If there's one thing I despise, it's journalists lecturing other journalists. But what can I say when so many news outlets have begun irresponsibly reinterpreting the Russian-Georgian conflict through the prism of potential ethnic strife in Estonia.
In the latest annals of stupidity, a gang of ethnic Estonians in northeastern Russia banded together to declare an "Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic" on the territory of their two farms and request recognition from the Russian Federation. They also managed to call a reporter from Russian state-owned news portal RIA Novosti, which generously reported the "news."
Well, as they say, from RIA Novosti's lips to your ears. Postimees made it the top story on their website. Not only the Denver Post and The Olympian of Washington State in the US reprinted the story, but others followed suit.
"Rumors are circulating, for instance, that two groups of Russians in Estonia will soon try to secede," warns Investors Business Daily.
"The veracity of the report is dubious — 'bourgeois' is not exactly common vernacular beyond the world of Soviet propaganda — but that is not the point. Roughly one-third of the Estonian population is either ethnically Russian or linguistically Russophone," cautioned the Financial, a Georgian paper.
Except that the leader of the "Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic" quoted in the RIA Novosti piece was named Andres Tamm, about the most Estonian name a person can have. How we got from kooky Estonian agrarian communist PR stunt to ethnic revolt in Ida Virumaa is hard to guess. The only answer is that somebody took a few pieces of information -- Estonia, Soviet, northeast -- and decided to disseminate news of their own creation. Supposedly, the media has gatekeepers. Yet, in this case, the editors were asleep at the wheel. RIA Novosti's mental sewage was released untreated into the river of communication.
This irresponsible interpretation has been adopted by some more mainstream media sources though. In many of its recent articles, The Economist has interpreted Russia's actions in Georgia as having ramifications for Estonia's Russian minority.
"NATO needs to reassure all its members, including places like Estonia and Latvia with large Russian minorities, that they are protected by the alliance’s mutual defence guarantees," it writes in a recent editorial. "An alienated minority of stateless people, and tens of thousands who carry Russian passports, are a potential nightmare for the Baltic states and their friends," it writes in another.
Except the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians aren't ethnic Russians, nor do they claim to be. We could also focus on other disgruntled ethnic minorities, of any background, in Russia's borders. How we got from these Caucasian separatists to "Estonia is next" is almost understandable. 6.9 percent of Estonian residents hold Russian passports. The stateless -- many of them deep in middle age -- certainly have a license to gripe. But one must have a will to separate, plus a separatist movement, before one can embark on the perils of triggering World War III in Europe.
Yet, without so much as lifting a finger, let alone an AK-47, Estonian Russians have been rendered suspected enemy number one in the EU and NATO by English-language media merely by what language they choose to speak to their children.
It's not only disingenuous to infer that they are ready to shatter the sleepy landscapes of eastern Estonia for some yet-to-be articulated, hypothetical, and, in my opinion, meaningless goal. It's also a great disservice to them. The more they are demonized by irresponsible writers, the less possibilities exist for integration measures in this country. Who really wants to be friends with someone from a group that's allegedly out to stab them in the back?
I don't know. I went to Sillamäe and other places in Ida Virumaa today, and I didn't exactly get the sense of looming conflict over anything except maybe a parking spot in front of the local Selver shopping center. Their city is looking better; it certainly did not live up to the ominous reputation of the Russophone cities of Estonia's northeast. People go to the bank; they go to the store; they go to the park; they go to work. To paraphrase the words of Dirty Harry, they get up and they put their pants on.
Words to live by.
Itching for Eestimaa, reede 5. september 2008