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Writing Post-Soviet Estonia onto the Modern World


Eiki Berg

December 1999

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute



In recent literature, many conventional geopolitical theories have been pushed aside as nationalistic visions, self-deceiving myths or simple expressions of capricious human will. Many scholars have related geopolitics merely to great power politics or attempts at legitimating aggression in the world arena, but they forget that also small states can draw inspiration from geographical and historical facts in their socio-spatial construction efforts. This argument emphasizes the basic aim of every state to delimit its territory and separate “ours” from “the others”. The demarcation of boundaries is fundamental to the spatial organization of people and social groups.

This article attempts to shed light on what the Estonian nation and state means for those living within its borders and on its frontier. Departing from critical geopolitical discourse I attempt to map this picture, although in many respects it remains a difficult one because of the number of different visions and their conflicting nature. The contours of country and their meanings as well as Estonia’s relative geographical location all remain fragile and easily contested. However, the model of a Western-oriented ethnic state with a divided society seems to be most frequently used in boundary-producing practices of post-Soviet Estonia.



Estonia re-established her statehood after a 51-year break in 1991. The declaration of independence on August 21 brought Estonia back onto the world political map. However, eight years later, there is still no single view of Estonia, on her territory’s relative location, size and borders, or on the idea of a state idea that would link its people and regions. The return to the world arena has called for geopolitical reasoning: a return to historical antecedents, a review of geographical facts, a search for national identity and a proper path to follow. Today many Estonians think and write about Estonia, draw its borders and contribute to the construction of its socio-spatial consciousness. Narrating, drawing and geographying are the most visible practices which aim to secure the proximate context and secure this from unpredictable and unstable outer areas.

Traditionally, many scholars used to think that geographical location is one of the most important factors in international relations, leaving but a few other choices for a state to operate in the anarchic power structure (see e.g Spykman 1969). More recently, however, others have argued that what really makes a difference in international relations is the way in which a state’s relative location is constructed and what strategic meaning is given to its territory (see e.g Dalby 1988; Ó Tuathail and Agnew 1992; Dodds 1993; Ó Tuathail 1996; Chaturvedi 1998). Geopolitical reasoning enables elites to choose a suitable historical truth from many, separate versions of “our people” and “the others” as well as set up a hierarchy of friendly and hostile nations as well as proximate and distant countries.

Here, the analytical framework derives from the relatively new field of critical geopolitics which seeks to reveal the hidden politics of geopolitical knowledge. It is a culturally and politically varied way of describing, representing and writing about geography and international politics (see Ó Tuathail et al 1998; Ó Tuathail and Dalby 1998). Its production sites are multiple and pervasive, both “high” (such as a national security memorandum or a set of foreign policy goals) and “low” (like the headline of a tabloid newspaper and political cartoons), visual (like the images that compel states to act) and discursive (like the speeches that justify foreign political actions). Critical geopolitics pays particular attention to the boundary-drawing practices and performances that characterize the everyday life of states. Both the material borders at the edge of the state and the conceptual borders designating boundaries between a secure inside and an anarchic outside are objects of “critical” investigation (see e.g. Ó Tuathail and Dalby 1996:3).

The process by which experience and discourse together create imaginary maps is a perfect concept to test in post-Soviet Estonia. Reflections derived from different spatial levels provide a vantage-point for understanding constructed visions of the state and of the surrounding world. Here the task is to shed light on what the Estonian nation and state means for those living within its borders and in the frontier. 1 Because geopolitics deals with boundaries, also other than those on a map, I am particularly concerned with maps of meaning and conceptual boundary-drawing practices of various kinds. How is post-Soviet Estonia and its relative location written onto the world map by state authorities and scholars? In the analysis to follow I will focus on (geo)political texts embedded in an institutional context, as well as on different research papers and academic works, all of which deal with Estonia’s geostrategic location and her international role in the northeastern European rim. Moreover, they all reflect and contribute to the evolving geopolitical discourse in heir discussions of Estonia’s borders, border areas, and geographical location.


The Meaning of the “New” Estonia

The founding and specification of the state as a national community is a geopolitical act (Ó Tuathail and Dalby 1998:3). This involves carrying out one national identity out of many, establishing a boundary with an outside and converting diverse places into a unitary internal space. It also involves forging scattered and heterogeneous histories into a transcendent and providential duration (Dijkink 1996). These practices of nationhood involve ensembles of acts to create nation-space and nation-time, the projection of imaginary community, the homogenization of nation-space and pedagogization of history. The geopolitical imagination is at work in the projection of visual orders of space, usually in the form of cartographic surveys and national atlases, across an uneven and broken landscape that is being territorialized with lines delimiting administrative provinces and an official inside and outside. But it is also at work in the founding constitution of community and the renegotiation of boundaries of citizenship and belonging. It may raise questions such as what is the state called the Republic of Estonia in reality? Is it a new state (founded in 1991) or the re-established old one (existed 1918-1940)? What is the size and nature of the state?

Every state and/or nation emphasises its common identity and experienced historical events. Yet, it is also important to bear in mind that foreign political goals also have much to do with a state’s interpretation of its historical facts and a people’s geographical sense of belonging. These form the basis for a state’s representation in the world arena. State uniqueness and destiny can be used in justifying foreign political actions and mobilizing masses.

Estonian identity is often linked with the historical settlement of territory. This relatively steady and permanent settlement dates back some 5000 years. Already 1900 years ago, it is argued, the Roman politician Tacitus demarcated Estonia and described her people - aestiorum gentes - including their traditional habits, clothing and strange language, not just because he discovered a new barbarian tribe, but also because of the very fact that Estonian territory served as an important junction in north-south trade (Meri 1998a). Thousands of years of permanent settlement on the eastern coast of Baltic Sea and the north-south trade links described by Tacitus have become a part of self-evident geopolitical reasoning among Estonians to promote their Europeaness. Despite the often-stated fact that “the bones of fifty to one hundred generations are buried in this land” (Meri, 1996:486), this alone does not necessary strengthen territorial identity. On the contrary, the latter seems to be more related to “otherness” than simply pertain to an identification with the geographical features of the territory. Estonians are emotionally tied to the territory, where “our space” is separated from “their space”. In other words, there always remains a question of the scope of socially constructed space, where “Estonia” ends and gives way to other identities. For example, the border between Estonia and Russia is mainly depicted as a line of separation with “Estonian space” remaining apart from Russia. On the other hand, there is no talk about Estonia’s western borders. They do not exist in a mental sense.

Estonian language and culture are important elements in nation-building and drawing lines of demarcation. They were more important in the beginning of 1990s and are now on their way of loosing their importance in ordinary foreign policy rhetoric. However, Estonia is still singled out as the one and only Estonian-speaking territory in the whole world, which requires the special care and protection from foreign (i.e eastern) cultural influences. 2 State officials and academics often recall in the discourse waged, that Estonian language and culture were important tools in the fight against Soviet occupation and for survival during the Soviet times. Language--based community feelings helped Estonians to identify themselves in relation to the rest of the world (Lauristin and Vihalemm 1997:101). “Eighty years of statehood of one of the smallest countries in Europe, which has a modern culture and national science” is sometimes mentioned paralelly to Estonia’s recent political and economic success (see Siimann 1998a). This Estonia belongs to a Western culture sphere. Despite its non-Indo-European and Finno-Ugric language and cultural background, the centuries-old Swedish and German cultural influences, law and administrative system, and Protestant work ethics dominate (see Lauristin and Vihalemm et al 1997, Meri 1991).

An Old Nation-State

The current foundations of the Estonian state were laid between 1991-1994. The right-of-center political elite that came to power during those years declared the previous years of Soviet annexation and occupation illegal and against the will of the indigenous population. In this sense, the Estonian political elite chose a restitutionist interpretation of independence, which included adopting in spirit (though not in form) much of the first constitution from 1922 along with claiming a right to some 2000 km2 of territory that belonged to Estonia before WW II but was annexed by Stalin in 1945. Indeed the first paragraph of the new 1992 constitution states: “Estonia is an independent and sovereign democratic republic wherein the supreme power of the state is held by the people”. The legal interpretation of this paragraph has meant that all decisions about constitutional order are to be determined by the citizens of Estonia, excluding some 500,000 Soviet-era immigrants to the country with a population of 1.5 million inhabitants.

Figure 1.

Other constitutional provisions from 1992 established Estonian as the official state language, guaranteeing Estonian citizenship based only on the rule of jus sanguis and limiting jobs in the public service to Estonian citizens (Lauristin and Vihalemm 1997: 101). Legislators tried to combine liberal principles of individual freedoms and rights for all inhabitants of Estonia with guarantees for the development of Estonian national identity, language and culture under the protection of the Estonian nation-state. It was essential for Estonia to prove that Estonia did not gain independence for the first time as one of the 15 Soviet successor states, but rather restored its statehood after a 51-year illegal occupation. 3 It was a near-fiction, through which Estonia’s territorial size was suddenly enlarged by 2000 km2 and its population cut by half a million people (illegal Soviet-era residents). History and geography lessons, school atlases and maps, foreign policy rhetoric and even weather forecasts depicted this constructed reality rather well. It became a state with certain territories which nobody from Estonia could enter without crossing the demarcation line, 4 and where a significant part of actual population (some 30%) had only resident alien status. 5 Officially, the re-established Republic of Estonia was an old nation-state with a small minority population (10%). The rights of this minority were covered by a reinstated Cultural Autonomy Law (1993), which in fact was still-born.

A New Multicultural State

A few days before the 80th anniversary of Estonia, a number of people expressed doubt whether it was correct to celebrate the birthday of another state, the First Republic, that existed in the interwar period. While there exist important historical and legal linkages between the two periods (e.g. the relationship between grandparents, parents and children), there are also significant differences. The nation-state (its territory and population structure) and nation-time (the end of 1930s) do not overlap. The restitutionist idea also found opposition mainly because of Estonia’s changed ethnic structure. According to Juhan Telgmaa (1992) the idea reflected merely nostalgia and lack of self-constraint in the completely altered setting.

Already during the late-1980s, there was a counter vision within the Estonian national independence movement of a new multicultural state. It was to be formed gradually by taking over and restructuring the existing organs of state power, seceding from the Soviet Union, and proclaiming a new Estonian Republic. Following this logic, Estonia and the Russian Federation (both subjects of the Soviet Union) signed a treaty in 1991 in which the current borderline was mutually acknowledged. Simultaneously, many moderate Estonian nationalists envisioned the Second Republic as multicultural, guaranteeing citizenship automatically for all Soviet-era immigrants who would like to apply for it in the future. From the position of Western liberal standards, they argued for a state with multiple complementary identities and full political participation for all Russian-speakers. This was proposed as in reality Estonians comprised a too small majority in order to build a monolingual and monocultural nation-state. In 1991, Rein Taagepera envisioned a future Estonia as a country where a majority of non-Estonians would become bilingual Estonian citizens, would represent Estonia abroad and would be proud of doing that, while Estonians would realize that the Russian minority will remain and that a prime-minister with Russian as his/her mother tongue but fluent in Estonian would be nothing extraordinary (Heidmets 1998: 250).

Figure 2.

By 1998 the Estonian government had begun a program to reduce the segregation of non-Estonians, at least in words. The new measures were intended to bolster a special strategy, which included a clear orientation toward the integration of non-Estonians into the Estonian society. 6 ;

An Ethnic State with Divided Society

The massive influx of Russian-speaking Slav groups (Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians) from the rest of the Soviet Union has laid the basis for potential ethnic conflict in Estonia. Furthermore, after Estonia re-established its statehood, this conflict evolved more and more into one between indigenous people and immigrants, citizens and non-citizens, a national center and separate periphery. 7 Since independence, Tallinn has been in a position to seek control over the whole republic, including the Russian-speaking northeast. In order to do that, the state’s nationalizing policies have targeted three different areas: cultural standardization, ethnopolitics, and regional policy.

Estonians and non-Estonians have lived mostly separate lives: they have had separate media channels and cultural systems; there has been little interaction or development of a common community. Estonians have continuously felt that the large Russian population is alien and not a problem for them to deal with, since most of the Russians came as a result of Soviet occupation. Estonian Russians, on the other hand, have tended to live in close-knit communities, creating their own schools, conversing exclusively in the Russian language, and maintaining little or no contact with the indigenous population. During the Soviet era, contact between Estonians and Russians was for the most part limited to official levels with modest interaction between the two groups at the personal or social levels.

According to Lauristin and Vihalemm (1997), asymmetrical national perspectives, i.e. between a small nation and a big neighbour, are the main obstacles to mutual recognition and trust between Estonians and local Russians. Also Ruutsoo (1996) states that the central intention in constructing Estonian statehood was anti-Russian and anti-immigrant. Thus, the Estonian understanding of nationhood has been ethnocentric and differentialist. According to this perspective, nationhood was an ethnocultural, not a political fact.

Figure 3.

The current Estonian state idea has promoted two essential government policies on language and education, with the aim of providing the Estonian language with a privileged status and setting in motion a cultural standardization of people and regions. In their very essence the central policies have involved solely the cultural standardization and ethnopolitics via ethnic domination and assimilation of the minority group. Estonian nation-building is a much more complicated task given that in the Estonian context state and nation are not synonyms. In real life, the Estonian state is much more extensive than the Estonian nation. The latter has merely an ethnic connotation: those who speak Estonian, share the Estonian cultural tradition and have Estonian ancestors form Estonian nationhood. Estonians do not regard Russian-speaking immigrants and non-citizens as members of the titular nation. Therefore, current-day Estonia resembles more an ethnic state with a divided society than an integrated entity of an putative nation-state. This is the outcome of a constructed reality and conflicting geopolitical visions.


The Meaning of the Borders

Borders and their meanings are historically contingent, being part of the production and institutionalization of territories and territoriality. The latter notion is put into practice by the popular acceptance of classification of space into “ours” versus “theirs” and in the division between “we” and “the other” (Agnew 1994). Even if borders are always more or less arbitrary lines between territorial entities, they may also have deep symbolic, cultural, historical, and often contested, meanings for social communities (Newman and Paasi 1998). The contrasts in boundary demarcation arise when priority is given to satisfying national interests while all other interests and needs are assigned a secondary importance. In this way, the role of the border and possible disputes over it may also be viewed differently at the national and local levels (see Paasi 1995). The location of a border may be of major importance to the states involved, but of minor importance to the people and places located in the immediate vicinity of the boundary. It is sometimes felt that boundaries are barriers for the local communities and exist only for the sake of political centers. They may ruin the already-existing settlement system and disturb regular local needs like social contacts or religious ties. Thus, people living in the border areas often develop their own regional identities that may look at the boundary more from a cooperative than an antagonistic perspective. As a result, the issue raises questions such as how do political leaders explain the existing borders and justify territorial claims? How do local people perceive borders; are they seen as separation lines or contact zones?

Material and Symbolic Limits of State Continuity and Sovereignty

The border problem between Estonia and Russia arose immediately after Estonia re-established its independence in 1991. Estonia at that time asserted that its statehood was based on the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, in which Soviet Russia recognized Estonia’s independence. 8 The treaty also delineated the exact border between the two countries. In the north, Narva had joined Estonia by referendum in late 1917, and the treaty added several villages on the left bank of the Narva River. In the south, the region around Petseri (historical Setumaa), previously part of Pskov guberniya, was also incorporated into the Estonian state. In 1945, however, Stalin restored the tsarist border and annexed about 2000 km2 of Estonian territory to the Russian SFSR. These territories were not very valuable, but yet they represented important symbols of state continuity and sovereignty for the Estonians. 9

Post-Soviet Russia abstained from recognising the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty on grounds of its own interests. Recognition of the Treaty would have forced Russia to lose a part of its territory, obliged it to resettle those people who had migrated from Russia to Estonia after the WW II as illegal immigrants, as well as compensate Estonia economically for damages caused during occupation. It was naïve on the part of Estonia to expect the Russian side to accept the legal or historical claims based on 1920 treaty in the face of the new ethnic composition of the disputed territories. Russia's arguments were mostly ethnic and historical ones: these border areas were allegedly always populated mainly by Russians and have formed a part of the Russian nation from time immemorial.

Figure 4.

Official Estonian policy (1991-1994) called for a complete restoration of Estonian independence, including the restoration of the border from the Tartu Peace Treaty. Although there were respectable legal arguments to back this up, the simple raising of this issue allowed the rest of the world to interpret the Estonian standpoint as a territorial claim against the Russia Federation. It was not until December 1994 when Estonia gave up its claim for the eastern territories, and in November 1996 when Estonia agreed not to demand areas mention in the Tartu Peace Treaty to be included in any future treaty with Russia as the legal basis for a mutual relationship (Berg 1999: 175). What is still missing is the new border treaty between these two neighboring countries. Estonia has removed all the barriers, necessary to sign the border treaty, but it has not met a similar willingness from the Russian side.

A Contact Zone

The Estonian-Russian border issue turned ideological for conservative-nationalist parties in Estonia (such as Pro Patria) as well as for many ex-residents of “the lost territories”. The closing of the border affected mostly those who had moved from the villages to the towns, but who now wanted to visit those villages again. They were interested in the preservation of their “childhood playground” as a unified territorial unit. The identity of these people seemed largely connected with this territory as a set of imaginations. In reality, however, the majority of these people live in Tallinn and Tartu and not in the border areas. The demand to restore the historical territories seems to increase with the distance from the border area itself. At the same time, the issue has not been as acute in the minds of the local villagers themselves (see Berg 1997).

The most active organisation in demanding re-establishment of the border of the Tartu Peace Treaty is the Petserimaa Union, founded by Estonian citizens who had their roots in Setumaa (Jääts 1995). It has organised different protests where the return of the lost Estonian territories has been claimed. The Setu People’s Congress, held in October 1993, demanded the restoration of Petserimaa administrative district and visa-free crossing of the border for Setus. On the opposing side the Committee for Retaining Petserimaa for Russia was formed by the local inhabitants of Russian origin as a pressure group.

The border crossing procedure has been turned both costly and tedious, this causing harm most of all to the local population. Moreover, the establishment of the border regime was much more painful for the Russian side of Setumaa, as the social contacts broken off by the border were uni-directional, proceeding mostly from Russian Setus to Estonia (Berg 1999:173). For the locals in the southeastern border zone today, it is simply a source of everyday troubles. These are usually remote villages without regular bus connection to other population centers, and the nearest public services remain on the other side of the border. These problems are most visible in cases where some villages and farmsteads are separated by the borderline, or when the church is located on one side of the border while a major part of the congregation is on the other. Neither the national interest nor “big politics” is important to many of the locals. They would even agree to the border remaining as it is, if only it were possible to cross it freely like in earlier times.

Figure 5.


The Meaning of Geographical Location

Boundaries are not just political constructs, but also linked to the socially discursive construction of territories. Thus the concept of boundary is often used in a metaphorical sense (Jauhiainen 1998). In this way, Estonia is a border nation as all nations are. Borders form an inside and outside; they can be crossed, but they do not guarantee safety, as some authors argue (see e.g. Jaanus 1997). They are all fragile, moveable, permeable, transgressable, and invadable. In an Estonian context, the questions they raise include, how do Estonians perceive their country’s geographical position? Is it a challenge or great opportunity?

Estonian foreign policy-makers consider geographical location decisive in international relations. Geographical location has been described as both challenging and a great opportunity, primarily because the Estonians have been invaded countless times: by neighboring countries, by a variety of languages and religions, and now by commercialism, pollution and the electronic highway (Jaanus 1997). Due to its border position between Germany, Scandinavia and Russia, Estonia remains in an ambiguous situation: her regional identity in the Baltic Sea family is more firmly recognized by her close neighbors in the north of Europe than by the more distant European metropoles. The continuing debate about the borders of Europe, about an enlargement of the EU and NATO, is perceived in Estonia not only as an issue of her security or future economic prosperity. It is above all comprehended as a fateful decision pertaining to her standing within the European family of nations. Estonia is often perceived as a frontier state, the last outpost of Western civilization (see Lauristin and Vihalemm et al 1997).

On the other hand, Estonia could be seen as one of the many gateways in the world: an embryonic state in a transitional zone which can facilitate contact and interchange between different geopolitical realms (Cohen 1991). Gateway states are optimally situated for specialized manufacturing, trade, tourism and financial service functions, thus stimulating global economic, social and political interaction as they benefit from Western capital, equipment, credits, and managerial and technical know-how. They are fully open to economic forces from the East and West. The promise of a gateway is one of facilitating the transfer of economic innovation from West to East, and ultimately, the reverse. With independence, such entities will transfer the borders from zones of conflict to zones of accommodation.

A third option argued most forcefully by eurosceptics in Estonia consists of self-sufficiency and isolation (see Leito 1999). Estonia’s chance to survive as an independent state is related to the position of a middleman and mediator between great powers (Leito 1999:87). Yet, the question remains, whether countries like the highly-developed Switzerland or the oil-rich Norway can serve as examples for the resource-poor Estonia.

A Frontier State

Centeno and Rands (1996) have depicted a new international dividing line: it begins in Estonia in the north and continues in a general southwestern direction dividing Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics from other countries to the East. These countries succeeded in creating viable market economies and democracies (in contrast to “the others” whose political and economic future remains unclear). Under the influence of Samuel Huntington’s theory of cultural divisions in the post-Cold War world (1996), some Estonian scholars have tried for their part to argue that from the cultural point of view, the Baltic countries, together with Finland and the Visegrad countries, represent the last resort of the West-European Roman (Catholic and Protestant) cultural tradition, a tradition located at the border of the Slavic Byzantine (Orthodox) world (Lauristin 1997:29). Lauristin and Vihalemm (1997) clearly view Estonia as a frontier state between East and West, although located on the western rim. The authors also argue that Estonians have always identified themselves as part of the West, and this was recognized by other Soviet nations who regarded the Baltic countries as the “Soviet West” (see Lauristin and Vihalemm 1993). Thus, living on the border of Western civilization has been a significant factor, determining Estonia’s distant and proximate places, friends and enemies in the past. It is now regarded as a self-evident outcome of the political mobilization aimed at returning to Europe and separating from the East. Ott Kurs (1993) also refers to that the Estonian-Russian border separating Europe from Eurasia, needs guarding and control. Thus, the future eastern border of the European Union will become a separation line which delimits European culture (Meri 1996:426). Moreover, based on this logic Russia will automatically be a non-European country, and further eastern expansion beyond Estonia’s eastern border will be ruled out.

Estonian President Meri (1998b) has stated that “NATO enlargement has to be a project, which seeks to Central-East European countries breathing space by security guarantees. To cross the Cold War era “demarcation lines”, we need to take an active position and overcome them”. Integration with the European Union and NATO is seen as an essential prerequisite for guaranteeing sovereignty in the geopolitically sensitive Baltic region and to be on the defense line against an unpredictable and potentially aggressive Russia. Lennart Meri (1996) has also regarded it to be his duty to prove to the world that Europe will remain integrated and safe only if the independence of Estonia and the other Baltic states is preserved.

It hence appears that some of the security discussion continues in the Cold War spirit. A democratic NATO and a militaristic Russia are counterposed as antagonistic players. Russia is perceived as a strong military power, to which Estonia has to pay attention continuously, since Russia and NATO have conflicting strategic interests in Estonia. This imagined Estonia is most likely integrated with North Atlantic security structures, a heavily militarized bridgehead in the new containment strategy.

A Gateway State

Another vision Estonian officials declare consists of the view that integrating with EU and NATO structures does not imply nailing up Estonia’s eastern window (Ilves, 1998). Already in April 1992, the Estonian government said in a foreign policy statement: “We are convinced that Estonia’s geopolitical location, historical ties and current political situation enables Estonia to become a bridge, or a land of contacts. We believe that previous concepts of cordon sanitaire or containment strategies are no longer valid and not in Estonia’s national interests” (Tammer, 1992). Similarly, former Prime Minister Mart Siimann pointed out Estonia’s geographical location as a resource potential that favours economic development in all directions and helps to restore traditional trade links between Russia and Europe (Siimann 1998b). President Meri (1998b) has, for his part, given Estonia the role of “political mediator”, a country that identifies herself with Europe, but knows (and remembers) also Russia. Therefore Estonia could easily become an “interpreter” between two rather different worlds - Russian and the Western one.

Being located in the immediate vicinity of Scandinavia, Estonia possesses a business potential for transit trade and other types of trade. It does so firstly by acting as an intermediate North-South link in servicing goods and passenger traffic (e.g. Finland’s transit connection with Central Europe). Secondly, it could provide an East-West connection (goods and passenger flows between the whole of Western Europe and Russia). To a lesser extent this model might also encompass transit trade from the Far East countries through Russia (Terk 1995). In any event, Estonia and Russia are seen - according to this model - as partners, whose mutual interests are channelled via trade flows through Estonian ports. Estonia is depicted as a European gateway for Russia’s raw materials as well as the West’s entry into the wide Russian market. Estonians might also capitalize their knowledge of Russian and former contacts in the East. The model tries to accommodate mutual interests and play on comparative advantages. People who support such a gateway vision are convinced that Estonia’s future as an independent and economically prosperous state is better guaranteed when Estonia is opened both towards East and West (Eesti 2010... 1997). Ideas like ‘Europe has no geographical borders’, ‘Europe is not a geographical concept’, or ‘the character of Europe is real, it is indivisible’ depict Estonia’s gateway position in a zone of cohesion (see Meri 1997).

“Our” Space

The two previously mentioned geopolitical visions - frontier and gateway state- both envision Estonia as a state belonging to the West, but located in the frontier area. In the former, Estonia is provided with the role of separating and protecting, whereas in the latter it is perceived as a zone of cohesion. Apart from these two, there exists a third vision of a politically and economically independent, self-sufficient and autarchic Estonia. Such a view is most eagerly promoted by Estonian eurosceptics. In their view, Estonia with its geostrategic location gains the function of a “cooling stick” inbetween world geostrategic regions (Leito 1999:99). It is in Estonia’s national interests, it is argued, not to join with any international organization or great power structures. Instead one should offer the world a balance. If Estonia succeeds in avoiding “economic occupation” by the EU and can balance foreign powers, then she may exist as “our” own space. There are no security guarantees for Estonia except external power balance and internal state control over economy and resource base. According to Leito (1999:111), Russia is not a danger for Estonia at the moment.

Indeed, already in 1995 the head of Estonia’s parlamentary Defence Committee, Peeter Lorents, envisioned a doctrine of “mutually balancing power” (Lorents 1995). Estonia’s role would be as a small state with few resources to balance surrounding powers. This should be done in order to prevent the country from falling into one or the other sphere of control or influence. Similar views have been expressed among the Russian political parties in Estonia. Their foreign policy positions focus on improving relations with Russia. They wish to foster trade and transit and argue for a less complicated visa/border regime with Russia. The parties generally approve of Estonia’s integration into the European Union. They do this among other things as they believe that pressure from European institutions will make Estonia’s ethnic policies more liberal and will force the government to pay more attention to “the unrepresented minorities”. By contrast, their attitude toward membership in NATO is mostly negative. The parties believe that joining NATO implies a distancing from Russia. In their opinion a policy of active neutrality, avoiding part-taking in military blocs, and good relations with all surrounding states will guarantee the country’s security most efficiently (EÜRP programme 1999).


Estonian Socio-Spatial Consciousness

Ideologies are significant, for states are governed and held together by certain widely shared belief systems. At their most elementary level, these ideological systems of belief provide support for existing structures of power within a state and society. Concerning national and territorial socialization, boundaries form one part of the discursive landscape of social power, control and governance, which extends itself into the whole society and which is produced and reproduced in various social and cultural practices (Newman and Paasi 1998). In this discursive landscape, a boundary has a dual role, reflecting both collective and individual consciousness. Geographic and historical education in the school system produces and reproduces that socio-spatial consciousness, makes space incontestable and exclusive, and defines the friendly and hostile neighbors.

Because nation-states encompass ambiguous portions of the Earth’s space and population, they always lack sufficient substance and consequently need foreign policy to define what is “us” and “they”. Foreign policy in this view is a boundary-producing phenomenon (Dijkink 1996:5). Following this logic, national identity is continuously rewritten on the basis of external events and foreign politics does not mechanically respond to real threats but to constructed dangers. Then boundaries assume considerable significance because they are simultaneously zones of uncertainty and security. In the section to follow, I ask: what is the Estonian socio-spatial consciousness like? How are neighboring places and peoples perceived by Estonians?

Distant and Proximate Places

In one of his 1992 speeches, President Lennart Meri called on his compatriots to become Europeans while preserving their Estonian roots (Meri 1996). For those who doubted his words, he found a reasonable explanation: “We have always considered ourselves Europeans and Estonia as a state in Europe”.

Figure 6.

It was noted above that the Estonians’ “mental window” has been more open to the West than to the East. This is not surprising given the fact that the Nordic peoples, especially Finns have been close to the Estonians because of cultural and historical connections. For example, the Baltic Sea region is taught as a subject in high school geography lessons (see Rummo 1993). Estonia, Finland and Sweden are the countries most in focus while the other Baltic countries and Russia’s Kaliningrad and Leningrad oblasts are poorly covered. Russia’s Pskov oblast, to the southeast of Estonia and now partly occupying the disputed eastern territories, has been left outside the Baltic sea region altogether. Furthermore, the first new Estonian school atlas (1995) depicted mostly Finland and the whole Scandinavian region, while representing not a single large-scale map of Estonia and ignoring the East fully.

Since 1995 a group of Estonian educational researchers has submitted high school students to a geographical knowledge test. In addition to the students’ knowledge of other countries the test has also asked about the divisions in students’ minds between familiar and unfamiliar places, close and distant areas, the mythical East and West as well as the North and South. According to these tests, Europe was divided into more familiar and closer “Europe-Proper”, and less familiar, farther-away “Also-Europe”. “Europe-Proper” consisted of the Nordic countries, the Baltic states, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Poland; “Also-Europe” consisted of Portugal, Ireland, the Benelux countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia and the Balkan countries. As might have been expected, the countries of the former USSR (except Russia) were seldom seen as belonging to Europe. Moreover, all Eastern geographical places were depicted as strange and unfamiliar (Palang, Vessin and Liiber 1996). The students’ responses were hence similar to the often cited comparisons of Australia being closer to Britain than to Indonesia, or Russia being more distant to Romania than France.

In general, if various spatial relations indicators are compliled into an index of social distance, 10 it emerges that Estonian social space is dominated by Finland, Russia and Sweden. In comparing this index to a similar index from 1991, it is interesting to note that Finland has occupied the place of closest to Estonia only recently over the last 4-5 years (see Table 1).

Table 1.

Estonian social space in 1991 and 1994-1997. A priority list of countries important to Estonia based on a social proximity index. (# of points out of a possible total of 70)

1991 1994-1997
1. Russia: 62 1. Finland: 61
2.-3. Finland: 42 2. Russia: 57
2.-3. Ukraine 42 3. Sweden: 52
4. Latvia: 39 4. Germany: 39
5. Sweden: 37 5. USA: 33
6. Luthuania: 36 6. Latvia: 27
7. USA: 28 7.-8. UK: 22
8. Germany: 27 7.-8. Lithuania: 22
9. Belarus: 17 9. Norway: 17
10. Kazakhstan: 9 10. Denmark: 16

Neighbours - Friendly or Hostile

Finland has provided with the role functioning as the Estonians’ alter ego. This is so as the existence of Finland during the postwar years sustained the idea of an independent Republic of Estonia. It kept alive the Estonians’ vision of what the country might have been, had they stood up to the Russians like the Finns (Ruutsoo 1995). In the process of recognizing, developing and protecting their cultural identity, the Estonians have received help and support most of all from the Finns. Finland has been of great help in surmounting Estonia’s economic and social underdevelopment. She is clearly a dominant country in Estonia’s economic and cultural space. Estonians feel themselves close to the Nordic countries as a whole while the emotional attachment to the Baltic countries seem to be based primarily on a common danger from the outside (Vihalemm 1997:161).

Estonian-Russian relations have been cool for the past several years. Already in 1992, most Estonian parliamentarians considered Russia as the most hostile state to Estonia (Zhuryari 1994). Indeed, the Baltic direction has historically been Russia’s economic and military-strategic interest for centuries. Now there is a new factor to take into account: the great number of people in Estonia being ethnically connected with Russia. Russia’s threats to intervene militarily in order to protect its so-called mistreated compratiots have been taken very seriously in Estonia. It is most likely that Estonians’ attitudes towards Russia and Russians are influenced by a continuing sense of geopolitical insecurity. The security threat in combination with past experiences undermines trust and a willingness to cooperate. Russia’s military doctrines that include Estonia in the sphere of Moscow’s vital political, military and economic interests, are antagonistic in the view of many Western foreign policy analysts as well (see e.g. Goble 1997). An unpredictable and unstable Russia from outside the borderline as well as “the fifth column” within the frontier, are both clearly perceived as threats in the rhetorics of Estonian foreign policy and mass media.

Figure 7.



This analysis provides just a brief overview of how political and social actors have attempted to write post-Soviet Estonia onto the world map. The contours of its land and its meaning remain fragile and easily contested. The lines and frontiers, some visible and many invisible, which separate “us” and “the other” need to be deconstructed in order to deter potential conflict situations or foster future cooperation. The mapping offered by critical geopolitical discourse has proved difficult because of the amount of different visions and their conflicting nature. I have considered here only those reality constructions and boundary-drawings which seem most important, while bypassing others as less significant. Based on my own observations and critical analysis I argue that,

  1. There is no consensus in either the meaning of a “new” Estonia or in her regional belonging. Both visions, the old nation state as the last frontier of Western civilization as well as the new multinational state in the gateway position, are almost equally valid albeit not in use. The model of a Western-oriented ethnic state with a divided society is an existing product of overlapping constructed and real boundaries, thus constituting in fact a conflicting and contradictory vision. “Our” space, kind of space inbetween, represents a new but still marginal view, most forcefully propagated by Estonian eurosceptics;
  2. People living in the Estonian border area do not necessarily perceive the official state boundary as a line of separation nor is it seen as one determined by the categories posited by government officials. Neither the national interest nor “big politics” are important to many of the locals. They would even agree to the border remaining as it is, if only it were possible to cross it freely like in earlier times;
  3. It is hard to predict changes in the Estonian socio-spatial consciousness or foresee a large scale cooperation effort emerging across the de facto existing Estonia eastern borderline. At the moment, there appears to be more barriers than gateways on the mental maps of the Estonians.



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Note 1: Traditional political geography has made a distinction between the notions of border and frontier (see e.g. Parker and Dikshit, 1997). Borders are conceived as being no more than lines separating sovereign territories, while frontiers are assumed to constitute the area in proximity to the border whose internal development is affected by the existence of the line. Back

Note 2: References to Estonian territory and community are made most frequently with a view towards Estonian audiences. See e.g Estonian Coalition Party Programme, p. 9. Back

Note 3: Although the independence declaration in 1918 and the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920 became landmarks of reborn Estonian statehood and nation-building in the beginning of 1990s, serious references to the really independent years of statehood (during the 1920s and 30s) did not emerge before the end of the decade. For example, former prime minister Mart Siiman (1998) quite often used the expression “twenty plus seven years of independent statehood”. Back

Note 4: Since July 1992, a visa regime was introduced on the Estonian-Russian border. Back

Note 5: While in general the citizenship policy was argued on purely legal grounds, its expected effect turned out to be in ethnic terms (Pettai, 1996). The restored body of citizens in 1991 came to be mostly Estonian (90%). Non-citizens were almost exclusively Russian-speakers. Back

Note 6: The integration policy was prepared by the so-called Veidemann commission and adopted by the government on February 10, 1998. In that paper, social and cultural integration was defined as an ethnic minority which preserves its ethnic traditions, but at the same time also adjust to a certain degree its lifestyle to the attitudes and habits characteristic of the majority. Political integration, meanwhile, was understood in terms of keywords like citizenship, political participation through elections and party activities. Back

Note 7: We can estimate a total number of approximately 135,000 Estonian citizens of ethnic Russian origin (in addition to some 30,000 representatives of other nationalities). This figure amounts to about 35% of the total Russian population of Estonia. The number of Russian Federation citizens exceeded 120,000 in February 1997 and has continuously shown a steady increase. Back

Note 8: The fact itself was later written into Estonia’s new constitution in 1992. Back

Note 9: Edgar Mattisen in his book “Eesti-Vene piir” (Estonian-Russian Border) claims that the border, which was drawn according to the Tartu Peace Treaty, was very much based on a strategic calculus at the time, i.e. it was simply the territory that the Estonian army controlled at the time. However, during the 1920s and 1930s Estonian authorities officially emphasized the historical and ethnic aspects of the territories east of the Narva river (inhabited, for instance, by other Finno-Ugric tribes) and the southwest area of Setumaa (inhabited the Setu ethnic group). Back

Note 10: The index was compiled on the basis of 7 indicators, with a maximum value of 70 points. It was compiled using the following indicators: 1. exports (priority list on the basis of export, 1st place = 10 points, 10th place = 1 point); 2. imports; 3. foreign direct investments; 4. reception of foreign tourists; 5. countries visited at least once during ones lifetime; 6. interest in news from other countries; 7. attitude towards other countries as a potential place of residence (where a respondent might live if he/she decided to leave Estonia). See Estonian Human Development Report 1998, p.69 Back