Joint project reveals fears of Russians in Estonia

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It is probably impossible to integrate the Russian community in Estonia by Western standards, with the attitudes of Estonians playing a part in why, researchers at the University of Bergen and Tallinn University find.

Scientists have tried to answer the question why foreigners can integrate successfully and without resistance in Norway, while Estonians and Russians haven’t managed to find common ground after decades living together in the course of a joint project called DIMA. The project was published, together with minority studies from 15 other countries, last month.

Researchers looked at attitudes of Russians living in Norway toward Norwegians and vice versa, as well as the relationship between Estonians and the country’s Russian-speaking community. Participants included 500 Norwegians and 500 Estonians, as well as 500 Estonian Russians and 250 members of the Russian community in Norway.

“Norway and Estonia are very different; however, most studies have shown that integration is the best adaptation strategy – people should integrate,” said Professor David Lackland Sam, Norwegian author of the Norway-Estonia joint study. He added that Russians who assimilate, or take over Estonians’ ways, tend to do best in Estonia.

When it came to Russians in Norway, all general prerequisites for integration were confirmed. These prescribe what it takes for integration to be successful. First, if people are confident in the survival of their cultural identity, they are more willing to accept people of different backgrounds.

Secondly, the integration hypothesis says that people want to integrate because it allows them to be more successful than they could be clinging to just one group.

Better life not enough to motivate

While these prerequisites work in a lot of countries, they do not in Estonia. People are often willing to bear less fortunate conditions and shut themselves in their groups here.

“This shows that the context between majority and minority cultures in Estonia is very different from those in Canada and Norway for example. My Estonian colleague realized this and put together a new theoretical approach (the theoretical part of the DIMA project – ed.) to reflect it,” Sam said. He added that the new theoretical framework could be used to study other societies that have a strong Russian influence.

For example, Russians living in Norway believe it is logical they are expected to learn Norwegian. “It is not that important for Norwegians whether immigrants speak proper Norwegian, while it is important for Russians in Norway. The fact Norwegians are not as demanding in this regard shows that they are confident when it comes to their language and see no reason to force it on people,” Sam said.

“Russians in Norway see that they need the language to cope, while it’s the other way around in Estonia,” he added. Estonia’s Russians demand more state support and bilingualism for themselves as a minority.

“It is commonplace for immigrants to feel discriminated against in nation states,” said the project’s Estonian research lead, Professor of Comparative Politics at Tallinn University Raivo Vetik. That is not the case in Norway – Norwegians feel Russians in the country are discriminated against more strongly than Russians do themselves.

“It is the other way around in Estonia. Estonians feel the Russian community is not suffering from discrimination, while Russians feel they are,” Vetik added.

That said, researchers believe integration can only be successful if the majority group is open to cultural diversity. This means willingness on both sides to accept each other and each other’s differences. Integration might be impossible in a situation where one side is waiting for the other to change.

Russians living in Norway are no different from other Eastern European immigrants in the eyes of Norwegians. The study found that Russians in Norway were in favor of immigration, even though they also wished to keep their Russian identity.

“Russians in Estonia believe that Estonians want them to assimilate rather than integrate,” Vetik said. Estonia’s Russians perceive they have lower social status and feel discriminated against economically. Estonians believe Russians have no cause to feel that way because there is no nationality-based discrimination in Estonia.

Polarization cause for concern

“Before we can set about creating a harmonious society, we need to admit we have national polarization and address it. Nothing can come of it if we cannot admit the problem exists, and things will only get worse. It seems to me this is what is happening with Catalonia in Spain,” Sam said.

The study showed that 24 percent of Estonians support multiculturalism, which matches Russians’ gut feelings: Russians feel a quarter of Estonians support multiculturalism. Integration is the right path in the minds of a similar part of Russians at 22 percent.

More Estonians (32 percent) expect Russians to assimilate, and Russians feel that pressure even more strongly. They believe 37 percent of Estonians want to see them assimilated.

“A lot of Russian people feel assimilation pressure, and that is the reason why most Russians are in the breakaway group,” Vetik said.

The Russian community can be divided roughly in four in terms of their attitude toward Estonians. The breakaways (34 percent) and people who do not feel they belong (19 percent) are the most critical.

“They feel they are being Estonianized, and their reaction is to build a sturdy wall between the us and them groups,” Vetik said.

If the breakaways protect their cultural identity because they feel unequal and threatened, Russians who feel they do not belong are indifferent toward the Russian community but even more so as concerns Estonians. Neither group wants to communicate with Estonians. The choice between integration and assimilation is strongly influenced by financial situation. A person who integrates (22 percent) fears separation as it might hurt their already poor financial situation, while the financial

security of a person who assimilates (23 percent) is strong enough for them not to feel the need to protect the rights of Russians as a minority.

Russians in Norway and Estonia share one major similarity however: communication between peoples reduces prejudice and stereotypes. Russians value contact with Estonians more than Estonians value contact with the Russian community. Self-respect is an important factor – Russians who are more confident are better at making contact and adjusting. That said, contact also resulted in positive attitude toward minority rights in Estonians.

“It is understandable that everything that is alien is found to be intimidating during periods of rapid change. Estonia has gone through extraordinary change in the past 25 years, and we shouldn’t expect people to act purely rationally in this context,” Vetik finds. He believes Estonians’ attitudes are understandable if we look at historical context. “There simply aren’t any quick fixes here.”