Overly cautious and concerned about Putin: Estonia after 10 years as an EU member

Posted on 29. April 2014

by Anna Karolin

Anna KarolinDuring the gloomiest days of the Eurozone crisis, Estonians often felt like the economic superstars of Europe. Sure, star economist and New York Times columnist Krugman did not like our economic model, but we actually managed to make the shrewd cuts in public spending, have very few protests over it and got into the recovery phase pretty fast.  Fiscal balance is still a basic dogma in Estonian politics and average citizens take strange pride in having lent money to our southern neighbour Latvia (our equivalent of a nephew you’re always compared to) or having contributed to the bailout of Greece. Some go as far to claim that the expression “former Soviet” does not apply to Estonia anymore, we are European now.

After restoring our independence (we prefer to say restoration rather than re-gaining independence) from Soviet occupation in 1991, the Estonian elite took a very systematic course towards the West, more particularly towards the membership of the European Union and NATO. While relations with the troubled, but economically enticing Russia or dwelling into the Soviet/Communist past have proven to be controversial among several Central and Eastern European countries, Estonia directed all of its focus into re-building a society based on the ideals of the free market.

Our relations with Russia are still the worst among central and eastern European countries (we still do not have a valid border treaty) and Russia’s repelling attitude (including economic blockage), especially after the Bronze soldier riots, forced Estonia to have stronger relations with its Nordic partners—Finland and Sweden. Although Latvia and especially Lithuania have probably benefitted some from better relations with Russia, it is often claimed that the oligarchic and politically dependent monopolies (Gazprom) do not really make for good economic environment in comparison to  the  influence of Nordic business culture and less risky investments.

Teacher’s pet

Our road to European Union membership was very fast one, hundreds of young officials zealously working on implementing all the necessary reforms. We have taken several directives and given a new meaning to the word “implementation” (if you’ve tried to open a restaurant in Tallinn, you’ll know what I mean). Becoming a member of the EU and NATO was a national, not only elitist project, perhaps the most important narrative in our modern history.

Luckily the EU membership criteria make up a solid handbook on liberal democracy and we took it all in. The situation in 1990s Estonia was economically fragile and our young ministers (the concurrent prime minister Mart Laar was 32 at a time.) have described how they learned how to rule a democratic country with a market economy literally from a book (at that time Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose”) and copied some laws temporarily almost word to word to have any modern legislation instead of the Soviet one (thank you for your codified legal system, Germany). Our economy, wellbeing and the whole society have progressed with an alarming rate and our motivation to move from East to the West combined with EU funds helped to really transform us.

No escape yet

Estonia lost about 17, 5% of its population during the Soviet occupation and according to some estimates our GDP would be five times higher without it. But other effects of the Soviet norms are still also present and there are painful topics none of our political leaders would like to see in international newspapers. About every tenth child in Estonia lives in absolute poverty. While we can boast with high employment among women, there is a 30% gender based wage gap. Our unemployment remains steadily under 10%, but it is twice as high among the Russian speaking minority. Our men die much earlier than women and our productivity rates make up less than half of the EU average.

This has convinced a high number of young people and the working age population to leave the country for greener grass to everywhere in Europe, this trend is a lot more drastic among the young and educated Russians (in Estonian we call them  “eestivenelased”—Estonian Russians). You can find us in hotels in England or hospitals in Finland, recognised by our overly complicated and strange secret code (the Estonian language). I spent several summers during high school picking strawberries near Turku, Finland, making more money than my parents at home combined. Estonia is sparsely populated anyway, but our rural areas are emptying. You can buy an apartment with few thousand Euros in a smaller city (you’d call it a village).

Some claim that this is the price we have to pay for our low taxes and lean state, splinter in the eyes of the solidary Europe. But it isn’t that we are not solidary—I can say without a doubt that Estonians support each other and co-operate in most areas of life very well.

It is just that our political culture has become so allergic to any hint of socialism and radical economic reforms have transformed our collective norms about individuality and economic success. While most Estonians would agree that children in poverty is a bad thing, homelessness, drug addiction and other serious social problems are still widely seen to be people’s own fault and not deserving of the help of the society.

In addition to the narrative of escape to the West, there are a few things tickling our ego more than talking about the success of the Estonian economy. But for myself, it is utterly bizarre, that the most serious recommendations made by the OECD and International Monetary Fund about socially progressive reforms to improve our economy get overlooked. The fate of the Southern European economies is not doing any favours to this discussion—social democrats’ ideas about investing in people get rebutted by examples of wasteful public spending in France and Spain.

The awkward question

In addition to the prone to Republicanism political discourse, we still face a challenge of communicating with our 23% “minority”— the Estonian Russianseestivenelased. I do not dare to say I can speak for them, but it seems that our national policies are more of assimilation than integration and it is more difficult to be a Russian in Estonian that it is to be Estonian. Estonian politics often treats the eestivenelased question in the security, rather than the perspective of equal citizenry or welfare.

All of this has taken a different tone in the light of recent events in Ukraine. The securitisation of eestivenelased has been flipped—could they be asking help from Mother Russia? Could the Eastern part of Estonia also be claimed by Russia? Have we done a good job in making eestivenelased feel like home in Estonia?

The answers to all of these questions are most likely negative, but there have been few articles in the media asking these questions from the Russian population. I can only imagine and empathise how awkward it must be to face such questions. On the other hand this gives me personally some hope that it might convince those otherwise more nationalist to act more in the interest of all the citizens.

Back to basics

10 years into our membership Estonia is still a strong zealot for European integration. But we often feel that while we have made our part and paid for it (participating in the bailout of Greece for example), some of the Europe is not doing its part. Whether it concerns moving forward with digital innovation, painful, but needed financial reforms, Europe is not pro-active enough in setting (rather than following) its economic agenda.

If I had written this article few months ago, it would be very different. The culmination of events in Ukraine has radically shifted our national discussion about social progress to basic questions of security. Is one of our Eastern allies next? Could we be next and what would we do? And most importantly—what would our allies do?

It might be that Estonians are too cautious and paranoid about Putin and that soon we will have to turn our attention back to social and solidarity issues in Estonia. But right now our focus is not on children in poverty, but we are afraid of the aggressive moves from the East and looking towards European Union and NATO for help, solidarity and security.

This article is part a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.