Reviews Estonia deserves attention. The missing civil society

Journal of Baltic Studies, March 2009, Journal of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2:2012, p 51
Published on on June 27, 2012

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Estonia is the sole focus of this thematic issue of the Journal of Baltic Studies (2009). “From Post-Communism to the EU: Estonia’s Transition 20 Years On” discusses the country’s development after the new independence in 1991 from a perspective that reflects the contributors’ varied interests and fields of research. A younger generation of Estonian sociologists and media researchers emerge under the editorship of the grande dame of journalism studies at Tartu University, Marju Lauristin (herself a prominent force in the People’s Party Moderates, in the Laar government of 1992—1995, and as a member of parliament), and Peeter Vihalemm. Several of the articles are devoted to the problem of ethnic minorities and social relations between Russians and Estonians in the wake of the noted crisis surrounding the relocation of the “Bronze Soldier” in April 2007, when riots broke out in Tallinn for the first time since independence. The event shook things up and tarnished Estonia’s image as a place of peaceful coexistence among the different ethnic groups. In three articles, Külliki Korts, Martin Ehala, and Triin Vihalemm and Veronika Kalmus approach the minority problem and relations between Estonians and Russians after the Bronze Soldier riots. While the late 1990s and early 2000s signaled something of a honeymoon of integration, as Ehala writes, and the time around the accession to the EU saw both Estonians and Russophones integrating into Europe, the government’s removal of the Soviet war memorial from central Tallinn brought a change in the wrong direction (this issue of the journal came out in early 2009, so whether the findings have proved valid is uncertain). Disappointment ensued, especially among the younger generation, and the relocation had strong symbolic power as one aspect of an ongoing conflict over historiography.

The article by Korts, one of the highlights of the issue, examines the “contact hypothesis” common in integration contexts, which is that tolerance and understanding increase with the frequency of contacts with people of other ethnic groups. Some support for this is found in Estonia, but the study — based on survey data — shows that relations are asymmetrical. Ethnic Russians have more positive attitudes toward Estonians than the reverse, while Estonia — as it was in the early 1990s — remains a conspicuously segregated society; Russians and Estonians rarely socialize and thus interact most often in the public arena. More Russians are learning Estonian, which the Estonians consider one of the key symbolic elements of willingness to integrate, but for the Russians the language is mostly of instrumental importance. The language is a necessary tool for succeeding in Estonian society and decisions to send children to Estonian-speaking schools are thus an expression of rational behavior rather than an emotionally charged expression of a sense of belonging. Nor does the language act as a unifying link leading to greater personal interaction, as Laitin argued (1998).

The special issue opens with a broad overview of the political agenda over the last 25 years, co-written by the editors, with a focus on the interaction between internal and external influences. One central conclusion is that domestic factors are tending to play an increasing role in pace with achievements of the highly prioritized integration in NATO and the EU. Estonia has made a remarkable journey, even in comparison with the countries in Central Europe and the success story of Slovenia. In the space of a little more than 20 years since independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has established a stable, multi-party democracy with free and fair elections. The parliamentary election in 2011 reaffirmed trust in the coalition government that guided Estonia during the economic crisis, an indication of political maturity among the electorate. Owing to both its Soviet status as an economically experimental republic and broad consensus among nationalists and former communists on economic matters, Estonia was remarkably swift to abandon the planned economy in favor of a still extremely liberal economy. The Ansip government independently steered the country through the severe economic crisis that brought down Latvia and left it indebted to the IMF. Estonian society today shows little trace of the mentality and feel we associate with the Soviet concrete monolith. It is characterized by the quiet rationality we have become familiar with in the Nordic countries. But these observations are at societal levels far above that of the individual. A darker picture accompanies the social changes, with high suicide rates, the spread of HIV, and the existence of economically disadvantaged groups.

The title of the issue, “From Post-Communism to the EU”, is aptly symbolic. Estonia is no longer a post-communist country; it has moved onward and upward into a new phase of postmodern stabilization. In particular, Estonia is now in the information age, and the IT “Tiger Leap Program” launched by the government in 1997 is extremely far-sighted. Pille Runnel, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, and Kristina
Reinsalu discuss this policy in their article. Post-communism is a fluid concept of course, but it nonetheless justifies its existence by highlighting the partially shared legacy of the Soviet era and the fast-paced dual (sometimes triple) transformations that all of these countries have undergone and which have entailed an unusual movement from more equality to less. This post-communist state of affairs also entails a conspicuously weak civil society. Between political institutions and individuals there are quite simply too few collective structures in the form of active voluntary associations, organizations, and meeting places, which has consequences for the degree of opinion-shaping, as well as for the pressure placed on government agencies and elites. At least when it comes to the latter, Estonia nonetheless remains post-communist.≈

Journal of Baltic Studies, March 2009, Journal of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies