Negotiating the Geopolitical Identity of Estonia: Does Labelling Matter?
In discourse, Europe has long been categorised into groups of nations with corresponding labels, whether that division be historically determined by religious denomination, linguistic or cultural origin, geographic position or by political ideology. More recently, under the European Union’s environmental protection policies, we might also refer to these as macro-regions, grouped together based on a shared environmental interest and geographical area, such as the Baltic Sea Region, the Danube Region and the Alpine Region.
Belonging to a group label or a macro-region can be particularly advantageous to a small, relatively unknown country such as Estonia, the fourth smallest EU member state with a population of only 1.3 million people. Due to five decades of forced exclusion from the European and global arenas while part of the Soviet Union from 1940-1991, Estonia suffers from low levels of international awareness, ranking 106th out of 118 countries surveyed in FutureBrand’s Country Brand Index 2012-13. In this case, a regional label can help place a country like Estonia on the map and over time raise its awareness levels and international status through soft power, by identifying itself with a more widely recognised concept or label, such as Baltic or Nordic.
Such labels are social constructs, imbued over time with both positive and negative connotations and reductive stereotypes that can be hard to shift. Despite having its own preference and ‘historical self-understanding’ of belonging to the Nordic region, a small country like Estonia does not always have free choice of which label others ascribe to it, nor control over the geopolitical consequences that come attached to that label. For this reason, Simon Anholt argues that ‘lesser-known emerging nations have no other option but to use soft power’ and to engage in public diplomacy activities, such as nation branding, in order to project influence and compete in the international arena. Nation branding refers to co-ordinated marketing activities that aim to attract tourists, stimulate inward investment, boost exports and attract talent, through maximising a country’s external reputation.
Within the field of nation branding, Estonia became an interesting and popular case to study around 2001-02, as it re-orientated itself from East to West, transitioning from a Soviet socialist republic to a neo-liberal democracy, and aspiring to join the EU and NATO. The then Prime Minister, Mart Laar, was outspoken in his desire to shake off the Baltic label and spatially re-orientate Estonia towards its true Nordic identity. He commissioned the British nation branding consultancy Interbrand to help ‘overcome the accident of history that had placed the country in the East rather than the West’ and reassert a ‘long-suppressed identity’, by developing Brand Estonia to promote Estonia’s ‘Nordic temperament’ (among other characteristics). The motives behind that campaign will be debated throughout this paper and its success in shrugging off the Baltic label remains open to debate, but shortly afterwards in 2004, Estonia did indeed join the EU and NATO, and seemed to have completed its longed-for ‘return to Europe’. In nation branding circles, Estonia is currently considered a country to watch, having jumped 42 places in FutureBrand’s ranking in just four years from 2010-14.
The question surrounding Estonia’s geopolitical identity has recently returned to the fore for another reason, however, amid security concerns about Russia’s military build-up of its Baltic fleet in Kaliningrad during 2016 and fears that Russia may attempt to annex Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as it did Crimea in 2014. Now that Estonia’s eastern border is also one of NATO’s frontiers with Russia, it relies more than ever on NATO’s Article 5, a mutual-defence clause which means that if any member is attacked, the other members will come to its defence. During the course of April 2017, 1,100 British and French NATO troops and 300 war vehicles are being deployed in Estonia, the biggest UK military deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War, in order to reinforce NATO’s eastern border, bolster the country’s military capabilities and deter Russian aggression.
There is also great concern in Estonia regarding US President Donald Trump’s apparent ambivalence towards NATO, paired with a comment from pro-Trump Republican Newt Gingrich in July 2016, that he would be unwilling to confront Russia in order to defend the independence of Estonia:
“Estonia is in the suburbs of St Petersburg, 40% of Estonia is Russian… I’m not sure I would risk nuclear war over some place that is the suburb of St Petersburg.”
Gingrich’s conflation of the sovereign nation of Estonia with Russian territory serves as a clear example how Estonia’s geopolitical identity, in this case still haunted by its post-Soviet or Russian label, affects its allies’ attitudes towards its defence. It is in this context of insecurity and fears of the Russian threat, just 200km from Tallinn, that the issue of Estonia’s identity and regional label is worth another look.
This paper will discuss in turn three particular regional labels that have been applied to Estonia: (1) Baltic, (2) Nordic, and (3) post-Soviet/Russian/East European, with analysis of the reasons supporting and opposing each, in an attempt to answer the following research questions: Which is the most appropriate label for Estonia? What are the consequences of the differing labels, not only from a foreign investment and tourism angle, but also from a geopolitical and security perspective? How feasible is it for a country like Estonia to spatially re-orientate itself in the perceptions of others?
Chapter 1: The Baltic label
Probably the most commonly known and used of all three labels, the Baltic label refers to the three neighbouring countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, originally referring to the geographical area called Balticum in Latin. The three countries share similar environmental and geopolitical macro-conditions, given their proximity to one another and their parallel history over the last 100 years: all three share the same timeline of independence declared in 1918, followed by Soviet occupation from 1940-1991 and finally EU accession in 2004. Those five decades within what Mart Laar called the Soviet ‘prison of nations’ provided the three Baltic states with ‘shared unhappy experiences imposed upon them from outside: occupations, deportations, annexation, sovietization, collectivization, russification’, as identified in 1999 by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs (and later President) Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Estonian is however pained to reveal any other shared identity markers in common with its two neighbours, instead wishing to disassociate itself from the negative connotations and stereotypes of remnant communist corruption that attach to the Baltic categorisation. Mart Laar uses the success of Estonia’s fight against corruption (at 22nd place out of 176 countries according to Transparency International), and Latvia’s relative ineffectiveness in the same (at 44th place), as distinguishing evidence that sets Estonia apart from its two Baltic neighbours. One reason for distancing Estonia from Latvia and Lithuania in the 2000s was to strengthen its credibility as a modern Western nation that belonged in Europe, in preparation for accession to the EU, and sociologist Mikko Lagerspetz argues that this became ‘a common trait in Central and Eastern European political discourse’. An example of such discourse is this comment by Ilves in a 1999 speech:
“There is no Baltic identity with a common culture, language group, religious tradition. For almost four years now, Lithuania has been correctly pointing out that it is a Central European country. Its Catholicism, architecture, history all link it to Poland and the other Vishegrad countries. Estonia was and as I will try to point out is, if anything, a member of Yuleland”. (Discussion of the concept of Yuleland will follow in the subsequent chapter).
It is true that in a linguistic and ethnic sense, Estonians are considered a Finno-Ugric people, while Latvians and Lithuanians belong linguistically and ethnically to the Baltic family. In terms of religion there are also significant differences across all three countries, with Estonia’s population being predominantly atheist (with in fact the lowest religiosity in the world according to a 2009 poll), Latvia’s predominantly Lutheran Christian and Lithuania’s predominantly Roman Catholic.
In assigning an appropriate identity label to Estonia, there is an important dichotomy to acknowledge. The principal external perception of Estonia by its foreign interlocutors is as a Baltic state, an association which the political elite in Estonia are keen to shift through nation branding, whereas the Estonians’ internal historical self-understanding of their own identity is of belonging to the Nordic, or at least Finno-Ugric, people. When dealing with collective national identity, however, things are rarely black and white, and we shall deal with demographic issues of Estonia’s Russian minority in chapter 3.
Chapter 2: The Nordic label
The term Nordic traditionally refers to the countries of the Scandinavian Peninsula (Denmark, Sweden and Norway) as well as Finland and Iceland. Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ famous “Estonia as a Nordic Country” speech in 1999 set the country’s preferred agenda in the early 2000s as to pursue a restoration of its Nordic identity. The reasons for this desired Nordic affinity stem primarily from Estonia’s geographical, linguistic, ethnic, historical and cultural proximity to Finland, and Estonia’s envy of ‘Finland’s successful self-redefinition of itself as a Nordic, not a Baltic country’ just before the Second World War. In particular, the short distance of just 90km between Tallinn and Helsinki had provided northern Estonians during the Cold War with Finnish television signals, which acted like an ‘electronic window on the West’ and gave them an insight into life beyond the Iron Curtain, to which few other Soviet states had access.
A second motive for aspiring to a Nordic orientation of Estonia is the label’s strong reputation as a hypernym for successful Western societies, which Lagerspletz argues would serve the country’s foreign policy needs by ‘dissociating it from the troublesome image of a post-Soviet country’ and paving the way for Estonia’s ‘return to Europe’ and admission to other Western structures such as NATO.
Thus in 2002, at the desire of President Lennart Meri, Prime Minister Laar and Foreign Minister Ilves, the consultancy Interbrand devised a nation branding strategy for Estonia called ‘Positively Transforming’, comprising five main brand narratives. The third of which clearly stated the country’s Nordic aspirations to be what sociologist Melissa Aronczyk terms ‘conceptually annexed’ to Finland, Scandinavia and Denmark:
“A Nordic temperament and environment: Estonia has always been part of the web of Northern Europe. Yet, an accident of history links Estonia in the minds of most people with the East instead of the West. Although some specific elements of Estonia’s social and economic structure do diverge from the established ‘Nordic’ pattern, the country is very much a part of the Nordic socio-geographic region in temperament and environment.”
Estonia’s national brand has of course undergone a refresh in the last 15 years, but the term Nordic still appears even in the current iteration in 2017, this time as the first of Brand Estonia’s three official qualities:
“Nordic: Straightforward. Pragmatic. Egalitarian. Estonia is a North-European country. We say what we think and do what we say. Being direct and clear in our communication and visual language helps us to gain trust.”
Two similar concepts worth mentioning, which however did not gain such traction, are: firstly, Ilves’ 1999 concept of ‘Yuleland’, a cultural grouping of Estonia, the Nordic Council states and Britain as countries that all celebrate Yule; and secondly, State Elder Jaan Tõnisson’s 1917 proposal of a ‘Balto-Scandian’ federal state that would have united the Nordic and Baltic countries with the geopolitical intention of ‘creating a counterweight to German and Russian influences’. It is note-worthy that exactly 100 years on from Tõnisson’s geopolitical fears regarding Russia, Estonia is again directing attention to its broader geopolitical regional identity, out of renewed fears of Russian aggression.
But despite Estonia’s desires to identify with the Nordic label, does it actually qualify, and is it accepted as such by the official Nordic countries? The Nordic Council, comprised of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, is the intergovernmental organisation responsible for managing the international Nordic brand campaign. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been mere observers at the Nordic Council since they regained their independence in 1991, and there are no visible signs of the Council’s intent to expand its membership to these three countries in the near future.
Paul Jordan argues that Estonia can in fact credibly call itself Nordic, based on its (semi-)fulfilment of six of Lagerspetz’s eight criteria of: geographical location, historical ties, linguistic affinity, Lutheran faith, social development (the so-called Nordic model), Nordic Council and other cooperation, legal and administrative tradition, and gender equality. The two criteria that Estonia clearly does not fulfill are firstly its lack of a social-democratic welfare model, having chosen to instead pursue a neo-liberal model; and secondly its level of gender equality, which is below the EU average and not yet even halfway towards the EU gender equality target. Despite this, it is still closer to a Nordic identity than Latvia and Lithuania, who only (semi-)fulfil five and two of the eight criteria respectively (see Table 1).
Table 1: The Nordic Identity is based on…
|1. Geographical location||×||×||(×)|
|2. Historical ties||×||×||−|
|3. Linguistic affinity||(×)||−||−|
|4. Lutheran faith||×||(×)||−|
|5. Social development (the Nordic model)||−||−||−|
|6. Nordic cooperation||(×)||(×)||(×)|
|7. Legal and administrative tradition (municipal self-determination; the rule of law)||(×)||(×)||?|
|8. Gender equality||−||−||−|
Note: The obvious or relative presence of an element of Nordic identity is indicated by ‘×’ and (×) respectively. The sign ‘−’ stands for the absence of an element. The question of the relationship is left open, which is shown by ‘?’.
Source: Mikko Lagerspetz, “How Many Nordic Countries? Possibilities and Limits of Geopolitical Identity Construction,” Cooperation and Conflict 38, no. 1 (2003): 57.
International recognition of Estonia as Nordic is still low and it doesn’t appear to have yet had a tangible influence on widespread perceptions, but the country’s ambition to emulate its Nordic role models is clearly evident from its nation branding activities, narratives and its official website. A separate study by Piret Pernik also found that this spatial orientation towards the Nordic label in the 1990s was conducted far more so at the international level than in the domestic political discourse, so an interesting area for further study might concern the actual affinity felt towards this label by Estonian citizens themselves in more recent years.
Chapter 3: The post-Soviet / Russian / East European labels
Least liked by Estonians, out of the three labels posited in this paper, is the post-Soviet or Russian label, which for the purposes of this analysis will be treated more or less as synonyms. Another label falling into this category is East European, due to the three terms’ similar denotations of the geographical area either historically under Soviet control or currently within the Russian territory or sphere of influence.
Although Estonians may not like it, there are a number of reasons that might support its labelling as post-Soviet or Russian. Firstly, the country has spent more of its history under Soviet occupation (51 years from 1940-1991) than it has as a free, independent nation (48 years from 1918-1940 and from 1991- present), although the latter will shortly overtake the former in 2021. According to Mart Laar, the USSR’s concerted assault on Estonia’s civil society, through destruction of the independent nation’s symbols, monuments, museums and books, sought to deprive Estonia of its collective memory and markers of its independent identity. The effect of such an assault might have initially impacted or impeded the country’s attempts to re-build its nationhood and self-determine its own unique national identity. Without sufficiently unique markers to distinguish Estonia from all the other newly emerging post-Soviet nations, the label could be an appropriate one.
Secondly, its geographical proximity to and shared land border with Russia are two facts that cannot be denied nor altered, and the sizeable Russian minority living within Estonia places it firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, or at the very least within Russia’s neighbourhood. The second largest ethnic population in Estonia is Russian (25%) and primarily lives in the Russian border areas. An even higher proportion of the population (29.6%) speak Russian as their native tongue, as this includes ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Amid fears of Russia intervening in Estonia under the pretence of protecting its people, as occurred in Crimea and Ukraine, the Estonian government reportedly wants to better integrate the Russophone minority into wider society and the country’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas is even learning to speak Russian. The tensions between the two main ethnic groups in Estonia can be illustrated by the Bronze Soldier riots in April 2007 over the controversial relocation of a World War II memorial, which Estonians considered symbolic of Soviet occupation, during which time the Estonian embassy in Moscow was besieged and attacked.
The East European label is a complicated geopolitical construct with no concrete definition of its borders, which sometimes includes or excludes Estonia depending on the source consulted. Even if Estonia felt no affiliation to the other members of this regional group, the foreign perception or conflation of Estonia as an East European nation in the eyes of the many West Europeans, beyond merely a geographic descriptor, was likely compounded by the timing of its accession to the EU in 2004, along with seven other East European countries. As a small and hitherto indistinguishable country in the eyes of the West, it has suffered the fate of reductionist stereotyping that is inevitable with regional labels.
On the other hand, reasons for Estonia not to be associated with these three labels include the country’s desire to distance itself from its former oppressors through ‘othering’ and an ‘airbrushing of the Soviet past’, in order to assert its own independent sovereignty and identity, something which Newt Gingrich’s comments in July 2016 demonstrate are not yet fully realised on the world stage. Furthermore in its reorientation towards the EU, NATO and the West, Piret Peiker argues that Estonia seeks to shrug off the remnant ‘postcolonial’ connotations attached to the country through those labels.
Two interesting attempts to do exactly that through symbolic representations can be seen in the 2001 discussion of westernising Estonia’s national flag and international name. Lagerspletz describes how former government official Eerik-Niiles Kross and the Director of the Government Cabinet’s Press Bureau, Kaarel Tarand, firstly proposed to re-design the tricolour Estonian flag into a Nordic cross, to shake off the affiliation of looking too much like ‘one of Russia’s post-communist daughters’. They secondly suggested changing the country’s international name from Estonia to Estland (as in Swedish), to avoid the ‘–ia’ suffix that they considered ‘not-quite-Western’ and to sound more similar to Western nations such as England, Ireland, Finland and Iceland. Neither of these proposals were carried out due to the change in government soon after, but they are illustrative of the strength of the Estonian desire to change its external perception and spatially re-align itself away from its post-Soviet and Russian labels.
The renewed security concerns about Russian aggression warrant another look at the status of Estonia and its geopolitical identity. Over the last two decades, Estonia has made various efforts to distance itself away from its Baltic heritage and re-brand as a Nordic and Western nation that belongs inside both the EU and NATO. Recent tensions with Russia and Estonian Russians, however, seem to be drawing Estonia back into the fold of the Russian or post-Soviet label that it has sought to put behind it, arguably with significant consequences for the country’s geopolitical perception in the eyes of the international community. None of these labels discussed appear to sit perfectly in harmony with Estonia’s ethnic, cultural and historical identity, so it is instead a case of judging which of them is the closest.
But does labelling really matter? On the one hand the issue of branding or labels may seem trivial in the face of a real military threat from Russia, or on the other, it may have a very tangible impact on Estonian society and nationhood, depending on one’s stance. Firstly, there is an impact on the traditional nation branding goals of attracting tourists, stimulating inward investment, boosting exports and attracting talent, which come with an increased positive awareness of Estonia and its association with highly-regarded Nordic countries. Secondly, there are potential foreign policy implications, either in terms of Estonia’s candidacy for EU membership in the early 2000s and subsequent weight in that forum, or in terms of its relationship with Russia and need for NATO defence against a Russian threat. And thirdly, Estonia’s desired geopolitical identity perhaps antagonises its relationships with its domestic ethnic Russian population and with neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania also, as it seeks to distance itself from these three groups.
It can also be argued that labels are relatively meaningless and that a country’s actions speak louder than its words (or its label). This study has not sought to quantitatively measure the effectiveness of Estonia’s efforts to adopt a certain identity, and it is open to debate whether Estonia has had any success in its re-Nordification, or whether the Nordic nations have accepted it into their exclusive club. Or whether Estonia’s internal musings on nation brand fall on deaf ears beyond their own internal discourse. Can a country feasibly deconstruct and shift its own label by itself, or do external forces, such as a half-century-long Soviet legacy and mounting Russian tensions, prove to be an insurmountable challenge for a small, newly emerging country of only 1.3 million people? Another unresolved question prompted by the presence of the large Russian-speaking minority in Estonia is how to democratically negotiate a national identity that represents all sections of society, not only the dominant ethnic group or the political elite that craft it in the first place.
These questions apply not only to Estonia, but also to other countries on both sides of the Baltic Sea, as they negotiate their geopolitical identities within multiple frames of reference: with their immediate neighbours, with their historical colonisers or occupiers, within their regional networks, the wider European Union and the world at large.
This seminar paper was written in April 2017 for a course on the Baltic Sea Region, completed as part of the University of Uppsala’s Master’s degree in Euroculture: European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.
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