Estonia Was, and Still Is A Friendly Country

Reading media from Estonia these days from an ocean away causes me great anguish. Despite the tremendous outpouring of public support for refugees and Estonia’s moral and historic obligation to help those fleeing strife, there remains a small but vocal minority of voices that are spewing some of the most unpleasant and vile rhetoric against foreigners. This is not the Estonia I remember.

My heart really aches for my adopted homeland, the place I still consider “home” in many ways, the place I had planned to spend my later years in life, the soil in which I wanted to be buried some day.

As one of the very, very few visible minorities living in Estonia in the 1990s, I found the country to be spectacularly open and friendly. Ironically, over four years living and working there, the only racist abuse that I ever experienced was from a foreign Estonian (from Australia). I have never been mocked or talked down to by locals; in fact, they saw me normally, and I didn’t even stand out after awhile.

Perhaps it helped that I learned enough Estonian to communicate fluently and was essentially integrated, living as a normal person doing normal things; I just happened to look different. But I was accepted, even embraced, by the people I met. If anything, what I heard more often were comments like “you learned Estonian so quickly and some people have been here for decades…” (meaning Russian-speakers).

At the same time, I remember telling many of my colleagues in government and media (the two areas in which I worked), that Estonia would be facing immigration from Third World countries much sooner than they ever expected. They laughed, and told me not in their lifetime, as these people would just go to Finland instead. Some 15 years later, we’re now at a point where my prediction has been confirmed. But the resulting public discourse has dented my vision of Estonia.

In the 1990s, those of us, from visible minorities, who functioned within Estonian society seemed to be celebrated. I was in the media eye, and people liked what I did and said. I even braved my own lack of confidence by doing TV interviews in Estonian. I understood Estonia and Estonians, and in turn they accepted me. A few other visible minorities were in the public eye, from investor Sonny Aswani to pop artist Dave Benton (who helped to bring Estonia glory by winning the Eurovision Song Contest), and they too were celebrated. I still remember fondly the puzzled look I’d get from russophone customers at Argentiina restaurant when Chef Pepe (from Peru) and I would have a conversation in Estonian.

The Estonia I remember is one that is friendly and open, tolerant and accepting — even if it grumbled about it sometimes.

But now things have changed. Sadly a vocal minority who voice angry and hateful comments argue that Estonia is too small, and that allowing foreigners into the country would dilute or damage Estonian culture. More particularly, the hatred is directed at Muslims and Africans fleeing strife and disaster — something that tens of thousands of Estonians did just half a century ago themselves. It is shocking that a former high-ranking diplomat like Mart Helme, or even former Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland, could be individuals who spew some of this irresponsible rhetoric. I used to be so proud that Estonia, unlike its Baltic and Nordic neighbours, did not have a sizeable far-right movement. Now that’s all changed, as the Helme-led Conservative People’s Party toys with the right fringe and even more extreme voices plague the debate; reading the comment sections on some media is probably the most disheartening thing you can do since this debate grew in intensity. That ugly spectre that I had thought didn’t exist in Estonia was simply hidden, and it’s now rearing its ugly head.

I’m not worried about myself when I visit Estonia and I speak Estonian when I’m there. However, I cannot imagine moments like in 1999 when I was chatting with a bunch of friendly skinheads about music — and it never occurred to them I would be bothered by the White Power patches on their jackets. This scene replicated in 2015 may be more nefarious now, thanks to the rhetoric of irresponsible politicians and the lack of strong condemnation from the pussyfooting ruling coalition. Silence is as bad as shouting. Imagine if there was silence during the Singing Revolution…

The Estonia I remember is one that is friendly and open, tolerant and accepting — even if it grumbled about it sometimes. For instance, Estonia was the first Central/East European country that really embraced ethnic cuisines as early as the mid 1990s. The well-known wanderlust of Estonians just added to that open outlook. And now suddenly, in 2015, as a member of the European Union and every other organisation it wanted to join, my dear Estonia is wracked with a debate over hatred of foreigners.

My heart really aches for my adopted homeland, the place I still consider “home” in many ways, the place I had planned to spend my later years in life, the soil in which I wanted to be buried some day. Hatred is like a disease, and will continue to feed on itself if it’s not challenged and defeated by the true nature of my dear Estonians.

Mel Huang was a former journalist and analyst based in Tallinn, working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Central Europe Review. He also worked as a consultant with the Estonian Foreign Ministry on information affairs. Mel is an American of mostly East Asian background who grew up in (another shadily-annexed territory,) Hawaiʻi.

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