An influential media mogul in Greece who made false claims about Estonia was widely ridiculed by Greek internet users this week after Russian speakers in Estonia – who he claims are oppressed – bombarded him on Twitter with corrections.
Efthimios “Makis” Triantafyllopoulos is a journalist, publisher and TV host with a habit of repeating Kremlin propaganda. He recently turned his attention to Estonia, which he describes as a fascist country that banned the Russian language.
In the first of a series of tweets about Estonia, Makis wrote: “Did you know that in many areas 40% of Estonians are Russian? Did you know that they are forbidden to speak their language? Did you know that they are barred from voting? 40%! And yet all this happens in a country that belongs to the European Union! Which Republic [is really the] fascists?”
Makis is the owner and editor of Zougla, a Greek online news site, as well as the host of two TV shows in Greece. He previously edited and co-owned the Proto Thema newspaper and founded the now defunct Sunday newspaper VETO.
Since Russia began its full scale war on Ukraine, Makis has used his influential position to repeat multiple false narratives aligned with Kremlin propaganda, including portraying Ukrainians as fascists. In reality, the far right gained just 2% of the vote in Ukraine’s last election and failed to win any seats in Parliament. Ukraine’s President, who is now widely popular for uniting his country against the Russian invasion, even speaks proudly of his own Jewish family heritage.
And, in Estonia, the reality is also very different to his claims.
Estonia’s Russian speaking population proudly serve Estonia at the highest levels of government, in all political parties, in its armed forces, as Ambassadors, and more. They are celebrated for their cultural impact too, including as Estonia’s Eurovision entries and TV pop idol winners. As with the rest of Estonia’s population, many have also been loudly outspoken in support of Ukraine and against Russia’s war of aggression. Protests against Russia’s actions have taken place across Estonia among both Estonian and Russian speakers, including in the town of Narva, which is 95% Russian speaking.
When we first noticed Makis’ tweets, we thought it would be a good opportunity to fact check the issues that he raised, specifically regarding language and voting rights for Russian speakers. So we reached out to Makis to first ask what sources he used, whether he had even spoken to Russian speakers in Estonia, or if he could just give us some idea of how he formulated his beliefs. After that, however, Russian speakers in Estonia noticed his tweet too and took things into their own hands by responding directly to him. Here’s what they had to say.
In addition, there was an immense outpouring of support from Estonian speaking and multilingual families in Estonia who united against the propaganda and even invited Makis to come visit them.
In a further demonstration of the Estonian love of languages (beyond Estonian), Estonian sports TV journalist Aet Süvari even responded in Greek.
As the responses to Makis went viral, including in this tweet that gained more than 1 million impressions, mostly in Greece, large numbers of Greek and other international internet users soon joined in to ridicule Makis for making false claims while expressing support for Estonia and further amplifying the voices of Russian speaking Estonians providing correct information.
This is a great example of how Estonians, no matter which languages they speak, can work together to combat misinformation with the help of people around the world.
But, let’s get back to the fact checking.
Defining Estonia’s ‘Russians’
It must first be clarified that ‘Russians’ in Estonia are not a single group that is easy to define (nor do they have a single world view as Kremlin propagandists would hope).
When people like Makis talk about ‘Russians’ in Estonia, they are talking about people who speak Russian as their mother tongue, even though many don’t necessarily define themselves as Russian nor have Russian ethnicity. Language does not determine nationality nor does it neatly correlate with an ethnic identity. For example. the majority of people in the Republic of Ireland speak English, not Irish, as their mother tongue but to define them as English (or belonging to England in any way) is obviously absurd. It shouldn’t be surprising that this same complexity exists for Russian speakers in countries other than Russia (and yet, despite this, many people both in Russia and the West have been surprised that Russian speakers in Ukraine are currently fiercely fighting to defend Ukraine and protest against occupying Russian forces).
In Estonia, the people who speak Russian as their mother tongue reflect a complex range of circumstances.
Native Russian speakers in Estonia include Estonian citizens who escaped religious persecution in Russia more than 300 years ago (known as “Old Believers), Estonian citizens who have naturalised since their families migrated to Estonia during the Soviet occupation (and not just from Russia but also other parts of the Soviet Union), as well as people with “undetermined citizenship”, and citizens of the Russian Federation living in Estonia. Added to that complexity is the fact that these groups overlap with each other and with all other Estonians in mixed families. Their children are, of course, even more difficult to define.
The status of “undetermined citizenship” is the trickiest issue here so let’s break that down.
It means that, after migrating to Estonia during the Soviet occupation, they have not yet acquired citizenship of Estonia or any other country. A quick history lesson is needed here.
The Republic of Estonia was founded in 1918 then secured its independence through a two year war of independence (in which many Russians fought on the same side as Estonians). That culminated in a peace agreement with Russia known as the Treaty of Tartu in which Russia vowed under international law to respect Estonia’s territorial sovereignty in perpetuity. Yet Soviet Russia then formed a ‘non-aggression pact’ with Nazi Germany, which included an agreement to divide up Europe between them into their own spheres of influence. This was the catylist for World War 2 in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany remained in alliance for the first one third of the war, a fact that people in Russia can be fined for mentioning even though Putin has previously defended it.
As a consequence of World War 2, Estonia was occupied illegally for almost half a century by the Soviet Union, which organised migration into Estonia from across the Soviet Union as part of a policy of ‘Russiafication’ in occupied territories and replacing the large numbers of locals who were deported. Yet, despite this, the Republic of Estonia continued to exist under international law and Estonia’s independent state operated continuously through its embassies abroad. Then, in 1991, the Estonian state was fully re-established in Estonia based on the legal principle of state continuation. Membership of the Soviet Union was simply declared null and void as it was illegally forced upon Estonia. As a result, those who had migrated into Estonia during the occupation had a choice to apply for citizenship of Russia, which they were automatically entitled to upon mere request up until 2000, or naturalise as a citizen of Estonia for which an Estonian language exam was required (as is normal in almost every country). To encourage integration, the level of language required has since been lowered to B2 and there is significant, free (and reimbursed) state support available to help anyone learn.
And this is not an issue for subsequent generations. Their children born in Estonia are automatically Estonian citizens, regardless of their language, although younger generations are usually far more integrated into Estonian-speaking society already.
As a result, the number of people with undetermined citizenship in Estonia is continuously declining – from more than 30% of Estonia’s population in the early 1990s to just 5% today. Most chose to naturalise as Estonian citizens while a smaller percentage chose Russian citizenship while remaining in Estonia but all continue to enjoy higher standards of living, political rights, and economic opportunities than in Russia itself, hence why there is still significant immigration from Russia to Estonia and not the other way around.
Estonia’s next largest minority is Ukrainians, which has increased massively since the outbreak of Russia’s large scale war against Ukraine. More than 1% of the Estonian population is now made up of Ukrainian refugees, a significant proportion of whom also speak Russian, and they have been warmly welcomed and are being integrated as smoothly as possible.
Yet even those in Estonia remaining with undetermined citizenship enjoy special rights, including an Estonian passport and visa free access to both the EU and the Russian Federation. They are also exempt from obligations such as military service. This enhanced access to both regions has been a factor in slowing the reduction of stateless people because some actually prefer to hold onto those unique historical privileges.
In a subsequent tweet, Makis seems to add that Tallinn is 72% ‘Russian’ while, again, repeating that they can neither speak their language nor vote. In fact, about 50% of Tallinn’s population is defined as ethnic Russian based on the latest surveys and the majority of them are now Estonian citizens.
But is there any substance to his claims about the language and voting rights of Russian speakers being denied in Estonia?
The Russian language in Estonia
Estonian has been the official language of Estonia since the Republic was founded in 1918, but both Russian and English are now widely used in public, private, and business life. Almost all state and commercial services are available in all three languages. Whether it’s as mundane as ordering fast food, buying groceries, visiting a local bank, or government office, it is not unusual to use any three of those languages when approaching the counter in the expectation that the person behind it already speaks them.
Makis can visit Estonian government or private websites from his home in Greece and easily find the option to switch between languages. Booking a driving test, for example, whether theory or practical, will ask you which of the three languages you need to take it in.
There is also a thriving Russian media landscape in Estonia. The public broadcaster, ERR, has Russian language TV channels and a Russian news site, while there are also numerous private media sites in Russian. The main Estonian newspapers have coverage equally as extensive in Estonian and Russian, as well as content in English.
So it is not clear how Makis is defining Russian as being “forbidden” in Estonia.
In fact, Estonia on the world stage has been a champion of preserving all mother tongues, including as a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council where it has stood up for language rights and indigenous peoples globally. This does not exclude ensuring that Russian speakers in Estonia can also preserve their mother tongue.
Every level of education in Estonia is provided in the Russian language starting from nursery all the way to university. About 24% of school children in Estonia currently attend Russian language schools, which use Russian as the language of instruction to facilitate pupils’ learning, help preserve their mother tongue and culture, and also help them learn Estonian as second language. The number of children attending Russian language schools is also reducing, however, as an increasing number of Russian speaking families choose to send their children to Estonian language schools in order to improve their integration while still being able to continue learning Russian. In addition to having schools where all instructions are in Russian, all schools in Estonia with more than 10 pupils with the same mother tongue must be able to receive instructions in that language. This will also benefit Ukrainian refugees.
Voting rights of Russian speakers in Estonia
If Makis ever visited Estonia, he would see that during elections there is plenty of political campaign material in Russian, as well as Russian language debates, which seems a bit odd for a country where Makis says ‘Russians’ are barred from voting.
In truth, the majority of Russian speakers in Estonia can vote in all national and local elections because they are Estonian citizens. And even the 5% with undetermined citizenship can vote in all local and European elections. As a fun fact, Estonia is actually the only country in the world where the votes of non-citizens – including that 5% with undetermined citizenship – can help decide who will be Head of State because local councillors form part of Estonia’s electoral college for choosing a President.
It’s also important to note that elections in Estonia are free and fair so Russian-speakers in Estonia certainly have better voting rights than most Russian-speakers globally. Estonia consistently ranks first or at the very top globally for political and civic freedom, including freedom of speech, media, and internet, while Russia’s own scores continue to decline from what is already a very low level.
And native Russian-speakers don’t just vote, but also win elections. Here’s a few examples.
Jevgeni Ossinovski was, until recently, the leader of one of Estonia’s main political parties, the Social Democrats. On the other side of the political spectrum, Viktoria Ladõnskaja, is a prominent politician for Isamaa, a national conservative party. Mihhail Kõlvart of the Centre Party is currently mayor of Tallinn and his administration includes a very large proportion of native Russian speakers. Below, for example, is the Mayor of Tallinn giving his annual greetings to Tallinn school children at the start of their school year – in Russian.
The Centre Party, which has often been the most popular with Russian-speakers in Estonia, has also been a leading member of the national governing coalition since 2019, including providing the last Prime Minister, Jüri Ratas.
And it’s not just native Russian speaking politicians who are focused on engaging Russian-speaking voters and improving their situation, including through integration. Jüri Ratas, for example, decided to learn Russian after becoming Prime Minister precisely because of the importance of the language in Estonia. Recent Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid temporarily moved her entire Presidential Office to Narva, the town with a population that is more than 95% native Russian speaking, in order to better connect with Russian-speaking Estonians and champion the considerable investment that has gone into the town. Makis could attend the annual Station Narva festival there, which helps celebrate Russian-Estonian culture and business. Their cheeky slogan is ‘Narva is next’, which subverts fears of Russian aggression to clarify that the town is actually the next most happening place in Estonia.
Interestingly, Narva currently has an ethnic Estonian mayor, which further demonstrates that language and ethnic heritage is not as big a divider in modern Estonia as some outsiders would hope. In addition, in recent years, the votes of native Russian speakers in Estonia has spread out more across the political spectrum. Perhaps most confusingly for Makis, the political party that has recently been gaining the largest swing in votes from native Russian speakers is EKRE, the nationalist conservative party historically viewed as least enthusiastic about accommodating Russian speakers but which has been increasingly campaigning in Russian.
Russian speakers have their own agency
At best, Makis’ tweets are incredibly careless and devoid of basic journalistic standards. However, he is also, knowingly or not, repeating a false narrative that is used by the Kremlin not just against Estonia but across multiple countries that neighbour Russia.
This false narrative serves two primary purposes for the Kremlin.
Firstly, it is classic whataboutism, a propaganda technique that has been extensively used since Soviet times to deflect criticism by accusing others of doing the same thing that they are being criticised for, such as fascism and the denial of basic freedoms, which Russian speakers experience in Russia. Instead of addressing criticism, like in this article, whataboutism merely attempts to render any discussion of criticism pointless. It doesn’t even need to gain any sympathy for the propagandists as long as enough people feel that “well, they are all as bad as each other”. Whataboutism can be used when the counter claim is true, contains half truths, or is entirely false. There certainly are challenges, tensions, and legitimate differences of opinion in Estonia about how best to balance the integration of Russian speakers with the preservation of their mother tongue and culture in an open, democratic society within a state that has its own national language like Estonia. And the Kremlin is keen to exploit and increase tensions. Yet very positive progress has been made since the restoration of independence and subsequent generations are better integrated (and multilingual) than ever before. In Makis’ case, however, he has chosen not to just to deflect criticism and make false comparisons based on those real challenges, but has made very specific entirely false claims about language and voting rights.
The second purpose is to serve as a pretext for escalating hostile activities. Fortunately for Estonia, our security and preparedness for this is incredibly high. Yet in Ukraine, we can see the devastating end result of that propaganda technique where Russian speakers of Ukraine, along with all Ukrainians, are being brutally attacked by Russian forces under the false premise of protecting them from fascism. Makis tweeted his false claims in the context of that war, not with any real interest in Russian speakers here in Estonia, but merely to use them to deflect criticism of the war in Ukraine. Yet it is Russian speakers in Ukraine that are currently facing the worst onslaughts from Russian forces and providing fierce resistance in return.
While that takes place, EuroNews travelled to Narva this week in order to hear from Russian-speakers in Estonia about their views on the war in Ukraine and whether they would prefer to remain part of Estonia or be incorporated into Russia. They discovered significant numbers of locals who are proudly Estonian, enjoy living in Estonia, and were perplexed by the question.
As one local resident, Gergana, explained: “Narva is a Russian speaking city and there are Russian people living here, even if we belong to Estonia. We are Estonians living in an Estonian city.” Another, Anna, said: “Honestly, I myself do not see any difference between Russians and Estonians, really. We are part of the same society. We belong together. What difference does it make whether I was born in Narva or Tallinn. I speak Russian, I speak Estonian, I have Russian friends, and I have Estonian friends. There is absolutely no discrimination.”
You can watch the full video report below.
We do not know Makis’ motivation for misrepresenting the situation of Russian speakers in Estonia. He has since blocked us and tweeted that he is under attack from far right trolls posing as Estonians. This is despite the fact that many of his responses have come from well known individuals in Estonia across the political spectrum, including people vocally critical of the far right.
His invite to visit Estonia and meet with Russian speaking Estonians remains open, as does our society.