About Estonia » Society » Integration in Estonian society

Integration in Estonian society

  • PDF

20 March 2014

According to the 2012 census, there are 1.294 million people living in Estonia. Of the permanent residents enumerated, 68.7% defined themselves as Estonian, 24.8% as Russian, and 4.9% as another nationality.


The current makeup of the population has taken shape as a result of various historical events. Before World War II, national minorities constituted about 12% of the population of Estonia. The largest minority groups in 1934 were Russians, Germans, Swedes, Latvians and Jews. The events of World War II considerably changed the composition of the Estonian population. Before and during the war, a majority of the Baltic German and Swedish minority fled Estonia. At the same time, tens of thousands of Estonians fled to the West and over 30 thousand people were deported to Siberia by the Soviet authorities.

Most of the non-ethnic Estonian population today is made up of people and their descendants who came from various parts of the Soviet Union during the occupation period. The people who settled in Estonia while the country was occupied by the Soviet Union came here as result of Soviet resettlement policy, the goal of which was to increase the share of the Russian-speaking population, which was seen as politically loyal to the Soviet government. The integration of these people with the Estonian population was not the goal of the Soviet government. Their plan was actually the opposite – to force Estonians to integrate into Russian-speaking Soviet society. For many years the integration of this group was also hindered by the fact that they settled in largely isolated locations on Estonia's territory.

Estonia reinstated its independence in 1991. According to the 1989 census, at that time the ethnic Estonian share of the population had dropped to 61% as a result of Soviet policies. In practical terms, this meant that after 1991 Estonia had to integrate some 39% of its population, of whom a majority had settled in Estonia recently. It was clear from the start that this was a challenge of unknown magnitude in Europe.

Naturalisation and language instruction

Estonia restored its independence in 1991 on the basis of the legal continuity of statehood, which meant not all residents of Estonia were entitled to get citizenship automatically. Only the people who were born in the Republic of Estonia prior to 16 June 1940 (the date that the Soviet Union occupied Estonia) and their descendants were recognised on the basis of the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia as citizens of Estonia (about two-thirds of residents). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people from the Soviet Union who had settled in Estonia between 1940 and 1991 (about one-third of residents) had to choose between Russian (or another CIS state) citizenship, as Russia was the successor state to the Soviet Union, or applying for Estonian citizenship through naturalisation. Some people have chosen not to apply for Estonian citizenship or any other citizenship and continue to live as permanent residents with undefined citizenship on the territory of Estonia.

The main emphasis for Estonian authorities after 1991 was on determining the legal status of the non-ethnic Estonian population. In the early 1990s naturalisation criteria and procedures as well as a residency permit system for members of the population with undefined citizenship were developed so that the basic rights of every resident of the independent Estonian state could be guaranteed and every person would have a travel document and access to social services. The naturalisation procedure stated the requirement of knowing the Estonian language, as a result of which a language instruction system was established for adults as well as children. Thus during the first decade in independent Estonia the keywords in integration policy were naturalisation and language instruction. The first State Integration Programme for 2000-2007 emphasised these same areas and proved successful.

Now, in 2014, we can look back on the significant progress that has been achieved regarding the naturalisation of former Soviet citizens. Currently the population of Estonia is divided according to citizenship as follows: 84,3% Estonian, 6,5% persons with undefined citizenship, and 9,2% citizens of other countries. While immediately after the restoration of Estonia's independence the percentage of people with undefined citizenship was 32% of the population, today the proportion has dropped to 7%.

Integration in Estonia – Successful but not completed

As of the 1990s, integration in Estonian society has been one of state's priorities, regarded as a two-way process that requires efforts on the part of the majority and minority alike. Integration creates friendly and secure coexistence that is based on the mutual acceptance and respect of various social groups.

The Estonian Government has taken a number of significant steps to further the integration process:

In 1998, the Government formed the Integration Foundation to support actions and projects directed towards integration.

In 2000, the Government approved the State Integration Programme for 2000-2007 – a framework and a guide for the implementation of integration policy for governmental institutions.

In 2008, the Government adopted the next State Integration Programme for 2008-2013. On 30 June 2011 the Government adopted the Action Plan for the 2011-2013 programme.

In March 2012 the results of the study Integration Monitoring 2011 were published; these formed the basis for the creation of the State Integration Programme 2014-2020. The study was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and carried out by the PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies, Tartu University, and AS EMOR.

The most important results of the study were:

61% of non-ethnic Estonians consider themselves to be moderately, strongly or fully integrated. Knowledge of the Estonian language and a social request for Estonian-language basic education have increased remarkably. Every third person surveyed knew the state language on an active level, every other person knew it on a passive level, and only 16% did not know it at all. Of the people surveyed, 80% believe that Estonian language instruction should begin in kindergarten and two-thirds would like for all kindergartens to use the Estonian language.

The open attitude of the native population is on the rise. Integration is a two-way process, and one important factor for its success is the increasingly open attitude of Estonians. Among Estonians, 70% feel that including non-ethnic Estonians in the country's economy and governance is beneficial for Estonia.

The target group for integration is no longer homogenous. Different integration patterns have formed that provide valuable new information for working out policies for the next step in integration. The groups among the non-ethnic Estonians respondents that were highlighted by the study were:

a) the successfully integrated, both language- and identity-wise, 21%;
b) the Russian-speaking Estonian patriots, not so confident in Estonian but having a strong sense of belonging, 16%;
c) the Estonian-speaking critics, fluent in Estonian but lack a strong sense of belonging, 13%;
d) the moderately or little integrated, mostly with undefined citizenship and poor command of Estonian, 28%;
e) the not integrated, predominantly of Russian citizenship and older age, 22%.

The importance of this finding is that the Estonian government can no longer approach the target population for integration as a unified group. In future integration policy the state must consider a more individualised approach to the aforementioned groups in society, involving the fully integrated groups in reaching out to the least integrated ones.

In summary

The integration of the non-ethnic Estonian population was a task that in 1991 seemed like a test of the capabilities of the newly free republic. Today the process is steadily moving towards a positive resolution. Looking at the process in terms of the number of people to be integrated as well as the circumstance of their arrival and the counter-integrationist policies of their kin state Russia regarding the integration of Russian-speaking residents into Estonian society, one can see that this has been a massive and unique undertaking on the European and even global scale – an undertaking that today shows clear signs of success.

Further Information
The Integration Foundation
Police and Border Guard Board
Language Immersion Centre
The Ministry of the Interior
Ministry of Culture
Ministry of Education and Research
The Ministry of Social Affairs