It would be eminently irritating to start this article with three rhetorical questions, but here they are:
1) What did we know about Sweden 20 years ago?
2) What did the Swedes know about Estonia 20 years ago?
3) What has changed in us and them during this time?
As always with rhetorical questions, the answers are ambiguous. One cannot measure knowledge in grams or centimetres, or even in individuals, let alone in the case of nations. We can rely on memory, our antennae restricted by the human condition, and one’s personal set of analytical machinery—these, however, may vary even within a family, not to mention a state or nation. When we say “we”, it is usually the latter two that we have in mind.
I do not want to compile a saccharine anniversary review, where names and facts are listed in an orderly manner and by the book, like the people in the front row at any ceremony.
Those who wish to get acquainted with the most important statistical material about the 20 years Sweden has been a member of the European Union can find it in the report Flash Eurobarometer 407, complete with tables and diagrams.
Neighbours are part of a set of historical clichés in terms of thought processes. People always seem to know everything about their neighbours. Notwithstanding some micro-level changes, I still have the feeling that, in general, Estonia and Sweden have not got around to getting acquainted more thoroughly—from either side. No need to sugar-coat this—the situation is almost the same now as it was back then.
Of course, there are more individuals in both countries, among both nations, who have gained a more thorough understanding of what goes on overseas than the average Estonian or Swede, owing to their daily work, personal relationships or some special hobby. However, on this side of the Baltic Sea, many people retain a knowing but subconscious rose-tinted filter, through which it somehow seems that, in beautiful Svealand, happy Bullerby children frolic everywhere, while a sturdy goose flies above them, carrying the happy Nils Holgersson. And in this secure and Nordic home of the nations, the great aunts and uncles of many Estonians built a safe nest, having escaped the clutches of the Eastern bear. And there is nothing alien, distant or dangerous, not even problematic, in this kind of Nordic country, not now, not in the future.
In Sweden, on the other hand, the memory and subconscious of many still cling to something that makes them think that somewhere in Estonia, the capital of which is Riga, the baltische Landesstaat is still a reality and the residents mostly speak Russian. Or that the catastrophe of MS Estonia happened only yesterday, and how many similar events have happened anyway …? And, as everyone knows, tons of the Balkan mafia live there, own illegal weapons and drugs warehouses, the contents of which constantly spread to the safe home of the nations on the other side of the Baltic.
By the way, although I consider Stieg Larsson’s and Henning Mankell’s crime novels interesting, they have also contributed to legitimizing the aforementioned subconscious shift regarding the arms warehouses, international mafia and flow of drugs coming from the east.
Political politeness is as important in life as table manners. But sometimes, both of these stand in the way of truth when existential issues are concerned. In extreme cases, political politeness may turn into lethal politeness, whether one wants it or not.
Estonians will naturally always remember both the establishment of the University of Tartu and the fact that Sweden helped many of our people to find a safe haven and survive at the end of World War II. But I dare to claim that, in perceiving and analysing today’s different, chaotic and restless world, Estonians have sharper vision and more sensitive judgement than several other European countries, Sweden included. History has forced us to look through the stone walls of political politeness and to analyse what is happening in the world without fearing mental anguish. It is up to the reader to decide whether he/she considers “us” to mean as individuals or as the general public.
There is no boredom in so-called boring Sweden, and hasn’t been for a long time. However, there used to be, once upon a time, and was, only recently, for many Estonians, including journalists. Let us mark down those attitudes like this, for example: “Oh, I don’t remember whether the social democrats have been in power for 20 or 30 years in a row. I don’t remember whether they had an army or not, because there has been no war there and nothing ever happens there anyway. Oh, everyone is equal in Sweden and that is what is the most boring about it … ” All these scraps of sentences I have heard over the years are completely wrong in some respect or another.
I do not know who should update our school programmes. I do not know who will finally be able to change the comfortable attitude widespread among the Estonian media and politicians, as a result of which:
– everything connected to the security of the Baltic Sea region does not seem to be closely connected to the defence capability, security policy-related direction and NATO relations of Sweden
– the main news on Estonian National Broadcasting on 10 December every year still leaves the impression that the Nobel Peace Prize, the award ceremony for which is held in Oslo, is the most important thing, as if Alfred Nobel had not been a Swede and the majority of Nobel prizes were not handed out by the King of Sweden in Stockholm the very same day
– we seem not to remember that Sweden is a large investor in Estonia, at the same time holding a large ownership in the banking sector—not to mention its place as our top trading partner; and
– the well-known Swedish port city has all of a sudden turned into “Gothenburg”, and is no longer written in Estonian as Göteborg in the Estonian media.
However, last year was rich in news—naturally, only for those who took the time to analyse it. It is no exaggeration to claim that recent years, especially 2014, have marked the preparations for and the emergence of a watershed. Of course, everything needs to be viewed in the correct context, at the right temperature. A watershed in a stable Nordic kingdom looks completely different from how it would appear in the environment of a newly emerging state in a distant tropical continent. However, several significant events in recent times can be noted where the internal and external effects are at least somewhat connected. We do not know what this will be followed by in the next few years. Changes are brewing in Swedish society, and they may be said to carry opposite polarities, even called antagonistic, or at least competing.
Here are some examples.
The idea of total equality rooted in Swedish society has, as we know, moved on from declaring the practical equality of the sexes to denying the differences between the sexes, at the level of both kindergartens and language. At the same time, about 100 Swedish citizens have gone to fight in the Middle East with ISIL, and only the most extreme of fantasies would allow this dimension of terror to be seen as having anything to do with the issue of girly boys or boyish girls, even on the abstract level. The home-grown macho world of weapons goes together with the lagom-ideology (lagom=“just right”) like heavy metal and an infant’s sleep.
Immigration policies also offer a wealth of examples. It is true that helping those that the rest of the world hates, in a humane manner, is a commendable activity. But when local authorities must house a given number of immigrants in an impracticably short time due to national policies directing them to their commune, the local authorities must take care of all the needs of the new arrivals, from the children’s schooling upwards. I have heard these worrying stories with my own ears. In these cases, the noble ideal is somewhat in conflict with reality and actual opportunities. The result is the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD), who are now the third most influential political force in the country, at the heels of two old and great parties, the Moderates and the Social Democrats. And immigration has risen to become the second-most important issue among the electorate.
Or take the subject of NATO
As many Swedish officials have reminisced during private conversations, only 15–20 years ago it was dangerous to utter anything that contained the acronym NATO with an even slightly positive connotation at a security policy meeting. The careful shift, firstly in rhetoric and later also in behaviour, occurred step by step, almost imperceptibly—until, that is, the governing party of the last eight years, the Moderates, started publicly to support joining NATO. Other political forces generally dismissed the need for this, or were at best non-committal. Opinion polls revealed constant and complete anti-NATO sentiment. The last year has been pivotal for Sweden on this issue as well. The combination of five elements—the Kremlin, the Crimea, East Ukraine, chasing a foreign submarine and the manoeuvres of Russian aircraft near the Swedish border—led to Sweden signing a host-country agreement with NATO on a completely new level, and the results of polls finally showed a decrease in opposition to NATO, and an increase in those favouring the organisation.
True, in this matter, we encounter an issue that goes beyond NATO—the organisers of opinion polls and their trustworthiness.
If the organisers of the survey say that the support for NATO in late 2014/early 2015 is either 33% or 48%, which figure should we believe? Which of these numbers is biased towards the positive or negative side as a result of sample-selection methods or the fine-tuning of the question’s wording? Where is the truth?
And where is the truth when we ask how many foreign submarines were in the Stockholm archipelago in the autumn of 2014? One? Two? Four? And why does the survey show that more than a million voters support a party the prime minister calls neo-fascist? But as we respect the freedom of speech and freedom of choice, we of course let the last question remain rhetorical and end this section with three delicate dots …
Sweden as a Nordic Country
Estonian politicians have now and again expressed the wish to change the state into a Nordic country, to join the Nordic countries, to be like the Nordic countries after regaining independence.
People want to treat the Nordic countries as quintuplets, even arbitrarily so. The sentimental yearning towards a welfare state, social security, cleanliness and peace is understandable. But I am convinced that many of the authors of the aforementioned slogans and their readers could not list the differences between the Nordic countries off the tops of their heads. Here is a short reminder to refresh your memory, taking into account the four most relevant, most existential memberships for us.
All five are among the 34 members of the OECD. Neither Norway nor Iceland is among the 28 members of the European Union (and thus they are not in the eurozone, either). Neither Finland nor Sweden is among the 28 members of NATO. Sweden and Denmark, members of the EU, are not among the 19 countries of the eurozone.
Comment is unnecessary, since the differences are not restricted to cat or dog names, or even the decimal points in tax rates, but are expressed in the choices of these states and nations, in decisions supported by referendum results or traditions and surveys. Since Estonia is a member of all four aforementioned organisations-dimensions, I have pestered the idealists striving towards Nordic statehood with the question of what they should give up: NATO, to be more like Sweden or Finland? Or the European Union, to be similar to Norway? And so on.
One could continue the analysis of differences, and bring historical and cultural dimensions, not to mention tax policies, into the discussion. Or should we first establish a state monopoly in alcohol á la Norway, Finland and Sweden?
If one tried to cover all subjects, the discussion would wax long, but I would like to add a single approach, which I heard from an Estonian war refugee, who has lived in Sweden for their entire life.
The question for everyone is: “What is the single word uniting nearly all of today’s European states and nations in that they perceive the all-consuming results of it through their individual experience?”
The answer is: war. In this context, Sweden is not really a European country. No war has been waged on Swedish territory for 200 years. Glory to the rulers, as achieving this has undoubtedly been arduous throughout history. However, willy-nilly, this has shaped the world view of several generations and made people’s political antennae exactly what they are in Sweden today. This is not a reproof; I simply state that modern Swedes often do not understand the attitudes and policies of other states, supported by dramatic historical experience. And in this sense, the Nordic countries also differ from each other—a great deal, in some ways.
This winter’s events also include the mosque-torching in Sweden and Denmark’s recent decision to spend €8,000,000 on the deradicalisation of Islamists. (In connection with the Danish decision, I cannot help but recall an illusion widespread in the erstwhile Soviet world involving the potential nurturing of a generation of communism builders in various university evening classes; but never mind). Let us for a moment also remember the layered (to put it politely) context of the Breivik case in Norway. Overall, it is true that several Nordic countries now host very large and, in turn, multi-layered Islamic communities that were not there in the era of Pippi Longstocking or ABBA.
NB: If one wants to talk about the Nordic countries in Estonia today, one needs to know the subject that is really discussed much better!
A Turbulent 2014 and Sweden in Europe
The early years of the last two decades also featured interesting developments and events that undoubtedly touched, moved or scared the Swedes: the weddings of the princesses; the death of Astrid Lindgren; the leadership difficulties of the Social Democratic Party that had built Sweden as the home of the nations in the 20th century, emerging at the beginning of the new millennium; the sale of Volvo, a truly Swedish brand, to foreign parties; a car bomb explosion in Stockholm city centre in 2010; and the never-ending riots, shootings, stabbings, car torchings etc. in Malmö, Gothenburg, Stockholm and several other places. But the pivotal international events of 2014 also left a significant mark on Sweden: Maidan, the Crimea, the ramping-up of foreign political rhetoric, the more pressing nature of the debate on defence expenditure and European parliamentary elections the outcome of which did not please the two great political powers.
Against this background, Sweden held parliamentary elections in September that had a historic result. The weakest minority government of all time was created (138 seats out of 349 in the Riksdag, which means roughly the same as 31 of the 101 seats in the Estonian Riigikogu). This was followed immediately by the hunt for the foreign submarine(s) in the Stockholm archipelago, which unnerved the population, while the issue was supplemented by provocative activity by Russian aircraft in the Baltic Sea airspace. And at the end of this turbulent autumn and winter came the failure of the government to get the budget through parliament in December. And then (!!): the Prime Minister, Stefan Löven, calls extraordinary elections, and annuls the decision only three weeks later. At the same time, the unexpected and unprecedented “December Agreement” is made public: the two coalition parties and four opposition parties announce what they intend to do together (even though four of the parties are not in government) up to 2022, i.e. even beyond the next elections.
The agreement was a nervous political act of deterrence against both the left and right wing. The protests that followed, including within the parties themselves, were understandable. This also resulted in the people’s reaction—SD, the party people tried to ignore, increased its popularity. More than a million supporters of SD (in a country with a population nearing ten million) are definitely not a handful of xenophobes, as someone only recently attempted to conveniently label them, looking at these people from afar, eyes half-closed.
Whirlwinds of internal policy had already started to blow around SD some time ago. The political competition calls them populists, neo-fascists, xenophobes, the far-right, and the single-issue party. It is a matter of taste, but their politics speaks to many voters. They have become significant enough to shift the balance in the Riksdag. The popularity rating of SD increased to nearly 18% by the end of the year.
This is where we come to a seminal issue—the other aspects of attitudes towards immigrants. According to Eurobarometer, Swedes are far ahead of other European countries in their positive attitude towards immigrants. 72% of Swedes have a positive attitude towards immigrants from outside the EU, and 82% are positive when the immigration originates from within the EU. The next states in the table are Croatia and Spain, where 48% are positive towards those arriving from outside the EU. The average figures for the EU as a whole are: 35% positive and 57% negative.
The Swedes are human-friendly through and through. They reproach other EU member states for not shouldering the immigration load equally with Sweden, as seems justified from their point of view. Sweden intends to host 80,000–100,000 immigrants this year. But, when we sit on the other side of the table, we see that several Central European or South European countries may feel that the Swedes do not want to understand their current situation. The following is a quote from Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab [“Germany Is Doing Away With Itself”] (just to add, Sarrazin does not only look at events in Germany):
In hindsight, it does seem naive, but everywhere in Europe, things started from the premise that all Muslim immigrants share Occidental values such as democracy, cultural and religious freedom, the individual’s pursuit of happiness and self-fulfilment, and that the differences would also fade away, in three generations at the latest. This did not happen; on the contrary, the desire to be separate both culturally and territorially grew more acute among the immigrant Muslims and their offspring. The European social system prevented integration into the labour market and made it easier to stay aloof—at the expense of the European states’ budget.
(These sentences obviously read completely differently before and after the Charlie Hebdo episode.)
More recently, the elections in Greece were won by a party that has been called left-populist. SD has also been called populist, although its focus is quite elsewhere from that of Syriza. The events in Greece were, however, applauded by Sweden’s Left Party, whose leader Jonas Sjöstedt announced he was “hoping for a red spring in Europe”.
A strengthening of populism can be observed in several countries in Europe. Populism in politics is not an ideology, unless you consider omnivorousness an ideology. Political omnivores may chant all manner of slogans—economic, social, or against some person or phenomenon. There is no sense in calling the populists’ so-called positive programmes true, comprehensive and far-reaching. But when “populist” groups have gained a large foothold among the electorate, should not the other parties quickly look into the mirror and ask where they went wrong, instead of verbally attacking the other? After all, the results of the populists are always and only the fruit of the democracy that “normal” parties have been defending time and time again. Here, it is relevant to quote Mihkel Mutt: “Perhaps the greatest achievement of democracy is that it grants a relatively large number of people a semblance of dignity during their lifetime” (Guinnessi raamatu lõpp. Essee kuulsuse demokratiseerumisest [“End of the book of Guinness. An essay on the democratisation of fame”] Looming No. 7, 2014).
In the four years I worked in Sweden, I encountered thought-provoking curiosities in addition to many very pleasant experiences.
For example, I was listening to a Swedish businessman’s talk at a briefing; at first, he talked about his own company and then about Sweden with all of its benefits. Suddenly, the Skype logo appeared on the screen among famous Swedish brands. It was mentioned several times in the talk. As there were no references to Denmark or Estonia whatsoever, a correspondence lasting several days followed between us, the tone of which on his part varied from an ignorant sense of superiority to an attempt to weasel out of the lie in a decent manner. The change in tone betrayed the recommendations of a PR adviser. During this peculiar argument, he sent me an excerpt from a Wikipedia article to back up his words. But when I copied the names of the Estonian whizzes and the Danish co-founder from the same text to answer him, it did not work. He thought Skype was a Swedish thing, and that was it.
I do understand that this example is an exception. But it is a warning one, since unfounded and blind patriotism transforms into an opposite of itself. When the Expo Milano 2015 world fair opens, I would gladly send him an invitation to visit the Estonian pavilion and get to know our Skype.
We should also consider it a curiosity that in January a study in Dagens Nyheter revealed that Swedish history textbooks feature too few women—only 13% of all the names are female. The decision was: the situation needs to be improved! Throughout history, the objectives of peaceful people have nearly always been noble but, alas, there have been neat excuses to rewrite history in every century …
However, I shall end this article on a positive note, even if it seems a trifling subject in comparison to the world’s dramas. The Swedes were and are ahead of us in using bicycles, and this has a not insignificant impact on people’s health and general well-being. There are 700 separately marked bicycle paths in Stockholm alone. And everyone rides a bicycle: schoolchildren, pensioners, state officials, salespeople, millionaires and courtiers. Perhaps it seems curious to the people in charge and the developers in Estonia, but they are mistaken. Full stop.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.