On 8–9 May, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. One of the highlights of this occasion was supposed to be a magnificent military parade in Moscow, with a number of world leaders attending to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazism. However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Russia to postpone the parade. It also inspired Estonia to organise an innovative high-level event at the UN that can be considered a success in both organisational and substantive terms.
During May, Estonia is chairing the UN Security Council for the first time, being a non-permanent member of the body in 2020–1. The virtual meeting to commemorate the end of the war, held on 8 May, was one of the highlights of Estonia’s contribution that will leave a mark on the organisation of the UN’s work. Estonia was creative in applying the UN’s procedural rules and using digital technology—namely a platform called Hybridity, developed in Estonia—to convene an informal meeting in which almost 50 countries participated at foreign-minister level and a further 30 were represented by senior civil servants.
Estonia confirmed its image as a digital frontrunner whose contribution to the global cyber domain far exceeds the country’s small size. The need for new digital solutions is greater than ever due to the pandemic lockdowns and new rules on social distancing. Virtual meetings cannot replace personal encounters of world leaders and diplomats, but they will probably become a more important format for conducting international relations in the future. Technology alone does not save multilateralism, but it can help to keep it alive.
Of course, technology is not an end in itself, but it can be a means for doing things we consider important. The procedural and technical innovation enabled Estonia to mobilise a high-level reflection on the lessons learned from the Second World War. Rather than just celebrating victory over Nazism, Estonia had the opportunity to remind the world that the end of the war in Europe did not bring freedom to everyone but half of the continent was forced under the domination of the Soviet totalitarian regime for almost half a century.
The UN was established in 1945 to bring order and stability to the world following two devastating wars, but Estonia knows from its own history that the norms laid down in the UN Charter were not respected all over the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War brought a great improvement in extending the rules-based order in Europe and beyond, enabling for example the Baltic states to regain independence.
In recent years, that rules-based international order has been weakening again. Many of the speakers at the event pointed to worrying parallels between the pre-WWII era and today. Great power contestation, disregard for international law, and the use of force and various forms of malign influence have taken us to what the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called the “brutalisation of international life”. The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria are just some examples of failures of the UN-based order.
The opening speech by Timothy Snyder, a historian whose books are among the most illuminating accounts of Eastern European history, recalled the importance of truthful investigation of history for our choices regarding the future. He noted that the failure of democracy in many European countries in the 1930s was one of the reasons for the outbreak of war. Again, we can draw a discomforting parallel with the Europe of today. According to the latest report by Freedom House, which has systematically followed the situation over recent decades, the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is worse today than at any point since 1995. History tells us that, in our region, less democracy means less security.
Deep disagreements between Russia and the West were unavoidably exposed at the event. The Russian representative, in a thundering speech that lasted over 13 minutes instead of the three minutes allocated to each speaker, ran through the usual list of Russian complaints about “disgusting” claims that the Soviet army was not a liberator for a number of countries, the NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999, EU and NATO enlargement, “blatant human rights abuses” in some EU member states and “civil war” in Ukraine provoked by “neo-Nazis” in Kyiv. The conclusion to be drawn from this intervention is that, unfortunately, we are nowhere near being able to engage the current Russian regime in a shared European security order.