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.


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.


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:

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.