June 8, 2018

How to Keep the Estonian Flame Alive Abroad?

Liis Treimann/PM/Scanpix

The objective of Estonia’s values-based foreign policy is to help compatriots outside the borders of our historical homeland, too

Liis Treimann/PM/Scanpix

Being an Estonian expatriate has lost the political significance it had during the Soviet occupation, and it has been marginalised as a so-called soft topic. This means that, even though cultural contacts are considered important, they have to be enabled by “big politics” first. I still think that a country the size of Estonia should not allow itself to be so cynical—maintaining a strong bond with all Estonian communities abroad is not a “soft cultural matter”; it is crucial for preserving the nation.

According to the Ministry of Culture, around 15% of Estonians (some 200,000 people) live outside Estonia—that is double the population of Tartu. There are over 600 Estonian organisations abroad. Promoting the Estonian spirit in the world is one of the main fields of activity of Estonia’s foreign representations.

Estonia supports the activities of Estonians abroad through the Compatriots’ Programme, launched in 2004 and expected to run until 2020. In 2009 the programme supported the activities of Estonians living abroad to the tune of 785,441 euro, and by 2016 the figure was 964,137 euro. In addition to the Compatriots’ Programme, there have been two other support programmes: Eesti kultuur maailmas (Estonian Culture in the World), funded by the Ministry of Culture, and Riikidevaheliste kultuurikoostöölepingute täitmine (Implementation of Transnational Cultural Cooperation Agreements), financed through Estonia’s general state budget.

Aid for Eesti kultuur maailmas this year totals 650,000 euro and for Riikidevaheliste kultuurikoostöölepingute täitmine the figure is 176,344 euro. Taken together, those amounts are quite impressive, and will certainly help keep the Estonian spirit alive abroad.

Part of the current aid goes to 63 Estonian-language teaching establishments, 80 general education and Sunday schools, societies, kindergartens, playgroups and language courses teaching Estonian. Some 3,700 Estonian children living abroad will receive support in the 2017–18 school year. With the help of the Compatriots’ Programme, Estonian-language teachers have been sent to the Riga Estonian School, Pechory Linguistic Gymnasium (Pskov Oblast, Russia) and Upper-Suetuk Grammar School (Siberia). The Estonian School in Stockholm also receives fixed support through the programme to carry out Estonian-language classes.

In recent years we have sadly witnessed that, if a storm seems to be gathering and the foreign-policy situation is becoming unstable, cultural contacts give way to realpolitik. In connection with the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Ministry of Education and Research recalled the Estonian-language teacher from a secondary school in the village of Aleksandrovka. This was a person who helped to teach Estonian to children with Estonian roots and kept the community together. The Estonian government decided to break this bond and leave the community there without its support. Officials gave a simple explanation: supporting the Estonian community in occupied Crimea would implicitly condone Russia’s illegal actions. “When giving national aid in occupied Crimea we also have to take into account the legislation of Ukraine,” said the foreign ministry spokesperson.

I do not think we should agree with this cynical explanation. Is Estonia also ready to cut ties with any other community if realpolitik requires it? The state should be obliged to protect and promote its compatriots and national culture, not only in the mother country but in the whole diaspora. Estonian expatriates have played a remarkable role in its history and culture.

The first big emigration of Estonians to Russia began in the 1850s, and to Crimea in 1861. Most of the Estonians who moved to Crimea originated from Vargamäe in Järva-Madise parish—a place where the author also has his roots. By the late 1880s, the emigration had slowed down and the total number of emigrants by the start of the Russian Revolution was an estimated 160,000–250,000. They were driven by the desire to receive land for cultivation and to escape the Baltic German oppression.

After signing the Tartu Peace Treaty [in 1920], the Estonian government gave Estonians the chance to return to their home country (by choosing a citizenship and moving to the country they considered their new home country). About half of the Estonians living in Russia (over 100,000 people) applied. Many requests were rejected—some people were considered undesirable or too poor. About 80,000 requests were granted, and only half of these people made it to Estonia in the first half of the 1920s. Those 40,000, who were granted Estonian citizenship but did not come to Estonia, mainly opted for land settlement (some of them resided in Crimea) and had become wealthy during years of work. For example, Eduard Vilde writes about this in his travelogue. Even though their national enthusiasm was great and they had maintained strong cultural bonds with Estonia, there were many inhibiting factors—Russia prevented them from leaving, there was almost no one in Estonia waiting for them, and—most important—they could not take their wealth with them or sell their assets. In Estonia, they would basically need to start from scratch. So they decided to wait for a better moment, which did not arrive. Since the Estonian settlements in Crimea and the Caucasus were prosperous, the people there were called kulaks (wealthy peasants) soon after the borders between Estonia and the Soviet Union were closed, and their wealth was confiscated. Some were incarcerated for “oppressing the people”; many were impoverished. That was followed by the Great Purge of 1937–8, during which Estonians were among the targets. Tens of thousands of Estonian men lost their lives for no substantial reason; children, the elderly and women were left behind. One of the main charges against Estonians was sabotage and a connection to “white Estonia”.

In the Soviet Union, Estonian national culture was suppressed. Even the communist newspaper Edasi was closed down. Speaking Estonian was considered in poor taste and in some places speaking it in public was prohibited. People had to adapt to the rules in order to survive, and began to Russify voluntarily, even though they tried to keep Estonian customs alive at home.

After those long decades of mass persecution of Estonians, war and complete Russification, the Estonian spirit has been preserved in a form recognisable to us in Abkhazia and Siberia, and to a lesser extent in Crimea and Northern Caucasus (plus Sochi in Southern Caucasus), as well as the Tver region to some extent.

Estonians are such a small nation that it should be the task of the state to support each and every speaker of the language and keeper of the culture, not only in the home country but also around the world. Are we really willing to stop helping our countrymen because of our aggressive neighbour? Estonia should pursue a values-based foreign policy in national matters. Basing its actions on values means that all Estonians living all over the world are important to the state and we should do everything in our power to keep them attached to Estonia.

I have been in contact with the Estonian community in Crimea to get a better picture of their problems and find ways to help them. I discovered that one of the specific problems that needs solving is the poor state of their main gathering place, the Eesti Tare building in the village of Krasnodarka. It is crucial to maintain such a place in Crimea, where, according to the 2011 census and data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were 600 ethnic Estonians. Today, the building’s power has been cut off because the terrible state of the roof has turned it into a fire hazard. The roof needs fixing and the local community does not have sufficient means for this. But what is even more important is moral support—giving them hope that Estonia has not abandoned its compatriots and will continue to find ways to support them.

Estonia cannot, of course, ignore the position of Ukraine, but it must also understand that the sustainability of Estonian communities in Crimea is not Ukraine’s responsibility. It is Estonia’s. Since international payments to Crimea cannot be made, I have started my own support campaign to renovate Eesti Tare with the aim of taking the aid there myself.

This initiative has been met with contrasting opinions. There are people who think that a visit to Crimea would recognise the Russian occupation. I do not understand this interpretation. The official position of Estonia is, and will continue to be, that Crimea has been annexed in breach of international law. A visit by any politician or independent member of parliament to their compatriots in occupied areas cannot shake that position. Neither should we live in constant fear of the views of Western countries. The claim that “Our Western allies will not understand us”, which is often used by foreign-policy experts, is nothing more than the slogan of a policy of convenient submissiveness.

There have been examples in recent history when Estonia has not been afraid to take steps that were heavily criticised initially. In 1993, during the conflict in Abkhazia, thousands of Estonians lived there. The Estonian government decided to evacuate our nationals despite protests by the Georgian government that Estonia was recognising the “independence” of Abkhazia by protecting its countrymen. At the time, the goal was to protect Estonians anywhere.

Let me also remind you that, during the Soviet occupation, the “convenience” politicians had comrades across the border who were against Estonians visiting their home country, since they considered this to be a recognition of the Soviet occupation. Nowadays we can say that, happily, not all Estonians living abroad followed the more convenient and secure political logic. The visits they made were a breath of fresh air for Estonia, bringing literature, music, and knowledge about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

The turbulence of international policy can cause turmoil and make people more cautious. However, a dignified independent state protects and supports its people anywhere, including in Crimea. At the moment, this is stuck behind a political decision, which does not allow—or, to be more precise, wish—a way to be found to continue teaching Estonian in Crimea. However, Estonian diplomats are still doing a good job, as demonstrated by the fact that the ambassador in Kyiv contacted me promptly to find ways to visit Estonians living in Crimea. I would also expect similar active measures from members of the Estonian government. There is no need to take cover behind an “international situation”—it is important to think about how not to desert Estonia’s compatriots despite the political stalemate and to prove through our actions that Estonians in Crimea matter to us.


Estonia Defends Each and Every Estonian Living Abroad

Sven Mikser, Minister of Foreign Affairs (SDE)

Estonia does not recognize the unlawful annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation four years ago. However, this does not mean that communication and contacts with the Estonians living there are lost or that all possibilities have been cut off.

The cultural societies active in Crimea have received support for various cultural projects and for teaching Estonian. As part of the Compatriots’ Programme, young people from Crimea, as well as other young Estonians living abroad, have the chance to study in Estonia and take part in language and culture summer camps. The Ministry of Culture also offers them possibilities to participate in big events taking place in Estonia, as well as internet-based language-learning possibilities.

It is possible to visit Estonians living in Crimea, but this must be done in accordance with Ukrainian law. A citizen of Estonia can enter Crimea with a passport by crossing the Ukraine-Crimea control line, provided that entry and exit both take place through Ukraine. It must also be taken into account that, when an Estonian citizen enters Crimea through Russia and tries to leave it through Ukraine, sanctions by Ukraine will follow.

Crimea is not the only place in the world where Estonians have found themselves in a difficult situation because of political turmoil. Our representations abroad are open to all Estonians seeking guidance and help. However, the embassy can give help only in accordance with the regulations currently in force. Estonia has, for example, recognised the Neutral Travel Document issued by the Georgian government specifically to Estonians living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to facilitate their visits to Estonia. Estonia defends each and every Estonian living abroad, and the doors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our representations abroad are always open to them. “Big politics” will not change that.


A Way Must Be Found

Jaak Prozes, Adviser at the non-profit organisation Fenno-Ugria

One can certainly agree with Jaak Madison’s statement that preserving the Estonian language and culture, wherever it may be, should be the job of the Estonian government. And when you look at the financial support given to Estonians living abroad through the Compatriots’ Programme, it is obvious that the Estonian government is doing just that. Financial support has also increased during the last few years. In addition, the Estonian government supports the languages and cultures of Finno-Ugric peoples living in Russia and their studies at Estonian universities.

Allocating money and giving support is not always easy. For example, Russia has had suspicions that by supporting the Finno-Ugric peoples, the Estonian government supports the representatives of those people who are working against the Russian government. In a strange way, it is possible to interpret support for the release of the few literary works of the Finno-Ugric peoples in their native languages or awarding prizes to writers as a sign of hostility—let alone supporting Finno-Ugric organisations on the spot, because there is an immediate risk that they will be put on the list of so-called “foreign agents”.

Supporting Estonians in Crimean Estonians is certainly not an easy task, as it requires cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities. Crimean Estonians are very interested in possible support from Estonia, but that might be merely their personal position. What is the position of the Russian authorities who occupied Crimea? That might not be understood unambiguously, or—most importantly—positively. But it is clear that Crimean Estonians need cultural exchanges because, without this communication, they will quickly lose their connection to Estonia and the Estonian language.

The Estonian government probably needs to find ways to keep the Estonian spirit alive in Crimea. I believe there is a way to do this through greater involvement of civil society and various citizens’ initiatives. It might be worth examining how the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany support their remaining compatriots in Crimea, their communities and school-level education in current conditions.

A separate issue is members of the Estonian government participating in events taking place in Crimea, even those only involving the Estonian community. This would definitely send out the signal that we recognise Crimea as part of Russia. But contacts at the grass-roots level are of paramount importance.


Andres Herkel, Member of the Riigikogu (Vabaerakond)

The wish to visit and support compatriots is certainly noble. Still, as an older colleague, I would suggest Jaak Madison considers doing it with less self-promotion and finds someone else with a smaller political role than he himself currently has, in order to keep in touch with the Estonians in Crimea.

Jaak Madison is an international player—vice-chairman of the European Union Affairs Committee and a member of the Estonian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). I would like to point out that only publicly pro-Russia figures have previously raised the subject of occupied areas at PACE.

In 2010, the British Conservative Party member David Wilshire (who later left politics due to allegations of corruption) went to the so-called “embassy of South Ossetia” in Moscow as a rapporteur for PACE. This was followed by loud protests by the Georgian authorities and significant negative fallout.

In 2014, Thierry Mariani, a former minister from France, visited the annexed Crimea. His visit and pro-Russia statements caused confusion.

Even if Madison does not acknowledge the current status of Crimea in the way Marini did, it is still possible that he will be exploited. A visit by a member of the Riigikogu could be used as an excuse by other European politicians to visit Crimea with different intentions.

If Madison wants to get donations to Estonians in Crimea, he should listen to the recommendations of Georgii Logvynskyi or Mustafa Dzhemilev, who represent the Crimean Tatar people in the Ukrainian delegation to PACE; he can talk to them during the meetings in Strasbourg, and probably no one else could give him better advice for his noble cause.


Oliver Loode, Director of the URALIC Centre for Indigenous Peoples

I agree with Jaak Madison in a sense that the Estonian government should not subject supporting the Estonian communities abroad to the winds of geopolitics. On the premise that Madison actually has noble goals, he could even be praised for drawing attention to the problems of Estonians living in Crimea. At the same time, it is not certain that his mission will have the expected result. I have no doubt in his ability to get wads of cash there, but how will the surveillance and reporting on the use of the money work? Considering the general lawlessness and the arbitrary actions of the special services there, I would not be too surprised if some of the money went into fixing up the dacha of some local FSB major.

Another, and far greater, risk is connected to the reports of Madison’s visits to Russia. I would like to recall that, in 2016, the pro-Kremlin media criticised the Estonian government for supporting the Crimean Tatar people rather than Estonians (even though these decisions were unrelated).1 In addition, the Russian media always play up visits to Crimea by members of governments from European countries, “proving” the divisions between them over Crimea. This is why any visit planned by Madison would provide a tempting opportunity for the Kremlin to score points in the information war. Whether and how Russia uses this scenario will depend on Madison’s actual intentions and competence. Nevertheless, I would recommend the Estonian government, in cooperation with the Ukrainian and Russian authorities, to find a way to continue supporting the Estonians in Crimea notwithstanding the occupation.

1 https://ria.ru/politics/20160229/1381909002.html; https://www.rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/310816-krymskie-estontsy/.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.