Indrek Tammeaid: Is Estonia moving away from Finland?

Indrek Tammeaid.
Indrek Tammeaid. Source: Private collection

The coronavirus crisis is adding to tensions everywhere, while not all major change might be down to the epidemic spread of COVID-19. Dramatic storm wind might drown out slow change in deeper currents, including as concerns Estonia-Finland relations, Indrek Tammeaid writes.

Good relations between Estonia and Finland have for decades been considered constructively unsurprising and with good reason. There are few difficult topics, things are just fine and can only get better? The coronavirus crisis has come with its own set of problems, while everything seems to be fine in the big picture.

We travel and communicate less. Vulgar and disparaging comments aimed at neighbors by some [Estonian] politicians are disconcerting.

Abrupt travel restrictions by Finland on the other hand – where medical and social sector workers who are vital for Finland are still welcome, while an IT specialist who has tested negative for the coronavirus or a vaccinated elderly relative suddenly are not – seem partially unfair and selfish. But this should not change the big picture. Or should it?

Do we know Finland better than we used to?

A few major peculiarities in Estonia-Finland relations have been overlooked for years.

A lot of people traveling and working in the neighboring country compared to relatively few with at least a cursory understanding of Finnish culture, economy and politics. We tend to confuse individual shining examples with tens of thousands in Finnish travel and residential statistics for the conclusion that a lot of people understand Estonia-Finland relations and their backdrop.

The reality in terms of how little understanding we really have for one another's social models, values and consumer behavior has taken many by surprise, whereas I'm also talking about business executives and top officials next to commuting workers.

The other peculiarity in Estonia-Finland relations has for years been the difference between cultural and economic ties. While cultural communication across the gulf has been close and versatile for decades, only a fraction of potential economic cooperation has materialized.

Estonia and Finland have remained traditional trade partners and this partnership is dominated by a transaction-based view of goods, services and labor. Development and marketing of innovative solutions based on shared capacity on the global scale and especially as concerns new markets has remained on the level of pilot projects and anniversary speeches.

Only very few Estonian companies have achieved excellent results and market positions in Finland during the coronavirus crisis. In addition to technological excellence, they all stand out for one other thing – deeper knowledge of Finnish thought patterns and values.

Hence the question of whether we know Finland better than before? Perhaps it is the opposite. Allow me to look at the question more closely from four angles.

Firstly. Finland does not presume to know Estonia, while it is learning, observing and trying to understand. Estonia believes it knows Finland, while there is less and less language proficiency and capacity to keep up with analysis of changing values judgments.

For years after Estonia regained its independence, Estonia's intellectual and business elite knew Finland better than the Finns knew Estonia. However, somewhere along the way the tables were turned. Estonians became convinced that we know Finland and that English is enough to maintain that knowledge and communicate.

At the same time, Finnish decision-makers and institutions paid more attention to Estonia, while Finns who speak Estonian can today be found in rather surprising positions, also outside traditional Finno-Ugric cultural spheres. We often populated the schedules of mutual forums with utopian pseudo-topics, such as the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel debate.

We have reached a situation where a big part of the economy no longer concerns satisfying material needs and where products and services are based first and foremost on cast of mind, values and identity.

If we analyze the increasingly partial realization of economic cooperation, it should be clear that it is virtually impossible to be successful in more profitable business sporting greater value added without in-depth knowledge of economic and cultural environments. It is possible that our state institutions' knowledge of our neighbor is also more seeming than fundamental.

Secondly. It is baffling that the asymmetry of states and institutions can still take decision-makers by surprise. Finland is not Estonia three times the size but a society and economic area that sports a completely different logic and structure in many areas.

We often find in Finland a state agency, institution or NGO that has a similar name to a counterpart in Estonia, while its activity model and social role can differ to a substantial degree. Insufficient knowledge of the latter produces setbacks in business and official relations.

Thirdly. It is interesting to observe developments in Estonia and Finland in the classic right-left economic policy key and on the conservative-liberal scale of value judgments. The center of gravity has been left-liberal in Finland for decades and not just because of social democratic left-wing parties.

Finland's right-centrist National Coalition Party (Kokoomus) is still left of the Estonian Social Democratic Party (SDE) on many economic policy matters. However, developments on the conservative-liberal axis might prove more consequential than its left-right counterpart. Especially, looking at how the conservative ideology is being supported well beyond the Conservative People's Party (EKRE). Estonia's development on the right-liberal vs the right-conservative heading could come to determine its relationship with Finland and the Nordics.

Fourthly. Finally, I would point to the differentiation of recently homogenous societies into ideologically isolated groups, especially in Finland. Recently rather similar national positions, initially shaped by largely consensus-seeking parties, constitute vectoral sum totals, while drivers of change are increasingly many-colored "opinion bubbles."

Do we notice which "bubbles" have developed and grown in Finland? And how "bubbles" in the same age group but different cities can be nothing alike?

However, these future "bubbles" will rather imperceptibly come to dictate future travel restrictions, regulations and consumer choices. One is under no obligation to agree, while we need to at least notice and realize the potential future worldviews and interests of the immediate region in the interests of shaping an environment in which to act.

What to do?

The first step is always to provide a pragmatically honest assessment of the situation. Do we know each other as well as we think? Are we contributing enough time, human and financial resources to that end? Do our strategic choices reflect our priorities?

Expecting certain decisions or behavior from the other side, it might prove useful to suspend one's wishes or sales pitch and contribute more to understanding of why and whence decisions and attitudes come. One would be hard-pressed to overemphasize language proficiency.

The smaller the country, the more important it is to know one's neighbors on a strategic level. English provides a simple tool, while it cannot open all nuances to us either in culture or regarding sales of more complicated solutions.

We are very skilled at putting together good visions and strategies, while we are short on capacity to put them into practice. In-depth reports on Estonia-Finland relations were put together in 2003 and 2008.

It is sad to read about how few proposals have materialized. Let us hope that proposals by a joint committee created last September will find more success. We must definitely introduce contextuality from other fields, including technological development and the private sector, into our linguistic-cultural cooperation.

Cultural work undeniably has intrinsic value, while we must also deploy our cultural knowledge more broadly, adding deeper understanding of language, cultural and thought patterns to our business development and economy.

One concrete idea for Estonian think tanks, universities and state agencies would be to create, similarly to the higher national defense courses, courses on the future of the Gulf of Finland.

Both counties, but especially Finland, have a long tradition of organizing such trainings. Top state officials have been trained at joint management courses that span years also by Sitra. Aalto University and Helsingin Sanomat have created so-called economic protection courses on the future of the economy for opinion leaders and politicians.  

Top-ranking public servants, executives and opinion leaders make for a demanding and experienced audience. More than what you want to talk about based on the listener's assumed obligation to hear what you have to say, one must prioritize why what one is offering matters to the listener and what new opportunities it offers for solving important problems. All participants of high-level trainings also know the value of communication and contacts and discussions that transcend sectors.

Answering the questions of the level on which such a brainstorming and cooperation camp could be organized, who would be willing to participate and what would be the feedback would be a good way to measure how well we know one another's interests and thought patterns.

Is Estonia moving away from Finland? Should this not be allowed? The effort would be worth it!


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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