Contacts between the peoples of Estonia’s north-eastern Virumaa region and present-day Russia go back at least a thousand years. A majority of the peoples on the Russian side have disappeared; most of those remaining are the Russians, who had taken over the historical Ingria by the mid-20th century. The last fragments of Izhorians and Votians are quickly melting away as the economic modernisation of the Leningrad Oblast and the establishment of large ports and roads progresses. Alutaguse in Ida-Viru County is historically known as part of the land of the Votians, but the traces of this people can now only be seen in museums and in the handicraft products of a few enthusiasts in the fairground in the northern courtyard of the Narva Castle.

Estonians were consistently forced out of the large towns in the north of Ida-Viru County during the Soviet occupation, and in 1989, before Estonia regained independence, the county’s population of 221,000 included only 18% Estonians. Now, 25 years later, the picture has not changed – only 19.5% of the 149,000 inhabitants are Estonians. Estonians live in the countryside, while Russians and other Russian-speakers dominate in towns (except Jõhvi).

As a result of Russia’s colonial policy in annexed neighbouring countries, all of the former Soviet republics have regions compactly inhabited by Russians and other Russian-speakers. In many places, such areas were inhabited by Russians after systematic genocide of the local people (such as the Ukrainian Holodomor in 1932–1934), deportations during WW2 (such as Northern Caucasus, Crimea) or post-war economic colonization, in which local people were pushed aside. Estonia had a similar experience: immediately after mainland Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Army in the autumn of 1944, the occupation forces took control of the Virumaa oil shale industry, while the completely destroyed town of Narva and a large part of the Vaivara rural municipality became a special zone for the development of the first Soviet nuclear bomb.

During the period from 1945 to 1991, an estimated 1–1.5 million migrants may have passed through the large towns and workers’ settlements of Ida-Viru County, of which 150,000–160,000 inhabitants of external origins remained in place at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. One of the reasons behind the especially rapid decrease in the county’s population was continuing one-way migration back to Russia, while return migration was no longer possible because of Estonia’s independence. Over the past ten years, migration flows from the county have been destined mostly for Tallinn and Harju County.

The developments of the past decades have not had any major impact on the general composition of the Ida-Viru County population. The area where Estonian is used as the official language is now much larger than at the end of the Soviet period, and the local structures of central state power use Estonian. However, local authorities and the private services sector in the larger towns are Russian-speaking. A majority of the Russian-speaking population of Estonia (over 80% in Ida-Viru County) watches Russian TV channels daily. Considering that practically all of Russian television has become a national propaganda tool for shaping anti-Western views and legitimizing pro-Russian expansionism, it can be expected to have a powerful influence over the people of Ida-Viru County.
There is no reason to assume based on Estonian membership in NATO and European Union that Russia will not attempt to increase its influence in Estonia. Although direct expansion or hybrid warfare against Estonia are not very likely, the Kremlin may be interested in spreading instability by causing disorder in the small neighbouring NATO country, even if it is only to push the neighbour to make concessions on certain issues or to achieve bargaining space for its geopolitical ambitions in international relations.

Russia’s neighbouring areas, which have been made vulnerable in terms of ethnic-cultural and socioeconomic conditions by previous colonization, have repeatedly fallen victim to Russia’s direct or concealed aggression during the post-Soviet period. Although it cannot be denied that Russia may wish to gain control over these areas, Russia probably does not have enough power today to fully subordinate these countries. In the current stage it is trying to show that it is a regional superpower by tearing off bits of its neighbouring states in their moments of weakness and then, in conditions of ‘frozen conflicts’, impose its interests in the guise of a party to the international crisis regulation process.

If we look at how Russia has imposed itself on its neighbouring countries, we can see how the same methods have been applied to each following victim with only minor variations: inciting discontent in the people of a specific administrative unit or town, creation of ‘local national defence soldiers’, takeover of local authorities, a referendum; then, an appeal to Russia for help. The same scenario, , with the exception of the referendum, was used for organising the attempted coup in Estonia on 1 December 1924. The Bronze Night in Tallinn in 2007 remained at the level of inciting discontent, while other elements were not attempted at that time. This conflict scenario probably has no hope of success in a capital city or core area of a state. But even more attention is required in peripheral areas adjacent to the Russian borders, where the social, cultural or political requisites exist.

The referendum method was attempted in Ida-Viru County in July 1993. Compared to the application of this method in the separatist areas of Ukraine in 2014, the referendum attempts in two Estonian towns, Narva and Sillamäe, seemed relatively legitimate, because no external army was immediately present (however, Russian military bases had not been completely liquidated yet) and police maintained order in the towns during the ‘autonomy referendum’. The referendum attempt, which the Estonian state declared null and void, was made even in the absence of reliable lists or a system of accounting for voters and votes. As the organizers of the obviously distorted referendum did not achieve their expected goals, life in Estonia stabilized and the economy moved uphill rapidly, the referendum attempt did not leave any noteworthy traces in Estonia’s further development.

The referendum method has been elaborated years later, i.e. simplified, and ignored all the elementary requirements that would make a plebiscite credible. The Ukrainian target regions were primed by the creation of massive disorder, paralyzing of the activity of legitimate authorities, the arrival of unmarked, well-armed and apparently military-trained persons (’little green men’), the creation of a ‘national defence army’ of local ragtag elements, and the staging of a political performance that was titled a referendum. Intentional misuse of generally accepted concepts, the spread of disorder and misunderstanding are hallmarks of Russia’s actions in its neighbouring countries. A good example of spreading chaos of a conceptual kind was the ‘public surveys’ conducted by the Estonian Centre Party since 2002, which have no substantive meaning in terms of studying actual public opinion or managing the city. This is not the only similarity between the methods of the Centre Party and those of the Russian party of power, United Russia.

As the largest towns of Ida-Viru County – Narva, Kohtla-Järve and Sillamäe – have been led for several election periods by Centre Party city administrations, attention should be paid to the similarities in the organisation of council elections and methods of city administration in these towns and in Russian practices. The demographic and socioeconomic circumstances in the industrial northern part of Ida-Viru County may be attractive for Russia’s possible influence activity, because most of the local people live in the information space shaped by Russia. The Estonian law enforcement system has started to combat corruption in Ida-Viru County’s towns, as unpunished violation of law by local authorities is certainly a security risk for Estonia. The Estonian government will have to pay closer attention to this county for many years, so as to prevent the local circumstances from becoming the target of possible provocations by Russia.

The economic situation in Ida-Viru County has continuously improved: unemployment does not exceed the Estonian average, while the average wages in many industrial sectors are well above the national average. Investments made in recent years in the Port of Sillamäe free zone and the Narva industrial parks are creating new jobs and maintaining social stability.

Estonia has ways to speed up the economic and social development of Ida-Viru County by also involving the European Union Structural Funds in the improvement of the living environment and reputation of the region. It is crucial to increase the presence of the state by relocating braches of public authorities or entire authorities to the area, by improving the standard of the educational establishments, and by creating good conditions for Estonian officials, teachers and young specialists. If Estonia’s national government acts wisely and with foresight, the risk that Russia will be tempted to interfere and cause confusion and instability will also be minimized.

Aimar Altosaar
is Adviser for Ida-Viru County at the Ministry of the Interior of Estonia.