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Russian Rights and Estonian Wrongs

Message Nicolai Petro
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Originally published in The Providence Journal on Wednesday, May 9, 2007

THE RIOTS LATE LAST MONTH in Estonia were the predictable result of state policies that have deprived nearly a quarter of the population of any meaningful civil rights. Sadly, the very Western institutions that were supposed to help safeguard those rights have been complicit in the majority ethnic group’s efforts to permanently exclude the minority from power.

Over the course of several years, the government’s discriminatory policies have included: the passage of laws requiring that all political meetings and private businesses be conducted by “fluent” speakers of Estonian, the removal of the popularly elected mayor of the town of Sillamae for not speaking Estonian well enough, the prosecution of elected officials in the town of Narva under hate-crimes statutes for taking part in a World War II memorial service under the slogan “Narva is against fascism!” and the abrupt cancellation of all 25 Russian television channels by cable operators in the capital, Tallinn (watched by a quarter of city’s population).

The West must bear a large portion of the blame for current events because it has always let political expediency trump minority-rights considerations in the Baltic States. In the early ’90s it was deemed more important to encourage the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Later, in the mid-’90s, during the debates over expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was said that security concerns should be paramount. At the turn of the century, European Union expansion was given precedence. At each turn, non-native residents were assured by Western leaders that Estonia’s inclusion in these organizations would soon take care of all their problems.

Instead, however, Estonian leaders have taken approval of membership in Western organizations as proof that they can safely ignore the civil rights of their non-native minority. They have learned that, while the West talks a good game about human rights, in the final analysis these will always yield to political interests.

Given this history, it is scarcely surprising that minority sensitivities registered so little with the government that a monument to the fallen of World War II was dismantled nearly on the eve of Victory Day, the one holiday universally revered by former Soviet citizens of all nationalities. Overnight the Estonian government managed to turn an old relic that few had given any thought to in years into a unifying symbol for a nationwide civil-rights movement.

Neo-cons in the West will no doubt try to cast this as a familiar case of “us against them,” with the Russian minority playing the role of the villain, egged on by Kremlin imperialists. But while there are no doubt some in Moscow who wish to make political hay out of this incident, the real blame lies squarely with the West. By turning a deaf ear to the just grievances of the minority, it has transformed a relatively tranquil ethnic relationship into one of seething resentment.

This problem is much larger than commonly acknowledged. Today, there are nearly one million persons in the E.U. who, because of their language, national heritage or cultural affiliation, are being deprived of any meaningful political voice by Estonia and Latvia. Indeed, as Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks explained last year, his country has no intention of applying the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to anyone whose ancestors have not lived in Latvia less than 100 years! The E.U.’s acceptance of this amazing statement makes a mockery of its claims to represent a democratic model that respects the rights of national minorities.

It is high time to right these wrongs. First, Western politicians must firmly reject the ideology of ethnocracy, and push for full and equal rights for anyone recognized as permanent residents in the country where they live. There cannot be one standard for this in Western Europe and another in Eastern Europe.

Second, how can anyone take human rights seriously if Western politicians scream bloody murder at the detention of a few score demonstrators in Moscow, but then try to sweep the arrest of more than 1,000 and the injury of several hundred in Estonia quietly under the rug . Rights should have the same meaning across the entire continent.

The events now unfolding in Estonia stem from a systematic denial of fundamental rights that has for too long been condoned by the West. This problem will continue to fester until both Estonia and Latvia are compelled to fully uphold the democratic and human-rights standards that their membership in NATO and the E.U. oblige them to.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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