The return of nationalism and the dangers it entails have been widely discussed in Europe in recent years. Nationalism has indeed manufactured a lot of feuds in European history. However, the small nations of northern Europe offer a number of examples of how nationalist sentiment has contributed to diverse social development, Kristi Raik writes.
We have celebrated not just the 30th anniversary of the Finnish Institute this year but also the passing of 30 years from the restoration of Estonian independence. The idea that Estonia has done incredibly well for itself in that time is what has stayed with me from relevant discussions. One reason for this is being blessed with neighbors such as Finland and the entire Nordic-Baltic community.
Estonia and Finland also celebrated their 100th anniversaries recently. Our history has seen events that have brought us together and turns that have seen us abruptly torn apart.
History that divides and unites
The events that took place 30 years ago were pivotal for Estonia, Finland, Europe and indeed the entire world. The Cold War ended, Eastern Europe shook off Soviet dictatorship, borders opened and walls crumbled. The 1990s were a time of idealism and new possibilities.
Estonia could have done much worse. We have experienced dizzying development in just a single generation's time. But it has come at a price that we are now paying: our society is not as coherent as its Nordic counterparts, our people have less trust in their state and fellow citizens, gaps in society are wider. That said, looking at other states that come from the former Eastern Bloc, we have reason to be satisfied.
Why did we do so well? Mainly because of bold and rapid decisions and sense of purpose when carrying out reforms. Secondly, clear foreign policy choices, especially plotting a course for rapidly returning to West and Western integration through as many threads as possible. Thirdly, we were aided by an extraordinarily favorable international environment.
The Western democratic model and U.S. hegemony in the world didn't really have an alternative in the 1990s. The reunification of Europe was the common strategic goal of Europeans and Americans. Russia was relatively weak, trying to establish a good relationship with the West while experimenting with liberal democracy at home, finding only limited success.
All of it created incredibly favorable conditions for Estonia to develop in its chosen direction and rebuild the state. Small countries depend on their international environment more than large ones. They need to craftily navigate global politics to survive and develop.
Looking back at the previous century, it included three major historical turning points. Every one resulted in dramatic change for the three Baltic states. The political map of Europe changed radically after World War I, then again after WWII and for the third time after the Cold War. The Baltic countries managed to become independent twice in that time but got taken off the map once.
In our region, several global political turning points can fit into a person's life and have upended the lives and fates of a lot of people. My grandparents remembered an independent Estonia from their childhood, were barely adults when independence was taken away and could still experience the pleasure and pain of restoring statehood in the 1990s.
Democracy and nationalism
A lot of new countries that had never sampled independence were born in Europe following World War I, including Finland and the Baltics. New political ideas grew out of the ruins of old empires. Bolshevism triumphed in Russia, and while the West did not give it long initially, reality turned out to be different.
Nationalism and the nation state model became staples elsewhere in Europe. The return of nationalism and especially the dangers it entails have been widely discussed in Europe in recent years. And nationalism has indeed manufactured a lot of feud, hatred and wars in European history.
However, the small nations of northern Europe offer plenty of examples of how national sentiment has supported democratic states and diverse social development. Nationalism can be a positive force that keeps a society united and takes it forward, while remaining open to the world. Nationalism must not be surrendered to extremists and autocrats. We need to safeguard moderate, open nationalism that is compatible with liberal democracy.
Nationalism started spreading hand-in-hand with democratic ideas in 19th century Europe. It brought the right and opportunity of citizens to participate in the development of countries to our region. Our independence also returned Estonians' rights and freedoms 30 years ago.
Democracy and nationalism form a big part of the shared values of Estonia and Finland on which our independence as nations and security rests. We would very likely not have democracy without nationalism or a nation state without democracy.
Estonia lost its independence in WWII having moved away from democracy itself. While Finlandization caused a weakening of independence and democracy in Finland, at its heart was the attempt to maintain independence that Finland managed to do even in the major currents of the Cold War.
We could be standing on the doorstep of another historical turning point today, while we do not know what the future has in store. The widespread conviction that Europe was looking at a united, free, democratic and secure future after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the continent's greatest miscalculation at the time.
History is not linear. The EU approved its first security strategy in 2003 according to which Europe had never been as safe. Just 13 years later, the new EU global strategy painted a different and far darker picture of Europe's security. The period of post-Cold War idealism had ended.
It is suggested that the tectonic plates are moving again. The balance of major powers is being reshuffled. Russia has opted for antagonism and an aggressive stance toward the West. Both Estonia and Finland are situated on the edge of one such moving plate, which is why clashes between major powers are especially dangerous for us.
We need more Nordic-Baltic cooperation
The virus did not manage to unite major countries in a struggle against a common enemy. On the contrary, the virus and relevant aspects – vaccines, masks etc. – became an instrument, a tool to be manipulated in competition between major powers. The virus added to tensions even between small countries such as ours.
As mentioned, Estonia made the right choices in the 1990s. While we would perhaps like to continue down the same path now, it is proving difficult because of ourselves and what is happening in the wider world. The path is no longer as clearly visible and at times seems to disappear from beneath our feet. New threats lurk around us and it has gotten darker outside. International norms and rules have been described as the light of global politics, while that light is not shining bright today.
Another thing that is changing is the fact democracy has been in decline globally for the past 15 years, while the trend also concerns some established Western democracies. One important dimension in the competition between major powers is the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism. Which can offer people a better life? While we might feel the answer is cut and dry, that is not the case for a lot of other people in the world. And that is what is undermining our security.
The current security situation is precarious for small countries in our region, while it has brought us closer together. Nordic cooperation has become more important and visible again, with security topics especially pronounced. This constitutes a major change from the days of the Cold War when security was left out of Nordic cooperation with emphasis.
Nordic-Baltic cooperation has also grown stronger, even though it stills seems to be of secondary importance to the Nordics compared to the Nordic-Baltic group of states. Nordic-Baltic states share mutual regional security and a vital interest in Western and European unity that protects us. It is also in common interest that international relations follow the same rules and agreements and for violation of said rules to have consequences.
Strengthening Europe's defensive capacity and EU-NATO cooperation is also in the interests of the Nordic-Baltic countries, to add security to the region and stability and balance to transatlantic relations.
The three Baltics and three Nordic countries are EU members. It is an important framework that strengthens our international positions and gives as a chance to affect global politics. The EU is not as strong and united as we would like, while our countries would definitely be weaker without it.
The Nordic-Baltic region could contribute more to EU development together based on our joint strengths, serving as an example to the rest of Europe: we share openness and transparency of public administration, good education, innovative mindset, digital and cyber skills and an open economy.
The possibilities of a multinational life
Events from 30 years ago were pivotal also on a personal level. I first crossed the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1990. I was on my way to study in Finland, which at the time was still something rare and magical. As mentioned, it was a time of great change and hope, of idealism.
Experiences in a person's youth strongly affect their worldview and understanding of what is possible, influence our hopes and dreams. I am a member of a generation that lived through radical change in our daily lives, country and the world around us, all of which resulted in incredible opportunities. What is even more incredible – something I only realized later, studying international politics – is that all of it happened virtually without violence. Such turning points in world history are very rare.
I remember from my teenage years singing Estonia's freedom at the Song Festival Grounds or attending the first ever Estonian rock festivals. Punk bands sang about perestroika and glasnost. People set aside their fears and strove for freedom.
Today, I have a teenage daughter who will quite probably remember for the rest of her life how an invisible virus closed borders, schools and many other things, how everyday activities became dangerous or impossible.
What is still possible – and was completely impossible when I was a child – is that we have two homes, one in Finland and one in Estonia. Nothing about it is peculiar today. Such a way of life is called multinationalism, defined as having two lives, speaking two languages, feeling tied to both cultures. Multinationals have two homes and maintain economic, political and cultural ties with both countries.
We do not know exactly how many Estonian-Finnish multinationals there are, while they number in the thousands. I believe our countries can do more to to render multinational life as smooth and free of red tape as possible. Development of digital society makes it possible to create new digital links between tax, pension and healthcare systems that while different in each country can be made to communicate with one another.
Multinational people occupy an important place in Estonia-Finland relations – we tie societies together. If we know one another and there are strong ties between our countries, we are better prepared to deal with crises and various external threats. The coronavirus crisis demonstrated the importance of working closely with neighbors and how difficult it can be.
At the same time, we feel – as described by Indrek Tammeaid – that Estonians and Finns no longer know one another as well as we did a few decades ago. Back then, Finland played a key role in supporting and aiding Estonia's return to the West. Later, when the need for such assistance disappeared, relations became less important, not as close, more superficial. While Finns still go on shopping trips to Tallinn and Estonians travel to the Linnanmäki amusement park, fewer people really know the other society.
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted differences between our societies. Even though the international security situation is pushing us closer to one another and we share largely the same values, there are important differences in the value judgments of our two societies. I would point out just a few keywords: trust, equality, tolerance, consideration. In this, the Nordic countries serve as an example for the Baltics to follow.
However, in what could Estonia serve as an example for Finland? During the post-Cold War period, Estonia could be characterized as dynamic, innovative, capable of rapid decisions and change, as well as staying with the times and sometimes leading the way. It feels at times that we have lost this advantage.
Differences between Estonia and Finland and the Baltic-Nordic societies have lessened over the past 30 years and we can expect the trend to continue. They will never disappear altogether, while that shouldn't be our goal. However, we have similar social organization, we belong to Europe and the West together and have developed thousands of new connections, threads and networks to tie us together over the last decades.
Our relations have become more equal. Thirty years ago, Finland thought about how it could help Estonia and really did. Today, we should rather think about what we can offer the world together, our common strengths and what to do together in order to defend what matters to us and develop as societies.
This article is based on a speech given at the jubilee conference of the Finnish Institute on November 11.
Editor: Marcus Turovski