Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Estonia, Russians, and Russia: a complex mix

Estonia is a tiny sparsely populated country sitting in the Baltics under the shadow of its powerful Russian neighbor. Yet ethnic Russians within Estonia often find themselves at a disadvantage. For Estonia's leaders, it's a difficult duality to navigate.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves has been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine. Many in the West blame Putin for inciting a civil war between Western sympathizers and ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republic. Ilves fears Estonia could be next if Putin is not dissuaded by tough talk.

Ilves isn't delusional. Estonia gained independence by defeating the Red Army in 1920. The Soviet Union occupied the country in 1940 and took it back from the Germans in 1944. The country of Estonia was wiped off the map and incorporated into the Soviet Union.

In June of 1988, Estonians took to the Song Festival Grounds en masse to sing patriotic songs and wave the blue, black and white flag of their country. A significant portion of the country showed up preventing the Soviets from putting down the protest.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Estonia's subsequent independence, there has been an uneasy relationship between the Estonian state and its ethnic Russians. Estonia has the tenth most stateless persons of any country in the world despite its minute population overall (1.3 million). This is due to anti-Russian laws. For non ethnic Estonians- event hose born int he country- the naturalization process is quite rigorous. While Estonian is barely spoken in northwestern Estonia, those residents still must pass a difficult language test to gain citizenship.

The result is that many ethnic Russians, who make up about a quarter of the country, hold a gray passport. This allows them freedom of movement between Russia and Estonia, but doesn't give them citizenship in either country.

The border city of Narva is nearly 100% Russian. Some believe Putin has eyes on the enclave. Others believe that the ethnic Russians of Narva prefer to remain part of Estonia partly because of higher wages. Estonia is also part of NATO and if Putin invades Narva, all of NATO is obligated to fight.

Tensions are high in the region. NATO has performed military exercises in the country. Estonia has ramped up its own exercises. The heightened sense of anti-Russian anxiety could trickle down to a distrust toward ethnic Russians.

Ethnic Russians make less money than ethnic Estonians although the gap is closing. Russians faces obstacles towards entering public occupations. Initially, they were even banned from playing for the national soccer team.

Certainly Estonia's leaders need to remain concerned about the belligerent actions of its Russian neighbor, but suppressing ethnic Russians' rights will backfire. Putin will be able to manipulate any frustration among the ethnic Russian populace.

Estonia is becoming a global tech hub. It's one of the most wired countries in the world. Nearly every establishment offers free WiFi in the capital, Tallin. Companies such as Skype and Kazaa were created in the Baltic country. The nation's best of hope of staving off Russian aggression is to continue to promote innovation. Integrating ethnic Russians into its tech culture and tamping down ethnic chauvinism will also keep ethnic Russians happy to continue to call Estonia home. Estonia has a Russian problem, but it's not from within.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

America in Iceland

Iceland rests on both the North American and European continental rift. The home to the world's most northern capital is considered to be a European entity, but the United States has had an important impact on the sparsely populated nation since World War II.

Icelanders are fiercely independent and proud of their innovative, centuries-long history. Yet, a friendly behemoth lurks not far off its shores. You can fit the entire population of Iceland in a minuscule city in the U.S.; Iceland is often an afterthought in the U.S., but the U.S. is the benevolent if unpredictable elephant in the room in Iceland.

In 1940, Britain invaded Iceland in order to preempt a German invasion. The Allies also worried about a small but vocal segment of Iceland's population that were Nazi sympathizers. The U.S. took over the chore of occupying Iceland in 1941. The American force stayed on a military base at Keflavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a forty minute drive from Reykjavik. The Americans pulled out in 1947.

The uneasy relationship between the U.S. and Iceland didn't stop there. In 1949, Iceland, which doesn't have an army, joined U.S.-led NATO, a move that sparked uncharacteristically intense protests outside Iceland's parliament, the Alþingi. The U.S. reestablished itself at Keflavik in 1951 as a NATO ally in the fight against the Soviets. Iceland was viewed as an important strategic locale because of its position in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Amalia Lindal, an American who immigrated to Iceland, noted the tension between the American servicemen and the native Icelanders. The military men weren't treated with animus, but were viewed with suspicion as foreigners. At one point, Lindal noticed a serviceman unintentionally ordering in English an unusual and likely-unwanted dish at a restaurant. At the time- Lindal's book came out in 1962- English was not widely spoken in Iceland. Lindal knew what was happening, but chose not to reveal her Americanness in aid of the serviceman for fear of being viewed as an outsider in insular Iceland.

Lindal noticed the transience of the employees of the American Embassy. In 2014, the American Embassy, located in downtown Reykjavik is sternly protected. An Icelandic guard patrols the perimeter preventing passersby from taking pictures of anything but the top of the Embassy building. Iceland is so remote and quiet that the fear seems absurd.

Iceland has slowly warmed up to the American way. English is now widely spoken and most Icelanders are fluent. American culture influences the music scene and the American hipster style is prevalent in Reykjavik. The end of the Cold War relieved Icelandic fears of America's presence at Keflavik. The U.S. left the base in 2006, further easing any lingering discomfort.

In 2001, the billionaire owner of the Icelandic supermarket chain Bonus, Jon Asgeir Johannesson- an upstart who challenged Iceland's traditional wealthy class- bought a pair of dollar store chains in the U.S. Asgeir was part of a new wave of Icelanders, in addition to the singer Bjork, who helped the country rebrand itself to the U.S. and the world at large.

In 2008, a financial collapse created an economic crisis in the U.S. The crisis had far-reaching effects, including an economic implosion in Iceland. Asgeir's fortune was wiped out. Significant protests formed outside of the Alþingi for the first time since 1949. The value of the Icelandic Krona plummeted.

It is the end of 2014 and the two countries enjoy close relations. Iceland has since recovered from the 2008 crisis. Tourists fluidly pass between each other's borders via Icelandair. All is well for the time being. But as World War II, the Cold War, and the 2008 financial crisis have shown, Iceland's fate is tied to the U.S.