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"On the border", The Economist


How nervousness over Russia affects daily life and politics

NARVA, an Estonian town on the Russian border, is tired of hearing it is next. "There simply couldn't be a repeat of Crimea here," says Vladislav Ponjatovski, head of a local trade union. Mr Ponjatovski, an ethnic Russian, helped launch a Narva autonomy referendum in 1993. Now he would never consider it. Today's Estonia offers higher living standards and membership of NATO and the European Union. Nobody in Narva longs to be in Ivangorod, the Russian town over the river.

The fear that the Kremlin may test NATO by stirring up trouble in the Baltics haunts the West. Britain's defence secretary, Michael Fallon, says there is already a "real and present danger". Russia has violated Baltic airspace and harassed ships in the Baltic Sea. Russian agents crossed the border and kidnapped an Estonian intelligence officer last autumn. The new security environment is "not just bad weather, it's climate change," says Lieutenant General Riho Terras, head of the Estonian Defence Forces.

As one of the five NATO members with a land border with Russia, Estonia must prepare for the storm. NATO has pitched in with "Operation Atlantic Resolve", sending 150 American troops to each of the three Baltic states and Poland. Air policing missions in the region have been beefed up. A rapid response force is in the works.

National security loomed over Estonia's general election on March 1st, when the ruling Reform Party beat its pro-Russian rival. The Centre Party, which has close ties to Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and relies on the ethnic Russians who make up a quarter of Estonia's population, came second. Taavi Roivas, the prime minister, has ruled out co-operating with it, and will instead form a coalition with his current partner, the Social Democrats, and another party.

Since 1991 Estonia has struggled to integrate a chunk of its Russian-speakers, some of whom are still stateless (knowledge of of Estonian is usually a condition for citizenship). Though integrated Russians fare well, the rest earn less, and are more likely to be unemployed than the average. The Centre Party runs Tallinn, but its political isolation at national level fuels alienation.

But what divides Estonians and Russians most is their media. Those whose mother tongue is Russian rely largely on news from Russian state media. Its world view has rubbed off. Researchers at the Sinu Riigi Kaitse programme, who study young ethnic Russians, find a sharp worsening of attitudes to America and NATO. The government plans to launch a Russian-language station this autumn. But Roman Vikulov, a correspondent for Viru Prospekt, a weekly, says the problem is not lack of alternative sources, but that "local Russians don't trust the Estonian authorities."

For many Estonians, the mistrust is mutual. The wounds of the Soviet occupation still ache; most Estonian families have personal tales of repression under Stalin. The anti-Russian atmosphere "may be alienating, but that's just a fact of life," says Estonia's president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Yet Estonian politicians are reaching out to Russian compatriots. Those born in Estonia can now receive citizenship, regardless of parental status. Last year Mr Roivas's government appointed the first ethnic Russian minister since Soviet days. The American embassy has taken special note of Narva, expanding cultural outreach and arranging for a group of cadets to study Russian there last summer.

The situation crystallises in a warehouse outside Tallinn, where a volunteer group called Dobrosvet is collecting humanitarian aid for civilians in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. Boxes stuffed with food and clothes lean in precarious stacks, waiting to be sent to hospitals, schools and villages throughout the Donbas. The boxes will travel through Russia with the help of the Night Wolves, a Kremlin-endorsed nationalist biker gang. Yet even these activists, like Mr Ponjatovsky in Narva, call Estonia home. Russians in Estonia "already have a different mentality," says Elina Esakova, Dobrosvet's leader. Her son will serve in Estonia's army.

Original article on The Economist webpage.