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Left behind? Russian-speaking minorities struggle in new Baltics

While the Baltics make economic and democratic strides, they also face growing pressure to better integrate their poor, disenfranchised Russian-speaking minorities.

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On the edge of Tallinn's 13th-century Old Town, women huddle along a medieval wall, selling mittens in freezing weather. They are Russian-speakers. Across the street, shoppers banter in Estonian at trendy boutiques that are a testament to the economic vitality of a former communist state that's turned itself around at breathtaking speed.

This picture of poorer Russians and more-successful Balts living peacefully side by side is seen often across the Baltic region, especially in Estonia and Latvia, home to most of the Baltics' 1.1 million Russian-speakers. But behind this equilibrium, there is a simmering mistrust.

Subconsciously at least, Russian-speakers are still associated by many Balts with the former occupier. Most came in the Soviet years to what were then considered the richest Soviet republics to do jobs locals did not want, in oil shale for example. They stayed, even after the Baltics broke free of the USSR.

Lithuania integrated the Russian-speakers easily, but in Estonia and Latvia many never learned the native languages required for citizenship or chose to remain noncitizens – and now they tend to look to Moscow for help and direction. With a third of residents being Russian-speakers (a little less in Estonia), Latvia has the largest such community in the Baltics. In Lithuania, Russian-speakers only make up 7 percent of the population.

As a result, how to integrate large Russian-speaking minorities has become one of the key challenges facing Latvia and Estonia, experts say.


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