June 27, 2017

Russian Influence in Estonia

Bronze statue of a World War Two Red Army soldier that was relocated from the city centre is seen in a military cemetery in Tallinn
Bronze statue of a World War Two Red Army soldier that was relocated from the city centre is seen in a military cemetery in Tallinn

In 1991, Estonia restored its independence after being occupied by the Soviet Union for about half a century.

While the occupation did leave its mark on society, however, Estonia has managed to ‘come out’ from Russian influence relatively quickly and successfully. After regaining its freedom, Estonia took a clear position towards the West, making joining the EU and NATO (among other international organizations) one of its top priorities.

During the last 25 years, Russian influence in Estonia has been gradually decreasing. Today, in most areas, it has no considerable impact. For Estonia, ties with its Baltic Sea neighbors and with the EU as a whole are much more important—and stronger—than those with Russia.

Russia has been an important trade partner for Estonia, but its importance has decreased since 1991—and has shrunk more rapidly in recent years, especially after Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This decline is not only a result of sanctions, but also of Estonia’s continuous search for alternative markets. Now, in contrast to previous decades, Russia is not even among Estonia’s top five trade partners. When it comes to energy, even though Estonia imports natural gas primarily from Russia, this represents only about 8 percent of the country’s overall energy needs; some 65-70 percent of the energy Estonia uses is produced domestically. As for the real estate, business, banking sectors, Russia’s presence has almost vanished. Moreover, there is no noticeable Russian footprint in the finance sector either. As for foreign direct investment, Russia has about a 4% share as both origin and destination.

Unfortunately, due to its actions, Russia still remains the number one security threat to Estonia. Estonian society, however, does not always see it that way. In this respect, there is a noteworthy difference in attitudes between the Estonian- and Russian- speaking population. Almost 90% of Russian speakers do not see Russia as a threat to Estonia, as compared to less than 30% of Estonian-speakers. The reason for this difference lies mainly in the two communities’ different information spaces. Many of the Russian-speaking population live in the Kremlin’s information space and endorse its views, even though they do not want to live in Russia and would rather continue to enjoy all the privileges they have in the EU. Meanwhile, many younger Russian speakers do not believe any source of information, whether Russian or Western.

Historical and cultural narratives play a major role in Russia’s foreign policy, including policy towards Estonia. In its messages to Estonia’s Russian-speakers, the Kremlin frequently accuses Estonia of violating Russian minority rights or labels it as a country that praises Nazism. Yet, as much as Russia may want to play the discrimination card, the reality is that even non-citizen Russian-speakers enjoy most of the rights and privileges as do citizens of Estonia. The Nazi label is also hard to justify. Ultimately, the idea of these kinds of accusations and actions is to connect the Russian diaspora with “Mother Russia.” This wider goal is to prevent “compatriots” from integrating into local societies, thereby keeping them in the Russian information space—so they can be useful in influencing Estonia and other Baltic states without direct interference from the Russian state.

The challenges Estonia faces today are primarily those of disinformation and actions in the cyber field. In a digital society as Estonia, online media—including social media—can play an important role as a platform for spreading Kremlin-minded (dis)information narratives. Furthermore, given the high degree of media freedom in Estonia, it is easy to post almost anything online, whether as comments on established media pages or as posts on one’s own blog. In Estonia, most disinformation centers on anti-NATO rhetoric or on alleged violations of the human rights of Russian speakers; there have also been attempts to inflame fear among the public about immigrants and refugees. The latter is also a topic for populist parties; even if they are not anti-Western as such, they can give Russia a fertile ground for fomenting divisions within the EU and NATO—thereby expanding its sphere of influence in Europe.

When it comes to actions in cyber space, Russia is quite advanced. As the Estonian foreign and domestic intelligence agencies have concluded in their annual reports, when it comes to cyber space, Russia is the greatest threat to Estonia as well as to the EU and NATO as a whole. It can be via direct cyber attack, cyber espionage, cyber crime or disinformation spread via cyber space.

Even though Estonia has managed to reduce Russian influence during the past 25 years, Russia is continuously seeking means of influencing not just the Baltic states, but all Western societies, including the Baltics. Therefore, cohesion and mutual understanding of the threat to NATO and EU members—together with mutual actions—is crucial.

To read the full report, please click here (pdf)

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