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Integration in Estonian society

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19 September 2016

According to the 2015 census, there are 1.313 million people living in Estonia. Of the permanent residents enumerated, 69.1% defined themselves as Estonian, 25.1% as Russian, and 5.8% 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.

Significant progress regarding the naturalisation of former Soviet citizens has been achieved. In 2014,  the population of Estonia was 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 below 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 2014, the Government adopted the Strategy of Integration and Social Cohesion in Estonia “Integrating Estonia 2020” development plan and the Action Plan for 2014-2017.

The aim of the „Integrating Estonia 2020“ development plan is to increase cohesion in society and to involve people from difficult cultural and linguistic backgrounds in the social life of Estonia.

In June 2015 the results of the study Integration Monitoring 2015 were published. The study was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and carried out by the PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies, Tallinn University, and Institute of Baltic Studies.

The most important results of the study were:

The majority (57%) of persons with undetermined citizenship continue to wish to obtain Estonian citizenship. They mention an inability to learn Estonian as the main obstacle to obtaining citizenship.

The attitude of Estonians towards the easing of requirements for obtaining citizenship has changed considerably. The vast majority of Estonians feel that Estonian citizenship could be given to all children born in Estonia, regardless of their parents’ citizenship, but also to other persons born in Estonia in the past.

A nationwide survey that was carried out from January to February 2016 revealed that a linguistic and ethnic separation can be clearly seen in the Estonian labour market and it has even increased in recent years. The estimates of people of other nationalities regarding labour market options are significantly lower than those of Estonians.

Among Estonian residents of other ethnicities, people with active Estonian language skills currently account for 37%; people with passive knowledge of Estonian account for 48%, while people who do not speak Estonian account for 15% (according to the respondents’ own estimates). Compared to 2011, Estonian language skills have improved among people of other ethnicities: the proportion of people who do not speak Estonian has declined and that of people with active Estonian language skills has increased.

The symbolic significance of Estonian language skills for people living in Estonia is manifested in language-related attitudes, e.g. three-quarters of Estonians and nearly two-thirds of representatives of other ethnicities agree that skills in Estonian enhance mutual trust between Estonians and Russians. Compared to 2008, the proportion of people agreeing with this statement has grown by 20% among Estonians and more than doubled among other ethnic groups.

National identity indicators are relatively high among both ethnic Estonians and Estonian Russians: respondents with a weak national identity account for only around one-fifth of both groups; all other respondents have either a moderate or strong national identity.

The survey has paid special attention to the attitudes of young people. Young people of other nationalities have better adapted compared to the older generation – most of them have Estonian citizenship and their confidence in national authorities is higher. Their assessment of their ability to influence issues in the Republic of Estonia is at the same level as that of Estonians.

The experts from the Institute of Baltic Studies, Tallinn University and PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies, who compiled the integration monitoring survey, have also suggested a series of policy recommendations on how to better support the integration of society in the survey report.

One of the conclusions was, that the focus of further integration policies should be, in particular, on young people of other ethnicities born in Estonia who have good Estonian language skills but who are not Estonian citizens.

The survey results are available to everyone on the website of the Ministry of Culture.

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
Integration and Migration Foundation Our People
Police and Border Guard Board
Foundation Innove (Language Immersion Centre)
Ministry of the Interior
Ministry of Culture
Ministry of Education and Research
Ministry of Social Affairs