A set of posters in Estonia appearing to advocate ethnic segregation has stoked anger among members of the country’s Russian minority and caused dormant ethnic tensions to resurface ahead of parliamentary elections in March.
The six posters appeared overnight on January 6-7 on both sides of a tram stop in the center of Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet republic in the Baltics that is now a member of both NATO and the European Union.
Three of the posters, reading “Only Estonians here,” covered one-half of the tram stop. The others, pasted over the other half, read “Only Russians here.” A column in the center of the glass-and-steel structure, which separated the two sides, had been colored red.
It was initially unclear who was responsible for the provocative slogans, which immediately provoked a backlash in a country where up to one-quarter of the population considers itself ethnic Russian and where tensions between the two ethnic groups continue to exist below the surface.
A separate message at the bottom of each poster listed two different phone numbers, one for Russian and one for Estonian speakers, and the words — in both languages — “call if you have questions.”
Plenty of people did. When reporters from the independent daily Postimees rang, an automated voice message in Estonian mentioned the March 3 vote and said: “We, Estonians, should unite. Make sure you stand on the right side!” A call to the other number provided brought the same message in Russian, but with “Estonians” substituted for “Russians,” Postimees reported.
By evening on January 7, the signs had been covered up with adverts for a joint production by Tallinn’s Russian- and Estonian-language theaters. The new image showed two touching tongues, one colored with the Russian and the other with the Estonian flag, according to the Delfi news site. When RFE/RL called the number from the original posters, an automated message said the line was temporarily inactive.
On January 8, it emerged that the controversial posters had been the work of Eesti 200, a new, small party that has sought ahead of the upcoming vote to refocus attention on the ongoing issue of integrating Russian speakers into Estonian society. Eesti 200 leader Kristina Kallas told Estonian media that the uproar caused by the posters proved that the issue remained highly relevant for Estonia.
Both ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians appeared unimpressed. “Maybe they should split society as America once did between blacks and whites,” one Facebook user wrote in Russian.
“They divided our society already in the 1990s, calling Russians second-class citizens,” another Facebook user Anna Yerofeyeva wrote.
“Everybody feels disgusted. If I had to stand there and wait for the tram, where do I stand?” Ester Vaitmaa wrote on Facebook. “This type of labeling doesn’t exist in schools and at work and this campaign ad did not seem well-intentioned at all.”
During a TV debate organized by the Eesti Paevaleht daily on January 9, Eesti 200 members found themselves facing criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. “We saw that this provocation that you brought to the streets has reached the TV channels of the Russian Federation, where it’s been used provocatively and without explanation,” said Prime Minister Juri Ratas of the center-left Center Party during the debate.
And in a Facebook post, Viktoria Ladynskaya-Kubits, a Russian-Estonian representing the right-wing Pro Patria party, wrote: “You may just as well have hit a woman in the face and said the next day: ‘You see, she is hurt now, and domestic violence is still a problem in society.'”
‘Not Seen Since Apartheid’
Russian state media did indeed seize upon the poster campaign. “The modern world, the world in general, has seen nothing like this for years. Probably since apartheid in South Africa,” a presenter on flagship news channel Rossia 24 said on January 9. The incident featured in Russian news programs throughout the day, culminating in a discussion on the popular 60 Minutes talk show.
Estonia’s Russian minority is a legacy of the Soviet Union, which occupied the three Baltic states after World War II and settled them with thousands of Russians as part of a “Sovietization” campaign. The two sides live in relative peace, though Russian state media has traditionally stoked tension at times.
In 2007, a decision to relocate a statue of a Soviet soldier from the center of Tallinn provoked days of riots across Estonia that left one person dead and over 100 wounded.
The question of integrating Russians into Estonian society remains a fraught political issue — especially during election time.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Russians in Estonia remain “non-citizens” after failing to qualify for citizenship after the Soviet collapse and much of the education system is split between Estonian-language and Russian-language schools.
During a TV debate held on January 9, Kallas, the Eesti 200 leader, admitted the poster stunt may have been ill-judged. “There were a lot of hurt feelings in the Russian community, I agree. We could not see that coming,” she said. “But I think it showed that these wounds, regarding how the communities relate to each other, are very strong and have not fully healed.”
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.