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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Estonia's Russians, a Strange New World

NARVA, Estonia - Sunburned and tired, a busload of tourists heads home - to a foreign country. After a week of boating on a whitewater river near St. Petersburg, the 30 ethnic Russians are reminded at this Estonian bordertown of the fact that they are no longer citizens, even though many were born here.


In their absence, the Estonian parliament has adopted a Law on Aliens that requires them to apply for a residence permit or leave the country, in a move by the government to create an Estonian identity after half a century of Soviet domination.


"We managed not to talk about politics for a whole week", said Olga Guzhvina, who teaches English at a high school in Tallinn. "It's a very painful topic".


For Guzhvina and the 600, 000 Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, the new law is the latest in a series of measures that declare them non-citizens, forces them to learn Estonian or leave their jobs, and makes them feel they are economically and socially discriminated against.


On Monday the local authorities in Narva, a border town with a Russian population of 85, 000, called for a July 16-17 referendum on whether to demand political autonomy.


That call was interpreted in the capital Tallinn as a demand for secession.


Estonia's ethnic Russians are confused and angry, and in impoverished Narva this anger may translate into strikes and political unrest, although City Council leader Vladimir Chuikin on Tuesday denied that he was calling for secession from Estonia, only "autonomy".


The tourists returning to Tallinn do not even think of striking - they just want to be able to stay in a country they call home.


"My home is here, my friends are here", said Guzhvina, who moved to Estonia 12 years ago. "I don't understand why I should leave".


Guzhvina said she worries about how to leam Estonian, a proficiency required to get citizenship. Most Russians in Estonia barely speak enough Estonian to buy food. They work in. all-Russian factories and live in all-Russian neighborhoods.


Guzhvina said she has some Estonian friends and insisted she rarely encounters hostility. But she said she has felt excluded all the same and had long since given up learning the complicated Estonian grammar.


She also worries about her two children, who were born and raised in Estonia but were declared non-citizens last year.


Guzhvina said she tried to enroll her daughter at an Estonian school, but was rejected because, she believes, the school did not want to accept Russian-speaking children.


Nina Dudchenko worries about her job. A law adopted last year requires each employee in Estonia to master one of six levels of Estonian.


Dudchenko said she would have to pass the third-highest level in a test later this year to keep her job as an accountant at a cargo port near Tallinn. Though born in Estonia, she may lose not only her job but also her residence permit, which requires that she be employed.


Although upset at what she calls discrimination, Dudchenko said she and other workers at the port had no plans to strike and would prefer not to see Russia impose trade sanctions in support of the Russian minority. Such sanctions, she said, could hurt the profitable port more than they would hurt the government.


The workers of Narva have less to lose. The military and textile factories are all but closed, and much of the work force is laid off or on forced leave. The breakup of the Soviet Union has robbed them of a market, and a government policy of austerity has brought an end to subsidies.


For local Russian politicians the new Law on Aliens has become a rallying cry for stakes. But a demonstration Monday drew only 200 people, fewer than line up at the border to go shopping in the Russian neighboring town of Ivangorod.


Mayor Vladimir Muzhul said he did not expect strikes: "There is no work anyway. What strikes can there be if half of the city is unemployed? "


Russians in both Tallinn and Narva say they have little faith in Russian politicians who claim to defend their rights. Mikhail Kurnikov, a guard who joined the boating trip, said many are former Communists in search of a new political constituency.


The referendum on regional autonomy has more chance of success. Anatoli Paal, director of the Baltiiskaya power station just outside Narva, said he expected the population to vote for regional independence. Although an ethnic Estonian himself, he said the laws on citizenship and language were forced through too fast.


"It creates the impression that somebody is trying to take revenge for the crimes of a system on people who had no part in those crimes". he said.