The Perfect Chance to Become More Nordic (17)

Why not live up to your cool Nordic self-image, Estonia? Photo: Postimees/Scanpix
8/5/2011 12:04 PM
Category: Opinion

Should IRL suddenly present itself as a true champion of Christian values, while, as a coalition partner, it has always agreed to keep religion and politics strictly apart?

National self-perception is an intriguing phenomenon. Sometimes it shifts, gradually or overnight – after two political assassinations and the rise of right-wing populism, many Dutch came to the conclusion that their country was not that stable and tolerant after all – sometimes it turns out to be remarkably static.

A pivotal aspect of national self-image is the perceived place in the region. Here, the Dutch have been struggling with their identity for much longer – although they are economically dependent on the European mainland, especially the inhabitants of the western part of the Netherlands don’t feel at ease on the continent and are more focused on Britain and the Anglo-Saxon world; the average Dutch youngster knows more about Australia than about Germany, his country’s most important trading partner.

Estonian contemplations about the place in the region seem to be less problematic. Initially, after the restoration of independence in 1991, Estonia was facing far more urgent challenges – how to get rid of the remaining Russian military and how to combat hyperinflation and to give shape to lasting economic growth. Yet once the economy started booming and Estonia embraced ICT as its soi de vivre, some politicians (Mart Laar, Toomas Hendrik Ilves) and intellectuals became convinced that "the little country that could" was in fact a Nordic one, a Põhjamaa. A protestant labor ethic, secularization, individualism, rationality, the high appreciation of education, economic transparency, a high divorce rate – all this made Estonia far more Nordic than its two southern neighbours who occasionally got pretty irritated by this soaring self-confidence. In 2000, Lithuanian Parliament even summoned the Estonian ambassador.  

As such, this grandiloquent rhetoric about Estonia as Põhjamaa was not new. Edgar Kant and Martin Kuldkepp, both working at the Department of Economics and Geography of Tartu University, and the diplomat Georg-Peeter Meri (father of the late president Meri) expressed similar views in the 1930s; Estonia was inextricably bound to what they called Baltoscandia. Kant wrote that Latvia only partially belonged to Baltoscandia and that "as for its character, deviating Lithuania is almost resembling continental Europe." Words that might still appeal to the Estonians – to most of them, Lithuania is simply far away, "abroad" and a "Northern Poland."

The Põhjamaa stereotypes contain an amount of truth. Taking into account the rather vulgar, materialistic mentality of Tallinn, one might feel inclined to think that Estonia has more in common with Russia, but it would not be correct to solely judge a country by the megalomania of the car owners in its capital. Although there are clear differences in the issues of foreign policy, like Russia-friendliness, and the welfare state, it is a fact that Estonia is sharing more basic characteristics with Finland and Sweden than with Lithuania – a message that certain politicians could have conveyed in a more tactful manner.

The good news for Estonia is that it has a chance to perfect its "Nordicness" and to present itself as a truly modern, sophisticated Northern European nation. How? By introducing a registered partnership for homosexuals and/or extending civil marriage to same-gender couples. These are standard practices in the Nordics that it admires so dearly. Denmark already introduced a partnership more than 20 years ago. Iceland, Norway and Sweden followed suit and have even taken the final stride, the real marriage.

Estonia has already taken cautious steps in this liberal, Nordic direction. Chancellor of Justice Teder declared that an additional form of protection of the rights of cohabitation partners is necessary, while Justice Minister Michal presented four scenarios to the parties represented in Parliament. The Reform Party, being a secular Liberal party, and SDE, being the "darling" of the progressive intelligentsia, cannot possibly object to a registered gay partnership. As the votes of a third political party are needed to adopt the legislation, it will be most interesting to see what the Centre Party and IRL will do. The forthcoming debate will provide the Centre with an excellent opportunity to manifest itself as a modern, enlightened party that is more than just a mouthpiece of Russian-speaking pensioners and shady businessmen.

IRL’s position is a more delicate one. The Pro Patria wing of the party will certainly be susceptible to the critical stand of the church prelates (the well-known nonsense mantra that gay partnership or marriage will "damage traditional family"). However, can IRL really afford to drive economically conservative gay voters in the arms of the rivaling Reform Party? Why should it suddenly present itself as a true champion of Christian values, while, as a coalition partner, it has always agreed to keep religion and politics strictly apart from each other?

Come on Estonia, show the outside world how Nordic you are. You have never hesitated to teach those countries in the region that are more backward, when it comes to economic reforms and moral issues. Just do it!


Jeroen Bult is a researcher at Tallinn University

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