Peer-reviewed articles the story of e-Estonia A discourse-theoretical approach

This paper traces the emergence of various digital technology-driven policy ideas in Estonia during the last two decades. The article is specifically concerned with the idea of e-Estonia, a signifier that is widely used as shorthand to denote Estonia’s success in developing digital solutions in government, public management, business, education, etc. The paper analyzes the idea of e-Estonia to disclose, contextualize, and critically explain the particular discursive practices that constitute the e-Estonia discourse. It offers a discourse-theoretical reading of e-Estonia in terms of different types of discursive ‘logics’. Finally, the paper argues for the importance of recognizing what is at stake in the act of naming e-Estonia.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, pp 32-44
Published on on June 19, 2017

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This paper traces the emergence of various digital technology-driven policy ideas in Estonia during the last two decades. The article is specifically concerned with the idea of e-Estonia, a signifier that is widely used as shorthand to denote Estonia’s success in developing digital solutions in government, public management, business, education, etc. The paper analyzes the idea of e-Estonia to disclose, contextualize, and critically explain the particular discursive practices that constitute the e-Estonia discourse. It offers a discourse-theoretical reading of e-Estonia in terms of different types of discursive ‘logics’. Finally, the paper argues for the importance of recognizing what is at stake in the act of naming e-Estonia.
Keywords: Estonia, e-Estonia, e-government, postsocialism, nation branding, discourse theory.

Over the last two decades “e-Estonia” has appeared as one of the most popular terms to capture Estonia’s achievements in the fields of public administration, digital technology and e-government. e-Estonia has become a shorthand label widely used by national leaders, IT gurus, diplomats, and digital technology enthusiasts alike to evoke Estonia’s success in the digitalization of its public institutions through the implementation of particular e-solutions. Especially over the current decade, e-Estonia has become a signifier of Estonia’s success and gradually acquired a powerful narrative dimension. The e-Estonia story circulates around the local and international media, e-government conferences, and various PR events. In this narrative, Estonia, after regaining its national independence in 1991, has successfully transformed itself from an underdeveloped, post-Soviet transition state into e-Estonia, an advanced digital society.1 As the Estonian historian Aro Velmet suggests, the notion of Estonia as an e-state has paved the way for a particular kind of digital patriotism in which Estonia’s digital solutions, such as “e-voting, e-prescription and e-residency are common terms not only among engineers but work as symbols that people use generally to express feelings of pride in their country”.2

During the current decade, the term e-Estonia has been used as a basis for (or a way to justify) various governmental and quasi-governmental initiatives and projects. It has started to appear in a variety of new policy papers, plans, and programs, as organizational bodies that consciously, explicitly, and deliberately exploit the signifier e-Estonia. For example, the “e-Estonia showroom”, established in 2011, is presented as a place where “global policy makers, political leaders, corporate executives, investors and international media” become acquainted with the “success story of e-Estonia”.3 As one of the booklets associated with the showroom puts it, this success story of e-Estonia is the story of “one of the most advanced e-societies in the world […] that grew out of a partnership between a forward-thinking government, a proactive ICT sector and a switched-on, tech-savvy population”.4 From there on, the Estonian government founded the “e-Estonia council” as its Strategy Unit5 (in 2014); the Estonian PR guru Daniel Vaarik published the “White Paper on Estonia’s Digital Ideology”6 (in 2015), and an Estonian PR firm called Callisto Group published “The plan for developing and enhancing the international image of e-Estonia, 2017—2019”7 (2016), commissioned by the Ministry of Economy and Communications. These initiatives and papers not only describe what e-Estonia is but also propose a variety of activities (conscious media planning, academic research) to develop and promote the idea of e-Estonia.
In this essay, I do not aim to offer additional support for or discredit the claims made by those policy analysts, journalists, government officials, e-government managers, and the like who propose (or assume) that e-Estonia is just a neutral, accurate, and convenient term to grasp a variety of different projects and solutions in the field of e-government and e-democracy. Instead, I will concentrate on various discourses that have made this particular notion (and story) of e-Estonia possible in the first place. I will explore these questions by taking a discourse-theoretical approach and following three relatively general research questions: what is “e-Estonia” as an object of discourse-theoretical research; how did the signifier “e-Estonia” emerge and why does it continue to persist, even after almost two decades since its “invention”?
More precisely, I will follow the premises of poststructuralist or political8 discourse theory as Ernesto Laclau (and Chantal Mouffe) have developed it.9 While Laclau’s work deals with questions of (political) philosophy, Marxism, hegemony theory, and poststructuralism in a rather general manner, I will mostly (but not exclusively) draw on reformulations and refinements of Laclauian poststructuralist discourse theory as they have appeared in the works of Laclau’s students, associates, and followers.10
The structure of the paper is as follows: First, I will offer a general overview of the issues, projects and initiatives that concern the keywords such as e-government and e-democracy. Second, I will schematically outline the ontological premises, theoretical concepts, and methodological considerations of discourse theory. Third I will focus on the different signifying logics that have made the e-Estonia discourse possible. Finally, I will look at e-Estonia as a name that may open up e-Estonia’s political dimension.

From e-government to e-democracy and back

E-government seems to be one of the most common nodal points that has allowed national leaders, policymakers, policy analysts, and public management experts to link together a variety of e-solutions (e.g. e-voting, e-taxation, e-schools) that have been developed and implemented in Estonia from the early 2000s on. In other words, there are a number of e-government researchers11 who regard Estonia as the pioneering state in the field of e-government. There are also some policy researchers who question this assumption by tracing and analyzing actual policies and policymaking attempts in the fields of information and communication technology and information society in Estonia.
For example, Meelis Kitsing argues that even by the early 2000s there was no clearly formulated “grand strategy” behind Estonian e-government projects. Quite the contrary: “spending on ICT remained modest from 1995—2003, in comparison to other countries”.12 Moreover, the timeline of Estonia’s e-government-specific legislation was in line with that of other Eastern European countries such as Slovakia or Latvia. Furthermore, the “Tiger’s Leap”13 project that is considered to be one of the landmarks in the digitalization of public institutions in the 1990s should be seen as a “basic provision of public goods” in the form of IT rather than genuine technological innovation.14 Kitsing’s research does not seem to confirm that the success of Estonia’s e-government projects resulted from the deliberate “early investment in ICT, accompanied by the necessary reforms”.15 Instead, it would be more accurate to describe Estonian e-government projects as a “success without strategy”.16 Namely, what has been successful is the creation of the “impression that Estonian e-government is the result of a grand strategy and deliberate action by rational policymakers”.17
The simplifying accounts that conceive Estonian e-government projects as a conscious strategy of Estonian national leaders or government officials18 also tend to overlook the fact that some of the most important digitalization projects in the early 2000s grew out of close cooperation between commercial enterprises and state institutions. For example, even the cornerstone of Estonia’s e-government projects, the ID card, introduced in 2002, was a result of a coincidental interaction between banks and government, inspired by Internet banking services that had already been launched by Estonian banks in 1996.19 While commercial enterprises such as banks initiated digitalization projects to cut costs and increase competitiveness, the Estonian right-wing political leaders of the 1990s saw digital technology as a tool for “creating a minimal and efficient state”.20 Thus, in the late 1990s the discourse of e-government became a valuable currency among national leaders and provided politicians a convenient way “to show themselves as a force of progress, while political forces on the left showed reluctance and skepticism towards e-government”.21 It is important to acknowledge that the late 1990s were not only a time when Estonia anticipated joining the European Unionm, but also the time when the EU itself started to take an interest in the globally spreading buzzword “e-government”.22
Another, related, term that also emerged in Estonia in the early 2000s is e-democracy. This term is clearly much more ambiguous than e-government since it moves toward politically loaded concepts such as “empowerment”, “participation” and “decision-making” rather than “efficiency”, “mobility” and “flexibility”. So from 2000 on, various platforms for practicing e-democracy were set up in Estonia23 as a kind of an expansion, or a more democratic form of e-government. By now, most of these platforms for practicing e-democracy have been shut down. Moreover, the very term e-democracy has largely disappeared from public discourse althogether. As Fredrika Björklund notes, although “democracy” was an important concept in Estonian information society policy documents in the 1990s, it was later replaced with the notion of a “citizen-centered society”.24 For her, this terminological change reflects a shift in which “[t]he citizen as a political agent has been pushed aside and replaced by the apolitical individual”.25
Aro Velmet has also observed the gradual depoliticization of the subjects of the Estonian e-state. Whereas the notions of e-government and democracy revolved around empowerment and transparency in the early 2000s, the current Estonian e-state can be more adequately grasped with the metaphor of a “huge app-store”.26 The Estonian e-state, he argues, reduces citizens to individual consumers whose main task is to use the solutions developed by engineers and public officials rather than providing a political space where discussions can be held on how problems are raised and solutions proposed in the first place.27 Thus he claims that it is not democratic participation or empowerment that the Estonian e-state is concerned with. Rather it is the emerging digital economy, the potential of e-solutions to enhance entrepreneurship, attract foreign capital and a highly qualified workforce, and to build up Estonia’s international image as an advanced digital society.

In conclusion, then, the research that specifically concentrates on issues of e-government or e-democracy as such is valuable for different reasons. For example, tracing actual policymaking practices contextualizes these practices within certain social and political debates and helps to problematize some of the more popular (and overly optimistic and deterministic) interpretations of policy development. In this essay, however, I do not want to frame e-Estonia as strictly an e-government project. Nor do I want to concentrate on the political aspects of e-democracy, even though it has proved to be a valuable research object for discourse-theoretical research.28 Rather, I am interested in the ways in which e-government and e-democracy have become more commonly articulated as elements of the e-Estonia discourse, rather than the other way around.
Before moving closer to a discourse-theoretical analysis of the idea and story of e-Estonia, I need to lay some theoretical and methodological groundwork. As a first step, therefore, I will elaborate on the ontological premises of discourse theory and define its main theoretical concepts that allow us to formulate the more precise aims of the analysis.

What is discourse theory?

Firstly, the concept of discourse in poststructuralist discourse theory is formulated in ontological rather than empirical (or ontic) terms. The engagement with “ontological rather than just the epistemological and methodological aspects of interpretation, analysis and critique”29 is also one of the most distinctive aspects of a discourse-theoretical approach. Following from these premises we can define discourse as “a relational system of signifying practices that is produced through historical and ultimately political interventions and provides a contingent horizon of any meaningful object”.30 Since discourse is defined as a system of signifying practices, it involves much more than only verbal and written text. For discourse theorists, text and discourse are not strictly linguistic phenomena; rather, they tend to involve a wide range of data such as “policy statements, speeches, images, statues, signs and monuments”31 in their research projects. Although discourse theory uses a number of linguistic categories (e.g. signifier and signified, paradigm and syntagm), they “cease […] to be merely regional categories of a linguistics conceived in a narrow sense”.32 One of the reasons why these linguistic categories have found their way into discourse theory is that it places central importance on rhetoric, or more precisely, “the constitutive character of rhetoric”33 in social and political practices.
Second, when discourse theorists analyze particular discourses, they are interested in the “conditions of possibility” of those discourses, rather than connecting or reducing discursive practices to some presupposed extra-discursive entity (e.g. society or economy). They presume that “whilst objects clearly ‘exist’ independently of any particular discourse, their meaning and significance for situated subjects — and how they are engaged with — depends on […] discursive articulations”.34 Or, to put it differently, every discourse is the result of an articulatory practice that creates “a relation among elements such that their identity is modified”.35 Hence, we can say that the concept (and practice) of articulation is virtually synonymous with discourse. Both of these concepts are essential to how discourse theory understands the social production of meaning. In other words, since discourse theory presumes that no social (discursive) practice is “governed by any underlying metaphysical principle or ground”36 it treats all discourses as incomplete and partial. Specifically, particular discourses are considered as historically specific attempts to create “nodal points that partially fix meaning”37 and “arrest the flow of differences” in the discursive field.38 This discursive field, in turn, is conceived as “a theoretical horizon within which the being of objects is constituted”.39
Third, poststructuralist discourse theory is also “a species of critical theory” and is thus interested not only in interpretation and characterization of discourses but in their critique as well.40 The critical aspect is also reflected in the central position that concepts such as “hegemony” and “the political” assume in a discourse-theoretical framework. Since discourse theory presumes that there is no necessary connection between certain objects, processes, and practices that a particular discourse articulates, it also asks why it still happens that often “one signifier rather than another assumes in different circumstances that signifying function”.41 To answer that question, Laclau and other poststructuralist discourse theorists have turned to the concept of hegemony as a way to conceive “the never-concluded attempts to produce a fixation, to which there will always be a threat”.42 In other words, the concept of hegemony points to the presumption that there is always something that is excluded from a particular discourse. It follows that discourse theory asserts “the primacy of the political over the social”43 by presupposing that every social order and practice “arises as a political construction that involves the exclusion of certain possibilities”.44

While it is precisely the premise about “the primacy of the political” that has provoked some of the most crucial (ontological) debates among discourse theorists and political philosophers, I do not have the space, nor do I see the need to open up these debates here. Instead, I will now move closer to analytical and theoretical concepts that have been developed in discourse theory for conducting concrete empirical discourse analyses. Following from the premise that all practices are signifying practices that “are located within a field of discursive social relations”,45 Jason Glynos and David Howarth have aimed to point out and elaborate the different types of signifying practices. They understand these different types of signifying practices in terms of different (signifying) logics.

The logics of critical explanation in discourse theory

To define the concept of logic, Glynos and Howarth turn to the notion of family resemblances and language games as understood by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Hence, they propose that no concept cannot be defined only in abstract terms but needs to take into account the different ways it is used in practice as well.46 Rather than proposing a correct/incorrect definition of a logic, they define it by what it is not. First, the concept of a logic does not involve “the formal analysis of propositions in order to determine their validity or truth-value”; nor is it a causal law; nor is it “synonymous with tendencies that are conceived as weak or ‘soft’ laws”.47
As a theoretical concept, logic primarily concerns the interpretation, explanation, and critique of discursive practices, rather than the logic of some extra-discursive entities such as “social structures” or “causal mechanisms”.48 This concept of logic, however, is firmly grounded in discourse theory’s underlying social ontology that distinguishes four dimensions of social reality. Whereas the social dimension concerns the ways in which “subjects are absorbed in their practices”, the political dimension refers to the ways in which social relations are challenged “in the name of a principle or ideal” and, as a result, existing social relations become dislocated. The ideological dimension concerns “that aspect of social relations in which subjects are complicit in concealing the radical contingency of social relations” and the ethical dimension, in contrast, aims to capture the attentiveness of subjects to this radical contingency.49 Since these dimensions are formulated on the ontological level, they “are always to some degree present in any particular practice or regime”.50 As a way to capture those four dimensions in empirical research, Glynos and Howarth distinguish between three types of explanatory logics. In other words, as theoretical concepts, it is the social logics, political logics and fantasmatic logics that have “a role to play in articulating a complete explanatory account”51 of a practice or a regime of practices.
First, social logics allow us to characterize, describe and discern the “rules and norms” that govern a certain discursive practice52 and to “capture those aspects that make it tick”.53 Second, political logics offer a way to “explore how social practices are instituted, contested, and defended”54 through two particular political logics — the “logic of equivalence” and “logic of difference”. As Laclau and Mouffe put it, “the logic of equivalence is a logic of the simplification of political space, while the logic of difference is a logic of its expansion and increasing complexity”.55 Equivalential and differential logics allow us to consider whether a discourse constructs identities either through “common ‘negative’, threat or enemy” or “through non-adversarial, ‘positive’ differences”.56 Equivalential and differential logics are always present in every discursive articulation because all meaning and identity is “discursively constructed through chains of equivalence” that relationally sort and link different signs.57 In equivalential chains, however, the difference between discursive elements is necessarily undermined or ignored in order to form relations of equivalence between various objects, practices, and processes. Third, fantasmatic logics point to the “ideological dimension” by analyzing the ways in which “subjects are complicit in concealing or covering over the radical contingency of social relations”.58 Fantasmatic logics most often appear through a fantasmatic narrative that “promises a fullness-to-come once a named or implied obstacle is overcome” while it points to the terrible consequences that can follow if subjects do not subscribe to a discourse.59
Following from these definitions, it becomes easier to understand why one shouldn’t expect from discourse theorists that they simply provide a detailed description of a certain representation of a particular issue. That is simply because discourse theorists do not “assume the prior existence of a particular structure, agent or object”.60 Rather than studying particular issues and representations, discourse theorists try to critically explain what makes particular representations “possible in the first place”.61 Furthermore, they try to make the phenomena under investigation “intelligible both for the subjects involved in the activity studied and for the subjects who are studying the phenomena”.62
In the remaining part of the article I will try to offer a schematic discourse-theoretical reading of e-Estonia. I will follow general questions such as: How can we characterize e-Estonia as a discourse or discursive practice? Where did it come from and how was it formed? How and why is its sustained? How could we evaluate and criticize e-Estonia as a discursive formation?63 I will try to answer these questions in terms of social, political, and fantasmatic logics.

Branding e-Estonia

In recent years, the story of e-Estonia has been promoted through various materials, mostly published by Enterprise Estonia, as well as through other initiatives funded by EAS.64 In e-Estonia, bureaucracy has become “a thing of the past”. In e-Estonia, one can easily cast a “ballot from the comfort of your living room”.65 As it appears, the “e” in Estonia means a lot more than just “electronic” — it refers to “The Epic Story of the e-State”66 that is also “empowering”, “easy”, “efficient”, “economical”, and “engaging”. It is precisely these kinds of figures and pompous slogans that have also found their way into the public presentations of various advocates of e-Estonia. These promoters — national leaders, government officials and PR gurus — have presented these stories at various conferences on e-government, public management, and digital technology both locally67 and internationally.68 Furthermore, e-Estonia has even been the theme of a party: in 2016 the technology conference Slush was opened with the “Enter e-Estonia” theme party, featuring “the brightest tech companies and the best cuisine from Estonia and the most exciting music from both sides of the Gulf of Finland”, opened with a speech by Estonia’s newly elected president, Kersti Kaljulaid.69 On closer observation, one cannot fail to notice the similarities that e-Estonia shares with the practice of nation branding.

The term nation branding emerged most powerfully after the end of the Cold War with the demand for “nations to redefine and reposition themselves within the master narrative of globalization”.70 Alongside the post-1989 geopolitical changes, nation branding agencies, consultancies, and experts started to emerge. By now, the idea that a nation is something that can and should be branded has established itself as a common premise for a practice of communicating, commodifying, and marketing the nation to and throughout the world.71 At the same time when post-communist nation-states had their “identity struggles” and tried to forget the “shameful” past and pin down their new and “desired” identities in the East/West hermeneutic, discourses of nation branding provided many effective methods to do that. In other words, it helped Eastern European nation-states to “intertwine nationalism with globalization”.72 Moreover, as nation branding practitioners see nation brands as a “benign form of national consciousness”,73 it provided Eastern European nation-states an effective way to articulate the category of the nation with the new, globalized world, without the more radical expressions of nationalism.
One way to concisely define nation branding is to conceive it as a “particular form of national consciousness” that is produced at the intersection of “the nation” and the “tools, techniques, and expertise from the world of corporate brand management”.74 Alternatively, we can approach it as a result of a transnational “culture of circulation” that produces “a particular type of understanding of the nation as a competitive, contemporary and commodifiable entity rather than — or in addition to — a sovereign nation state”.75 Nation branding, then, represents a transformative change in the imagining of nations whereby theories and concepts from PR, marketing, and branding intertwine with or replace “core political concepts such as citizenship, national sovereignty and democracy”.76 Nation branding experts have also suggested that the most successful nation branding projects are the ones that manage to influence citizens to “perform attitudes and behaviors that are compatible with the brand strategy”77 and to cultivate the roles of the “brand ambassador, brand champion, brand exemplar, or brand carrier” among its citizens.78
Even though e-Estonia is not explicitly framed as a nation branding project, many of its aspects seem to correspond to the established definitions and categories used by nation branding researchers. Building on the different elements of nation branding discourse outlined above, I suggest that we bring these elements together under the more general notion of the “logics of nation branding”. First of all, the signifier e-Estonia allows the obscuring of different social categories. Namely, it interchangeably refers to Estonia as “the digital society”,79 a “digitalized nation”,80 and a country that is “run like a start-up”81 or offered as a “service”.82 Second, the “logics of nation branding” also help to grasp how the e-Estonia discourse depends on the production of a variety of new, distinctive subjects (e-Estonians, e-Residents), the devices they use (the ID card), and the practices (e-voting, digital signing) they engage in. Third, e-Estonia necessarily involves the situating of these various social categories (nation, society, country) and subject-positions in a global context. This aspect of the “logics of nation branding” can be more clearly exemplified by one of the most recent initiatives of e-Estonia: the e-Residency project.

e-Estonians and e-Residents

While the e-Residency project is framed as another project of e-Estonia, it also appears to be one of the most “revolutionary” among them by being presented as “a step towards fulfilling Estonia’s aspirations of pioneering the first borderless e-society”.83 Since the e-Residency project has become a kind of a revolutionary story inside the success story of e-Estonia, it is interesting to observe how it seamlessly allows the bringing together of two totally disparate events, the Estonian Singing Revolution84 and the launch of the World Wide Web. As one of the stories at the e-Residency blog puts it: it is the year 1991 to which Estonia’s “rebirth as a digital nation can be traced back”.85
The core idea of e-Residency is to “offer every world citizen a government-issued digital identity”86 by which they can “enjoy the government and business services that Estonia has developed since the 1990s”.87 These include the opportunity to establish a company online, online banking services, tax declarations, and the digital signing of documents. The developers and promoters of the e-residency project have conceived it as “a sort of governmental start-up”88 that challenges “traditional notions of residency, citizenship, territoriality, and globalization”.89 As the information materials on e-Residency put it, the project has been developed “for the new e-Estonian — a new kind of digital and global citizen”.90
In addition to the open call for potential e-residents, however, the status of an e-resident has also been offered as a gift from the Estonian government to “outstanding people” (e.g. Angela Merkel) during their visits to Estonia, or during Estonian national leaders visits abroad.91 Since the international media regularly follow the doings of diplomats, national leaders, and IT entrepreneurs, the e-Residency project has clearly played an important role in establishing the signifier e-Estonia in the international media.92 The first e-Resident was actually a journalist — namely, Edward Lucas, who covers Russia and Eastern Europe for The Economist and publicly regards himself as a close friend of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former President of Estonia.

e-Estonia: Always already a former Soviet republic

On the home page of the e-Estonia website93 one is still greeted by the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. While Ilves has undoubtedly been Estonia’s most vocal advocate of the empowering role of digital technology in public administration, entrepreneurship, and education during his presidency, it also appears that the very term e-Estonia is his invention.
Ilves served as president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, but he had also previously served as minister of foreign affairs.94 So it was in 2000, when Ilves as minister of foreign affairs used the term e-Estonia in the title of his speech e-Estonia and the New Europe, held at the London School of Economics. As Ilves put it then: “I chose e-Estonia as a title simply because in the most dynamic area of growth, Estonia far outstrips Western Europe”.95 He argued that, by comparing the relevant statistical data on Internet use, computer owners, and online banking, one can easily observe that Estonia is unjustifiably “a country still called pejoratively a ‘former Soviet republic’”, and added that, “with the emergence of new technologies and the new economy, the iconic vision of a backward, corrupt Eastern Europe, dismal and grey requires iconoclasm”.96 As he himself remarks, in using the term e-Estonia, he meant to make a reference to the recently launched eEurope initiative of the EU. The aim of eEurope was to “ensure the European Union fully benefits for generations to come from the changes the Information Society is bringing”.97
A few months prior to Ilves’s speech in London, the Government Office of the Republic of Estonia had launched its “e-government project”.98 The first step of the project was a launch of the information system of government sessions (called the “e-cabinet”). As the press notice put it back then, this system was developed as “a first step towards e-government” that “will eliminate the need to produce 55 copies of document bundles, each with a height of 10—20 cm”.99 From the very beginning, news about this project started to appear in the foreign media, laying the first founding elements of the notion of Estonia as an advanced e-state.100
A year later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (with Ilves as Minister) started to publish a section titled e-Estonia in its publication called “Glance at the Mirror”.101 The e-Estonia section appeared side by side with others such as “Foreign Investments” and “Tourism”. All of them were essentially selections of quotes and headlines compiled from the foreign press. The excerpts in the e-Estonia section praised the recently launched (and the world’s first) e-government system, and the high proportion of Internet users compared not only to post-Soviet and Eastern European countries but to Western countries as well.
Despite the number of e-services, e-solutions, and devices that have followed the first Estonian e-government program in 2000,102 the term e-Estonia is now more widely used than ever. It regularly appears in the articles of media outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired that propose that Estonia is “the world’s most advanced digital society”,103 “the new European start-up hub”104 or “one of the most tech-savvy countries on earth”.105 While it was almost two decades ago that Ilves argued for the dismantling of the widespread prejudices that perceived post-Soviet, Eastern European, and non-EU states as corrupt and underdeveloped, it is still this very same post-Soviet image that continues to play a crucial role in the currently circulating e-Estonia story. In its new version, however, the post-Soviet image is something that has been successfully left behind — in other words, this new version assumes that Estonia has already become e-Estonia, despite its Soviet past. This presumption is well illustrated by the question that is put forth on the e-Estonia website: “How did a small, post-Soviet nation transform itself into a global leader in e-solutions?”106

e-Estonia and post socialism as transition

The heroic overcoming of its “post-Soviet” image or past that e-Estonia appears to represent is pervasive not only in the locally produced promotional materials on e-Estonia107 but can be observed widely throughout international media coverage.108 What I call the “logic of postsocialist transition” is one of the main social logics that help us to grasp what makes the e-Estonia discourse tick. The notion of post socialist, transition as such, however, involves a number of relatively strong assumptions about the ways in which social and political change takes place.
Specifically, the term transition pushes one to conceive post-socialism as an intermediate period between the collapse of communism and a decisive move towards capitalism. In studies of postsocialism the idea of a one-way transition has been criticized widely on different grounds.109 One of the central objections to this “transition” concerns the way this concept collapses the spatial and the temporal by “reducing geographical diversity to a lagging temporality” and represents a particular region as being “on a journey somewhere”.110 In other words, the idea of postsocialist transition fits comfortably into a framework of modernization theory that starts from the premise that “there is a direction to history”, “that direction can be known”, “we actually know it”, and “that direction of history leads toward, and points to, the ‘West’”.111
From a discourse-theoretical perspective, this notion of “transition” can be conceived as the “nodal point” in an explanatory framework that not only “structures and standardizes empirical data” but has “turned into a historiographical signifier, which encompasses a defined period after the fall of communism”.112 This simplified notion of post socialist transition treats it as a “sutured structure composed of various social experiences and political strategies, which naturalizes and universalizes the contingent power struggles that are taking place and will take place in the future of post-socialist countries”.113
In our case, the “logic of transition” helps the discourse of e-Estonia to take the focus away from (and normalize) the contingent power struggles that have lain behind the emergence of the e-Estonia project. Even more importantly, the logic of transition, by intersecting with the logics of nation branding, gives rise to a fantasmatic narrative in which Estonia’s local political struggles, historical burdens, and international image-related concerns are best overcome with the help of digital technology, e-services, and e-solutions. In other words, as long as Estonia is e-Estonia, a technologically advanced e-state or e-society, there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.
Moreover, the fantasmatic narrative seems to assume that e-Estonia’s various, innovative, revolutionary e-solutions not only help the nation, society, or country to effectively solve its social and political problems, but can even help it to defend itself in situations of cyber war.114 Furthermore, as the e-Estonia website tells us, it was in 2007 when e-Estonia “really” took off — that was the year that Estonia became “the first nation in history to successfully defend itself against a large-scale cyber attack”.115

e-Estonia: An empty signifier?

As I demonstrated above, it is the social logics of post socialist transition and nation branding that allow us to characterize the signifying logics that govern the e-Estonia discourse. In other words, these are the main logics that make the e-Estonia discourse tick. In tracing the history of the signifier e-Estonia we also observed that President Ilves initially used the term to argue against the label “former Soviet republic” that he claimed had been “pejoratively” applied to Estonia. It seems that the particular signifier e-Estonia appeared then as an effective antidote against “[p]ast preconceptions that form views of the present day ‘Eastern Europe’”,116 mostly because it allowed emphasis on those aspects of Estonia’s technological and economic development that did not confirm or justify the stereotype of a backward post-Soviet state.
What I would like to do in this last section of the article is to explore the political dimension of the e-Estonia discourse. The political dimension, as I pointed out above, concerns the dislocation of existing social relations “in the name of a principle or ideal”.117 I propose that the concept of the “empty signifier” as proposed by Laclau allows us to explore the political dimension of e-Estonia as a name. An empty signifier, together with the concept of the floating signifier, belongs to the category of a “general equivalent”. For Laclau, “general equivalents” appear in the process whereby “the body of one particularity assumes a function of universal representation”.118 Both empty and floating signifiers offer necessary closure for discourses. By acting as nodal points, they have a central role to play in the formation, maintenance, and contestation of hegemonic projects. While floating signifiers are characterized by their multiple and contrasting meanings in hegemonic discourses, it is the empty signifiers that point to the constitutive power of naming in political practice.

Most simply defined, an empty signifier is “a signifier without a signified”,119 a “name or a symbol of a lack”120 that emerges when political actors “struggle to represent a specific sense of fullness and common good”.121 The logic of empty signifiers can be expressed in three points: they “signify the universal”, “they provide a name for the chain of equivalences” and they “keep the equivalential chain sequence indefinitely open”.122 Hence, the empty signifier can be characterized by a political logic that privileges “the dimension of equivalence to the point that its differential nature is almost entirely obliterated”.123 An empty signifier exemplifies “the discursive presence of its own limits”124 as it tries to escape the relational and differential nature of signification. We can recognize empty signifiers where a particular name becomes “the ground” for a particular discourse,125 a name that becomes “detached from its particular meaning in order to provide an empty space that can be filled with universal meanings”.126 It seems that e-Estonia, as a name, is precisely an empty signifier that has provided an “empty space” for universal meanings.
First, in contrast with e-democracy and e-government, the signifier e-Estonia might seem relatively limited due to its reference to a particular nation state or a national community. However, following from the discussion in the first part of the essay, I think it is more accurate to conceive e-government and e-democracy as floating signifiers that were in play among public discourses and competing political projects in the 1990s. If this is the case, then e-Estonia, as it interchangeably refers to nation state or society, appears to be working for the general interest of the Estonian society or nation.
Second, as we also showed above, e-Estonia has produced a variety of e-subjects, e-practices, and e-institutions. Moreover, e-Estonia remains open to new subjects and practices. As the e-Estonia website declares: “Even with all of Estonia’s successes, this by no means is the end of the e-Estonia story. It’s only the beginning”.127 In other words, the equivalential chain that e-Estonia signifies seems to be open indefinitely. However, it also appears that what these subjects, practices, and institutions have in common is only their reference to e-Estonia — i.e., they are made equivalent with the universal claims, ideals, and principles of e-Estonia.
Third, even if Estonia is represented as e-Estonia, a “global leader in e-solutions”, it cannot escape its recent postsocialist or post-Soviet past. However, it might be more accurate to argue that if this post-Soviet past were somehow completely suppressed, the story of e-Estonia would not be possible in the first place. For it is on this generalized notion of a post-Soviet past that the success story of e-Estonia has been built. As Taavi Kotka, one of the visionaries behind the e-Residency project, has put it: “After separating from the Soviet Union, Estonia had to start with a clean slate and, as history has shown, a clean slate is the best surface on which to create innovation”.128 A similar notion appears in the “White Paper on Estonia’s Digital Ideology”.129 This text, produced by Daniel Vaarik, an Estonian PR guru and a former member of Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s think tank, proposes a number of recommendations in the form of “pathfinder stories”. These stories appear as narrative templates that Estonia should follow to introduce and present itself to “the world”. Drawing on this “digital ideology”, Vaarik has given presentations about e-Estonia’s story at various events.130 As he puts it in one of his presentations, “suddenly we realized that information technology helps us to show something from our country that is not post-Soviet but future-related […] Estonia realized that it can get away from a post-Soviet space by starting communication about IT, by doing everything it can, by doing IT reforms”.131
In sum, then, e-Estonia as an empty signifier provides a basis for a variety of existing and emergent hegemonic projects that represent themselves as the ones that are ultimately able to lead the Estonian nation state, society, or country towards a bright future that is yet to come.


My main aim in this article was to outline a discourse-theoretical framework that allows an alternative reading of the various assumptions, hopes, and promises that make the e-Estonia story possible. First, I discussed the policy research that departs from the concepts of “e-government” and “e-democracy” and analyzes relevant policymaking practices in Estonia from the mid-1990s on. Second, I suggested that, while e-Estonia could be analyzed as an example of an e-government project, we would fail to grasp how it is possible that e-government has become part of e-Estonia, not the other way around. Third, after introducing the ontological premises and defining the key terms of poststructuralist discourse theory, I turned to the logics approach, which that investigates social practices in terms of different types of signifying, or discursive “logics”. Fourth, by following these logics, I offered a discourse-theoretical reading of the notion of e-Estonia.
By pointing out the particular texts where the signifier e-Estonia appears, as well as paying attention to the distinctive forms in which it represented, I turned to the research field of nation branding. I then articulated various concepts and definitions from the field of nation branding research to name the “logic of nation branding”. In order to show how the e-Estonia discourse could be characterized through this “logic of nation branding” I discussed the recent e-Residency project. I then considered the concept of “post socialist transition” and formulated the social “logic of transition” as concept to the way in which the e-Estonia story is pervasively a success story of a former, underdeveloped, post-Soviet state. Also I showed that the term e-Estonia was coined by Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves as early as 2000, and appeared much more powerfully in the mid-2000s when Ilves became president of Estonia. Finally, by drawing on the concept of the empty signifier, I showed that it is the name e-Estonia that is to be seen as what has constituted the space where the notion of Estonia as an advanced e-state or e-society could emerge in the first place.
Finally, I want to emphasize that this article should be considered exploratory. My main aim was to find theoretically grounded ways to offer an alternative reading of the success story that runs throughout the general idea of e-Estonia as well as particular manifestations of this idea. From the discourse-theoretical framework that I presented, this success narrative appears primarily to disclose the hegemonic practices that have constituted e-Estonia. If we add the label “hegemonic” to particular discourses, it allows us to describe a situation whereby “through acts of identification, subjects have come to forget the contingency of a particular articulation and have accepted it and its elements as necessary or natural”.132 This forgetting is clearly what seems to occur with the hegemonic discourse of e-Estonia. Moreover, one faces a serious difficulty if one wants to establish what kind of phenomenon e-Estonia is solely on the basis of policy documents, promotional materials, and media coverage: is it a nation branding project, an imaginary digital nation, an actually existing digital society with its digital infrastructure, a response to the assumed forces of globalization, or a combination of all of these? As I hope to have shown in this paper, a poststructuralist discourse-theoretical approach presents a convincing as well as a constructive way forward in this situation, because it not only asks about the conditions of possibility of particular discourses but does so with a clearly articulated ontological, theoretical, and methodological framework. ≈

This article was supported by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund. I would also like to express my gratitude to two anonymous reviewers for their critical and constructive feedback on an earlier version of this article.


1 For examples from different international media outlets, see: Andrew Keen, “E-Stonia: Country Using Technology to Rebrand Itself as the Anti-Russia,” The Guardian, April 21, 2016, accessed December 3, 2016,; Tim Mansel, “How Estonia Became E-Stonia,” BBC News, May 16, 2013, accessed December 3, 2016,; Mark Scott, “Estonians Embrace Life in a Digital World,” The New York Times, October 8, 2014, accessed December 3, 2016, For locally produced reports and promotional documents on e-Estonia, see: Sandra Roosna and Raul Rikk, “E-Estonia: E-Governance in Practice” (Tallinn: e-Governance Academy, 2016); Enterprise Estonia, “E-Estonia: The Future Is Now” (Tallinn, 2015), 8, accessed November 5, 2016,; “ The Digital Society” (main page), Estonian ICT Export Cluster, accessed December 3, 2016, For local and international conference presentations on e-Estonia, see: Daniel Vaarik, “Escaping E-Narnia: Estonia’s New Digital Ideology,” Business Seminar: Estonia; Where Stuff Happens First (Tallinn, 2015), accessed December 3, 2016,; Daniel Vaarik, “The Secret Sauce of E-Stonia,” LOGIN (Vilnius, 2016), accessed December 3, 2016,; Siim Sikkut, “21st Century State: Building e-Estonia,” Digital Leaders Annual Summit (Luxembourg, 2017), accessed February 22, 2017,; Taavi Kotka, “Putting the ‘E’ in Estonia,” NASSCOM Product Conclave (Bangalore, 2015), accessed December 3, 2016,
2 Aro Velmet, “E-Kodanikud Ja E-Tarbijad: Kaks Lugu 21. Sajandi Eestlusest” [E-citizens and e-consumers: Two tales of Estonian nationhood in the 21st century], Vikerkaar, no. 10—11 (2015): 147.
3 Estonian ICT Export Cluster, “E-Estonia Showroom,” accessed December 15, 2016,
4 Enterprise Estonia, “E-Estonia: The Future Is Now”.
5 The aim of the E-Estonia council is to direct the “development of Estonian digital society and e-governance, especially the implementation of national digital agenda”. Government Office, Republic of Estonia, “E-Estonia Council”, accessed December 10,
6 Daniel Vaarik, “Where Stuff Happens First: White Paper on Estonia’s Digital Ideology” (Tallinn, 2015), accessed December 3, 2016,
7 Callisto Group OÜ, “E-Eesti Rahvusvahelise Maine Edendamise Tegevuskava 2017—2019” [The plan for developing and enhancing the international image of e-Estonia, 2017—2019] (Tallinn: State Information Systems Agency, 2016), accessed February 20,
8 Jason Glynos et al., “Discourse Analysis: Varieties and Methods,” ERSC National Centre for Research Methods Review, 2009, 7—13.
9 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Second (London, New York: Verso, 2001); Ernesto Laclau, “Ideology and Post-Marxism,” Journal of Political Ideologies 11, no. 2 (2006): 103—14.
10 E.g. Jason Glynos and David Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2007); David Howarth, “Power, Discourse, and Policy: Articulating a Hegemony Approach to Critical Policy Studies,” Critical Policy Studies 3 (2009): 309—35; David Howarth and Yannis Stavrakakis, “Introducing Discourse Theory and Political Analysis,” in Discourse Theory and Political Analysis: Identities, Hegemonies, and Social Change, ed. Yannis Stavrakakis, David Howarth, and Aletta Norval (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 1—23; David Howarth and Jacob Torfing, Discourse Theory in European Politics: Identity, Policy and Governance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
11 For example, see Marc Ernsdorff and Adriana Berbec, “Estonia: The Short Road to E-Government and E-Democracy,” in E-Government in Europe: Re-Booting the State, ed. Paul G. Nixon and Koutrakou N. Vassiliki (London: Routledge, 2007), 180; Tarmo Kalvet, “Innovation: A Factor Explaining E-Government Success in Estonia”, Electronic Government, an International Journal 9 (2012): 142—157; Erin Dian Dumbacher, “Internet Development as Political Comparative Advantage: Estonia in International Organizations,” in Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment Conference at Oxford University, 2010, 1—16, accessed December 3, 2016,
12 Meelis Kitsing, “Success Without Strategy: E-Government Development in Estonia,” Policy and Internet 3 (2011): 6.
13 For a thorough consideration of the Tiger’s Leap program, see: Pille Runnel, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, and Kristina Reinsalu, “The Estonian Tiger Leap from Post-Communism to the Information Society: From Policy to Practice,” Journal of Baltic Studies 40 (2009): 29—51.
14 Kitsing, “Success Without Strategy,” 6.
15 Marc Ernsdorff and Adriana Berbec, “Estonia: The Short Road to E-Government and E-Democracy,” 180.
16 Kitsing, “Success Without Strategy”.
17 Ibid., 15.
18 Ivar Tallo, “What Does Not Meet The Eye: E-Services For Everyone,” Life in Estonia, 2013; Roosna and Rikk, “E-Estonia: E-Governance in Practice.”
19 Kitsing, “Success Without Strategy,” 18.
20 Hille Hinsberg, Magnus Jonsson, and Martin Karlsson, “E-Participation Policy in Estonia,” Citizen Centric E-Participation: A Trilateral Collaboration for Democratic Innovation. Case Studies on E-Participation Policy: Sweden, Estonia and Iceland (Tallinn: Praxis Center for Policy Studies, 2013), 22.
21 Kitsing, “Success Without Strategy,” 6.
22 Commission of the European Communities, “eEurope: An Information Society For All; Communication on a Commission Initiative for the Special European Council of Lisbon, 23 and 24 March” (1999), accessed December 3, 2016,; Victor Bekkers and Vincent Homburg, “The Myths of E-Government: Looking Beyond the Assumptions of a New and Better Government,” The Information Society 23 (2007): 373—82.
23 For an overview of these platforms, see Hinsberg, Jonsson, and Karlsson, “E-Participation Policy in Estonia”; Ernsdorff and Berbec, “Estonia: The Short Road to E-Government and E-Democracy”; Roosna and Rikk, “E-Estonia: E-Governance in Practice,” 80—81.
24 Fredrika Björklund, “E-Government and Moral Citizenship: The Case of Estonia,” Citizenship Studies 20 (2016): 921.
25 Ibid., 922.
26 Velmet, “E-Kodanikud Ja E-Tarbijad: Kaks Lugu 21. Sajandi Eestlusest,” 146.
27 Ibid.
28 Lincoln Dahlberg, “Re-Constructing Digital Democracy: An Outline of Four ‘Positions,’” New Media and Society 13 (2011): 855—72.
29 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 103.
30 Jacob Torfing, “Discourse Theory: Achievements, Arguments, and Challenges,” in Discourse Theory in European Politics: Identity, Policy, Governance, ed. David Howarth and Jacob Torfing (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 8.
31 Katharina T. Paul, “Discourse Analysis: An Exploration of Methodological Issues and a Call for Methodological Courage in the Field of Policy Analysis,” Critical Policy Studies 3 (2009): 241.
32 Laclau, “Ideology and Post-Marxism,” 106.
33 David Howarth and Steven Griggs, “Poststructuralist Discourse Theory and Critical Policy Studies: Interests, Identities and Policy Change,” in Handbook of Critical Policy Studies, ed. Frank Fischer et al. (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015), 111.
34 Glynos et al., “Discourse Analysis: Varieties and Methods,” 8.
35 Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 105.
36 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 179.
37 Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 113.
38 Ibid., 112.
39 David Howarth and Yannis Stavrakakis, “Introducing Discourse Theory and Political Analysis,” 3.
40 Glynos et al., “Discourse Analysis: Varieties and Methods,” 9.
41 Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London, New York: Verso, 2007), 40.
42 Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, Discursive Analytical Strategies: Understanding Foucault, Koselleck, Laclau, Luhmann (Bristol: The Policy Press, 2003), 55.
43 Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London, New York: Verso, 1990), 33.
44 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 125.
45 Ibid., 109.
46 As Laclau and Mouffe have explained, the distinction between meaning and practice is only an analytical distinction: “The use of a term is an act— in that sense it forms part of pragmatics; on the other hand, the meaning is only constituted in the contexts of actual use of the term: in that sense its semantics is entirely dependent upon its pragmatics, from which it can be separated—if at all—only analytically. That is to say, in our terminology, every identity or discursive object is constituted in the context of an action.” Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, “Post-Marxism without Apologies,” New Left Review I, 166 (1987): 83.
47 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 135.
48 The “logics approach” developed by Glynos and Howarth grows out of their dissatisfaction with the two of the most prominent alternatives to positivist social science: the “causal law paradigm”, which explains social reality in terms of “causal mechanisms” (e.g. critical realists, neo-positivists), and exclusively hermeneutic explanations that focus on “contextualized self-interpretations” (Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 212.) By developing their particular understanding of “a logic” or “logics” as elements of explanation, they try to avoid both the “universalizing” as well as “particularistic” tendencies in the social science explanations represented by these two approaches (ibid., 135).
49 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 112—113.
50 Ibid., 15.
51 Ibid.
52 David Howarth, “Power, Discourse, and Policy: Articulating a Hegemony Approach to Critical Policy Studies,” Critical Policy Studies 3 (2009): 325.
53 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 135.
54 Ibid., 133.
55 Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 130.
56 Jules Townshend, “Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemonic Project: The Story so Far,” Political Studies 52 (2004): 271.
57 Marianne Jørgensen and Louise J. Phillips, Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method (London: Sage, 2002), 43.
58 Howarth and Griggs, “Poststructuralist Policy Analysis: Discourse, Hegemony, and Critical Explanation,” 331.
59 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 147.
60 Lincoln Dahlberg and Sean Phelan, “Discourse Theory and Critical Media Politics: An Introduction,” in Discourse Theory and Critical Media Politics, ed. Lincoln Dahlberg and Sean Phelan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 13.
61 Ibid.
62 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 230.
63 cf. David Howarth and Steven Griggs, “Poststructuralist Policy Analysis: Discourse, Hegemony, and Critical Explanation,” in The Argumentative Turn Revisited: Public Policy as Communicative Practice, ed. Frank Fischer and Herbert Gottweis (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 324.
64 “Established in 2000, Enterprise Estonia (EAS) promotes business and regional policy in Estonia and is one of the largest institutions within the national support system for entrepreneurship by providing financial assistance, counselling, cooperation opportunities and training for entrepreneurs, research institutions, the public and non-profit sectors” (Enterprise Estonia, “About”, accessed December 3, 2016, At the moment, almost all of the annual budget (100 to 150 million euros) of EAS consists of the European Union Structural Funds that EAS implements in Estonia. For example, it allocates financial support to Estonian businesses as well as organizing trainings and consultations.
65 Enterprise Estonia, “E-Estonia: The Future Is Now”.
66 Anna Piperal, “E-Estonia: The Epic Story of the E-State,” Estonian ICT Demo Center,, accessed February 3, 2016.
67 “Business Seminar: Estonia – Where Stuff Happens First”, Estonian Investment Agency, December 1, 2016,; “Visioonikonverents: Millist e-Eestit me e-Euroopas tahame?” [Vision conference: What kind of e-Estonia do we want in e-Europe?], accessed November 13, 2016,
68 See e.g. Siim Sikkut, “21st Century State: Building e-Estonia”; Taavi Kotka, “Putting the ‘E’ in Estonia”; Kaspar Korjus, “e-Residency: Experimenting Worldwide Digital Inclusion,” TEDxGeneva, May 3, 2016, accessed December 1, 2016,; Daniel Vaarik, “The Secret Sauce of E-Stonia”; Anna Piperal, “e-Estonia: Redefining Governance, Simplifying Business,” Socitm Spring Conference (London 2016), accessed January 3, 2017,–EaW4.
69 Ingrid Kohtla, “Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid to Open the Official Slush Opening Party by Enter E-Estonia,” Slush, 2016, accessed December 1, 2016,
70 Sue Curry Jansen, “Designer Nations: Neo-Liberal Nation Branding; Brand Estonia,” Social Identities 14 (2008): 121.
71 Zala Volcic and Mark Andrejevic, eds., Commercial Nationalism: Selling the Nation and Nationalizing the Sell, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Magdalena Kania-Lundholm, “Nation in Market Times: Connecting the National and the Commercial. A Research Overview,” Sociology Compass 8 (2014): 603—13.
72 Nadia Kaneva, “Nation Branding in Post-Communist Europe: Identities, Markets, and Democracy,” in Branding Post-Communist Nations: Marketizing National Identities in the “New” Europe, ed. Nadia Kaneva (London; New York: Routledge, 2012), 6.
73 Melissa Aronczyk, “‘Living the Brand’: Nationality, Globality and the Identity Strategies of Nation Branding Consultants,” International Journal of Communication 2 (2008): 55.
74 Melissa Aronczyk, Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 15.
75 Katja Valaskivi, Cool Nations: Media and the Social Imaginary of the Branded Country (London; New York: Routledge, 2016), 3.
76 Ibid.
77 Aronczyk, Branding the Nation, 76.
78 Ibid., 76—77.
79 Enterprise Estonia, “E-Estonia: The Future Is Now.”
80 Taavi Kotka, Carlos Ivan Vargas Alvarez del Castillo, and Kaspar Korjus, “Estonian E-Residency: Benefits, Risk and Lessons Learned,” 7.
81 “Estonia — Running a Country Like a Start-Up,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, accessed September 21, 2016,
82 Taavi Kotka, “Country as a Service: Estonia’s New Model,” Computerworld, May 18, 2016, accessed December 3, 2016,
83 “Estonia opens e-Residency to the World,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, accessed September 21, 2016,
84 In contrast to many other former Soviet states, Estonia’s struggle for independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a peaceful and non-violent process that is most often called the “Singing Revolution”. As the introduction of the documentary The Singing Revolution puts it: “Most people don’t think about singing when they think about revolution. But song was the weapon of choice when Estonian sought to free themselves from decades of Soviet occupation” (“About the film: The Singing Revolution,” accessed December 12, 2016,
85 “A Lot of Digital Nomads Love Estonia. Here’s Why the Feeling Is Mutual,” E-Residency Blog, December 27, 2016, accessed December 30, 2017,
86 “Estonian E-Residency,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, n.d., accessed January 3, 2017,
87 Ibid.
88 Kotka, del Castillo, and Korjus, “Estonian E-Residency,” 4.
89 Ibid., 3.
90 Enterprise Estonia, “E-Estonia: The Future Is Now”.
91 For a list of e-residents, see “10 Notable People Who Are E-Residents of Estonia”, LeapIN Blog, October 11, 2016, accessed December 3, 2016,
92 Mark Scott, “Estonians Embrace Life in a Digital World”; Ben Hammersley, “Why You Should Be an E-Resident of Estonia,” Wired Magazine, 2015,; Matthew Reynolds, “‘Land Is So Yesterday’: E-Residents and ‘Digital Embassies’ Could Replace Country Borders,” Wired Security, 2016.
93 “ The Digital Society,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, n.d., accessed January 3, 2017,
94 Toomas Hendrik Ilves was Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia from 1996 to 1998 and again from 1999 to 2002.
95 Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “E-Estonia and the New Europe,” October 25, 2000, accessed February 10, 2017,
96 Toomas Hendrik Ilves, E-Estonia and the New Europe (London: Eesti Välisministeerium, 2000).
97 Commission of the European Communities, “eEurope: An Information Society For All; Communication on a Commission Initiative for the Special European Council of Lisbon, 23 and 24 March.”
98 Riigikantselei [Government Office, Republic of Estonia], “Riigikantselei Alustas E-Valitsuse Projekti” [The Government Office has launched the e-government project], 2000,
99 Ibid.
100 Interestingly, it was also in 2000 that the Estonian Parliament declared the right to Internet access a human right. See: Nicholas Jackson, “United Nations Declares Internet Access a Basic Human Right,” The Atlantic, June 3, 2011, accessed December 3, 2016,
101 See Eesti Välisministeerium [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Estonia], “Pilk Peeglisse: Glance at the Mirror,” 2001, accessed December 3, 2016,; Eesti Välisministeerium [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Estonia], “Pilk Peeglisse: Glance at the Mirror,” 2002, accessed December 3, 2016, While this publication continued to be published until 2008, the chapter “e-Estonia” only appeared in the 2001 and 2002 issues. All of the issues of the “Pilk Peeglisse: Glance at the Mirror” can be downloaded from
102 For an overview of these e-solutions, see “Components for Digital Society,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, accessed January 3, 2017,
103 Apolitical, “Inside the World’s Most Advanced Digital Society — and What It’s Doing Next,” The Huffington Post, July 7, 2016, accessed December 3, 2016,
104 Monty Munford, “Is Estonia the New European Startup Hub?” The Telegraph, April 9, 2016, accessed December 5, 2016,
105 Jake Horowitz, “The Unexpected Story of How This Tiny Country Became the Most Tech-Savvy on Earth,” Mic, June 19, 2016, accessed December 3, 2016,
106 “How We Got There: Estonia’s Road to a Digital Society,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, accessed December 3, 2016,
107 For example, see “Toolkit,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, accessed December 6, 2016,
108 For example, see Tim Mansel, “How Estonia Became E-Stonia”; Jake Horowitz, “The Unexpected Story of How This Tiny Country Became the Most Tech-Savvy on Earth”; Andrew Keen, “E-Stonia: Country Using Technology to Rebrand Itself as the Anti-Russia”; Mark Scott, “Estonians Embrace Life in a Digital World”; Hammersley, “Why You Should Be an E-Resident of Estonia”; Reynolds, “‘Land Is So Yesterday’: E-Residents and ‘Digital Embassies’ Could Replace Country Borders.”
109 Michal Buchowski, “The Specter of Orientalism in Europe: From Exotic Other to Stigmatized Brother,” Anthropological Quarterly 79 (2006): 463—82; Manduhai Buyandelgeriyn, “Post-Post-Transition Theories: Walking on Multiple Paths,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008); Michael Burawoy and Katherine Verdery, eds., Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999); Narcis Tulbure, “Introduction to Special Issue: Global Socialisms and Postsocialisms,” Anthropology of East Europe Review 27 (2009): 2—18.
110 Alison Stenning and Kathrin Hörschelmann, “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-Socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-Socialism?” Antipode 40 (2008): 320—21.
111 Agnes Gagyi and Gergő Pulay, “An Incapacity to See Ourselves as Part of the Whole World, and the Efforts to See Ourselves as Part of Europe. An Interview with Jozef Böröcz on Post-Socialist ‘transition’, EU-Accession, and a Potential Left Perspective in East-Central Europe,” 2012, 1, accessed December 3, 2016,
112 Kristian Petrov, “The Concept of Transition in Transition,” Baltic Worlds 1 (2014): 36.
113 Atila Lukić and Gordan Maslov, “‘Did Somebody Say “Transition”?’ A Critical Intervention into the Use of a Notion,” Praktyka Teoretyczna 13 (2014): 203.
114 “How We Got There: Estonia’s Road to a Digital Society,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster; “Turning Around the 2007 Cyber Attack: Lessons from Estonia,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster, September 16, 2013, accessed December 3, 2016,
115 “How We Got There: Estonia’s Road to a Digital Society,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster.
116 Ilves, “E-Estonia and the New Europe.”
117 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, 112—113.
118 Ernesto Laclau, “Constructing Universality,” in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, ed. Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London; New York: Verso, 2000), 303.
119 Laclau, Emancipation(s), 36.
120 Ibid., 63.
121 Joscha Wullweber, “Global Politics and Empty Signifiers: The Political Construction of High Technology,” Critical Policy Studies 9 (2014): 82.
122 Dirk Nabers, A Poststructuralist Discourse Theory of Global Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 117.
123 Laclau, Emancipation(s), 39.
124 Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London, New York: Verso, 2007), 36.
125 Ernesto Laclau, “Ideology and Post-Marxism,” Journal of Political Ideologies 11 (2006): 109.
126 Wullweber, “Global Politics and Empty Signifiers: The Political Construction of High Technology,” 82.
127 “How We Got There: Estonia’s Road to a Digital Society,” Estonian ICT Export Cluster.
128 Taavi Kotka, “Estonia as an Engineer’s Dream,” Life in Estonia (Tallinn, 2013)
129 Daniel Vaarik, “Where Stuff Happens First: White Paper on Estonia’s Digital Ideology” (Tallinn, 2015), accessed December 3, 2016,
130 Daniel Vaarik, “Escaping E-Narnia: Estonia’s New Digital Ideology”; Daniel Vaarik, “The Secret Sauce of E-Stonia.”
131 Ibid.
132 Karen West, “Articulating Discursive and Materialist Conceptions of Practice in the Logics Approach to Critical Policy Analysis,” Critical Policy Studies 5 (2011): 418.

  • by Rene Mäe

    Currently completing his PhD in sociology at Tallinn University. Visiting PhD student at the University of Tartu and Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. He has taught courses on cultural sociology and sociological research methods at Tallinn University and the Estonian Academy of Arts.

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