Estonia’s Tethered Space-Time
The idea of Estonian nationhood was born in the 19th century in a crucible of centuries-old antagonism of German and Russian expansionism.
Estonia’s fist, truncated stint of statehood between 1920 and 1940 left a residue of further trauma. Estonian state-building logic since 1991 has interpreted its Zeit-Spiel-Raum very restrictively, putting a premium on conserving (and manufacturing) evidence of historical legitimacy. The 1992 Constitution evokes its undemocratic 1938 predecessor, instructing the Estonian nation (riik, meaning ‘state’) to consider the preservation of the ethnic Estonian nation (rahvus; there are two different terms for ‘nation’ in Estonian) as its prime objective. This corrupted command line has stunted Estonia’s vision for decades.
Modernisation is consequently limited to technocratic and technological advances. Democratic standards and the rule of law are ultimately qualifid by the diktat of the needs of the (ethnic) nation state. A resulting spread of conservatism has left civic engagement levels very low, and Estonia has seen a large outflw of younger people over the past 10–15 years. 29 per cent of the population is Russian-speaking, while less than half of them hold Estonian passports. The governing political consensus regards the Russian community as a historical imposition. The rejection of Russians now poisons Estonia’s coming to terms with new immigration. A whole semi-offiial discourse legitimising ideas of racial seclusion has emerged, with the government largely looking on as Estonia’s own darker-skinned citizens suffer intensifying racist abuse and attacks.
An inheritance of German-bequeathed ersatz-Lutheranism further explains the unwillingness of the Estonian state to view development and economic expansion in modern, credit-based terms. The country’s fiances are in a good shape and its leaders present themselves as excellent stewards, yet governments abhor the idea of borrowing. Meanwhile, the administrative reform – long overdue in an impoverished country whose outlying areas suffer from population loss, lack of subsidies and atrophying public services – is considered almost exclusively in terms of affordability.
Unless Estonia radically expands its horizons in very short order and Europeanises its core values, it risks collapsing backwards into a spiral of historical pathology. A “Sonderweg” for Estonia will never be tenable. Such a strategy would cost the country adaptability, and its leaders any sense of agency and responsibility. The national instinct now is to maximise cohesion at the expense of all spontaneity, hoping to put off as long as possible the inevitable: a fial gamble on a single desperate bid to stave off disaster (in 1940 the Estonian leadership lacked the determination to do even that). Such a course would also alienate Estonia inexorably from its natural, Western allies.