportunities and limited access to Russian infosphere makes separatist sentiment almost non-existent in Ida. “Virumaa,” Kaldur said.
But that does not mean that the two communities agree on the danger coming from the East. In a poll conducted after the start of the war in Ukraine, 88% of Russian speakers did not see Russia as a security threat, a view shared by only 28% of Estonian speakers.
The day after the dismantling of the Soviet tank, residents, some of whom wept, decorated the site with flowers and candles.
“What rights do we have? said Gisser. “We built everything here, we raised our children here.”
But then she added, “I have respect for Estonians…I am loyal to them…I don’t feel any difference between Russians and Estonians.”
This article has been updated to clarify what happened in Narva in 1944.