Opinion: COVID-19 crisis brought new realism to Estonian-Finnish relations

Kristi Raik
Kristi Raik Source: ICDS

During the COVID-19 crisis, the government of Estonia's northern neighbor, Finland, based its decisions on national interest and looking after its own, writes Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) Kristi Raik, in an article on the ICDS website. Finland is likely to act in the same way in future crises, Raik argues, meaning Estonia should not get its hopes up on that front.

The coronavirus has given a new boost to cooperation among the three Baltic states. Estonia is happy about relations with neighboring Latvia being better than ever. At the same time, many Estonians feel disappointed at Finland's actions during the crisis. Perhaps Estonia's expectations of its northern neighbor were too high. In addition, domestic politics has added a new bitter flavor to the fraternal relationship.

Former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar, commenting in April on Finland's decisions in the crisis, said that Estonia should focus more on its relations with the other Baltic countries and stop dreaming about a "special relationship" with Finland. As a historian, he knows that Estonia has often expected more of Finland, than vice versa.

Finlands's Clear Choice

After World War I, Estonia was eager to develop security cooperation among the Baltic states, Finland and Poland vis-à-vis the Soviet threat, but Finland took a reserved position. In 1940, Estonian president Konstantin Päts still envisaged a future union between Finland and Estonia. However, in the 1930s Finland had made a clear choice for a Nordic orientation and a policy of neutrality. These choices continue to shape strongly Finnish security policy and identity.

Estonia's shared destiny with the other Baltic states is largely dictated by geography, and was particularly visible in the final stages of the Cold War.

However, after regaining independence in 1991, Estonia attempted to decouple itself from the Baltic group. It started to highlight its Nordic features and tried to tie itself to the Nordic group, a bit like Finland had chosen the same reference group in the 1930s. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Baltic states had shared foreign-policy goals and concerns, but their relations were plagued by competition and tension.

Ever since the 1990s, the Nordic countries have involved the Baltics in their regional cooperation. Since the Baltic states' accession to the EU in 2004, their relations with their Nordic neighbors have been on a more equal footing.

However, the Baltic States have noted, somewhat sourly, that the Nordic countries have continued to hold on to their own special relationship, while the so-called NB8 (Nordic 5 + Baltic 3) cooperation has not gained similar weight.

In early April, when the coronavirus was spreading, Finland decided to effectively close down passenger traffic across the Gulf of Finland. This created problems, especially for the thousands of Estonians who work in Finland while having their homes in Estonia. Yet the symbolic message seemed to bother the Estonians even more than the practical difficulties.

Close and constructive contacts

Why couldn't Finland agree to a special arrangement with Estonia, with the spread of the virus being at roughly the same level in the two countries? Is Sweden so much more important to Finland than Estonia is, that the Finns could not grant better treatment to their southern neighbor than their western one, even as Sweden struggled with a far higher level of the virus? Did domestic politics—notably the denigrating comments by the populist Conservative People's Party of Estonia, which is a member of the governing coalition, towards the female-led, red-green government in Finland—spoil the relationship?

Perhaps it is the case, rather, that the Finnish government made its decisions based on the recommendations of the relevant national authorities, with a view to the national interest and the well-being of its own citizens. This is how it would behave in possible future crises, which may be of a different nature.

The Finnish-Estonian relationship is nowadays framed by both countries' EU membership, but the crisis showed that in exceptional circumstances, nation-states take the prominent role, with EU rules all of a sudden pushed aside.

On a more positive note, official contacts between the two countries have been close and constructive throughout the crisis.

Estonia should also take note of the fact that Sweden's special importance for Finland will not change as a result of the coronavirus crisis. It should not feel jealous about that. Bilateral security and defense cooperation between Finland and Sweden continues to deepen. The Baltic states, being NATO members, belong to a different reference group.

The new rise in Baltic cooperation gained a lot of positive attention internationally, when the three countries established the so-called "Baltic bubble" in mid-May, becoming the first countries in the EU to agree on removing mutual travel restrictions.

The virus was well under control by then, and belonging to the Baltic group suddenly felt quite cool, as one Estonian diplomat observed to me.

Finland was invited to join the Baltic bubble, but anyone with a knowledge of history should not be too surprised at its reluctance to be profiled as a Baltic state.

Travel across the Gulf of Finland was gradually restored a little later. Finland took its own decisions on removing the restrictions, but without granting special treatment even to Sweden.


Dr Kristi Raik has been Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS since 1 February 2018. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Turku, Finland.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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