An excess of conscience
Estonia is right and Amnesty is wrong
AMNESTY International used to be an impartial and apolitical outfit, focused on the single burning issue of political prisoners. Your correspondent remembers its admirable letter-writing campaigns during the cold war on behalf of Soviet prisoners of conscience such as Jüri Kukk, an Estonian chemistry professor. He died in jail 25 years ago with the hope—then not widely shared—that his country’s foreign occupation would eventually end.
It did. Since regaining independence in 1991 Estonia has become the reform star of the post-communist world. Its booming economy, law-based state and robust democracy are all the more impressive given their starting point: a country struggling with the huge forced migration of the Soviet era. The collapse of the evil empire left Estonia with hundreds of thousands of resentful, stranded ex-colonists, citizens of a country that no longer existed.
Some countries might have deported them. That was the remedy adopted in much of eastern Europe after the second world war. Germans and Hungarians—regardless of their citizenship or politics—were sent “home” in conditions of great brutality.
Instead, Estonia, like Latvia next door, decided to give these uninvited guests a free choice. They could go back to Russia. They could stay but adopt Russian citizenship. They could take local citizenship (assuming they were prepared to learn the language). Or they could stay on as non-citizens, able to work but not to vote.
Put like that, it may sound fair. But initially it prompted howls of protest against “discrimination”, not only from Russia but from Western human-rights bodies. The Estonians didn’t flinch. A “zero option”—giving citizenship to all comers—would be a disaster, they argued, ending any chance of restoring the Estonian language in public life, and of recreating a strong, confident national identity.
They were right. More than 100,000 of the Soviet-era migrants have learnt Estonian and gained citizenship. In 1992, 32% of the population had no citizenship. Now the figure is 10%.
In 1990, before the final Soviet collapse, your correspondent tried to buy postage stamps in Tallinn using halting Estonian. The clerk replied brusquely, in Russian, “govorite po chelovecheski” (speak a human language). That was real discrimination. Estonians were unable to use their own language in their capital city. Now that’s changed too.
Reasonable people can disagree about the details of the language law, about the right level of subsidies for language courses, and about the rules for gaining citizenship. Nowhere’s perfect. But Estonia’s system is visibly working. It is extraordinarily hard to term it a burning issue for an international human-rights organisation.
Yet that is what Amnesty International has tried to make of it. It has produced a lengthy report, “Linguistic minorities in Estonia: Discrimination must end”, demanding radical changes in Estonia’s laws on both language and citizenship.
Amnesty's report echoes Kremlin propaganda in a way that Estonians find sinister and offensive
The report is puzzling for several reasons. It is a bad piece of work, ahistorical and unbalanced. It echoes Kremlin propaganda in a way that Estonians find sinister and offensive. But most puzzling of all, it is a bizarre use of Amnesty’s limited resources. Just a short drive from Estonia, in Belarus and in Russia, there are real human rights abuses, including two classic Amnesty themes: misuse of psychiatry against dissidents, and multiple prisoners of conscience. Yet the coverage of these issues on the Amnesty website is feeble, dated, or non-existent.
Amnesty seems to have become just another left-wing pressure group, banging on about globalisation, the arms trade, Israel and domestic violence. Regardless of the merits of their views—which look pretty stale and predictable—it seems odd to move to what is already a crowded corner of the political spectrum. To save Jüri Kukk and other inmates of the gulag, people of all political views and none joined Amnesty’s campaigns. That wouldn’t happen now.