Russian schools, Baltic lessons

One thing Latvia and Estonia definitely have in common: Flat and sparsely populated landscapes along sandy coasts. So flat that the destinations our Latvian hitchhiker Kristina (whom we take from Riga northwards) wants to see most urgently are: Austria (Alps) and Norway (Fjords). In Estonian travel agencies, clients are allured with photos of the picturesque Alpine foothill of Bavaria. Beyond the common flatness, things are obviously more complicated. So don’t lump the two countries together. However, since we know that Riga is the capital of Latvia and Tallinn the one of Estonia, we feel confident that we won’t do so by writing one article about the two countries. 

On the way from Poland to the Baltic countries, a stop in Masuria is obligatory for those interested 20th century history. Four hours behind Warsaw, we reach the stunning Masurian landscape with its cobbled avenues lined with century-old oaks and its infinite fields of rapeseed glowing in the sun. Masuria was a part of historical East Prussia until the end of World War II. It was here that Hitler built his gigantic headquarter Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Liar), from where he managed much of the campaign against Russia between 1941 and 1944. The grey, mossy and only partly destructed colossuses of armoured concrete makes us contemplative about the worse part of European and German history. When we look at the spot where Stauffenberg placed the bomb to kill Hitler, we are also reminded of one of its better parts.

Masuria, its beauty and history have captivated us for some hours and so we arrive in Riga very late at night. No problem for our host Nora, who receives us with open arms and comfortable beds. A good sleep and back to our mission: How about Latvians and Europe/the EU? We ask Atis Lejins, deputy chairman of the European Affairs Committee in the Latvian Parliament: Are Latvians happy in the EU? “Of course they are. Enthusiasm towards Europe and the EU has been a somewhat natural development.” Given its history of annexation by the Sovjet Union, there could only be one direction after Latvian independence in 1991: westwards. “We knew that if we regained independence, we would have to join the big Western clubs NATO and EU in order not to be marginalised.” The awareness of history and the wish to confine oneself against Russia is a story that is present. As for example Dita, a student at high school, tell us: “Being in the EU means being a part of something bigger. There’s someone who protects us.”

However, it is not the story most commonly told. First of all, as everywhere else, young people do not actually seem to care much about the historical argument of the type: “We were in a bad place and now we’re in a better place – that’s why the EU is good”. Especially in Estonia, the possibility to travel and easily get VISA is the very first thing that is mentioned. The second reason why the anti-Russian argument does only work to some extent leads to some deep issues within the Latvian society. There’s a 27% Russian-speaking minority in the country. In Riga, they constitute nearly half of the population, and also a great part of the young we approach on the street. In early 2012, a referendum aiming to make Russian an official language failed and there are undoing frictions because many blame the Latvian administration to discriminate against the minority – e.g. even in Russian schools, lessons have to be in Latvian. Obvious that those young Russian-speaking people do not really buy the anti-Russian argument for the EU.

One day later, on our way to Tallinn, it’s cliché and fun fact time again: What do you need to know when travelling to Estonia? Wikipedia tells us about free Wifi hotspot spread all across the country, the CIA factbook reveals impressive GDP growth rates (almost 8% in 2011) and an unbelieveably small public deficit (an estimated 5.8%). We learn that Baltic Germans once settled in Tallinn and built many churches, although today Estonia is the least religious country in the world. And there is the “Russian issue”, too.

Although “Russians in Estonia would never dare to initiate a referendum like in Latvia”, as Aleksei explains, there is still enough tension. Russians (were) moved to Estonia during Soviet times, many of which continue to preserve language and culture. Aleksei, a young painter and art lecturer, belongs to some 25.5% Russians living in Estonia today. The UN Human Righs Council has raised concerns about minority rights. Many, especially among the older generation, struggle to fill out administrative forms in Estonian language. In addition to that, a conflict over the exact Eastern border isn’t settled yet. Putin wasn’t amused when he saw the map on the back of Estonia’s new Euro coins in January 2011. On the other hand, Sandra believes that the government and the media are pushing the topic too much: “The border lines are really only a formal issue, and nobody in Tallinn cares.” Sandra is Russian, too, actually called Aleksandra. But as Foreign Affairs Officer in the National Youth Council she has become Estonian. “My grandmother sometimes refers to Russian sports or politics as ‘ours’ just out of habituation. That’s what annoys Estonians.” Are Estonian culture and the language (only spoken by 1 million people) really in danger? Difficult to say. But maybe the EU could assist with best practice policies from other countries like Finland or Belgium, both of which have population groups with officially recognised languages.

What about e-governance and free Wifi everywhere? “It was our former education minister who introduced all the IT. Since the mid 1990s every school has had computers. In Estonia you can vote via SMS”, explains Mall Hellam, Director of the Open Estonia Institute. She is convinced that modern communication systems and transparency have benefited the Estonia significantly. Europe could learn from that. On the other hand, “you can get fired by SMS, too”, as we learn from Aleksei. And the promised free Wifi hotspots turn out to be largely inexistent, especially when you leave the city center and go to the so called “project”, a complex of soviet style houses accommodating three times as many people as old Tallinn. “Estonia does have problems. Take social inequalities or the education system for instance”, says Hellam. Not everything is as shiny as it gleams. But the technology revolution also has its funny sides: On our last day we meet a young man dressed up like a medieval soldier on Tallinn’s main square. It turns out that the guy has worked for Skype (programmed by Estonian Ahti Heinla) for the last couple of years and has recently quit his job. On that day he decided to buy a costume and hang around on the square to take pictures with frolicking kids. Modern technology is fun, e-governance may increase transparency, but it doesn’t solve all problems.

And how about the Estonian stance towards Europe and the EU? Most young people whom we speak to are carefully optimistic. They see the economic and social advantages and remain wary of too much integration at the same time. The Greek case is a warning to them, as Estonia has made every effort to keep the budget deficit neatly small and successfully joined the Euro-zone in 2011. Whilst some people argue that Estonia shouldn’t have commited to the EU so quickly after having broken loose from the soviet union, most are happy to freely travel and work across Europe, especially the young generation. No surprising news really.

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