Three key messages of the Chapter

  1. While there have been various positive developments in the integration process – for example, the proportion of Estonian citizens in the Estonian population has gradually increased, particularly among the younger generation – Estonian society continues to be strongly defined along ethnic and linguistic lines. There are not only notable ethnic differences among residents of Estonia in terms of values and identity, but also in terms of educational outcomes, level of education, profession, income level, and place of residence.
  2. The Estonian and Estonian-Russian media spaces only overlap to a limited extent. While Estonians tend to follow local Estonian-language media, the media consumption of the Russian-speaking population includes local Russian-language media, as well as Russian news media and mass media from other countries. Thus, Estonian-Russians do not completely live in the media space of Russia, as is often mistakenly believed, but it is also true that their use of local Estonian-language channels has declined over the last decade.
  3. One of the most significant obstacles to successful societal integration in Estonia appears to be a lack of common social networks among Estonians and Estonian-Russians, as well as the absence of a common media and discussion space, the root cause of which is, principally, Estonia’s ongoing linguistic and cultural division in its school system. It is precisely the education system that plays a key role not only in teaching the necessary professional skills for the employment market but also in shaping common values and identity, through the creation of inter-ethnic communication and cooperation networks.

Challenges to integration: The Soviet legacy and new immigration

“The world as we knew it is no more”

On 4 January 2016 a new law came into force that required travellers to present photo identification at the border between Denmark and Sweden. The implementation of the law ended more than 50 years of free movement between the two countries and brought about, among other things, long wait times and traffic jams on the Øresund Strait Bridge, which was a symbol of Danish and Swedish cooperation and of their economic, cultural, and political integration for more than 15 years. Just a few months earlier, barbed wire fences appeared on the borders between Hungary and Serbia as well as Austria and Slovenia, with the aim of preventing the arrival of migrants and refugees. These, incidentally, not only restricted the free movement of people, but also that of animals and other wildlife. On Midsummer’s Day 2016, UK citizens voted to leave the European Union and take back control of their state’s sovereignty. At the time of writing this Human Development Report, the Europe without borders and walls that we have known for decades has ceased to exist, at least temporarily. If we add to this the executive orders issued by US President Donald Trump in his first week of office, according to which a wall will be built along the border between the USA and Mexico, and the entry of the citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations into the USA was banned, it is understandable that the media are increasingly reporting that not only Europe, but the entire world as we knew it, is no more.

These global winds of change have not left Estonia untouched: in the dawn of a new Cold War, Estonia has again become an important border state between Europe and Russia, at the dividing-line between Western and Slavic-Orthodox civilizations (Huntington, 1993). Just in November 2016, there were four detailed articles on Estonia in the New York Times, which was more than in the previous few years combined, and the article titles speak for themselves (e.g. “Spooked by Russia, Tiny Estonia Trains a Nation of Insurgents” (31.10.2016)). If we add to this the influential US Republican Newt Gingrich’s contention that “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg”(21.07.2016) and that it would be pointless to begin a nuclear war in its name, the appearance of the Wall Journal Street article “Why Die for Tallinn“(25.07.2016) should surprise no one. It was precisely the fact that the USA was willing take big risks to defend small and distant places that held NATO together during the Cold War and protected West Berlin as a bastion of freedom in the middle of totalitarian, Soviet-sphere East Germany. Estonia now has the same role, having assumed the fate and responsibility of being the last Eastern outpost of Western values and democracy, and, precisely because of this, it is worth dying for Tallinn. And also precisely because of this, the question of social cohesion in Estonia is now more important than ever.

Can a Russian become an Estonian?

Against the backdrop of the European refugee crisis, concerns and discussions about the content and nature of Estonianness have taken on greater meaning and have moved beyond the opposition of Estonians and non-Estonians (previously also muulased, or roughly, people from elsewhere, the latter term for a long time only having referred to the Russian-speaking population). That does not of course mean that the 25-year-long integration process has ended or achieved its desired outcome. Although the latest Estonian Societal Integration Monitoring Report (Kallas et al. 2015) outlined many positive developments in the integration process, including an improvement in the Estonian-language proficiency of Estonian-Russians, and the fact that attitudes of both Estonians and Estonian-Russians have become noticeably more positive towards their mutual (interethnic) contacts, the report also highlighted several ongoing negative trends and concerns. For example, the proportion of stateless persons in Estonia is decreasing very slowly, despite the fact that many of these individuals are young people born in Estonia who can speak Estonian. Similarly, the region of Ida-Virumaa, where integration indicators are notably poorer than in other Estonian regions, is still a cause for concern, as is the finding of the perception among Estonian-Russians that socioeconomic and political inequality among ethnic groups living in Estonia has significantly grown during the last five years.

An important obstacle to the creation of an integrated society has been the low level, among Estonians, of integration-readiness, or desire and willingness to involve minorities living in Estonia in local social and cultural life (Kallas et al. 2015). Genuine integration, as Canadian Professor Emeritus John W. Berry from Queens University has suggested in his many publications (e.g. Berry 2000) and interviews, is a two-way process: “the meeting of people from different cultures, not one group pulling the other into its arms […] it’s a two-way street where everyone needs to give up something in order to achieve something” (Eesti Päevaleht, 29.11.2016). While the readiness of Estonians to involve Estonian-Russians in the activities of Estonian society on an equal basis has significantly increased over the years, there are still those that are rather cautious toward it. For example, while Estonian-Russians report that ethnicity is not of great importance when it comes to choosing a prime minister, or they would see an Estonian-Russian prime minister in quite a positive light, almost half (49%) of Estonians would see it as rather a negative if this were the case (Kallas et al. 2015). Thus, although the Non-Estonian Integration Foundation was eventually renamed the ‘Our People’ Integration and Migration Foundation, Estonian-Russians have still not become ‘our people’ for many Estonians, meaning that Estonian-Russians cannot therefore be trusted, among other things, to lead the nation. Rather, the opposite is true: it has become a completely normal thing to say in the public or social media that the Foreign Minister would not be a suitable president because he is Russian or that the Minister of Education should be extremely careful in what he says and does because he is a rootless “son of an immigrant from a pink party”. And so the Integrating Estonia 2020 development programme and a certain proportion of our opinion leaders are unfortunately speaking different languages, which does not appear to be conducive to the success of the integration process.

The arrival of New Estonians

Besides the integration of Estonian-Russians, which has been seen as the biggest challenge in re-independent Estonia, and into which immeasurable amounts of money and time have been invested over the last 25 years, less attention has been paid to the new actors in the integration process – new immigrants and those who have returned to Estonia. However, these are not in any way a marginal number of people that could or should simply be ignored. According to Statistics Estonia, there were approximately 17,100 immigrants to Estonia over the period 2010-2014, among them approximately 7,300 Estonian and 5,400 Ukrainian and Russian citizens. Additionally, as of October 2016, Estonia had taken in 60 war refugees from Syria, as part of the European migration programme.

A few years ago, a study initiated by various ministries and carried out by the Baltic Studies Institute, Newly arrived immigrants in Estonia: Policy options and recommendations for a comprehensive and sustainable support system, clearly identified weaknesses and blockages in the current model for supporting the acculturation and adaptation of foreigners: service provision is fragmented, recruitment and public-sector cooperation is marginal, and information about basic services offered by the state and local governments, as well as more specific support services for the acculturation of foreigners, is not readily available and often only in Estonian (Kallas et al. 2014). A notable finding of the research was an important distinction between Estonians’ and foreigners’ understandings of where freedom of speech ends and intolerance and hate speech begin. While foreigners considered intolerance to be the occurrence of any negative expression of opinion on the basis of an individual’s ethnicity, race, or religious belief, Estonians considered this to be justified by the protection of freedom of speech laws. One notorious example of this is a statement made by Martin Helme, the current Chairperson of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia Faction in the Estonian Parliament, who explicitly stated on the Tallinn TV series The Free Thought Club (28.05.2013) that “there should be one simple rule for our immigration policy: if they’re black, send them back […] I want Estonia to be a white country.” It came as an unpleasant surprise to many Estonians, but even more importantly so to foreigners living in Estonia, that public and government attitudes to the statement were not unequivocally critical and disapproving. As a result, we could also read on the Estonian Public Broadcasting website in the summer of 2016 that such racism-laden statements of opinion are in fact necessary, as they protect Estonians from the “devastating effects” of political correctness that have occurred in many places in Western Europe (Estonian Public Broadcasting 12.10.2016). Unfortunately, there has also been a spike in racist hate speech and discrimination in numerous other western countries in the last year, including in post-Brexit UK, and these have even become a part of everyday political rhetoric and decision-making, such as has taken place in Trump-era USA.

This Chapter

The EHDR 2017 chapter ‘Immigration and Integration’ aims at offering a fresh perspective on the topics discussed so far, as well as analysing the level of coherence and integration in Estonian society, and the associated immigration processes across different generations. Unfortunately, there are not enough quality data to analyse all questions of interest, especially in relation to the identity of new immigrants, and how they are faring in the education system and the employment market. Because of this, as in many previous reports, the focus of this chapter is on an analysis of the integration process among Estonians and Estonian Russians.

The focus of the first article in this chapter, ‘Citizenship and political rights in the migration era’, is on the problems that may arise for the functioning of democracy in Estonia from the citizenship divide in the population as well as from the continued emigration of Estonian citizens. According to the 2011 census, Estonian citizens made up approximately 85% of the population and the proportion has continued to rise over the last decades, as the number of stateless individuals or so-called grey passport holders (6%), in particular, declines. The third group of note (7%) in the Estonian population is comprised of citizens of the Russian Federation. Article author, Kristina Kallas, argues that approximately 15% of the permanent Estonian population, thus, lacks political rights (except the right to vote in local elections), while at the same time the proportion is growing of those individuals who have Estonian citizenship, and thereby enjoy political rights in the country, but due to emigration no longer permanently reside in Estonia: Estonian citizens indeed have comprised the majority (77-94% over the previous decade) of those that have emigrated. The situation, when analysed by generation, is concerning: according to the latest Integration Monitoring Report (2015), 19% of those of other ethnicities who were born in Estonia and had Estonian-born parents (so-called immigrant grandchildren) were not Estonian citizens: 9% were Russian citizens and 10% were stateless. The main reason for not applying for Estonian citizenship is low motivation (see also Aune Valk’s article in this compendium) — Estonian citizenship is not seen as valuable, important, or practical, as lack of Estonian citizenship does not prevent people from living in Estonia but does permit them to travel both in the European Union and to Russia and the CIS. Consequently, the Estonian population continues to be divided not only by identity, but also by citizenship and resultant legal rights, which prevents the strengthening of social cohesion.

Another key indicator of social cohesion is shared common media space. Triin Vihalemm’s article, ‘On the role of the media in migration and integration’, reveals, sadly, that media use of the Estonian population continues to be divided along ethnolinguistic and age lines. While Estonians tend to follow local Estonian-language media, the media consumption of the Russian-speaking population includes local Russian media as well as channels from the Russian Federation and other countries, while use of local Estonian-language channels has continually decreased over the last decade. It would therefore be wrong to say that Estonian-Russians live entirely in the media space of the Russian Federation, but it is true that Estonian and Estonian-Russian media spaces only partially overlap. The best media-related indicator of integration would appear to be the regular following of daily news, which affords a better understanding of what is happening in Estonian society. Or the opposite may also be true – stronger ties and involvement in societal life also require being more up-to-date with the news. Considering the ethnic inequalities in the Estonian labour market (see Ellu Saar and Jelena Helemäe’s article in this compendium), it is no surprise that consumers of local daily news are significantly more common among Estonians (61%) than Estonian-Russians (45%). Generational differences are also more apparent among Estonians, where the younger generation follows foreign media more than their parents and also has a greater interest in emigrating as well as more mobility capital. The exact role of foreign media in migration intentions is difficult to determine but, based on the available data, it can be supposed that the two factors mutually influence each other and that the desire to leave Estonia increases the interest in foreign media, not the other way around.

In addition to the ethnic divide in citizenship and media use, ethnic segregation continues to be quite apparent in the choice of place of residence, as is persuasively argued by Kadri Leetmaa in her article ‘Place of residence as a measure of integration: Changes in language-based segregation of place of residence’. The largest segment of the Estonian Russian-speaking population lives to this day in the same localities they moved to during the Soviet time (mostly, that is, in the block housing of the Soviet-built satellite suburbs of Tallinn, former satellite military towns, and the industrial areas of the Ida-Virumaa region), whereas the proportion of Russian-speakers in the remainder of Estonia’s cities and regional areas is below 5%. Paradoxically, Estonians and Estonian-Russians in Tallinn have not mixed any further over the last 15 years as a result of changes in places of residence. In fact, the opposite has occurred: ethnic segregation in living arrangements in Tallinn as well as Estonia as a whole is increasing rather than diminishing. The concern is that the Russian-speaking population is becoming increasingly concentrated in areas of residence where the general socioeconomic status is low. New immigrant choices of places of residence follow the same pattern – while immigrants from the former Soviet Union tend to move to block housing in the predominantly Russian-speaking Soviet-built satellite suburbs of Tallinn, those coming from elsewhere in Europe and other developed countries tend to take up residence in central Tallinn or in one of the nearby well-regarded neighbourhoods. Thus, numerous areas of central Tallinn (e.g., Kalamaja) are becoming significantly more multicultural and multilingual, but this is mostly due to the presence of relatively well-off new immigrants.

The ethnic divide between choices over place of residence – or the Estonian and Estonian-Russian parallel societies, as Kadri Leetmaa symbolically terms the phenomenon – reflects the situation in the employment market, which is analysed by Ellu Saar and Jelena Helemäe in their article, ‘Ethnic segregation in the Estonian employment market’. Although horizontal ethnic segregation, i.e. ethnic distribution across areas of employment, has decreased over the last 25 years, in 2015 only 10% of Estonians and under one-third of Estonian-Russians worked in mixed teams (where approximately half of the workers are Estonian and half Estonian-Russian). At the same time, 80% of Estonians worked in Estonian-majority and 50% of Estonian-Russians in Estonian-Russian-majority teams. The authors of the article stress that this is not related to voluntary separation on the part of Estonian-Russians, but rather to direct ethnic-based discrimination in the Estonian employment market, which Estonian employers themselves acknowledge and Estonian-Russians clearly perceive. For instance, there is a widely-held belief among Russian-medium high school students that they have no future in the Estonian employment market simply because they have a Russian name. At the same time, vertical ethic segregation in the employment market has increased over the last 25 years – there are remarkably more Estonians among managers and professionals, while the representation of Estonian-Russians in unskilled and skilled labour is greater than that of Estonians. It is also, unfortunately, harder for Estonian-Russians with the same qualifications and experience as Estonians to obtain more favourable positions. The so-called ‘winners’ that manage to break into those areas of employment in which Estonian-Russians are generally underrepresented (e.g. Estonian politics) are only those Estonian-Russians who can speak Estonian well and have Estonian citizenship. If one is successful in achieving a breakthrough, however, it is accompanied by very good prospects of obtaining a management or professional position.

Continued ethnic segregation in the employment market and by place of residence is intrinsically linked to ethnolinguistic segregation in the Estonian education system, which is analysed by Kairi Põder, Triin Lauri, and Leen Rahnu in their article, ‘Challenges for the Estonian schooling system: Differences in levels of achievement across different language-based schools and immigrant school choices’. Analysis of 2012 PISA data by the authors shows that results of mathematics tests of students in Russian-medium schools are remarkably poorer than those of students in Estonian-medium schools, being almost one year behind. This could in turn be a reason why Russian-medium basic school graduates are more likely to go on to vocational schools and not academic secondary schools, to which graduates from Estonian-medium basic schools are more likely to go. In an attempt to explain the difference in mathematics test results between students in Estonian- and Russian-medium schools, the authors found that only a small part of the variation can be accounted for by sociodemographic background characteristics, but, of these, what mostly appears to increase the difference is lower cultural capital in families of children attending Russian-medium schools. It is therefore possible that what is behind this great unexplained variation is the lower motivation of students in Russian-medium schools arising from the previously-mentioned ethnic segregation in the employment market and an associated glass ceiling effect (see also Ellu Saar and Jelena Helemäe’s article in this compendium), or the fact that Estonian-medium schools have ‘stripped the bark away’ from Russian-medium schools. In 2014, approximately 10% of native Russian-speaking students attended Estonian-medium schools, and earlier studies have shown that it is indeed Russian-speaking families from higher socioeconomic backgrounds that more strongly support their child’s motivation and success in learning that choose to send their child to an Estonian-medium school. The majority of new immigrant children also study at regular Estonian schools (rather than international schools), which is also related to the state-funded education system, which only extends to immigrant children studying in Estonian-medium schools. While direct data related to the acculturation of new immigrant children are lacking, it is generally believed that they are doing well in the Estonian schooling system.


Both Brexit and the recent US presidential elections left divided nations in their wake. It can be argued that it is not just the UK and the USA that have been divided, however, but also most European nations, especially those facing significant challenges, such as immigration and the refugee crisis. According to European Social Survey data, the proportion of Europeans that believed that people from poorer countries from outside Europe should not at all be allowed into their country doubled (11% vs. 20%) in the years 2002-2014. But again we see notable polarization within countries according to level of education, age, and income – those Europeans who are most adamantly against admitting immigrants from poorer countries from outside Europe are the less educated, the elderly, and those with a lower income: in other words, possible Brexit and Trump supporters.

The picture of Estonian societal cohesion and integration that emerges from the articles in this chapter mostly reflects what we can see in the countries discussed above. For instance, research into attitudes in the Estonian population towards same-sex attracted individuals – an issue over which very heated public debate erupted concerning the adoption of the Civil Partnerships Act some years ago – similarly showed that those who were most accepting were younger (15-29 years old) and had higher education and a higher level of income. However, one very important factor should be added to these, and that is the ethnic background of the respondent: attitudes towards same-sex attracted individuals were notably less accepting among the Estonian Russian speakers (LGBT research, June 2014).

Many earlier studies as well as the articles in this chapter show that, unfortunately, notable ethnic differences exist not only in the values and attitudes of people who live in Estonia, but also in their educational outcomes, level of education, type and place of employment, level of income, and place of residence. Therefore, while we do not often speak of prevailing inequality or social stratification in Estonia (Helemäe & Saar 2012), Estonian society in 2017 still excessively resembles a language- and ethnicity-based class society, where, in addition to the numerous factors discussed, even life expectancy is significantly lower among the members of one ethnic or linguistic group than the other (Baburin, Lai & Leinsalu 2011). We cannot change the historical and political factors that have shaped the ethnic composition of the Estonian population, as we now know, but, at the threshold of the 100th anniversary of Estonia’s independence, we could adopt the objective of having all people living in Estonia feel that they are ‘our people’.

An important step forward would be coming to the common understanding that, while we as a society officially speak of an inclusive integration process, we have still secretly hoped and expected that Estonian-Russians would, at some point, spontaneously assimilate into Estonian society. Unfortunately, that has not happened over the past 25 years, not even among the grandchildren of Estonian-Russian immigrants. The result has instead been separation, where the Russian-speaking community has retreated into its own physical and social space, or marginalisation, where young Russian speakers that were born and raised in Estonia often do not know who they actually are, nor can they identify themselves with one particular people or culture. The formation of an open Estonian identity gives hope that Estonians are ready to take a necessary step closer to Estonian-Russians in the integration process (see Aune Valk’s article in this compendium), but, in addition to an increase in tolerance and acceptance of others, significant changes are clearly urgently needed in the current citizenship and education policies, as was also highlighted by the authors of the 2015 Estonian Societal Integration Monitoring Report (Kallas et al. 2015). Furthermore, for integration to be successful, Estonian-Russians (and new immigrants) should take a greater and more active role in Estonian societal and political life, have more trust in Estonian state institutions, and follow Estonian-language media, which would also help them better understand Estonian life and society. For all of this, Estonian language proficiency is indispensable, and while this may not be the key to integration, it is certainly an important prerequisite.

In conclusion, the issue of the bringing together of the Estonian and Estonian-Russian parallel societies is not just about the Estonian national security policy situation or the fear of Russia, as is often suggested in the media – it is Estonian democracy and its basic principles, such as human dignity, fairness, tolerance, and equal opportunities that are at stake. In an open Estonia, whose task it is, among other things, to defend western values at the dividing-line of civilizations, differences in ethnicity, mother tongue, and skin colour should not in any way be reasons for discrimination or treating people differently, let alone segregation or separation.


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