With the rise of Russia comes the rise of nationalism in its neighboring European countries. For example in Estonia and Latvia there are substantial Russian populations which are seen by the Right as enemies. In Lithuania there is a large Polish population which has a high support for Russia, and these Poles have also been seen as enemies. As nationalism rises, so does hatred for suspected ethnic threats; and not only this, paganism — the spirit of Egypt — becomes more and more popular. A rising Russia will be responded to with an intensification of nationalism, and in such an atmosphere, the horrors of the past could manifest again.
In this article we are focusing on the Baltic region’s nationalism and ethnic tensions, and we will get a little bit into history to get an idea of what bloodshed could happen again. Let us begin with Estonia, specifically with the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia which got third place in the 2019 parliamentary election, winning 19 seats. Since its founding, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia has been a part of the ethno-nationalist strata of politics. It has especially been against a Russian presence in Estonian society. For example, the party wants to transition all public schools of Estonia’s Russian speaking minority to Estonian language education.
The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia has its roots in the Estonian Patriotic Movement which was founded in 2006 (within the years of the germination of populists movements such as the Counter-jihad). From 2008 the Movement was led by Martin Helme who is now the current leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia. This party was founded in 2012 as the result of a merging between the People’s Union of Estonia and the Estonian Patriotic Movement. In the first three months of its existence, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia had, according to poles, zero support. Buts its reputation gradually began to rise up. One of the reasons for its popularity is its annual attendance to honor the Estonian Nazi SS, partaking in gatherings of the veterans of the Estonian Legion (Estonians who fought for the Waffen SS) at the Sinimaed Hills. In 2013, Martin Helme’s participation in the gathering was praised in Estonian media while the absence of other parties was deemed as the result of Russian anti-fascist propaganda.
The real rise of the party began in the same year in which many nationalist parties experienced a boom: 2015, the very year of the refugee crisis within the European Union. It was in this year when the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia got support from the mainstream right, including defectors mainly from Isamaa, the center-right Christian democratic party. In the parliamentary vote of 2015, the Conservative Party won 8.1% of the vote and 7 seats. One of those who won a seat (in both the Estonian parliament and the EU Parliament) was Jaak Madison (now the Deputy Chairman of the party) who wrote his praise for fascism and the Third Reich in a blogpost:
“In my eyes, fascism is an ideology that consists of quite a few positive and necessary nuances to preserve the nation state … It is true that there were concentration camps, forced labour camps, games with gas chambers were being played, but at the same time such ‘strict’ order brought Germany at the time out of a thorough s***hole”.
In August of 2018, Madison used a Nazi term for extermination after writing about a supposed murder by a Syrian immigrant in Stuttgart, and applied this term to Syrian and African refugees:
“New Europe and new Germany – one day an Eritrean pushes little boys and their mothers in front of a train, the other day a Syrian cuts a Kazakh with a sword. Let’s be tolerant and open, right? Die endgültige Lösung ist erforderlich.”
“Die endgültige Lösung ist erforderlich” means “the final solution is required” and was used by the Nazis to describe annihilation.
The youngest member of Estonia’s parliament (Riigikogu), Ruuben Kaalep, is also a member of the Conservative People’s Party and is, in fact, an enthusiast for shamanism. He has a shamanic drum and a fascination for the mythology of Nordic peoples. Speaking of his drum, Kaalep says: “It also depicts the North Stars, which must remind our young nationalists of our ultimate goal – to preserve their language and culture through the ages”.
For Kaalep, shamanism has always been in the roots of Estonian culture, and has existed in Estonia’s past in the form of witchcraft, practiced by witches, sages and healers. “Estonians have always had an invisible connection with the heritage and nature of their ancestors” says Kaalep. “This ancient worldview of Estonians always finds ways to come out again. As long as there is one’s own nation and language and consciousness, what is the connection with the country where we live, this ancient tradition of Estonians can be found and restored from a purely personal experience”.
Kaalep leads the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia’s youth branch, Blue Awakening (Sinine Ӓratus). In 2017, the group celebrated their fifth anniversary by having a torchlight procession at the Kaarsild bridge. One member gave a speech stating that the new national awakening lines up the ancient past with both the present and the future. The connections between past, present, and future, as said in this speech, is through ancestors who pass on the “flames of the Estonian spirit”. Kalaap added that Estonia will “enter the 22nd century and still live for thousands and thousands of years”.
The support for the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia can be seen in their rallies. For example, Kaalep started an annual custom for the party to assemble a torchlight procession to celebrate Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union. Its first procession was in 2014 and only had 120 people. In 2019, the crowd grew to 10,000.
Geopolitically, Estonia is in a very unique position, being right on the border with Russia and also having the largest Russian speaking city in the EU — Narva — which is (expectedly) a city that borders with the Russian Federation. Before the current war broke out, it was common for Russians in Narva to enjoy Russian programs. But now with the war, Estonia has banned Russian TV programs as they are considered to be largely Kremlin propaganda.
The population of ethnic Russians in Estonia has been estimated to be around 320,000. Most of these Russians live in the urban areas of Harju and Ida-Viru counties. With the exception of the Russian Old Believers who have been living in Estonia for over three hundred years, the great majority of Russians in Estonia are in the country because of immigration from Russia and other parts of the former USSR during the Soviet occupation of Estonia from 1944 to 1991.
But Russian presence in Estonia goes ways further back than this. Between 1558 and 1582, Ivan IV of Russia (Muscovy) captured large swathes of mainland Estonia before his troops were eventually driven out by Lithuanian-Polish and Swedish forces. The 17th century is when thousands of Russian Old Believers (escaping religious oppression in Russia) settled in areas that were, at that time, part of the Swedish empire, and and near the Western coast of Lake Peipus in Estonia.
In the 18th century, there was a war called the Great Northern War, in which the Russians and their allies defeated the Swedish empire alongside its allies, such as the Ottoman Empire (who brought in a massive force of 130,000), Holstein-Gottorp, numerous Polish magnates under Stanislaus I Leszczyński, and Cossacks under the Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa. On the other side, Russia had for its allies Denmark and Norway (who wanted to topple their Swedish rival), and later Prussia, Saxony (along with its Polish-Lithuanian troops), Hanover, and the Cossack Hetmanate. It was as if a war between Russia and an 18th century version of NATO had erupted. The Russians and their Danish-Norwegian allies made a threefold attack on Swedish Holstein-Gottorp, Swedish Ingria and Swedish Livonia which exists in Estonia today.
One of the zones of carnage in the war was the city of Narva, in Estonia, where today the EU has its highest Russian population, and which lies on the border with Russia. One of the major battles of the war was the Battle of Narna in which the Swedes defeated the Russians. Russia recovered from this defeat by building a new city in 1703, St. Petersburg, which gave the Russians direct access to the Baltic Sea. Sweden invaded Russia but its campaign ended in Poltova, in modern day Ukraine, where the Swedes lost to the Russians. After this loss, Sweden was invaded by Norway, Denmark and Russia. In the end, Sweden lost its status and Russia became the new dominating power in Europe, taking control of the Baltic regions, including Estonia.
This victory was followed by a period of Russian immigration into Estonia, especially in Talinn and Narva. So Russia has a very long history in Estonia. And if you think its silly to go back so far in history, remember that the Russians today will reference Kievan Rus’ when justifying its invasion of Ukraine. Since Estonia today has the largest population of Russians in the European Union, it would not be surprising to see, in the future, Russian troops in Estonia.
Within Estonia’s borders there have been tensions between ethnic Russians and the majority population. A lot of this goes back to the USSR when Russians migrated to Estonia when the country was under Soviet control. After the fall of the Soviet Union there were around three hundred thousand Russians left within Estonia.
If someone at the time could not prove that his ancestors lived in Estonia before 1940, he automatically was classified as a “person with undetermined citizenship.” While these people were given the right to live in Estonia, they were forbidden from voting (except in municipal elections), running for office, owning large property, and entering certain occupations such as law enforcement and law. Such rules could be seen in 1992, when the Estonian parliament was 100% ethnic Estonian. Ethnic Russians were, in the words of sociologists Maria Lauristin, “in the basements”; and so the most they could do business wise was open small shops and cafes on the lower floors of buildings.
On July 16, 1993, the authorities of the cities of Narva and Sillamäe held a referendum on the creation of Russian territorial autonomy within Estonia. The referendum was supposed to guarantee the city authorities the inviolable right of veto, which they could use on their territory in relation to laws adopted by the country’s parliament. The question at the referendum was put like this: “Do you want Narva to have a special status within Estonia?”
The majority of those who voted supported this proposal. But the Estonian government rejected the referendum as invalid. It perceived the initiative as an attempt to implement in Estonia the “scenario of a new Transnistria” with the subsequent prospect of unification with Russia. In other words, the Estonians were worried that if Narva and Sillamäe became autonomous cities within Estonia, they would provide an opportunity for Russia to annex the two cities and make them part of the Russian Federation, such as what they did in Transnistria and Crimea. The ethnic Russians were angered by Tallinn’s rejection of the referendum, and they started discussing launching a new referendum. Estonian authorities, wanting to abate the Russians, granted them the right to elect at least deputies for their own local governments. Professor at the University of Latvia, Juris Rosenvalds, explained the compromise:
“A referendum was brewing on the status of northeastern Estonia, where there are especially many Russians. A historic compromise was made: we let you participate in local elections, give citizenship to a number of respected people from your community, and in return you abandon the idea of a referendum. This compromise turned out to be a huge blessing for Estonia, because it immediately brought down the heat of ethnic contradictions and turned the dialogue into a much more constructive direction”
In 2016 the Russian government forbade the ethnic Russians who were born after February 6, 1992 from traveling to Russia without visas. This hit especially hard on young people who studied at Russian universities. But an uproar arose – and already in April 2017, the Russian government decided to let all Baltic non-citizens into the country, regardless of their age. Russia is seen as a second home for these Russians, while in Estonia they still face discrimination.
In order to become an Estonian citizen, one needs to pass exams for knowledge of the constitution of the state, the law on citizenship and, of course, the Estonian language. For many, the latter is the main stumbling block. Estonian, belonging to the Finno-Ugric family, is considered a very difficult language to learn. And it is difficult for local Russians, especially those living in Ida-Virumaa, to get the necessary linguistic practice. In the city of Narva, a self-sufficient Russian-speaking environment has developed.
The state provides a limited number of places for free language courses for citizenship applicants. But people complain that it is very difficult to sign up for them, since the number of applicants far exceeds the number of study places. So its not as if the Russian population is unwilling to learn. Since 2002, a simplified naturalization procedure has been introduced for graduates of gymnasiums and vocational schools. Since 1992, about 160,000 former non-citizens have been naturalized in the country. There are those who refuse to naturalize not only because of the complexity of the Estonian language and the possibility of traveling without visas to Russia, but because there is an “invisible ceiling” built in Estonia for foreigners. It is much more difficult for them to advance, to make a career, especially in government agencies.
A recent example is that in April 2019, a new government was formed in Estonia under the leadership of Jüri Ratas. There was not a single Russian minister in it, although representatives of this nationality make up 25% of the country’s population. The music critic Artemy Troitsky, who calls himself an “Estonian patriot”, admits that some things in Estonia embarrass him. “It turned out, in particular, that Estonia is a segregated country. About like South Africa, and not like Belgium with Wallonia and Flanders,” Troitsky said in September 2018 in an interview with the Estonian press.
He spoke about his conversation with an official from the Ministry of Education, who admitted that so far the country has not created good methods for teaching the state language to Russians. In 2019, the then president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, declared in parliament that the national minority schools in the country that teach in Russian are a “threat” to the state. Vicious rhetoric against Russians has been expressed by Estonian politicians. Urmas Reitelmann, a member of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, referred to Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority as “parasitical ‘tiblas'” (a derogatory term for a Russian person) as well as describing refugees as “cockroaches of convenience.”
There are people in Estonia who see such rhetoric as exasperating tensions so as to give Russia the justification to possibly invade the country (just as it did Ukraine). Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, says: “Russia wants to sow division in European society … So this actually creates a more favourable environment for Russian interference, because the level of cohesion here is weaker”.
Anti-Russia sentiment has (expectedly) increased in the Baltic states after the start of the war in Ukraine. For example, one of the biggest parties in Latvia, the National Alliance, proposed to deny residency to Russian citizens in Latvia. In the Second World War, Latvia had a population of over 1.7 million people, and out of this over 87,000 joined the SS. Removing women, children and the elderly from the equation, this signifies a high percentage of SS recruitment. History, being a song that rhymes with the future, tells us that with a rising Russia will come a nationalist revival in the Baltic states, and given that so many Latvians joined the SS, such nationalism will have a vicious streak to it.
The National Alliance goes back to 2010, and started as an alliance between two parties, For Fatherland and Freedom and All For Latvia! Together they would win eight seats that same year. In July of 2011, the two parties formed the National Alliance. In the 2011 parliamentary election, the National Alliance won fourteen seats. One of its characteristics was being anti-Russia. With the aim of preventing pro-Russia parties from gaining seats in the government, the National Alliance joined in a center-right coalition with the Unity and Reform parties. On August 23rd of 2013, the All for Latvia! wing of the National Alliance signed the Bauska Declaration, alongside the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and the Lithuanian Nationalist Union, calling for a new national awakening in the Baltic states. The declaration also warned about “postmodernistic multiculturalism” and Russian expansion.
In October of 2014, the National Alliance gained seventeen seats in the parliament. The party takes aim against the Russian language, supporting the Latvianization of the bilingual education system, and making national identity, the Latvian language and culture as a priority as it is defined in the Constitution of Latvia.
In the Baltic world there is not just tension against Russian, but even Polish, specifically in Lithuania. In the town of Soleczniki, the inhabitants are 72% Polish, which means street signs are bilingual, being in both Lithuanian and Polish. But there is one particular sign — a directions post which is solely in Polish — which has been to the ire of the department dedicated to preserving the native language. This department, the State Language Inspection, is, in the words of Kresy (a Polish publication):
“a kind of Lithuanian police of the word. It controls and supervises public institutions, but also all non-governmental organizations, companies, mass media precisely in terms of the language they use. This is not a trivial matter in Lithuania. Already in 1990, gaining independence, the Republic of Lithuania was formed as a true ethnocracy.”
This directions post has multiple signs in Polish (with no Lithuanian translation), showing the way to the seat of the local government, a gymnasium, the city park, the local Cultural Center, the bus station and the hospital. The directions post was erected in 2014 and supposedly has not caused any issues until recently. The inspection found that the plaques placed in the main square of Solecznik “violate this law because they are written in Polish” without a Lithuanian translation.
The request of the government to have bilingual signs is not unreasonable, but it shows a definite ethnic tension. In Lithuania there is an ethnic difference within its Vilnius region where over 16% of the population is ethnically Polish. There are even Poles in Vilnius who are pro-Russia. From 1988 to 1991, political leaders in both Poland and Lithuania were trying to establish an autonomous Polish territorial unit within Vilnius with the help of the Russians. Many Poles were supporters of the Lithuanian Communist Party, and so its not surprising that the Kremlin was encouraging their actions. However, the unrest in Vilnius lasted only until 1991, with the collapse of the USSR. After that, a considerable part (36%) of the Russian-speaking population of the city left, and the remaining ones easily renounced the privileges of the “older brother” and reconciled themselves to the situation of the national minority.
Today there are still politically active Poles who are pro-Russia. There is, for example, Valdemar Tomaševski, Polish-Lithuanian politician who is also in the EU parliament, and who is the leader the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania–Christian Families Alliance (LLRA-KŠS). He has said some quite provocative things, such as that Lithuania is really a Polish land that belongs to Poles. In an interview Tomaševski was asked in regards to a law in Lithuania to introduce more Lithuanian language into Slavic schools to help the Slavs integrate better into Lithuania’s social life. Tomasevski expressed his outrage and answered, “Where to integrate? Where should we integrate to? We have lived here all the time. […] It is you who have to integrate in this land, because it was you who came here. Your ancestors have to integrate here, not us. This is our land.”
In 2014, the State Security Department of Lithuania listed some Lithuanian Polish politicians as a potential threat to the state. The report highlighted the demands of these politicians for ‘exclusive rights for the Vilnius region people’ and for their cooperation with pro-Kremlin party, the Russian Alliance, in elections. Russian television is not just popular amongst the ethnic Russians in Lithuania, but even amongst the ethnic Poles as well. One pole showed that non-Lithuanians, including Poles, prefer Russian, and not Lithuanian mass media. 61% of non-Lithuanians watch Russian TV at least once per day.
The same poll showed that national minorities tend to support Russia more than the Lithuanian majority does. Only 16% of ethnic minority respondents blamed Russia for the conflict in Ukraine, compared to 55% of Lithuanian respondents.
There have also been a lot of claims by the Russian and Polish communities of discrimination by the Lithuanian government, especially when it comes to education. For example, in 2015 there was a lot of talk about how the government was discriminating against Russian and Polish schools by forcing them to have a single standard for a Lithuanian language exam, as opposed to unique tests. “This is a mockery of our children,” Valdemar Tomaševski said in a conference in 2015. According to him, students attending Polish schools have 800 less Lithuanian language lessons than children from Lithuanian schools.
According to him, no new textbooks have been published, no teachers have been trained, therefore they should be assigned different tasks and different requirements when taking the state Lithuanian language exam. Graduates take a compulsory Lithuanian language and literature exam. The tasks are the same for students of both national minorities and Lithuanian schools, but representatives of national minorities may make more mistakes.
Edita Tamošiūnaitė, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania, stated that double standards are applied to national minority schools. Around a thousand Russians and Poles took part in a protest in Vincas Kudirka Square near the Government House against what they saw as discrimination. Partaking in the protest was Jaroslav Narkevičius, a deputy speaker of the parliament (Seimas) who said that the Ministry of Education and Science should provide privileges to schools for national minorities, since the experience of Poles is different from Lithuanians; education should be adapted to the different cultures and languages. “In the European Union and in the world, the so-called positive discrimination is protected – we cannot compare, for example, Lithuanians living in Punsk with Poles living there,” he explained.
The feeling of being ostracized is what has motivated the Poles to look to ally with their ethnic Russian neighbors and to look up more to Russia than to the government of Lithuania. These tensions in Lithuania between Poles and Lithuanians can be traced back to the first half of the 20th century.
In 1920 there was a war between the Poles and Lithuanians in which the former was the victor. As a result, the Poles got the province Vilnius. When the Germans were in Poland during the Second World War, they backed Lithuanian nationalists in an ethnic cleansing operation of the Polish population. The political faction that the Germans armed and trained was the Lithuanian Activists Front or the LAF. Before the German invasion of Poland, there were numerous Lithuanian activists in Berlin collaborating with the Nazis. One of these was Kazys Skirpa, a Lithuanian deputy known for his staunch pro-German position and viciously anti-Polish opinions. There were also disgruntled Lithuanians in Berlin who were followers of the prime minister of Lithuania, Augustinas Voldemaras, whose party, after a failed coup in 1934, sought out the backing of Germany. As a result of Skirpa’s work in Germany, in November of 1940 the Lithuanian Activist Front was established in Berlin with a network in Lithuania.
The LAF did not just consists of militants, but whole political parties as well, the biggest one being the National Unionists, whose slogan before the war was “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” the type of saying that is common today in populist Right-wing parties in Europe (another reminder that nothing has changed). When the Germans were in Vilnius region, the LAF raped, plundered and murdered. They esteemed themselves as “Lithuanian partisans,” but even the Germans called them “organized bands of robbers” whose rape, pillaging and slaughter was done daily. There was a Lithuanian professor who wrote an essay entitled “Why We Should Hate the Poles,” and the LAF called for the creation of ghettos for Poles, and demanded that Poles be forced to wear identification badges and that food rations be reduced for Poles. Wladyslaw Pobog-Manlinowski described life under the Lithuanian fascists:
“The Lithuanians who cooperated with the Germans oppressed, pestered, and harassed the Polish people, plagued and persecuted them, and with cool determination destroyed and exterminated all that was Polish in language, agricultural establishments, and culture. They Lithuanianized children in schools, disseminated Polonophobic propaganda in the press. The Lithuanian police was brutal, rapacious, boorish, and cruel in its frequent searches, arrests, and interrogations. Often, it surpassed the Gestapo in its treatment, interrogations, and demands for confessions from prisoners. The inspections, night raids, and street roundups carried out with the help of the Lithuanians went beyond the demands of the Nazis. Thousands of Poles, among them women and children, died from Lithuanian bullets, from butt-ends of rifles and bayonets.” (See Pietrowski, Poland’s Holocaust, ch. 6).
Since there are still indeed ethnic tensions between Pole and Lithuanian; since there are tensions with Russians in the Baltic countries, could such horror happen again? If the war in Ukraine expands, then the ethnic Russians living in the Baltic region, and the Poles who support Russia, will be seen as enemies by nationalist mobs. The Baltic states are a ticking time bomb.