Kalev Stoicescu: Estonia-Russia relations - what to expect in near future
Official bilateral relations between Estonia and Russia have been almost non-existent for more than two decades, since the collapse of the former Soviet Union. There are a number of reasons why Estonia or any other NATO and EU nation in the Baltic and Nordic region cannot undertake and pursue good-neighborly relations and cooperation with Russia. And it is not because Russia is not a member of the EU or the NATO.
First, there is the shadow of history. Russia has not wholly accepted that Estonia is and deserves to be a free nation. It's possible that the Kremlin still believes that the complete sovereignty and Western orientation of the Baltic States is a “temporary anomaly”, as they did at the start of World War II.
Second, Russia is obsessed with military and political dominance in both the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions. Estonia (as well as Latvia and Lithuania) represents a geopolitical obstacle for the Kremlin. Russia has always sought to conquer ice-free ports. Russia faces tremendous logistical problems in illegally annexed Crimea, as well as in her military outpost, the Kaliningrad oblast.
Third, Estonia is one of the few EU member states that has always been firmly critical of Russia’s undemocratic regime and aggressive behaviour, seeking to strengthen solidarity and common positions within the union. Estonia is also an active and exemplary member of NATO, the organization that the Kremlin despises the most.
Last, but not least, it seems to be proper to conclude by mentioning the “Russian-speaking population”, or ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet Socialist Republics for whom Russian is their first language, and whom Moscow pretends to “defend”, regardless of their citizenship. It may be possible for the Kremlin to accept that many Russians live a (much) better life in more distant Western countries than they would in Russia, but to acknowledge that fact in the case of Estonia (and the other Baltic States) would be political suicide.
Even though Russia prefers bilateral relations to negotiations with the EU, it will not seek to expand or improve official dialogue with the Estonian government, which it considers openly unfriendly. The only exception is the unfinished business with the Estonian-Russian land border treaty and the agreement on the maritime boundary. President Putin sent these treaties to the State Duma with clear instructions for ratification. However, it seems that Russia is not in a hurry to enforce the treaties, and will certainly not take any steps ahead of the Estonian Parliament. Significantly, the coalition agreement of the new Estonian government (that took office on April 9, 2015) does not mention the ratification of the border treaties, even though it includes several paragraphs about building up and improving the protection of Estonia’s Eastern border.
Estonia’s official rhetoric will most likely continue to be marked by a perceived military threat from Russia. President Vladimir Putin gives no indication that he plans to reverse Russia's confrontational course against the West. In addition, Russia is seemingly preparing new actions against Ukraine, because the present situation does not satisfy theKremlin’s interests. Against this background, Estonia must be vigilant and prepare for the worst, because it may become Moscow’s most tempting and likely target. Russia accuses the Baltic States and Poland of “Russophobia” and “paranoia”, and claims that it does not present any threat to these countries, but based on Russia's actions there is little reason to trust those claims.
The prospect of Estonian-Russian economic relations looks rather grim, but this will not necessarily result in negative repercussions for the Estonian economy in the long run. Estonia wants to diminish its dependence on Russian natural gas, and to separate its electric grid from Russia’s. The latter is a long-term goal but no real progress has been achieved so far. The Estonian government recently set a new deadline of 2025.
Tallinn has been in recent years a popular destination for Russian tourists, especially around New Year’s Eve and Russian Orthodox Christmas. However, because of the declining Russian economy, the number of tourists has decreased by half. Russia has banned the import of food products from the EU, and therefore many Estonian food producers are forced to find other markets. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia obliged Estonia to severely cut economic ties with its Eastern neighbor, which ultimately turned out to be a very positive development that contributed significantly to Estonia’s ability to qualify for membership in the EU.
In conclusion, there is – unfortunately – very little hope in the foreseeble future for a change toward friendly relations between Estonia and Russia. What makes the task of good-neighborly relations even more difficult is that Tallinn and Moscow think of each other in antagonistic terms - Estonia feels that it is living in the 21st century, while Russia is standing still in the 19th century.
Kalev Stoicescu is a Research Fellow at at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS), specializing in issues related to Russian foreign and domestic policy, as well as developments in the field of the military, the economy, the media and minorities affairs.