Estonia must stand the test of time in the vortex of global life and move on
On Estonia’s centenary, it is worth recalling an old and well-worn popular joke from the realm of national psychology that characterises various nations with the help of the random and unlikely example of meeting an elephant. The main concern of Estonians is, of course, what the elephant thinks of them. Even though small nations and countries in general tend to define themselves through the views of others, Estonia and Estonians are more sensitive to the fluctuations of the world than other countries and peoples. The question of survival that is discernibly ever-present in internal political debate brings to mind the cultural conversation of “existential Estonia” in the cultural journal Looming at the beginning of this decade.1 Even the jubilee year began with collective harping because the national anthem was left out of the New Year’s Eve TV programme, as if Estonia were somehow done for without this ritual reaffirmation.
Going through life with antennae sticking out to catch every piece of information does not automatically mean understanding the world better. Self-centred hypersensitivity often creates corrupt images of one’s surroundings. In any case, it seems that Estonia’s self-image cannot do without the elephant in interacting with the world, if we proceed from the image pairing of hare and elephant used by Professor Emeritus Vamik Volkan (quoting Arnold Rüütel, by the way) in describing Estonian-Russian political dialogues in the context of the Soviet Union’s disruption from a psychoanalytical point of view.2 Thus, if we view our most significant “other” and the surrounding world in general as an elephant who serves as the loadstone of our self-recognition and -analysis, we endeavour to explain the changeable international context in the period from 1918 to 2018 as a very much alive Estonian hare.3
What was the world surrounding Estonia like a hundred years ago? What is the world like today? Do we now have better chances of survival than on the cusp of World War II? And what has been Estonia’s story in the context of the changing world order over a century?
Scene 1: Breaking Out of an Empire
World War I ended the so-called long 19th century, which can be said to have begun with the American and French revolutions and ended with the downfall of imperialism in Europe.4 The Estonian state was born in the final throes of World War I by appealing to the principle of the self-determination of peoples on the ruins of the Russian Empire, and immediately had to defend its new sovereignty in the War of Independence against Bolshevist Russia. Soviet Russia recognised the de jure independence of the three Baltic States with the peace treaties the parties entered into in 1920; the Allies and the US one and two years later, respectively. US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, inspired by the theses of democratic peace, were intended to find the recipe of a lasting world peace after the destruction of the world war, and legitimised the aspirations of small nations who wanted their own states. But expanding the right of peoples’ self-determination to the Baltic states initially hit the wall of pragmatic opposition posed by the US president, who was in general considered an idealist in terms of international relations.
The democratic peace Wilson dreamt about did not materialise. Today, historians consider World War II the continuation of World War I since the new world order was not implemented forcefully enough or with sufficient determination in the interwar period. In Germany, which had been whipped and pushed into the mud in the political sense by the Entente, people grew hateful and national socialism emerged; the Great Depression was followed by the collapse of the world economy; the League of Nations did not meet expectations; and, next door to Estonia, the Soviet Union—led by Stalin following Lenin’s death—was oscillating between plans to conquer the world and its leader’s persecution paranoia. All of this combined into an explosive cocktail. The liberal world order sketched out in the interwar period did not have time to settle, and didn’t get another chance before the rise of the US as a global hegemon after World War II. Theoreticians of international relations have not found a single exhaustive reason for this—they also try to identify various parts of the “elephant” as they proceed from various premises. For instance, some emphasise relationships of production (Marxists and neo-Gramscians), the laws of domination (theoreticians of hegemonic stability), ideational changes (constructivists and post-structuralists) and the fundamental role of colonialism in dividing states and continents into “civilised” or “barbaric” (post-colonialist theoreticians), as they are unable to agree on a common explanation for these global political turning points.
In the context of World War II, the loss of independence by Estonia and those who shared its fate can be also explained in different ways from various theoretical perspectives: was it a global shift in the balance of power, in the course of which some splinters inevitably had to fly?; the unavoidable usurpation of a small nation due to its lack of allies and deficient democracy and, in the big picture, sacrificing it to the balance between the great powers?; or the first act in a global revolution, the first victims of which were the young Eastern European states that had been divided up between the great powers with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact? Without choosing a side in theoretical arguments, the key reasons for destroying Estonia can be said to be the lack of relations between the so-called first Estonian republic and the most important democratic forces of contemporary Europe, the feebleness of the League of Nations and the relative immaturity (compared to today) of the norms that regulate international relations (e.g. non-aggression).
Scene 2: Estonia Destroyed
The two first decades of the Republic of Estonia bring to mind a saying by Lennart Meri: “Much like the heart of an elephant or whale, the heart of a large state beats more slowly; a small state’s hours or weeks could fit into a whale’s second”.5 For Estonia, the two decades meant the feverishly quick construction of our country and securing independence—but they were just a blink, a breath of air between the two world wars for large countries. The period was too fleeting for the new small nations that were born in World War I to prove their right to exist. Practitioners of realpolitik criticised them—small nations were said to be too weak and represented a military “vacuum”, tempting aggressors to usurp them and thus constituting a threat to peace everywhere. Both Marxists and liberals were afraid of the global economy fragmenting into small units and saw that the destabilising influence thereof developed into the Great Depression. Estonia became a “nation without history” and was not able to write itself into the conscience of Europe and the rest of the world. Thus, Estonia and the other Baltic states became collateral damage in the head-on collision between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—although a regrettable loss from the point of view of Europe, it did not change the fact that everyone wanted to save their own skin. Winston Churchill’s statement that an “iron curtain ha[d] descended across … Eastern Europe” was terrible and comforting in equal measure because the West got the chance to wipe its hands of the sorrows of this problematic, half-barbaric part of the continent.
For a large part of the second half of the 20th century, Estonia was living proof of the prediction in 1940 by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, that the age of small states was over. The Baltic states were the only countries whose independence was not restored after World War II, but the nations of Eastern and Central Europe who had fallen into the sphere of interest of the Soviet Union did not fare any better, despite their formal statehood. As the Cold War ended, societies in the Baltic states liberalised even earlier than those in most Warsaw Pact countries.
It is interesting that the extensive post-war decolonisation did not concern Eastern Europe, even though the Atlantic Charter, issued by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941, was primarily directed at the people of the occupied states in Europe. Although Churchill famously said that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” the interest of Britain and Europe’s other empires in maintaining overseas territories and a “civilising urge” subsided as the war came to a close. It undoubtedly seems peculiar to Estonians, but the Soviet Union, with its extensive territory and sphere of influence, as well as China, India and the US, were not considered empires at the time, as the term was associated with overseas territories. Thus, no one took seriously the attempts by expatriate Baltic activists to affiliate the liberation of colonial peoples with the so-called Baltic question.6
Despite the fact that they did not have a state (or a state propaganda department), Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were able to write themselves into the list of “nations with a history” during the Cold War. This feat was achieved by expatriates from younger generations who had acquired an education in the language of their new homeland and were able to write about the history and culture of their fatherland so that a reader in England, Sweden, Canada and the US understood them. The Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS), established in 1968, elevated Baltic studies to a legitimate research field and played an important role in this. Estonian political scientist Rein Taagepera and Lithuanian historian Romuald J. Misiunas’s The Baltic States, Years of Dependence, 1940–1980,7 published in 1983, was a ground-breaking achievement, as it was one of the first English-language and academically mature treatments of Baltic history available to English-speaking readers. The younger generation of the diaspora blended well into the new society, but were fond of Estonia and did a lot to help the West win the Cold War so as to liberate the Baltic nations.8
Scene 3: The Thorny Road Back to Europe
1989, the year the Iron Curtain fell, is generally considered one of the most critical turning points in European history, although researchers who are unhappy with simple explanations are still arguing over how thoroughgoing was the change in global order that started that year.9 In Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the redrawing of both physical and mental world maps; on the global scale, the new state of affairs was ushered in by the evident and apparently peerless hegemony of the US. Just as after World War I, the plans of architects of the new international system paid no attention to the Baltic states’ independence after the Cold War ended (i.e. the Warsaw Pact collapsed and the reunification of Germany was underway). Although the Baltic States were the first (starting in 1988) and most vocal (the Singing Revolution) in striving for freedom compared to the rest of the Eastern Bloc, the great powers didn’t want to hear about structural changes to the Soviet Union for fear of upsetting the Russian Bear too much. The so-called Baltic question thus remained a permanent note in the margin of the Cold War’s traditional chronology. The main interest of the Western states at the time was to hold stable negotiations with their Eastern partner, with whom they could agree upon central “legacy” issues from the Cold War (e.g. disarmament, Soviet forces leaving Europe) and resolve new conflicts (such as the Gulf War).
However, Estonia did not miss its political window of opportunity and rode away from the arms of the Soviet giant, with its feet of clay, to renew its independence, just as it had left the remains of the Russian Empire weakened by World War I. Renewing its acquaintance with Europe after the situation calmed down was at first reminiscent of Ilya Repin’s painting Ne zhdali (Unexpected Visitors) (1884–8). We learnt that we had our deficiencies as Eastern Europeans in the eyes of “real Europe”—that the European train had sped on while we were frozen under Soviet rule—and there were few tutors willing to give us lessons so we could catch up.10 Debates over post-Cold War expansion to the East by the European Union and NATO were imbued with evident caution towards and even fear of “wild” and “different” Eastern states. The key was the EU/NATO’s hesitation over wanting to civilise “barbarians” while remaining at a safe distance from “far away countr[ies] … of whom we know nothing”, to use Neville Chamberlain’s “golden” words. Estonia’s journey to European and transatlantic cooperation networks was also a reminder that the system of international relations is more characterised by hierarchy than by anarchy.11
Opening the gates of the EU and NATO during the “big bang” of enlargements in 2004 has “networked” Estonia to an extent never before seen, yet the lasting stereotypes about the immature democracy of Eastern Europe have been bolstered by recent reactions to the refugee crisis (both in Eastern and Western Europe) as well as the creeping erosion of democracy in Hungary and Poland.12 In the context of Brexit, the Ukraine crisis and Eastern Europeans’ general reluctance to show solidarity in facing the wave of refugees pouring into Europe seems to have brought the almost-forgotten term “Eastern Europe”—signifying uncertainty and/or unpleasantness—back into use in the eyes of the so-called “old” Europe. Unfortunately, Estonia’s e-success story and all-round best behaviour in implementing all manner of material and immaterial European standards tends to be overshadowed by the mainly negative narratives of the region. More pessimistic observers describe the recent developments in Eastern Europe as the erosion of the post-1989 liberal world order and throwing down a clear normative gauntlet to challenge today’s European Union.13 The disconnection of Hungary’s and Poland’s democracies from liberal values and norms has presented the European Union with uncomfortable questions about the actual benefits of the Union’s promotion of democracy in the former “socialist countries”, as well as the hollowness of Eastern European democracies that were considered the success stories of the post-Cold War era.14
Alas, such developments are extremely unfavourable for us: if the maturity and adequate analytical and decision-making capabilities of Eastern European leaders have been called into question again,15 it is more probable that Europe will allow Russia to let some splinters fly in its military and political adventures. Predicting the behaviour of the US since Donald Trump became president brings to mind the wise saying by Yogi Berra, baseball player and thinker: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. The syndrome of blaming the victim is not alien to Western behaviour either. Thus, Russia-friendly analysts of the Ukraine crisis consider that the party attacked should be blamed for the conflict rather than the attacker,16 and the actual—although symbolic in the military sense—implementation of NATO’s deterrence in the Baltic states and Poland post-Crimea is said to be warmongering by some critics.
A View of the Future
The liberal world order of which Estonia became a successful part after regaining independence has come under serious pressure from populist policies. G. John Ikenberry, a professor at Princeton University and one of the most important definers of US liberal internationalism, has compared contributing to the liberal world order in 2018 to a second marriage—a triumph of hope over experience.17 Or should we return to the roots of realpolitik, per the 19th-century German thinker Ludwig von Rochau?18 At the same time, the realpolitik embodied by Bismarck and later Chamberlain with his appeasement in the 1930s may turn out to be even more catastrophic for us and the rest of the world.
Estonia must therefore survive and move on.19 What is the alternative? Stubborn survival20 has always been Estonia’s leitmotif. If the “elephant” is benevolent, we can write a new summary in February a hundred years from now.
1 See Märt Väljataga, “Katkestuse kultuur, enesekolonisatsioon, eksistentsiaalne Eesti”, Looming 12 (2011), pp. 1725–34. See also articles by Tiit Hennoste, Jan Kaus, Hent Kalmo, Aare Pilv, Maarja Kangro, Paul-Eerik Rummo and Mari Saat in Looming Nos. 6–12 (2011).
2 Vamik D. Volkan, Enemies on the Couch: A Psychopolitical Journey through War and Peace (Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2013).
3 Cf. Theatre NO99, performance NO83 “Kuidas seletada pilte surnud jänesele” [How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare] (Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper, 2009).
4 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1962); The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (London: Abacus, 1975); and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987).
5 “Speech by The President of the Republic of Estonia Turku University, May 17, 1995”. https://vp1992-2001.president.ee/est/k6ned/K6ne.asp?ID=9331
6 Baltic Appeal to the United Nations (BATUN), “Scandinavian Cooperation to Restore Baltic Independence, 1983–1991”, Roundtable at the conference “Baltic and Scandinavian Studies”, Yale University, 13–15 March 2014.
7 Rein Taagepera, “Heitlus Balti ajaloo pärast”, Akadeemia No. 12 (2008), pp. 2605–24.
8 Cf., for example, Vello Ederma, Siin Ameerika Hääl, Washington! (Tartu: Eesti Üliõpilaste Seltsi Kirjastus, 2016), and Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s career at Radio Liberty and later in independent Estonia.
9 See George Lawson, Chris Armbruster and Michael Cox (eds), The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
10 See a longer discussion in Maria Mälksoo, The Politics of Becoming European: A Study of Polish and Baltic Post-Cold War Security Imaginaries (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).
11 See also Ayşe Zarakol (ed.), Hierarchies in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Vincent Pouliot, International Pecking Orders: The Politics and Practice of Multilateral Diplomacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
12 See also Mihkel Mutt, Eesti ümberlõikaja (Tallinn: Fabian, 2016).
13 See Ivan Krastev, “The Specter Haunting Europe: The Unraveling of the Post-1989 Order”, Journal of Democracy 27(4) (2016): 88–98, and Jan-Werner Müller, “Eastern Europe Goes South”, Foreign Affairs 93(2) (2014): 14–19.
14 See Béla Greskovits, “The Hollowing and Backsliding of Democracy in East Central Europe”, Global Policy 6(1) (2015): 28–37.
15 See e.g., Tony Kevin, “Nato is playing a dangerous game in the Baltic states and Poland”, in Letters, The Guardian, 12 July 2016.
16 See Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).
17 G. John Ikenberry, “The end of liberal International order?”, International Affairs 94(1) (2018): 7–23.
18 Ludwig von Rochau, Grundsätze der Realpolitik, Vols. 1–2 (Stuttgart: Göpel, 1853-1869); John Bew, Realpolitik: A History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
19 Ilmar Tammelo, “Ellu jääda ja edasi minna”, Akadeemia 1990 (1971): No. 6, pp. 1313–44; No. 7, pp. 1521–52; No. 8, pp. 1761–92; No. 9, pp. 1985–2015; No. 10, pp. 2205–18.
20 Elo Viiding, Kestmine (Tallinn: Tuum, 2011).
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.