Cablegate: Ethnic Russian Estonians - Trends in Political


DE RUEHTL #0171/01 0740550
R 150550Z MAR 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) Summary. In contrast to neighboring Latvia,
Estonia's Russian-speaking minority exercises political
will through mainstream, rather than ethnically-based,
political parties. Russian-centric parties are headed by
fringe elements and have not generated anywhere near enough
popular support to gain any seats in the last two
parliamentary elections. With the exception of the Bronze
Soldier, hot-button ethnic topics including school reform
and citizenship were largely non-issues in the recent
elections. The populist Center Party remains a strong
favorite among Russian-speakers. However, as social and
political integration continues, the party may lose its
tight hold on the ethnic Russian vote. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Although almost one-third of Estonia's population
is Russian-speaking, Russian-centric parties generate very
little popular support. Russian-centric Party leaders in
Estonia tend to be fanatical and base their platforms
solely on polarizing issues like the Bronze Soldier. These
parties are meant to appeal to all Russian speaking
minorities - in additions to Russians (who are about 26% of
the population), there are also ethnic Ukrainians (2%),
Byelorussians (1%) and small numbers of people from other
parts of the former Soviet Union. In the March 4
parliamentary elections, neither of Estonia's two Russian-
centric parties, the Constitution Party and the Russian
Party, managed to come anywhere close to crossing the 5%
threshold needed to gain a seat in Parliament. Even in
Tallinn's 2nd District, which includes the heavily ethnic-
Russian borough of Lasnamae, the Constitution Party, which
built its campaign largely on opposition to relocation of
the Bronze Soldier monument (Refs A and B)-- an issue of
significant importance to the ethnic Russian community --
earned only 2% of the vote. The Russian Party fared even
worse. This is the second parliamentary election in a row
where Russian-centric parties have failed to win any seats
in parliament.

3. (SBU) Although the purely Russian-focused parties did
poorly, the Center Party again fared exceptionally well in
predominantly Russian-speaking areas. Center won a
landslide victory in heavily Russian Ida-Viru county with
55% of the vote, up from 41% in 2003. In Lasnamae, the
Center Party earned 39% of the vote, 18% more than the
Reform Party, the next highest vote-getter in the district.
Center has consistently been the only major political party
to actively court ethnic Russian voters as a group since
the mid 1990s. Since that time, Center has handled
carefully hot button issues like language requirements,
citizenship and, most recently, the Bronze soldier -
cementing its support among Russian speakers. Leaders in
the Russian-speaking community have gravitated toward the
Center Party. A prime example is Mihhail Stalnuhhin, the
Chairman of the Narva City Council (in Ida Viru County) who
garnered 5474 votes in the Parliamentary elections - the
tenth highest vote total in the country. Faced with a
choice between the fringe Russian-centric parties and
Center, most Russian speaking voters feel that supporting
the smaller, less-established parties is a waste of their

4. (SBU) Center Party's hold on Russian-speaking voters
remains very strong. However, some observers believe this
is changing as integration of Estonia's minorities
continues. Vladmir Velman, a Center Party MP since 1995,
told us he believes there is little ethnic political
tension in Estonia. Jevgenia Garanza, Deputy Editor of the
Russian language weekly paper Den Za Dnjem, agreed, noting
that unlike the situation in Latvia, which has more
sensitive issues that unite Russians as a group, Russians
in Estonia have less of a need to pull together. As a
result, more and more of Estonia's politically active
Russians cast their ballots based on more diverse,
individual concerns. Also, in contrast to Latvia, Russian
speaking (non-citizen) residents in Estonia can vote in
local elections. This limited enfranchisement may also
have helped to vest Russian speakers more broadly in the
Estonian political system.

5. (SBU) Velman asserted that, despite Center's efforts,
the party is destined to lose some of its ethnic Russian
base over time, due to this diversification of voter
priorities. For example, the Center Party's focus on the
working class has already resulted in the loss of
prosperous Russians to the Reform Party. Both Velman and
Garanza predict that this diversification trend will
continue among Russian speakers who naturalize (and thus
gain the right to vote in national elections). They
contend that these new citizens are likely to reject
ethnically-based parties and platforms and turn instead
towards mainstream Estonian issues, because as they
integrate into Estonian society their priorities
increasingly reflect those of all Estonians. (Note:
Parliamentary election results anecdotally support this
theory. Despite the fact that there were tens of thousands
of newly naturalized Russian speakers eligible to vote this
year, Center lost its position as the largest party in
Parliament. End note.)

6. (SBU) Hot-button ethnic topics including school reform
and citizenship were largely non-issues in the recent
elections. The Bronze Soldier issue is one of the only
issues that continues to unite Russians on a purely ethnic
basis and to impact the political process. According to
Velman, the Center Party's opposition to legislation
designed to pave the way to remove the Bronze Soldier from
downtown Tallinn (Refs A and B), probably helped increase
Center's support among Russian voters. Conversely, the
Reform Party may have lost some ethnic Russian support when
it led efforts to pass legislation to relocate the
monument. The Center Party actively campaigned on the idea
that Russian members of Reform did not care about the
interests of ethnic Russians. Two former (ethnic Russian)
Reform Party MPs in Tallinn who abstained from voting on
Bronze Soldier legislation, lost their seats in Parliament.
One of these, Sergei Ivanov who received 1,138 votes in
2003, managed only 257 votes this time. (Note: Ivanov was
also much lower on Reform's party list this year than in
2003. End Note.)


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