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Estonians Differ on Joining NATO - 2002-11-21

For many Estonians, the reason for joining NATO is crystal clear: it is protection against neighboring Russia. Almost every Estonian family suffered when independent Estonia was forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union during World War II.

What happened to Anne Eenpalu's family during the Soviet occupation was chillingly typical of experiences throughout Estonia and the Baltics. As part of a crackdown on opposition, the Soviet authorities arrested her grandfather, who had been a Prime Minister of Estonia before the occupation. His family was later sent to a gulag in Siberia. It was there that Anne was born.

She explains that the NATO invitation will finally give Estonia a feeling of security. Ms. Eenpalu says people in Estonia are hesitant to openly call Russia the enemy. But she says deep down inside everyone believes Russia will always be a potential danger to the Baltic states.

At the Estonian newspaper Postimees, reporter Kadri Liik writes about issues related to NATO. She says fear of Russia even has an impact on official Estonian positions. "The main thing for Estonia has been to make sure that Russia doesn't invade it again, although politicians don't want to say it that way but everyone knows it's about that," she says.

In fact, Estonian officials won't say officially that NATO is protection against Russia. The deputy undersecretary at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Harry Tiido. "It's not only that you are joining NATO against someone," he says. "I would put it differently. We are joining NATO to be with someone, it means the Euro-Atlantic community which we consider ourselves to be part of."

Mr. Tiido and other Estonian officials point out the other reasons for joining NATO, such as belonging to an elite European club and improving Estonia's military. But many believe the rocky history with neighboring Russia is the main reason that sixty-nine percent of ethnic-Estonians support NATO membership, according to a poll by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But the same poll indicates that among the Russian-speaking population of Estonia, support for NATO membership is barely 30 percent.

People in Estonia who oppose NATO membership express concern about the costs involved. And many of them, particularly the ethnic-Russians, do not see much potential for another Russian invasion of the Baltics. Journalist Alexander Chapligin hosts a weekly television show about relations between Estonians and Russians. Mr. Chapligin says many ethnic-Russians in Estonia believe membership in NATO will lead to increased defense spending that will hurt the economy. For example, they fear pension payments won't increase and medical care will cost more.

Other Russians in Estonia say Estonia should be spending more time and energy on helping its Russian speaking population integrate into the country instead of spending money on joining NATO.

Many Russians point to one main integration problem in Estonia. Of the approximately 450,000 Russians in Estonia, about 150,000 are what is described as stateless people. They aren't citizens of Estonia or Russia or any country.

When Estonia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians who wanted to be Estonian citizens had to apply and pass an Estonian language exam. Many Russians resented being required to apply for citizenship in a country where they had lived for so long. Some returned to Russia, or chose to apply for Russian citizenship and remain in Estonia. The rest don't have any citizenship. The issue of citizenship has been a sore point between Russia and Estonia for years. At the offices of Estonia, the largest Russian-language daily newspaper in the country, editor Sergei Sergeyev says the best guarantee of security in today's world is not NATO membership, but rather making sure Russians are integrated into Estonian society. Mr. Sergeyev says, if Estonia provides Russians in Estonia with better economic and political opportunities, it would also help insure good relations with neighboring Russia.

So while many Estonians will be celebrating the NATO invitation this week, some ethnic-Estonians and many Russians here will not.