Friday, July 17, 2015

Estonians of Kabardino-Balkaria Maintain Close Ties With Tallinn

By Paul Goble

Given Vladimir Putin’s aggressive rhetoric about the Baltic countries, Moscow and Tallinn do not maintain warm relations. Despite that, Estonia has close and growing ties with the 70 Estonians of Kabardino-Balkaria, a community that descends from ethnic Estonians who came to the North Caucasus in pre-Soviet times and that has maintained its language and ethnic identity.

Indeed, an increasing number of the members of that community are taking Estonian citizenship, either to be able to more easily visit the graves of their ancestors in their homeland or to travel abroad—Estonia, as a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has visa-free travel with more than 130 countries, far more than the Russian Federation does. They are sending their children to camps and universities in Estonia. And they maintain a cultural center where many work to both recover or improve their Estonian and display their cultural heritage to other nations.

Such small diaspora communities exist in many parts of Russia, although the Estonian ones in the North Caucasus are among the most active. They seldom attract much attention—the only exception to the media silence about the Estonians in that region was in the early 1990s, when 170 Estonians were evacuated from Abkhazia during the fighting there. That makes any report on them especially valuable, particularly if it is as detailed as the article by Yuliya Bernikovskaya in the current issue of “Sovershenno-Sekretno” (, July 9).

The Russian journalist attributes the vitality of this small community to five things: 1) the importance of the Estonian language for Estonians, 2) the programs Estonia has put in place for its compatriots abroad, 3) the efforts of the Estonian embassy in Moscow, 4) the tolerance, even support, of officials in Kabardino-Balkaria who have not opposed all these activities as their counterparts in other republics and regions of the Russian Federation might have done, and 5) the passionate commitment of a single Estonian woman:

·         Compared to other nations, Estonians ascribe particular importance to their language, and they work to maintain it even when, as in the North Caucasus, there are no schools or other government institutions that support it. Former Estonian President Lennart Meri used to refer to his national language as “a secret code,” which had allowed Estonians to survive.

·         The Estonian Republic has responded to this ethnic imperative with programs that offer summer language camps and free tuition to Estonians from Russia and other countries. It pays many travel expenses. And since the 1990s, it has offered dual citizenship to Estonians in Russia so that they can travel more freely to Estonia and the wider world.

·         These efforts have been promoted by officers of the Estonian embassy in Moscow who regularly travel to Kabardino-Balkaria to make sure Estonians, citizens and non-citizens alike, know about these programs and can take advantage of them.

·         Because the community is small, all this activity has been tolerated, even welcomed, by the Kabardino-Balkaria leadership as well as other peoples who view efforts by a small nation to maintain itself as something they can only benefit from.

·         But none of these factors might have mattered had it not been for the remarkable efforts of one ethnic Estonian woman, Bernikovskaya suggests. Maret Romani, on her own, used newspaper advertisements to convince Estonians living there to declare themselves, create a cultural center, and link up with Estonia.

As a result, a group that might have been expected to assimilate is now a proud diaspora community—although given its size, Tallinn’s welcoming attitude and opportunities, and Moscow’s hostility, ever more of its members may choose not only to take Estonian citizenship but to move back to their homeland.

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