Interview by Jan Puhl
Jevgeni Ossinovski, the sole member of the Russian minority serving as a minister in the Estonian government, says he doesn’t fear that Vladimir Putin will seek a repeat of Crimea in the Baltics. The Russian minority, he argues, is firmly anchored in Europe.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all members of the European Union since 2004, are also home to sizable ethnic Russian populations. In many cities, like Narva in Estonia, they even represent the majority. Still, Jevgeni Ossinovski doesn’t believe that the Baltic Russians want to be under Vladimir Putin’s sway. The 28-year-old education and research minister, appointed last month, is the first member of the Russian minority to join the Estonian government in the past 12 years.
Ossinovski spoke to SPIEGEL about his country’s Russian minority in the context of the Crimea crisis and worries that Russia’s president might seek to destabalize the Baltic region.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Ossinovski, do you feel more Russian or Estonian?
Ossinovksi: That depends. When I am outside the country, I am an Estonian and a European. At home, I say: I am a Russian-speaking Estonian.
SPIEGEL: Russian is the mother tongue of more than one-quarter of the 1.3 million Estonians. Are you just as loyal?
Ossinovski: Most would probably call themselves Russian — but that in no way means that they are involved in any kind of perpetual conflict with the Estonian population. And no party here would call for the secession of parts of Estonia. The Russian minority doesn’t even have a strong party.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear that Moscow could seek to mobilize nationalist sentiment in order to create a pretext to invade as happened in Crimea?
Ossinovski: The situation here is in no way comparable to that in Crimea. It is possible that there were attempts on the Russian side in the past to stir up the population, but they haven’t been successful. I don’t know anyone who would say that Putin is their protector. Or that they would prefer to live in Russia instead of Estonia. Of course many Russians here watch Russian state television, and this does color their view of the Crimea crisis. Nevertheless, at least half of them are also of the opinion that Putin violated international law by annexing Crimea.
SPIEGEL: Seven years ago, young Russians in Estonia clashed with the police because the authorities moved a memorial to the Soviet army. You’re suggesting that now, suddenly, there are no remaining tensions?
Ossinovski: Of course there are many contentious issues. The unemployment rate is higher among Russians than it is for the rest of the population. It also remains a challenge to bring the Russia-language education system in line with the Estonian standards. And our history contains a number of contentious issues. Many Estonians view the Russians as the descendants of the very occupying force that incorporated the country into the Soviet Union during World War II. However, the latest studies show that, privately at least, there are hardly any tensions. Some 95 percent of those polled say they think positively about the people they know, respectively, from the other group.
SPIEGEL: Do members of Estonia’s Russian minority feel like they are fully-fledged citizens of the EU?
Ossinovski: Young people in particular, regardless whether they are ethnically Estonian or Russian, tend to identify very strongly with the EU. They go to study or work in Western countries. They are very conscious of what Europe offers them: democracy, freedom and higher incomes. At the same time, they are also proud to be preserving Russian culture in Europe. It bothers them that Putin is trying to claim a monopoly on this.