1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia
The short answer is: that they will evolve along the broad lines sketched by Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilisations – with Estonia in the role of one of the bastions of the Western world.
The British journalist Edward Lucas has become a leading populariser of the “I told you so” view of Russia’s intentions, shared widely by Estonia’s foreign policy elites. In a nutshell, holders of this view believe Russia has been rebuilding and rearming since 1995, but at the very least 2000, when Vladimir Putin assumed power, with only one aim in mind: reconquering as much as possible of its former Soviet empire and, if possible, shattering NATO and the EU in the process. Accordingly, the events in Ukraine are a vindication of warnings sounded by Estonian (and other Eastern European politicians) for a long time: Russia is a rising threat against which the West must mobilise, as soon as possible. “The masks have fallen,” Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves told the Estonian parliament in September 2014.
The “I told you so” view presents Estonia as a frontline state. In this narrative, Ukraine is another frontline bastion whose fate is closely bound up with that of Estonia. Should Ukraine – or a substantial part of it – fall to Russia, Estonia will be under direct threat. It remains under threat, as long as Russian aggression in Ukraine is not repulsed. Hence, President Ilves backs the arming of Ukrainian forces by NATO. The obverse of the same coin is intensive preparations launched by the Estonian military and security services to shore up the country’s defences against a possible “hybrid” threat along the lines seen in Ukraine, to forestall the possibility of “little green men” – Russian soldiers minus their insignia – appearing in Estonia’s northeast, which abuts Russia and is largely Russian-populated. The focus on Ukraine and Russia has, in turn, reshaped Estonia’s virtual geopolitical horizon. Finland and Sweden, its closest western neighbours and one-time trend-setters as affluent and tolerant Nordic societies, have receded on that horizon. The fact that neither belongs to NATO has reduced their instrumental value for Estonia’s foreign policy elites, pushing the country instead towards an alliance of convenience with Poland. Warsaw is actively courting Russia’s neighbours from the Baltic to the Black Sea, positioning itself as the lead nation of a regional anti-Russian alliance.
Official Estonian threat perceptions were massively boosted in early September 2014 when Russian security services abducted an officer of the Estonian security police, Eston Kohver, in a sting operation on the border between the two countries. Estonia claims Russian operatives crossed the border to seize Kohver in a move unprecedented anywhere in the post-Cold-War era.
There is very little debate among the Estonian general public questioning the basic tenets of the trends outlined above: that Russia was, is and will remain a deadly enemy of Estonia. History is slated against a thaw in relations for the foreseeable future and President Vladimir Putin’s anti-democratic antics do not help matters. Estonia’s leadership is taking a rather apocalyptic view of the future of the country: either the West defeats Russia or Russia will eventually defeat the West. Estonia, in turn, will be the proverbial canary in this test: as long as it stays free and independent, the West – NATO and the EU – will endure. Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rôivas has repeatedly said he expects NATO to protect “every square inch” of Narva exactly as it protects New York. Narva is a 60,000-strong township on Estonia’s border with Russia, whose population is 96 percent Russian-speaking. It also has by far the highest unemployment, HIV infection, and drug abuse rates in the country.
The only alternative narrative to the official view, backed by a vast majority of the Estonian public (with the notable exception of a few top intellectuals, among them the poet and essayist Jaan Kaplinski) is offered by the Centre Party, which heavily relies on the Russian-speaking vote in Estonia. Russian-speakers make up some 29 percent of Estonia’s population. All long-term residents can vote in local elections, but only Estonian citizens – less than 40 percent of the total local Russian population – can vote in parliamentary elections. The leader of the Centre Party, Edgar Savisaar, has publicly queried the prevalent official view that the annexation of Crimea by Russia was illegal. Many of its politicians, led by Yana Toom, a member of the European Parliament and a native Russia-speaker, have said the EU should lift the sanctions it has imposed on Russia. Studies suggest more than two thirds of Estonia’s Russian-speakers broadly subscribe to the Kremlin’s version of events in Ukraine. To counterbalance this, the Estonian public broadcasting service is setting up a local Russian-language TV channel. Its newly-appointed editor in chief, Darya Saar, immediately courted controversy, however, telling a Russian news crew in an interview that her station would cover Crimea and the fighting in Eastern Ukraine “in accordance with the views of the Estonian government.”
Managing relations with the Russian-speaking minority remains the most pressing problem facing Estonia in the current crisis. Too small and weak to make a larger difference in the stand-off with Russia, Estonia is likely, however, to remain a strident voice calling for no let-up of Western pressure on Russia.
- Interview with Edward Lucas, Estonian public broadcasting service, 15 May 2014.
- Summary of speech by president Toomas Hendrik Ilves before Estonian Parliament, Estonian public broadcasting service, 8 September 2014.
- Estonian MEP Yana Toom says the EU must drop its sanctions against Russia. Estonian public broadcasting service, 16 January 2015.
- Article by Jaan Kaplinski (2012) on roads to reconciliation with Russia.
Estonia’s policy in respect of the Eastern Partnership countries has long been determined by strategic considerations turning on the country’s relationship with Russia. This correlation is also evident in Estonia’s relations with the five former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, whom successive Estonian governments have courted regardless of their less than tolerable democratic records. The pre-eminent – if often unstated – policy goal is to cement the independence and autonomy of Russia’s neighbours, (almost) regardless of their own policy choices.
The war in Ukraine has, somewhat paradoxically, served to diminish the importance of the Eastern Partnership among Estonia’s foreign policy goals. Firstly, with Estonia’s own existence perceived to be under threat, the country’s diplomatic efforts have been reassigned to issues seen to have a more direct bearing on hard security. Secondly, the events in Ukraine have thrown into sharp relief the ineffectiveness of the entire EU policy framework in transforming and integrating Eastern European neighbours. Hence Estonian foreign policy makers increasingly view the Eastern Partnership as at best a rhetorical distraction, largely invisible on the larger geopolitical scale, commanding neither useful political will nor useful resources with the union.
The varied attempts by the partnership countries themselves to adapt to the new geopolitical realities, dominated by an assertive Russia, have chipped away at what belief there may remain in Tallinn in the coherence in the policy. Azerbaijan has openly cast itself in the mould of Central Asian autocracies; Armenia’s democratic deficit is becoming increasingly painfully more explicit – as has its dependence on Russian backing in the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgia’s ouster of Mikheil Saakashvili was seen in Estonia, already well before the flaring up of the war in Ukraine, as a retrograde move, taking the country farther away from integration in the West. In all of these cases, it is Estonia’s assessment of the strategic balance involving Russia which determines national policy, rather than whatever technical, political, and legal criteria might be contained in Eastern Partnership founding documentation.
The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Moldova, where Estonia’s main policy goal is now more than ever the supporting pro-European forces. “Pro-Europeanness”, partly as a result of the inadequacies of the EU’s own policies, is defined as “anti-Russianness”.
Belarus remains the odd one out. Its blatant flaunting of President Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial rule has so far remained an insurmountable obstacle for Estonian politicians. Though even that might change should Minsk indicate readiness to make a decisive break with Moscow.
In terms of public perceptions in Estonian, the Eastern Partnership Summit was a non-event. It received very little analytical or discursive coverage. Again, the existential nature of the Russian threat, played up further by the president and the government, has served to redraw, if not upend, the entire list of geopolitical priorities in the public mind.
The government, long a supporter of a much more inclusive and aggressive EU enlargement policy, rather saw the summit as a damp squib. There was no movement on any of its stated key policy objectives. With trade liberalisation with Ukraine and Georgia under way, though stuck in bureaucratic complications, the extension of visa-free travelling regimes to citizens of Ukraine and Georgia has acquired great symbolic value. Prime Minister Taavi Rôivas was openly critical of the results, saying Estonia had wanted a “stronger stance” from the EU, adding that if Estonia “had written the final declaration ourselves we would have used more resolute and coherent phrasing.” Rôivas drew specific attention to the issue of visa-free travel. If, before the summit, he had said there could be “no more barriers to granting visa-free travel to Ukraine and Georgia given that they meet the established criteria,” then in its aftermath the assessment admitted failure. Rôivas was, though, politic in his choice of words and interpretation, presumably loath to offend Latvia’s sensitivities as the summit’s host. The Estonian premier noted, post-summit, that its “greatest accomplishment had been the definition of criteria for Ukraine and Georgia, the fulfilment of which would allow for visa free travel” with the EU.
In an interesting development, Estonia appears to have let up some of the previous proactive intensity in demanding that all willing and able Eastern Partnership nations be granted an EU membership prospect. President Ilves said in Georgia in June 2015 that the partnership was not a “one-way ticket to the EU,” although it was not ruled out as a final destination.
- Rôivas pre-summit comments, 22 May 2015, Estonian public broadcasting service.
- Rôivas summit Riga 26 May 2015, Estonian public broadcasting service.
- Ilves in Georgia, June 2015, Estonian public broadcasting service.
The Eurobarometer surveys consistently record high levels of support among Estonian residents for an EU armed force, as well as a unified foreign and security policy. However, these results do not represent informed choices among policy options. There is no public expectation or demand for EU military involvement in the current crisis. The government obviously realises it would be an unrealistic objective. All of its efforts to bolster Estonia’s security in the current crisis are directed at NATO and, where possible, the United States.
2. EU Enlargement
The short answer is that the EU has not done enough within the generous timeframe it has had to secure its eastern border. It has also not committed nearly enough resources to integrating its eastern neighbours, especially when contrasted with the sums involved in intra-union transfers (the Common Agricultural Policy, for example) – which are now perceived in Estonia as even less strategically relevant than previously. Estonia continues to broadly support the further enlargement of the EU, but has come to realise the policy by itself is not an adequate response to Russian assertiveness.
The parallel Greek and immigration crises have contributed to public perceptions of the EU’s weaknesses. They’ve also started to generate visible public distrust in the ability of southern European nations – whether in the EU or not – to govern themselves satisfactorily.
This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.
The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.
This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.
The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.