NARVA, ESTONIA, September 2008
The recent fighting in Georgia has raised concerns over Russia’s long term policy towards other former Soviet territories. Baltic states like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are watching developments closely. They are now members of the European Union and NATO but have significant Russian populations. Moscow has already been accused of meddling, and Humphrey Hawksley reports from Estonia as to whether Russia may be able to use its expatriate populations to cause trouble for the West.
“Juri Mishin walked purposefully across the room to greet me. Dressed in a neat light grey suit, he was a short energetic man, and he ushered me to a seat, keen to explain his position in the new global order.
We were in the offices of the Union of Russian Citizens, a political organisation that said it spoke for Russians living the tiny Baltic state of Estonia A quarter of the population is Russian and in the border town of Narva where we were, just about everyone is.
The room was decorated with busts of Stalin and Lenin. A red Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag stood in the corner and from the window there was a view down to the Russia’s border. The Narva River marks the line and with castles on both banks, their flags flying in a strong wind, it looked like a scene from a medieval epic.
Mr Mishin explained that he was also an official adviser to the State Duma, the parliament in Moscow, his mission to alert the Kremlin as to how its citizens, living outside their country, are being treated. Since Russia invaded Georgia in August ostensibly to protect its own citizens, this has become a highly sensitive issue.
“Russia isn’t the weak collapsed state it was ten years ago,” said Mr Mishin. “It’s risen from its knees and is now it’s a country that we can rely on. As Russians wherever we live we can now ask for its support.”
As if to prove his point, he introduced me to Bargrat Djikayev, a 75 year old former Soviet soldier who originally came from the breakaway Georgian area of South Ossetia – the scene of the August fighting. Mr Djikayev still had family there and he used to go back regularly until, he said, it became too dangerous.
As he told his story, his face became tense and his eyes welled up. He told of torture and murder by Georgians of South Ossetians, of men executed, women dragged away and girls being raped and then burnt alive. His speech was rushed and urgent and our interpreter could only just keep up.
“Hold on,” I said “You’re saying this happened just now?”
He looked confused at the question.
“No”, he said, “this was in the 12th century.”
“12th century?” I said in disbelief. But why does what happened then make you so angry?” I asked.
Mr Djikayev cut his hands through the air.
“Oh it started long before that” he said, “the Georgians attacked us back in the 2nd century,” he said.
“But you have to move on surely,” I suggested.
He shook his head. “No. I want to go back and kill Mikhael Saakashvili,” he said referring to the Georgian president.
Mr Mishin, his hand cupped around his chin, had been listening silently, but chose now to intervene. “He’s influenced by this feeling of blood revenge that’s common in the Caucuses,” he said. “It’s not like that here. We have our differences with the Estonian government but we always manage to negotiate.”
Mr Mishin’s leadership could be crucial as the West stakes out its new relationship – with Russia already accused of using instability among its expatriates as a possible weapon. A year ago, Estonia was wracked with riots believed to have been inspired by the Kremlin. A few weeks later, its internet system came under cyber attack – also traced back to Moscow. And when driving into Narva we passed a long line of trucks queuing up to cross the border in what’s in effect a blockade. Some drivers have to wait more than a week to get into Russia.
Mr Djikayev’s anger reminded me of the Balkan wars, or the conflict between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq, where politicians use historical legends to deepen ethnic and religious divisions.
Whereas, Mr Mishin’s view was more measured because he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. In short it was the best of both worlds – keeping Russian citizenship, while reaping the benefits of the European Union.
So what advice did he offer to his friend? “A bad peace is better than war,” said Mr Mishin. “They should talk and reach a consensus.”
Did Mr Djikayev agree?
“Yes,” he said, looking at Mr Mishin. “He is a wise and good man. I’ve known him for 45 years.”
“All right then, Mr Djikayev. Can I ask you again,” I said, “what do you want to do now to move on?”
The old Soviet soldier from South Ossetia sat up ramrod straight, deep in thought, his hands clasped together. We waited silently for his response. We could almost feel the conflict between reason, emotion, loyalty and honour. Then he laid his hands on the table and shook his head. “The same,” he said. “I want to go back and kill Mikhael Saakishvili.”