Minority Russians Fearful About Future in the Baltics : Independence: In Estonia, other breakaway states, they worry about jobs, housing and humane treatment.
When the right-wing junta took power in Moscow, many of the Russian workers at the Poogelmann Factory here greeted each other with the phrase, S prazdnikom-- Happy holiday!
But just two weeks later, their Russian director has been sacked and is facing criminal charges for supporting the coup. The factory, which was Soviet-owned, has been taken over by an almost-free Estonia. And like many of the Russians and other non-Estonians who make up 40% of this small Baltic republic’s population, the workers at the Poogelmann Factory on Tuesday said they are concerned about their future status in an independent Estonia.
“I am worried for my people--the Russians,” said Valentin Saunin, the deputy director in charge of staff. “It is difficult to be a Russian in Estonia now, because no one knows what will become of us. We have no certainty that Estonians will treat us humanely.
“I have lived here for 30 years, and no one ever insulted me, but for the last two years, every time I turn on the television, someone is talking about ‘Russian occupiers.’ ”
Soon after Soviet troops occupied Estonia, under a secret 1940 pact with Nazi Germany, a huge wave of immigrants began to arrive from Russia and the other Slavic republics.
Although a large percentage of the non-Estonian residents of the republic have supported the drive for independence, many others have angrily opposed it. They said Estonian independence will mean discrimination against Russians in education, the workplace and on the streets.
The Poogelmann Factory and its former director, Igor Shelelevich, have been a center for the Russian countermovement to the pro-independence Estonian Popular Front. Political meetings calling for Russian rights have been common on factory grounds over the last couple of years; workers have gone on strike twice in protest against policies of the Estonian government.
“The leadership of the factory was behind those strikes,” said Juhan Jalakas, the new director and an Estonian. “We hope things will be more peaceful now.”
But just Friday, about 500 of the 3,000 Poogelmann workers gathered to protest Shelelevich’s dismissal.
“He had his point of view and was not afraid to speak out,” said Vyacheslav Khokholkov, 35, a Byelorussian who has worked at the factory for 17 years. “He was for order, and the leaders of the coup promised that. We need order now in Estonia--any kind of order--harsh or democratic.”
Khokholkov said he and hundreds of workers like him are ready to defend Shelelevich. “There is no reason to put him on trial,” Khokholkov said. “He is an honest person. Political beliefs should not determine anyone’s fate.”
Saunin, a member of the factory’s strike committee, said Shelelevich had been reflecting the opinion of the majority at the plant, only 10% of whose workers are Estonians, when he published an appeal in a local newspaper calling for support of the putsch.
“When we first heard about it, we all said, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for,’ ” Saunin recalled. “We greeted each other by saying, ‘Happy holiday!’ We did not know it would end in a farce.”
Some Russian employees at Poogelmann are panicking that the transfer of their factory to Estonian hands would lead to a large layoff. The factory, which makes electronic components for military and civilian use and hearing aids, will no longer be supported by the Soviet budget.
Vladimir A. Zharikov, the factory’s head engineer, said there is good basis for their fears. “A lot of people could end up unemployed if the market for electronic components in the Soviet Union opens to the world,” Zharikov said. “Our products are not of high enough quality to stand up to the competition on the world market.”
Zharikov said the hardest part of the last two weeks was that so much happened too quickly, and no one can predict the future.
“People want stability,” he said. “The stress is so great that not everyone has the strength to handle it. We want life without big changes--no coups and no revolutions.”
Although the mood among workers at Poogelmann seemed somewhat tense, everyone said they plan to stay in Estonia.
“My parents were sent to Estonia 40 years ago when I was just 9 years old because of a shortage of specialists,” worker Yulia Belova said. “I am so accustomed to life here that when I visit another city, I feel pulled to come back here. It is my home.”
Workers said that, because the housing shortage is so intense across the Soviet Union, they cannot imagine being able to leave Tallinn, which has a higher living standard than most places in the Soviet Union.
“Where could we go?” said Irina Rakipina, 55, a plant employee who has lived in Estonia since her father served here during World War II. “No one wants us. Russia won’t take us back because it has enough problems already.”
Rakipina said that, although relations between nationalities were always good here, life for Russians has grown increasingly unpleasant recently. “Sometimes I hear people cry out, ‘Russian pig!’ or ‘Occupiers, get out!’ ” she said.
Tamara Grib, 39, a worker who moved to Estonia 22 years ago seeking a better life, said one of the biggest problems she and other non-Estonians will have in a free Estonia is that they do not speak the native language.
“I work with Russians, so I hardly have any practice with Estonian,” she said.
Russian residents of non-Russian Soviet republics, almost as a rule, do not speak the native tongue of their adopted homes. Now, as the republics are gaining independence, the Russians are finding themselves at a great disadvantage.
While many Russians at the factory mentioned their concern, Vyacheslav Morozov said the Russians in Estonia have strength in their numbers. “Of course, people are worried, but I think they should calm down,” Morozov, 31, said. “There are a lot of us here, so we could be very dangerous for Estonians if they do not treat us justly. Besides, they need us here.”