Estonia's ethnic Russians reject Tallinn rule

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The Independent Online
AFTER WEEKS of mounting tension, ethnic Russians in the north-east Estonian towns of Narva and Sillamae this weekend voted in favour of regional autonomy. As the results were announced yesterday morning, it was almost as though the Soviet era had returned: 97 per cent had voted 'Yes' in Narva, while some 95 per cent had done likewise in the smaller town of Sillamae, writes Adrian Bridge.

The euphoria of the municipal leaders who called the referendums was considerably diluted, however, when it emerged that the turnout in the two towns was just 54 and 60 per cent respectively. And, in addition to questioning the legality of the polls in the first place, the Estonian government in Tallinn accused its organisers of 'blatant fraud' - including bringing in voters from outside and allowing others to vote twice.

The referendums in Narva and Sillamae, both of which are almost completely ethnic Russian, were called late last month after the Estonian parliament passed a new law under which almost all the country's 500,000 ethnic Russians would be classified as foreigners.

The new legislation, which drew howls of protest and scarcely veiled threats from Moscow, was condemned by ethnic Russians in Estonia as the latest in a long line of 'discriminatory' laws. Although MPs subsequently amended the controversial law, the authorites in Narva and Sillamae, nearly all of whom are former Communist officials, said it was still unacceptable and vowed to press ahead with the referendums.

Quite what was meant by the controversial term 'autonomy' was never fully clear. While insisting that they were not seeking to break away completely with a view to becoming part of Russia, the poll organisers said they did want want power to levy taxes, make their own foreign policy and amend national legislation.

Despite such seemingly strident demands, however, they also said that they would respect the ruling due from the Estonian National Court which will almost certainly deem the referendums to be unconstitutional.

According to many observers, the referendums were nothing more than a game of bluff - an attempt by the ethnic Russian leaders of Narva and Sillamae to show they enjoyed popular support, thereby strengthening their hands in trying to wring concessions from Tallinn.

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