Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Estonia As A Nordic Country

delivered 14 December 1999, Swedish Institute for International Affairs, Stockholm


Where a country lies is a subjective decision and only in part a product of its own desire. Much if not most is determined by what others believe about it. As Milan Kundera pointed out twenty years ago, Prague is 300 kilometers to the West of Vienna. Yet Prague was East, Vienna West. Today, rather than talk about Estonia's own foreign and domestic policy goals, which in this part of Europe is fairly well known, I would focus instead on how Estonia is viewed, where it resides subjectively in the perceptions of the West, and then in what sense it would make much more sense to view Estonia in an integrated Europe. The first part will be a perhaps unpleasant view of the current mindset or paradigm. In second half of my talk I shall attempt to describe my personal view of what a Thomas Kuhnian paradigm shift would be in the mental geography of the Nordic region.

I have long maintained that Eastern and Western Europe operate on different clocks, a difference that comes out of our diametrically different experiences with change. The post WWII experience of Western Europe can be characterized by unprecedented political and economic success that derives from slow, incremental change. Indeed it has become almost axiomatic A corollary to this is that instability and rapid changes must be avoided at all costs. This approach has indeed been successful, especially if we look at how out of the ruins of the Second World War Western Europe has turned into the economic and political powerhouse it is today.

In the Post-Communist World, however, the experience with time is the opposite. Slow, incremental change has always been equated with stagnation. What liberated the Czechs, Hungarians, East Germans, not to mention Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, were rapid, decisive actions. Moreover, this experience has been reinforced by the reform or transition period of post-liberation. Estonia's radical and resolute reforms form the basis of our success. The countries that chose a less dramatic reform course are the ones who did not get invited to the first round of EU negotiations.

Aside from foreign diplomats stationed in Estonia, few foreigners are aware of the sea-change that has taken place. This results in a lack of understanding, that often can be perceived in Estonia as arrogance and haughtiness, if not downright prejudice.

Let me give you some examples of how pre-conceived notions regarding Estonia and Eastern Europe can backfire.

Estonia's leadership in such areas as the Internet today was inconceivable in the fall of 1991, when the Estonian Foreign Ministry had two 7 kilo "mobile phones", one for the Foreign Minister, one for his aide. Regular phone connection from outside Estonia was virtually non-existent. No faxes, no computer connections. As I shall discuss at a greater length later, within a span of eight years Estonia now ranks as one of the most interneted countries in the world, leading not only a1 of the applicant countries but also at least half of the EU.

Out of the thousands of conferences held each year in Estonia, one stands out, the Pärnu Management conference, attended and addressed by the business and political elite of Estonia as well as other leading figures from around the world. This years keynote speaker was Samuel Huntington. Last year, the following took place. After a full day of presentations by Estonians using sophisticated and elegant PowerPoint projections as well as other high-tech innovations, a representative of a Nordic Government took the floor. He used old-style overhead projection slides, printed so small that none beyond the first row of the packed 500 seat auditorium could read it. The presentation was confused and by the end most people had walked out. The subject of his talk: How useful it is to computerize and how the government of country x was prepared to teach Estonian companies the virtues of computerization.

Last year after an Estonian court had ruled against a Finnish company in a dispute with an Estonian company, the leading Finnish daily Helsigin Sanomat questioned in its lead editorial whether or not one could get a fair hearing in an Estonian court. I wonder what the response would be if Svenska Dagbladet had similarly questioned the decision of a Finnish court?

Two years ago at the Council of Europe the ambassador of a major European country dismissed a question from an Estonian diplomat on why certain rules and decisions apply only to those countries that were formerly under communist rule. We should applaud his honesty, for instead of denying that different rules were indeed applied, he stated outright, the rules of the CoE "do not apply to real countries."

At a recent conference held here in Stockholm on Security in the Baltic Sea area a Nordic presidential candidate devoted the bulk of her talk on corruption and crime as a real threat to security in the Baltic Sea area. Now, I agree that corruption always is a threat to security and that any corruption is bad. I must also say, however, that talking about corruption in Estonia is more of an indication of underlying prejudices and unwarranted assumptions than a serious analysis of what threatens the region. According to Transparency International my country has a lower corruption rating than three members of the EU. But it is one of those Baudelaireian received ideas. A cliché, untrue, but repeated precisely because it is a received idea. There is a standard belief that a priori these countries, not only Estonia, but all of the post-communist countries must be corrupt.

But if clichés and stereotypes belong to the realm of cognitive psychology, then to what can I ascribe the response by a European Commission official to my rebuttal of the corruption cliché at the aforementioned conference? I had just pointed out that for two years in a row Estonia had been rated less corrupt than a number of EU countries, and that this year we were glad to see that Slovenia had joined us as the second post communist country to have such a high rating. The Commission official stood up and said, well, the Transparency International study is questionable -- a French satirical magazine had just lampooned it. Is it really so difficult to take that a post-communist country is not as corrupt received prejudice dictates? Does one immediately question a study because it does not conform to one's notions of real countries and aboriginal?

If we already are probing the collective unconscious of Western Europe, then we certainly cannot leave out the previous European Parliament rapporteur on EU enlargement. After producing a report critical of Estonia two years ago, he could not restrain himself and felt obliged to add, that after writing the report he fears to visit Estonia for he fears being stabbed.

I shall not even begin to recount the exploitation of Estonia and other formerly communist countries when it comes to the issue of crime. But a good example was to be found in Finland where an international drug ring involving some forty odd people, mainly Finns along with several Estonians was arrested. The headlines -- Estonian drug ring arrested.

Let us not forget the issue of women's rights. On this issue the Minister of Social affairs of Estonia was publicly berated and downright insulted because supposedly there were too few women in positions of power in Estonia. But again, let us look at reality. Estonia today has more women ambassadors than the UK. We have only 24 representations, Britain is represented virtually everywhere. Next year we will have 6 woman ambassadors, one quarter of our ambassadors, and undoubtedly more than allmost all countries. Nonetheless, received ideas count more than the truth, even to the point of insulting an Estonian minister.

Now allow me to turn to the OSCE. It is no secret that for a number of years Estonia has found it odd that the attention of OSCE institutions toward Estonia is disproportionate. Estonia, as opposed to a very I large number of countries in Western Europe, does not have ethnic conflicts. Indeed, I am convinced that OSCE Missions placement is inversely related to GDP per capita. With one provision. GDP per capita does not count if you are a nuclear power. But all this is a minor issue. There are alas no intellectually valid arguments for a mission in Estonia, but this of course does not matter. We are simply steamrollered. It is a matter of power politics employed against the powerless.

When it comes to Western Europe, which insists on calling itself only "Europe," however, where there are ethnic riots even in Scandinavia, and we ask why the OSCE is not involved there, we are told: wait until you get in, then you won't have one. Logically, of course, this leads to a moral abomination: once you get in, then you can do the things we do but you currently may not.

To finish this catalogue, let me mention the so called "Stockholm Group", also known as the "Friends of the Balts." Ten countries come together to discuss issues directly affecting the fates of eight million people. Of those three countries, no representatives are invited. To discuss us without inviting us is simply bound to recall us the past.

In closing the first half of my talk I would mention two books, neither by a Balt, which define the issue better than any other. The first is The Baltic Revolution by Anatol Lieven and published by Yale University Press which I consider the best book on the issue of the Baltic States. In his book Lieven characterizes an erstwhile Foreign Minister of Lithuania as follows. He "surprised western diplomats with his generally simian appearance and behavior." Now imagine what would have happened if a so called scholar would have called any other foreign minister but an Eastern European simian in behavior and appearance.

The other book I would recommend people to read, if they wish seriously to deal with Eastern Europe, is Inventing Eastern Europe -- The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment by Larry Wolff. Wolff's thesis is that ever since the Enlightenment, Western Europe has needed Eastern Europe. It has need Eastern Europe as a foil, to use the Shakespearean term, a counter-example to feel superior about oneself, even when the data contradict you, even when corruption, crime, rate of development is not at all what you want it to be so you can feel good about yourself. Wolff shows how Western Europe historically bolstered its image of itself by comparing its society to a mythical image of Eastern Europe as a hopelessly backward and primitive culture. Professor Wolff s book is about 300 years ago. Alas, it is written about today.

All this will have long-term consequences. We Estonians will do what is necessary to join the European Union. No matter how arbitrary, no matter how redolent of the old Quod licet iovi, non licet bovi. My fear is, what kind of attitudes you will be bringing in. Treatment of the kind we are subjected to breeds cynicism and contempt, something that East-Europeans may be hiding now. But these feelings could easily be imported into the EU. They should not be.

And now I will offer an alternative.

We live in Yule-land, the area where one and the same word signifies both the birth of Christ as well as the solstice, the return of the sun, one of the two highpoints in the pre-Christian Calendar of the Hyperboreans. "Jõul" in Estonian, "Joulu" in Finland, "Jul" in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and "Jol" in Iceland; on the British Isles, "Yule." At Yule-tide, "Jultid," "Jõuluaeg," we burn the Yule-log, a symbol of warmth and light at the darkest and coldest of times. The Yule-swath that extends from Iceland and Britain through the Scandinavians to the Finnic lands that include Estonia, ends there. In Latvia Yule is "Ziemastvetki," in Lithuania "Kaledos," in Russia "Rozhdestvo."

The borders of Yule, the geographical boundaries of archeological finds of sacrificial and runic stones all point to extensive intraregional traffic and interaction in pre-historic times: terms as basic as the name of the solstice do not travel well. And they are stubborn. Witness the persistence of the word Yule a thousand years after the region's Christianization. For maritime nations, however, ideas and practices travel quickly. This cultural substrate would be interesting but meaningless, were it not very much in evidence today in the attributes others ascribe to Yulelanders and the quite measurable behavior of individuals in the aggregate. Brits, Scandinavians, Finns, Estonians consider themselves rational, logical, unencumbered by emotional arguments; we are businesslike, stubborn, and hard-working. Our southern neighbors see us as too dry and serious, workaholics, lacking passion and joie de vivre.1

Stereotypes, after all, do occasionally have a heuristic value. Unfortunately most if not all people outside Estonia talk about something called "The Baltics." This is an interesting concept, since what the three Baltic States have in common almost completely derives from shared unhappy experiences imposed upon us from outside: occupations, deportations, annexation, sovietization, collecitivization, russification. What these countries do not share is a common identity.

A brief excursion into the history of the Baltic idea is useful. The first time the term "Balt" came into use to describe this limited part of the Baltic Sea littoral was in the second half of the 19th century. With the development of national consciousness on the part of the Estonians and the Latvians in the then three provinces of Estland, Lettland and Kurland, the Germans living there began calling themselves Balts. Neither Estonians nor Latvians were Balts, but Germans. There was a secondary, purely academic linguistic term, the Baltic languages, Latvian, Lithuanian and the now defunct East Prussian, but this was confined to academic circles.

With the independence for the first time of a number of new countries in the wake of the first World War, including, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland (after a hiatus of 150 years), Czechoslovakia, Austria and Yugoslavia, a new geographical term came into use: the Baltic countries. There were four of them: Estonia and Latvia, as well as two that had never been associated with the term Baltic-Lithuania and Finland. The last is today surprising but if you read the diplomatic, academic and even popular literature of the 1920s you will find that the outside world indeed thought of four Baltic states -- as did the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.

This changed regarding Finland at the end of the 20s and the beginning of the thirties. Finland on the one coast, and Sweden on the other, adopted a policy of nordicization. Finland abandoned her earlier attempts to create a Baltic Union and decided to push to become a Nordic country. The Swedish Foreign Ministry, as I was told by Lars Freden, did a policy review and decided that it was in Sweden's ability, resources, and national interest to nordicize but one of the Balts, Finland. Today, no one thinks of Finland as a Baltic country, but as a self-evident member of Yule-land.

I think it is time to do away with poorly fitting, externally imposed categories. It is time that we recognize that we are dealing with three very different countries in the Baltic area, with completely different affinities. There is no Baltic identity with a common culture, language group, religious tradition. For almost four years now, Lithuania has been correctly pointing out that it is a Central European country. Its Catholicism, architecture, history all link it to Poland and the other Visegrad countries. Estonia was and as I will try to point out is, if anything, a member of Yuleland.

Despite the travails and altogether different experiences of the historical era, the intervening millennium of wars, occupations, as well as modernization and the phenomenal rise of all but one (until recently Soviet-occupied) Yuleland to the ranks of the richest nations, commonalities remain.

Today, Yulelanders rank the highest in the world in Internet connections and in mobile phone penetration, lowest in the world in corruption. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden (in that order) top Europe in Internet penetration. The UK is the 8th place. Surprisingly, given its backwardness as a "Soviet Republic" only eight years ago, Estonia ranks eleventh in the entire Europe, including non-EU internet leaders such as Iceland and Norway. We are by far the highest ranked former Communist country and are more interneted than half the EU.

This same reassertion of Yulelander identity in Estonia in other measure is high-tech identity, mobile-phone use, where it is ahead of even Germany and quickly catching up to the world leaders, the Scandinavians. Indeed there are more mobile phones in Estonia today than there were fixed line connections when we re-established independence.

By far the oddest indicator, however, of a Yulelander identity evidenced by individual behavior measured in the aggregate is corruption, or more precisely, the absence of corruption. According to its yearly survey of corruption around the world Transparency International rates the five least corrupt countries in Europe as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. The UK rates 8th place. Estonia is 15th, a post-communist country but rated less corrupt than three members of the EU.

Clearly the case is to be made that these Protestant, high-tech oriented countries form a Huntingtonian sub-civilization, different from both its southern and eastern neighbors. The long, dark, and cold winter nights of Yuleland, inhospitable as they were to our ancestors' lives in agrarian societies, have produced a similar mindset and a culture geared to the demands of a modern, globalised economy. Indeed one could say that yulelanders are the new wave of Europe.

No genuine "northern identity" has emerged, yet. Yulelanders are individualistic and loathe to identify with groups. Nonetheless, something is on the move. Within the European Union a northern identity is emerging. Estonians, the only people to have broken through the initial prejudices of the EU toward the "former soviets" are already described by "southerners' as the "new Finns.'" With the breakdown of borders imposed by the Cold War as well as the dissolution of the far less noxious borders of the post-Westphalian system of nation-states within the EU, common interests, common styles and approaches will increasingly dominate. As regions rather than individual countries play an ever more important role in the open global economy, Yule-land will clearly be a major player.

Already now the UK and Nordic countries are the biggest players in the Estonian economy, accounting for the overwhelming majority of investments in the country, as well as our own export destination. This makes perfect sense: We understand each other; we can do business. As this group of countries continues to stand among the best economic performers on the global stage, the identity of Yuleland is bound to emerge to become a force and way of doing things that will be reckoned with.

Thank you.


The Singing Revolution and Estonian Sovereignty


Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

1 "Joy of living"

Text Source:

Image Source: Wikipedia

Animated Flag Source:

Page Updated: 8/2/18

U.S. Copyright Status: Text = Used with permission. Image = CC 1.0. Animated Flag = Used with permission.

Top 100 American Speeches

Online Speech Bank

Movie Speeches

© Copyright 2001-Present. 
American Rhetoric.