President Personifies Estonia

June 27, 1993|By KATHY LALLY

Moscow. -- Just 52 years ago, Lennart Meri was a frightened 12-year-old boy deported with his family to Central Russia for the crime of being Estonian.

Today, Mr. Meri is the eloquent and elegant president of an independent Estonia. He represents his country completely, having suffered as it did dispossession, humiliation and subjugation while never quite losing the deep (although hidden) desire for independence.

Even today the same powerful forces are at work in Estonia, shaping the debate over who has the right to claim citizenship in a country that is striving to restore its past.

Not surprisingly, the question arouses deep emotion and acrimony. Last week, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin accused Estonia of attacking its Russian residents with a new law requiring ethnic Russians to apply for citizenship or a residence permit within two years -- or face possible deportation. Many of the Russians were in fact born in Estonia.

"Russia will not tolerate encroachment on the legitimate rights of the Russian-speaking population in Estonia," Mr. Yeltsin said, adding that Russia will "undertake all necessary measures" to protect them. On Friday, Russia cut off supplies of natural gas to Estonia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said putting the law into effect could lead to a political crisis with "consequences . . . beyond conjecture."

Mr. Meri will have none of it.

Russia, he said in a recent interview, had seized Estonia and its Baltic cousins, Lithuania and Latvia, in 1941 to establish a fortress on the Baltic Sea to guard the Soviet empire. Estonians like the Meri family were moved out, and Russians were moved in. After World War II, Russia built giant factories in Estonia and sent still more Russians to man them.

"Before World War II the country was 90 percent Estonian," Mr. Meri said. "Then Estonians were sent to Siberia and their houses were used by the Russian work force. . . . It's a process we have every right to call ethnic cleansing."

Today, Russians make up nearly one-third of the population of 1.6 million.

And Russian leaders are left to sort out the dreadful problems left behind by a discredited ideology and collapsed empire. The death of the empire left 25 million Russians adrift in other republics.

For many, like the Russians of Estonia, Russia offers no homes to come back to, and worse, no possibilities for the future. Mr. Yeltsin and his government can offer the cast-offs little else but a defense of angry words and threats.

"Estonia has stepped out on the path of apartheid," Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told newsmen, "since one-third of its population has been declared foreigners."

He accused Estonia of pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing and threatened retaliation. "I am not going to conceal that we are considering additional economic measures to make the Estonian leadership turn to a more reasonable way of actions," he said.

But this is hardly an issue on which Estonians are prepared to be reasonable. It is too emotional a question for them. For many Estonians, the Russians are an unavoidable reminder of what their country suffered under 70 years of Soviet rule -- which Estonians routinely call the occupation. (Josef Stalin is referred to in Estonian newspapers as "the mass murderer Josef Stalin.")

They have been moving with all possible haste to destroy all reminders of that past domination. For example, they were the first of the 15 former republics to establish their own currency.

By setting out on an austere course, they have made remarkable progress in economic reform. Now they want to free themselves from what they call Russian cultural control.

On May 1, Estonia stopped broadcasting Russian television programs. Many Estonians now watch Finnish channels, giving them a glimpse at a high standard of living they think might have been theirs had it not been for 70 years of Soviet rule.

They resent the Russians, who ran things, and who never learned to speak Estonian, while Estonians were forced to speak Russian. Under the new laws, ethnic Russians have to pass a language test to become citizens -- then they face a one-year waiting period.

While somewhat defensive about how they treat their Russian residents, Estonian officials are resolutely unapologetic.

"It's difficult for a country like ours to have so many non-citizens," Prime Minister Mart Laar said in a recent interview. "Citizens have duties; others have rights but no duties."

Mr. Laar asserts that Russians in Estonia are beginning to adjust to the new situation.

"Some will leave Estonia, and some will become better integrated," he said. "Many who were colonized here are interested in leaving. If they want to go we must help them. They can sell their apartments and get a lot of money and use that to go back to their homeland. Our government is building housing for them in St. Petersburg. They see the government is helping them, and the tensions are going down."

The presence of the Russian Army in Estonia has inflamed

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