September 15, 2017

Thoughts on the Russian Compatriot Policy

Although the fiery 1990s have been over for a long time, the subject of the Russian (speaking) minority living in Estonia seems to become more and more relevant.

What are they thinking about? Are they loyal to their country of residence? Why are they not mastering the national language? Who are they, really? It is notable that to this day Estonian historians are not actively searching for answers to these questions, even though almost a quarter of a century has passed since the tense Estonian–Russian conflict at the time of restoring independence to Estonia, and there seems to be no shortage of material.
The notion that the local Russian diaspora has been poorly integrated into local society and instead directs its gaze towards Russia is widespread, both in Estonia and abroad. Although research on the subject of Estonian national policy has been published,1 the role of the historical homeland of Russians living in Estonia in the integration process and the mobilisation of the Russian minority has not received attention. A recent book by Agnia Grigas, an American political scientist of Lithuanian descent, published by a renowned US publisher, fills that void: all the countries that gained or restored their independence (other than Russia) after the collapse of the Soviet Union—or, to be more exact, the compatriot policy that Russia cultivates in those countries—are under observation.
The concept of “compatriot” (“соотечественник” in Russian) is very broad and most often involves Russian citizens as well “encompasses ethnic, cultural, linguistic, political and even spiritual connotations”, depending on the context (p. 57). The approach has certainly changed over time, and this is expressed both in the rhetoric of Russian authorities and in the documents regulating the compatriot policy (pp. 78–82). According to Grigas’s concept, the policy towards Russians living in the territory of the former Soviet Union and/or their countries of residence is divided into seven stages: soft power, humanitarian policies, compatriot policies, information warfare, offering passports, protection by military means, and annexation. At the same time, those stages may not occur exactly in that order and scenarios may occur in which only a few of the listed measures are applied.
The book offers an insight into the development of Russia’s compatriot policy and explains how it developed to its current form. Grigas is not a historian, and her approach is to write more through the eyes of a political scientist even when exploring past developments. Grigas claims that Russia began to target the countries of the so-called “near abroad” to a greater extent when Vladimir Putin became president, i.e. in 2000 (pp. 9–12), although the first official documents indicating this approach had been prepared as early as 1992 (p. 51). Such activity by Russia is related to the general wish to increase its influence, primarily on the territories of the “near abroad” countries that were part of the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that one of the most popular tools in satisfying this need turns out to be a severely distorted notion of historical truth characteristic of the Russian authorities. Manifestations of this range from calling the Baltics and Ukraine fascist (p. 35) to creating the President’s Commission to Prevent Falsification of History (p. 49).
The country case studies are divided into four chapters, although the deciding factor has been the selection of measures by Russia, rather than the geographic proximity of the countries: Georgia has ended up beside Moldova and Ukraine (each has separatist conflict(s) of different levels of intensity), and Belarus with Armenia (faithful allies of Russia, who Russia targets from time to time). Readers will certainly be interested in the part of the book devoted to countries in Central Asia because news from that region rarely crosses the news threshold in the Baltic States and the West in general.
The chapter on the Baltic States (pp. 136–71) bears the title “NATO’s Achilles’ Heel”. This part of the book includes developments from recent decades generally well-known to those interested in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian politics, but places them in the context of Russian politics and does so in retrospect: we are inclined to remember events from the latest news stories rather than the key crises of our time, e.g. the 1993 referendum on the autonomy of Narva in the case of Estonia (p. 167).
Grigas notes that the application of all seven stages of compatriot policy to the Baltic States is unlikely because it is doubtful that Russia could ever reach the stage of annexation. Nevertheless, these countries’ NATO and EU membership does not prevent Russia from applying other measures, primarily to destabilise the political and economic environment. Grigas’s knowledge of the region is important also because the differences between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are listed clearly and in accordance with facts, and the nations are not just arbitrarily lumped together under the denominator of “Baltic States”, which might seem a group of almost identical countries for a reader not familiar with the details. This is also confirmed by the methods Russia has used towards the Baltic States regarding the compatriot policy: in addition to the usual propaganda, major riots and cyber-attacks (primarily during the Bronze Night in 2007) have been organised in Estonia, while in Latvia a certain degree of success has been achieved by using the influence of local oligarchs. In Lithuania, where the Russian diaspora is smaller, an entirely different but even more important issue for Russia enters the picture: turning Lithuania into a smoothly operating transit corridor so as to deliver weapons and equipment to Kaliningrad Oblast. The examples mentioned are individual cases and the book describes several more.
Every chapter has a linear structure and views events from the formation of the Russian diaspora to the current situation, mostly with the help of political documents, media coverage and literature. Although experts and/or assistants from countries of different regions were involved in writing the book, non-English or non-Russian sources have been used sparingly. The source-base is enlivened by dozens of interviews conducted specifically for the book with both experts and ordinary people on the subject of the identity of Russians and Russian speakers.
Grigas is an experienced observer and columnist and she writes in a clear yet eloquent language not overburdened by quotations or references, which is therefore palatable for a wider readership. With regard to the book’s language, the dilemma of transliterating the name of the capital of Ukraine into English is worth mentioning: although the UN and Ukrainian society prefer the Ukrainian-style “Kyiv”, the book uses the Russian version “Kiev”, as is customary in English-language media.2
The author suggests that the countries in Russia’s sphere of interest should prepare appropriate policy measures to ensure an adequate response to Russia’s steps in whatever field—from influencing the economy to engaging in a propaganda war (pp. 250–6). Of course, the measures must be proportionate: while, in Grigas’s opinion, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia should offer as much economic, educational and cultural support as possible to their separatist regions, for Estonia and Latvia the main issue of concern should be the mentality of the Russian-speaking diaspora, i.e. these states should engage in counter-propaganda (p. 255).
Alas, the book does not cover Russia’s policy towards other countries with significant Russian communities, even though the analysis of those programmes would doubtless be of great interest. How does a Russian live outside Russia, on the home turf of the enemy, as depicted in Russian propaganda? Grigas is optimistic about the younger generation, who are becoming averse to Moscow’s activities in the so-called near abroad (p. 254). When the author asks a Russian-speaking Latvian doctoral student what he thinks about Putin’s attempts to protect the Russians living in Latvia, the student’s answer hits the nail on the head: “Protection from what?—Gays and freedom from censorship? All enemies of Baltic Russian speakers are imaginary” (p. 141). Unfortunately, this is not so with the ever-increasing threat of falling victim to Russia’s influence in one way or another, Agnia Grigas warns us.
1 Reigo Lokk, Sepistades natsiooni: taasiseseisvunud Eesti etnopoliitilised konfliktid. Doktoritöö, Tartu Ülikool, 2015.
2 On this subject, see, for example: Adam Taylor, “Is It Time For The West To Stop Calling It ‘Kiev’ And Start Calling It ‘Kyiv’?”, Business Insider, 24 January 2014, available at: (last accessed on 24 February 2017).


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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