Kadri Liik: Let us think again. About Russia…

We need to engage in a calm and sober debate on whether or not and how Russia threatens us and on the real meaning of its vicinity and our common history to us.

Estonia is a quite good place for discussions on foreign policy, I think. (In their own way, one hundred issues of Diplomaatia magazine should give evidence and proof of that.) Our people can appreciate what is ours and be fascinated by what is unfamiliar. We have a practical sense of curiosity, a healthy ability to be sceptical and enough personal contacts with the world outside our borders. Somewhere out there – in Washington or in Brussels – the exclusive club that follows the minutest ever-changing details in everyday politics might be wider, but the quality of discussions that encompass different parts of society is higher in Estonia than in most other countries.

This is partly due to the elite, i.e. foreign policy makers who try to truthfully explain the backgrounds to all developments (although more and better work could always be done on this), and partly due to the media, which now and again wakes up to foreign issues, covering them on air and on paper (although more and better work could always be done on this). Primarily, this has become possible because of our people who are simply incredibly reasonable and practical. I have followed foreign policy debates in many a state; I have also been asked to participate in a few. They are different from ours – ours are better.

Yet there is one issue on which we are not able to have balanced discussions. The issue is Russia. Our hypersensitivity rooted in the feeling of existential dread of the 1990s has indeed decreased, but it has been replaced by a rather unpleasant polarisation that makes it hard – if not outright impossible – to have in-depth argumentative debates and requires hardheartedness and patience from all parties.

There are those among us who think that nothing good – or even nothing neutral – can come from the other side across our eastern border. If somebody over there says something negative about us, it means that they are making preparations for an attack. If somebody says something positive (which does happen, although seldom), it is all smoke and mirrors, meaning that they are nevertheless preparing to attack. And if they do not talk about us at all (which happens most often), it is obvious that they are making preparations for an attack, but doing so sneakily because they are playing dirty.

There are others among us who are convinced that any statement even slightly critical of Russia (alas, it is objectively difficult to avoid criticism when talking about Russia) has nothing to do with the realities on the ground in Russia – it could be either incitement of fear by the Estonian political parties in power or, alternatively, a propaganda ploy by the US Embassy.

Our official foreign policy rhetoric is also characterised by a certain dualism. On the one hand, we have already long ago realised that it is not beneficial to have a one-track mind, i.e. to be a Russophobic small nation that talks of Russia and of nothing else in the international arena, doing so incessantly and emotionally. On the other hand, if Russia accuses us for no reason, then we must counter those accusations, must we not? And sometimes – for example, during the Georgian war – Moscow’s steps really do cause us acute and grave concern.

These two attitudes – efforts to remain calm and composed vs. genuine heartfelt emotions – often become oddly intertwined. I have seen Estonian top politicians speaking about Russia at conferences abroad: they begin with a statement that we have no problems with Russia whatsoever, that everything is fine, but during Q&A sessions afterwards they forget their cool composure and superiority and start cursing from the bottom of their hearts: “It’s a mafia state! They’re all criminals! They’re dangerous! Why don’t you do something to stop them?”

In actual fact, both extremist attitudes are, of course, wrong. Everything is not fine across Lake Peipus, but this does not mean that they will attack us any minute now. We should engage in a calm and sober debate on whether or not and how Russia threatens us and on the real meaning of its vicinity and our common history to us. We should forget our prejudices, leave behind our politically correct attitudes and start shaping a coherent understanding of the situation in Russia and its meaning through informed discussion – an understanding that we ourselves would subscribe to. If we had this vision, we could express ourselves honestly and at the same time we could be taken seriously in international debates. More importantly, this would also pave the way for the return of normal discussions on Russia inside Estonia without various forms of paranoia or self-censorship. It is always beneficial to engage in reasoned debate, the more so as – maybe it is ill-advised to remind the reader of this – we have already had to pay for not speaking about Russian affairs in the past.

Does Russia threaten us and in what way?

The year 1940 continues to cast a dark shadow over our senses. I have been asked surprisingly often: “When will the Russians come back?” Not if, but when. Quite a few members of our military in Afghanistan observed the Taleban’s tactics closely, asking themselves how to make use of it in guerrilla warfare against Russia. We have a deep-rooted fear of another territorial occupation. Is it justified?

Admittedly, Russia harbours many thinkers, politicians and other ‘talking heads’ who consider the Baltic states to be ‘ancient Russian territory’ the re-annexation of which would be an entirely positive development, if not unavoidable and inescapable due to the flow of history. It cannot completely be ruled out that owing to an extremely unfortunate coincidence of several circumstances these views may indeed translate into a real and present danger. However, it seems to be more likely that they will become history. Territorial empires are expensive and out of fashion. Nobody wants them any more. Estonia is a NATO member. Russia already has plenty of trouble with its current territory. I don’t believe that 1940 will be repeated.

Rather, we should pay close attention to the uses to which Russian money is put on Estonian territory. When someone invests here, we should ask ourselves why. If business is slack or the owner does not seem to be interested in making a profit, then it sounds suspicious. We need not look far for examples: a Russian state company supplies Latvia and Lithuania with electricity for abnormally low prices. Many experts suspect that the Russians have ulterior motives in doing so – they want to dent the enthusiasm for the construction of a new nuclear power plant. At the same time, Gazprom sells gas to Estonia for exorbitant prices, but this is at least based on sound business logic.

Moreover, if money comes from illegal sources, it is not wise to take it. Estonia is no haven for money launderers. An eye must be kept on the links between politics and business – for example, Finnish intelligence agencies have already long complained that Russian money tends to corrupt people. (Let us not forget that there are plenty of states where lots of dodgy money circulates and no one complains about that.) There is always the risk of different Russian investors – for example, pro-Kremlin investors and those who flee from the Kremlin, or maybe simply rivals – turning Estonian territory into a battleground for them. This potential scenario would be extremely disagreeable, the more so as we can do little to prevent it.

The above does not mean that business relations between Estonia and Russia cannot be mutually beneficial and reasonably clean – they can be and they are to a certain extent. We must simply try to understand what is what.

In the longer perspective, however, what we should care about is the general direction of Russia’s development. Recent parliamentary elections there have indicated that its system of ‘managed democracy’ has begun to lose its vitality. What will happen next? Will the Kremlin be able to restore its sacral status? If not, will they liberalise the political system or, on the contrary, tighten the screws? Will Russia manage to overcome political stagnation through evolutionary change or will a greater, revolutionary shift occur? When and how will it happen? Who will be its heroes and what will be its end result? What will become of the North Caucasus? To what extent and in exactly which direction will Caucasian developments affect the rest of Russian society before, eventually, something will ‘give’?

And foreign policy – how will Russia handle the rise of China? What kind of relations will Russia have with the West? Where will Russia ‘end up’ in the international system? How will it define its national interests? Let us be honest, these are not clear at the moment: Russia puts in a great deal of effort to expand its influence, but how it intends to use this influence – how Russia would like to shape the world – we do not know. Admittedly, Moscow does not know either, which is understandable as the country has had to painfully reassess many phenomena during the last twenty years and will probably have to continue with that during the next twenty. If you do not know who you are, you cannot know what you want.

Answers to the questions concerning Russia’s future are still bound to impact Estonia. So, we cannot help feeling somewhat concerned. At the same time, it is gratifying to know that our vision for a positive solution, our aspirations and interests coincide with those of Russia’s growing middle class. This gives us hope!

Confrontation on the intellectual plane

I would like to lay special emphasis on what national defence experts call ‘psychological defence’. In essence, this means propaganda wars – one opponent attempts to undermine the other’s morale, to strip it of its international allies and to erode its popular support and appreciation at home. We have, of course, been subjected to such attacks from Moscow – the mudslinging media campaign that accompanied the Bronze Soldier riots in April 2007 was the most memorable one, but actually during Putin’s entire second term of office from 2004 to 2008 Moscow waged a constant war of words against its democratic neighbours, the United States and NATO.

It is most disagreeable to find yourself in a situation where you must fight with a gigantic well-oiled propaganda machine. Some of the methods used by the Kremlin ‘spin doctors’ are indeed cunning; there is no arguing with that. We – or, to put it more accurately, those among us whose job is to deal with these matters – should acquaint ourselves more fully with their methods, while resisting any temptation to use them in our interest. If we did so, we would not be any better than them! The best defence is not to become like them. Moreover, cynical propaganda devalues the word as such and undermines trust. Recent Russian elections have demonstrated that this has happened to the Kremlin. We would not want the same fate to befall Estonia. It would be gratifying if the relationship between our politicians and society was based on rational dialogue and sufficient trust, not on hysterical euphoria fuelled by propagandistic slogans.

After the Bronze Soldier riots, the social debate in Estonia became distorted, which has disconcerted me a little. Fortunately, the situation passed, but it was nevertheless dangerous. Maybe I got it wrong but what I think happened was that many politicians and the media were somewhat angry with Prime Minister Ansip because he had obviously underestimated the significance of the Bronze Soldier. Yet they did not want to criticise him because that would have meant siding with the Kremlin. So, during the summer of 2007, they began to find fault with him on completely different issues of which he need not have been guilty at all – they did so for artificial, substitute reasons…

These kinds of developments are highly undesirable. To say one thing and to think another – this closes down rational debate, renders learning from your mistakes impossible and erodes trust. Meaningful debates are thus transformed into irrational propaganda wars.

In addition, this gives evidence of a lack of independence. If Estonia is a free country, we should be able to criticise our prime minister when we want to do so and for what we consider fit. We decide what is important to us and we are responsible for our own words and actions. If the only reason for us doing something is that we want to do the opposite to Moscow’s wishes, then we are almost as dependent on Moscow as when following its orders. Joseph Brodsky has written: “Freedom is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name.” And not when you continue to fight with him in your head.

Our Russians and our Estonians

There are at least two more major issues which we need to gain control over and take responsibility for. First, the Russians who live in Estonia. If we perceive them as a problem, it is our problem, not someone else’s. If we perceive them as an asset, it is our asset – we should be smart and make use of it!

We might like it or not, but their lives are now joined together with those of Estonians and this is how it will stay. I think they are quite aware of this fact. They do not expect any solutions to their problems from outside the Estonian state. Actually, there is no one else who could help them. Clumsy facilitation attempts by overseas great powers or occasional efforts by Moscow to evoke hostilities do not work (or at least I believe and I hope that the latter too does not work any more).

Maybe our Russians cannot be integrated quickly and smoothly – the very reason for their arrival here is not conducive to quick integration – but they need not become a ‘fifth column’ either if we only bothered to put in some effort to prevent this from happening. To start with, we should simply talk to people, for example, via an Estonian Russian-language TV channel. In the 1990’s, I would not have thought it realistic to establish a channel like this, but now I think it is and very much so. Life in Estonia is so different from that in Russia that it makes the same information space inapplicable in the two countries.

Second, we are responsible for our Estonians. Although life has a fortunate wound-healing side-effect, our people still feel extremely traumatised and are full of hatred due to the humiliations they had to suffer during occupation, deportation and Soviet domination. Something should be done about this. We should not make ourselves dependent upon Moscow’s public apology for its past crimes, while believing that this would relieve us of all our sorrows as if by magic. It would be nice if Moscow apologised, but there is no point in demanding an apology. After all, we do not want a forced apology. Moscow must take its own long and winding road to find a sincere apology in due course (if it ever does).

Everybody knows that hate eats you up from the inside. Our people have suffered enough; now they deserve to live at peace with each other and to be reconciled with their past. How to consciously contribute to this reconciliation – a notion so personal and spiritual – I really could not say.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

This article was first published in Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia: http://www.diplomaatia.ee/en/article/let-us-think-again-about-russia/

Main photo: Ilya Dubovsky/Visit Estonia

Second photo: Wikipedia

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About the author: Kadri Liik

Kadri Liik is a Senior Policy Fellow of Wider Europe Programme at the European Council On Foreign Relations. She has also worked as the Editor-In-Chief of Estonian magazine Diplomaatia, as well as Moscow correspondent for Estonian newspaper Postimees.

  • As an Estonian born, both of and from the diaspora, in Canada. I grew up speaking only Estonian till I got to school. Eesti keel ja Eesti meel, was inculcated into me from birth. The Russians living in Estonia today, (even if born there) are there due to the policy of Russification carried out by the Russians during the latest half century of occupation. I am a proud citizen of Estonia, and am fluent in the Estonian language. At the very least, those Russian residents should learn the language, culture, and customs of the country they reside in, just as the people of Estonia were forced to do during the occupation, rather than choosing to be ghettoized and isolated.

  • estlander

    Nice article. I also hope that 1940 will never happen again. But as a state, Estonia must be ready to defend its territory and citizens. I also believe that in general there actually does not exist any hatred between Estonians and Russians as majority of them live, communicate, study and work side-by-side daily. It is really more of a “fascist” vs “communist” thing portrayed by either Estonian or Russian officials and media. This is propaganda from both sides, at least when I read articles on same topics in either Postimees or Pravda, the tone is usually never neutral in neither of the newspapers, which is unfortunate.

  • Adam

    Very interesting article. The most crucial points are that first of all there is no chance of any Russian invasion, not to Estonia not to any European state. I rather like the idea of a Russian language television channel as well. I would go further to suggest that Russian should be made an official language. It is this step more than any other that would demonstrate more than anything else you can be ethnically Russian and also be a first class citizen of Estonia. I know this will never happen, but the more countries recognise the languages which are ALL READY spoken as official languages the more educated and more peaceful the world will be. Canada did this with French and the results have been very good. Still though the article was written with a tone towards Russia that whilst not Russiaphobic was still a bit patronising. There is a basic fact that ALL European thinkers must understand and this goes as much for Germany, France and Britain as it does for Estonia. Europe needs Russia more than Russia needs Europe. Over the next ten years as Europe and America decline even further this will become even more apparent. Whilst America and the EU have antagonised, colonised, belittled and dismissed Asia, Africa and South America for the last 200 years, Russia has in the 20th century especially, built up close relations with countries in these continents. This will be to Russia’s distinct advantage. It is China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia which are the economies of the future. Russia knows this. The disadvantages Russia had in the 1990s(a new economic system being built from the ground up amidst chaos) is now an advantage. The American system which was rock solid in 1990 is now crumbling but it is too over grown to really reform. The Russian economic model is still rather new and be in no doubt that it is looking south and east…not west. So rather than worry about a Russia that is more concerned with making economic and military deals with China that it is with invading Estonia, Estonia should follow a more Germanic economic model, albeit with fewer regulations and less taxation. Estonia should concentrate on creating a niche in IT and move into hardware manufacturing in addition to the all ready much renown software sector. Wages MUST increase. Germany would never do to her highly educated population what Estonia has done to hers. This is why intelligent Germans work mostly in Germany but many intelligent Estonians are working where their talents will translate into wealth. So just as Russian looks east, Estonia should look west, mostly to Germany, Holland and cautiously to Scandinavia(though the kind of high tax economies of Scandinavia would not be right for Estonia, not for a long time anyway). Let Russia be a trading partner as well. Don’t be afraid of Russian money. Russian money is like ALL money, everyone wants it and everyone becomes less trust worthy and more dangerous when they get it. This isn’t a Russian problem but a capitalist problem.

  • Geraint

    A very good article offering food for thought. I think, as you say, it is always a concern when events take place that appear to be similar to tragic events in the past. It is difficult to trust sometimes, but that has to be built up on both sides of the border.
    Every citizen is an asset, providing you treat them as such. It is essential for people to retain their culture, but they must be encouraged to feel part of the nation.

    If you want people to integrate in things such as language, then you must ensure that all opportunities are given to encourage them to learn and not pay for the privilege. If you want people to learn Estonian – teach them. It’s something I keep banging on about here in Wales, where people talk about the decline of our mother tongue. We are very dismissive of our English migrants, we don’t actually encourage them to learn Welsh enough. We end up with ‘little England’.
    On the subject of TV, talk to S4C in Wales and understand their journey to become a ‘minority’ language national broadcaster. It is not difficult, you are right there, but. it does take money though and the will to succeed.