Cablegate: The Decline of Estonia's Ethnic Russian

Published: Mon 14 Jul 2008 01:06 PM
DE RUEHTL #0241/01 1961306
R 141306Z JUL 08
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A) 2007 TALLINN 280
B) 2007 Tallinn 288
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Although ethnic Russians make up about
one-third of Estonia's population, they have failed to
achieve any significant influence over Estonian politics.
Support for Russian parties continues to decline, with most
Russians supporting the mainstream Center Party. The small
Russian parties which do still exist in Estonia are
fractured and focus too narrowly on ethnic issues rather
than addressing concerns with broader appeal like the
economy and social welfare. END SUMMARY
2. (U) Ethnic Russian political parties first developed in
Estonia during the late 1980's, primarily in opposition to
the Estonian independence movement. During the mid to late
1990s, several new Russian political parties emerged with
platforms more focused on issues related to ethnicity.
Russian parties were first represented in the Riigikogu
(Estonian Parliament) in 1995. During the 1999
parliamentary elections two ethnically based parties, the
United People's Party and the Russian Unity Party, ran on a
joint ticket and received a combined 6.8 percent of the
vote, earning them six seats in the 101-seat Estonian
3. (U) Despite these early successes, Russian political
parties have failed to achieve any significant influence in
Estonian politics. Currently, only two Russian political
parties are politically engaged, the Constitution Party and
the Russian Party. Both parties claim approximately 1,500
registered members, of whom only about 500 are active.
(Note: For comparison, the smallest party currently
represented in Parliament, the Green Party, has
approximately 1500 members. End Note.) During the most
recent parliamentary elections, held in March 2007, the
Constitution Party received 1.7 percent and the Russian
Party 0.2 percent of the vote. As such, neither party
achieved the 5 percent threshold necessary to gain a seat
in Estonian Parliament.
4. (U) A few members of the ethnic Russian political
community suggest the downward trend in support for ethnic
political parties demonstrates that the Russian speakers in
Estonia have become marginalized and apolitical. However,
the unrest surrounding the relocation of a Russian World
War II memorial in Tallinn in April 2007 (Reftel A) and the
continuing debate concerning the Government of Estonia's
(GOE) integration reforms (Reftel B) show that Russian
speakers in Estonia do have a specific political and social
agenda, i.e., countering what they perceive as biased or
discriminatory practices against Estonia's ethnic Russian
minority. In addition, ethnic Russian support for one of
Estonia's largest mainstream political parties has
increased significantly over time. During the 2007
Parliamentary elections, the Center Party received an
overwhelming 55 percent of the vote in the predominately
Russian-speaking county of Ida-Viru, up from 41 percent in
2003 and 56 percent of the vote in Lasnamae, a heavily
ethnic Russian borough in Tallinn (up from 41 percent in
5. (SBU) Some of Estonia's ethnic Russian political leaders
blame 'discriminatory practices' by the Estonian government
for the decline of their parties. Sergei Jurgens, leader
of the Constitution Party, suggested that it has been the
GOE's policy to negatively depict Russian political
candidates in the press for fear they may attempt to
restore the Soviet Union. Rafik Grigorjan, chairman of the
Estonian Chamber of National Minorities, an organization
established by Russian speaking community leaders in
response to the April 2007 riots, claims that many ethnic
Russians are afraid to vote for non-Estonian parties
because 'anyone can become jobless at any time.' Stanislav
Tserepanov, head of the Russia Party, suggested that ethnic
support for the Center Party is linked to the relationship
between Center Party leader Edgar Saavisar and high ranking
officials within the Russian Government. Tserepanov
alleges that during the last election, the Russian FSB
provided 'technical and financial assistance' to the Center
Party in the heavily Russian northeast region of the
country. (Note: In 2004, Center Party leaders entered into
a 'contract of cooperation' agreement with former Russian
President Putin's United Russia Party. End Note.) Even
Russian speakers who belong to the more mainstream
political parties see a government conspiracy behind the
weakened state of Russia's political parties. Sergei
Ivanov, an ethnic Russian member of the coalition leading
Reform Party, alleges that during the early 1990's, the
Estonian security police, KAPO, purposefully 'destroyed'
the Russian political elite for fear that Russia would use
them as a means of influence.
6. (U) Other members of the ethnic Russian community offer
somewhat more pragmatic assessments as to why support for
ethnic Russian political parties has steadily declined in
the past 10 years. On the one hand, there is the feeling
that ethnic Russian parties have suffered from their late
entry into independent Estonian politics. According to
Estonian law, only citizens have the right to join a
political party. As such, a substantial amount of time
elapsed before there was a large enough naturalized
Russian-speaking constituency to build upon. Even today,
there are still close to 115,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia
who have not chosen to naturalize and as such cannot belong
to a political party. (Note: There are also almost
100,000 long'term residents living in Estonia who are
citizens of the Russian Federation and not eligible to
vote.) Others have argued that this decline reflects that
Russian speakers in Estonia do not vote on the basis of
ethnicity, but are instead concerned about their economic
future. According to these sources, Russian political
leaders consistently ignore economic and other quality of
life issues and instead tend to focus solely on ethnic
issues like the Estonian language transition program and
7. (U) Russian political leaders credit much of the success
of the mainstream Center Party to its financial well-being
and strategic courting of ethnic Russians. Sergi Jurgens
attributes ethnic Russian support for Center to the party's
publication of a free Russian language newspaper,
widespread television advertising before the last election,
and operation of the highest circulating Russian language
daily tabloid in Estonia. Stanislav Tserepanov commented
that his Russia party is unable to recruit new voters
because it failed to meet the 5 percent threshold in the
past two elections, rendering Russia ineligible for state
financing. As a result, the Russia party has no money to
campaign and potential voters are 'unaware' of their
existence. In comparison, Center, which currently holds 29
seats received from the state the equivalent of USD 685,600
during the 2007 elections.
8.(U) While Center Party leadership claims not to promote
an ethnic agenda, their success in attracting ethnic voters
clearly stems from their support of policies which appeal
to Russian voters. Center Party strongly opposed the GOE
decision to relocate the Bronze Soldier memorial in April
2007 and Chairman Edgar Saavisar criticized the GOE for its
handling of the riots. Following the riots, polls showed a
significant increase in ethnic Russian support for Center.
The party has also actively supported liberalization of
legislation to make it easier for older non-Estonians to
naturalize and grant automatic citizenship to children born
to non-citizens of the country. Additionally, Center Party
traditionally supports raising wages and expanding public
sector jobs, issues important to ethnic Estonians and
Russians alike.
9. (U) An April 2008 opinion poll conducted by TNS EMOR,
the largest marketing research and consulting company in
Estonia, shows the 50 percent of the Russian speakers living
in Tallinn favor Center over other mainstream political
parties. The next highest percentage of support goes to
the Prime Minister's Reform Party with only 3 percent.
While other mainstream parties also point to the fact that
they have their own ethnic'Russian factions, support for
these parties is very low within the Russian community.
Sergi Jurgens, leader of the Constitution Party, estimates
that about 75 percent of the overall ethnic Russian
community in Estonia supports Center Party.
10. (SBU) The future of Estonia's ethnic political parties
remains unclear. Both parties lack energetic young
leadership. In addition, young, politically active ethnic
Russians are often lured to the more mainstream political
parties by the offer of a more promising career path.
Also, despite recognizing the need to broaden their
respective platforms and increase their appeal to ethnic
voters, several attempts by ethnic Russian parties to agree
on a common direction or leadership have failed. In fact,
a long rumored merger between the two ethnic Russian
political parties, the Russia Party and the Constitution
Party, was put to rest in June when the Constitution Party
instead merged with another small party, the Estonian Left
Party, which is represented in the European Parliament.
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