In 2008, Russia justified its invasion of the Republic of Georgia under the pretext of protecting the rights of ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians. Six years later, it made a similar argument when it invaded the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, stating that military action was necessary to protect Russians from the new pro-European government.
Neither of these cases warranted intervention, especially because there was a lack of reports on the existence of systematic and gross human rights violations being committed by the Georgian and Ukrainian governments at the time. In Georgia, there was no evidence that the Georgian government engaged in large-scale human rights violations against Abkhazians and Ossetians. Meanwhile, Russia was reportedly involved in ethnic cleansing against Georgians. Likewise in Crimea, the United Nations Human Rights Commission concluded that “Russian-speakers have not been subject to threats in Crimea,” yet Russia was involved in systematic attacks against Crimean Tatars.
Consequently, when Putin declared that it was Russia’s responsibility to protect ethnic Russians in its neighbouring countries, Estonia and Latvia feared that they would be attacked next, given that one-quarter of their respective populations are ethnic Russian. With Russia having previously made dubious claims regarding human rights violations of ethnic Russians in Georgia and Ukraine, those in the Estonian and Latvian governments found it easy to dismiss the idea that the rights of ethnic Russians were under threat in their country. In reality, ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia face a vast amount of discrimination — to the point that it has been called out by organizations such as the UN and the EU.
Ethnic Russians face discrimination within the state system which curtails their political and civil rights. For example, ethnic Russians born prior to independence in Estonia and Latvia, are not automatically granted citizenship. In order to get citizenship, they have to pass a rigorous citizenship test that assesses an individual’s ability to speak Estonian or Latvian. While many ethnic Russians have successfully attained citizenship, a vast number – roughly one-third in Estonia and half in Latvia – have failed to do so, due to either the difficulty of the citizenship test or to protest the fact that they are not granted the birthright citizenship afforded to Estonians and Latvians. Consequently, roughly 10% of the population is considered stateless, with nearly all of them being Russian, thereby rendering them unable to vote or hold office nationally and in the European Parliament.
Discrimination also affects ethnic Russians economically. Without citizenship, ethnic Russians are prohibited from working in the government. Even for ethnic Russians with citizenship, their language skills in both Estonia and Latvia are frequently retested by employers, with failure resulting in job termination. Consequently, unemployment tends to be higher and wages much lower amongst ethnic Russians.
Outside of the state and economic sphere, ethnic Russians face discrimination in the educational system. In both Estonia and Latvia at higher levels of education, a greater proportion of course material is required to be taught in Estonian or Latvian respectively, with the consequence being a lower rate of educational attainment and higher dropout rates among ethnic Russians. Ethnic Russians also face discrimination from fellow Estonians and Latvia. The 2009 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey reported that one out of every ten ethnic Russians in Estonia avoided certain places, such as shops or cafés because they believed they would receive bad treatment due to their background. With respect to Latvia, data on discrimination is unavailable since it often goes unreported due to a lack of remedies available to those who experience it. However, one high-level case that is illustrative of many Estonians attitudes towards Russians occurred when Latvia Foreign Minister Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis corresponded and expressed agreement via email with Latvian ultra-nationalist Aivars Slucs, who stated in the email that Latvians and Russians were not equal.
Despite the discrimination they face, ethnic Russians generally have a high level of loyalty to and appreciation for their country. After the invasion of Ukraine, a vast number of ethnic Russians in Estonia signed a petition denouncing the invasion and affirming the sovereignty of Estonia, while similar sentiments have been expressed in Latvia. In spite of this, however, Estonian and Latvian governments continue to worry that the small population of ethnic Russians could be used by Russia to destabilize the two countries. Thus, rather than addressing their grievances, discrimination appears to be exacerbated as a credible method for enhancing country security. For example, in Estonia, the government has cracked down on city councils that use the Russian language, while in Latvia those associated with Russian nationalists face persecution.
Ironically, such measures will have the opposite effect on increasing security. While ethnic Russians have shown little desire to join Russia and have been surprisingly supportive of NATO, continued discrimination could lead tensions to a boiling point. In 2007, the removal of a statue in Tallinn, Estonia commemorating Russians who fought in World War II led to deadly protests and lootings by ethnic Russians. For many, the removal of the statue represented the Estonians’ contempt of the minority Russian population.
Rather than cracking down on the activities of ethnic Russians, the governments of Estonia and Latvia should be working to ensure that their grievances are recognized and addressed. A major step forward would be to grant birthright citizenship to ethnic Russians, in accordance with state practice for ethnic Estonians and Latvians. This would allow for greater participation in politics and access to government jobs. Linguistic access should also be provided to education in both Russian and Estonian or Latvian respectively. Doing so would ensure the freedom of ethnic Russians to retain their language without fear of discrimination, while also learning Estonian and Latvian to ensure access to employment sectors that are dominated by these languages. Such measures will do much good while also enhancing the security of the two countries.