In this article, Niall Gray charts Estonia’s evolution into a forward-thinking, tech-leading European nation. Shaking off its Soviet legacy, Estonia has looked toward Scandinavia, and the Nordic model, for inspiration. In successfully carving out its own very individual path, many of these countries are now turning to Tallinn for the innovative ideas of the future.
We in Scotland are used to talking of Nordic models. Whether it’s Holyrood’s stance on free education, or recent talk of introducing a ‘basic income’, Scandinavia has maintained a constant allure for our citizens and politicians. Recent times have shown that we are far from alone in looking to the north.
Similarly located on the periphery of the Nordic world, the Baltic nation of Estonia has also emerged as a champion of all things Scandinavian. Indeed, this desire to imitate its neighbours, stands in contrast to the bleak media depictions of Eastern Europe, which often cast the region as backward, chaotic and thoroughly illiberal. However, by chasing this fascination with the north, Estonia has challenged such stereotypes head-on, with the former Soviet republic now a trailblazer for regional reform.
This newfound position is directly tied to the Nordic nature of Estonia’s modernisation, which has encouraged authorities to extend their concerns beyond simple monetary issues. Sharing an extensive history with the social democracies of Northern Europe, the young state has sought to build a new political outlook, emphasising societal needs. As such, the ideal has become a powerful narrative for a nation still unsure of its place in the world. Enthusiastically supported by subsequent Estonian administrations, these Nordic ambitions have ultimately evolved into a comprehensive campaign affecting all facets of national life, with the country’s northern past, now ultimately powering its hopes for the future.
Much like Scotland’s Northern Isles, Estonia can trace its Nordic identity through a rich history of interaction with Scandinavia’s Viking populations. These ties of combat and commerce were so strong they ultimately paved the way for successive centuries of direct Danish and Swedish rule, the legacies of which persist to this day. This can even be seen in Estonia’s classical university of Tartu, a cultivator of national consciousness. The institution owes its very existence to the pioneering reforms of Sweden’s Gustav II.
These links would soon take on a more reactionary edge. The nation became subject to over 50 years of Soviet control, a period many Estonians view as an unjust binding of the country to a repressive dictatorship, incompatible with its natural Nordic outlook. It would not be until the country’s independence in 1991 that such ideas would again be freely discussed.
The restoration of relations with neighbours such as Finland and Sweden was viewed as an integral part of its ‘return to Europe’ policy. Spearheaded by figures such as then foreign minister – and fourth president – Toomas Hendrik Ilves, this push for a renewed place in Northern Europe would soon take on a rich mythology, as seen through Mr. Ilves’ promotion of the concept of ‘Yule-land’. Conjuring up images of a natural Nordic bloc, united by its frozen forests and a love for all things ‘cosy’, the ideal would come to embody Estonia’s desire to reinvent itself as a forward thinking country.
Walk through the streets of Tallinn, and it will become quickly clear that the country has more in common with its northern neighbours than just a tendency for severe snowfall.
Has such romantic imagery ultimately translated into real change in today’s Europe-facing Estonia? Walk through the streets of the nation’s capital, Tallinn, and it will become quickly clear that the country has more in common with its northern neighbours than just a tendency for severe snowfall. Dominated by companies such as the Stockholm-based supermarket Rimi and the Swedbank banking group, Estonia’s thoroughfares have come to embody a national effort to integrate itself into the regional economy. This drive has been reflected in some impressive numbers: 2015 alone saw the Nordic world export over $2.7 billion worth of goods to the relatively small Estonian market.
This push for economic unity has been far from one-sided. Estonia is now an increasingly important local player in the realm of electronics. Faced with scarce natural resources and little wealth relative to Scandinavia, the country has come to view the success of specialist Nordic companies, such as Ericsson and Nokia, as a blueprint for its own advancement. This can be seen in the success of “e-Estonia”, a government scheme pushing electronic solutions and E-services which has been responsible for world-renowned products like Skype.
The campaign has been so successful that the Nordic world now often looks east for its high-tech solutions. Finland and Sweden are now the largest importers of Estonian industrial know-how. One must only look to Helsinki’s ongoing implementation of its own “e-health” programme – a shared medical record system which forms the cornerstone of Estonia’s relationship with technology. Taavi Roivas, a former prime-minister, has described it as a means of building “mental bridges” with the north. Cooperation like this is viewed as crucial for Estonia’s eventual acceptance as a natural Nordic state, free from its Soviet past.
SHAKING OFF A SOVIET PAST
This desire to shed its uncomfortable history remains a constant worry for Tallinn, which has also looked north for a new political culture to match its modern self-image. Education spokesman Jurgen Liri has described how Estonia shares a distinctly Nordic “disdain for corruption”, and the country has seen continued state efforts to introduce a ‘high-trust society’, reminiscent of its neighbours. Of course, whilst this ‘Nordicisation’ has not made Estonia immune to the odd political scandal, its effects are hard to ignore. It was recently declared the 22nd least corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.
Perhaps the greatest factor in this achievement has been Estonia’s long-term participation in the Nordic Council’s mobility programmes. Allowing state officials the opportunity to work and learn across Northern Europe, these opportunities have slowly but surely cultivated a new national philosophy, emphasizing individual rights as an intrinsic state concern. This has translated into a preoccupation with privacy in the tech-obsessed country, with a decentralized system of online voting, tax and health records designed to safeguard against flirtations with Soviet-style illiberalism.
But successes aside, Estonia’s inability to foster a welfare state remains a considerable obstacle to its Nordic aspirations. This is mainly due to a number of legacies of economic backwardness. The small state lacks the monetary power required to imitate Scandinavia’s monolithic “people’s homes”. Not to be discouraged, Estonia has adapted with its “Nordic with a twist” motto. Using its peripheral status as a means of forging its own path, Tallinn has managed to pursue its northern ambitions with a decidedly level head, often turning to focus on the realities of its former-Soviet status.
Estonia has largely ignored the Nordic world’s military posture; the neutral traditions of states such as Sweden offering little to assuage Tallinn’s fears of eastern domination.
Nowhere has this been clearer than in matters of national security. Home to a considerable Russian minority, of whom many are non-citizens, Tallinn remains locked in a standoff with Moscow over the group’s legal status. Tensions have only increased since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, encouraging the nation to bolster its Baltic and NATO links in order to protect its seemingly fragile sovereignty. Subsequently, Estonia has largely ignored the Nordic world’s military posture; the neutral traditions of states such as Sweden offering little to assuage Tallinn’s fears of eastern domination.
Despite this, recent years have seen these Atlanticist tendencies actually result in closer northern collaboration. Estonia now hosts NATO’s new cyber-defence centre, a largely Eastern European, Russia-focused project which works jointly with Helsinki and Stockholm. This unique combination of eastern concern and northern cooperation embodies Estonia’s nuanced approach to development. It has resulted in the small state playing a disproportionately important role as an unique axis, uniting Europe’s Nordic and post-communist worlds.
A NEW NORDIC STATE
Having developed such an impressive resume, it may seem little wonder that Estonia is now beginning to reap the rewards of its distinct outlook. In Europe’s political circles, it is increasingly being recognised as a burgeoning regional player. This has even attracted interest in Holyrood, whose recent “Nordic-Baltic Statement” painted an unmistakably northern image of the fledgling country, so often mired in stereotypes of post-Soviet poverty.
Whether voting online, or working on the next tech-breakthrough, ordinary citizens now enjoy a standard of living only dreamed of at independence.
Rather than simply attempt to replace such images with equally-cliched visions of fjords and smorgasbords, Estonia has managed to develop a tailored approach in achieving its Nordic ambitions. In fact, its success may even offer a model for other Scandinavian-minded states. Having developed its own distinct brand as a result, this new-found notoriety only seems set to grow. Plans for its “e-residency” scheme, which allows foreign companies to gain a European market foothold, are surely likely to attract increasing interest in light of Brexit.
However, most importantly, this northern success has brought benefits to the daily lives of Estonia’s residents. Whether voting online, or working on the next tech-breakthrough, ordinary citizens now enjoy a standard of living only dreamed of at independence. Issues do persist from those first days of statehood. But such problems have been met with a tangible sense of optimism by a country and people increasingly united in an effort to build a “new Nordic state”. Now more than ever, and inspired by its Nordic neighbours, Estonia is unafraid to forge its own destiny.
Niall Gray is a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow, where he studied History and Central and Eastern European Studies. His research interests include a number of historical and contemporary themes with a general focus on Eurasia such as international relations, and the politics of identity and policy-making. He is now studying postgraduate Russian also at the University of Glasgow. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature image: E-Estonia Showroom, Tallinn Creative Hub, 20 September 2017. Image: Annika Haas [CC BY 2.0]