26 November is celebrated in Estonia as Citizen’s Day. It commemorates the date of the signing into effect of the first Estonian citizenship law in 1918, and honours all Estonian citizens as well as those who are aspiring to become citizens, regardless of ethnicity. It is also a day that encourages reflection on the relationship between civic pride and national security.
The successfulness of a country – economically, politically and in terms of security – is in many ways determined by the relationship between its residents and the government. If the social contract between the society and the state is respected and strengthened then the country and its people are likely to prosper and achieve greater security. In states that have managed to achieve economic development and considerable resilience, all social groups find it in their interest to work hard, uphold the legal framework, and cooperate to ensure that their rights are respected.
Historically as well as today, however, ethnic tensions and conflict are one of the most common causes of state failure, internal and international conflict, and economic stagnation. As a multiethnic country with an open economy and an open society, Estonia also needs to constantly focus on managing and overcoming ethnic tensions as well as encouraging civic nationalism.
In Estonia, as in most countries, the foundation for implementing that social contract is the constitution and the government institutions, personal freedoms and civic duties that it creates and/or prescribes. Judging by, among other things, Estonia’s considerable economic growth, advances in transparency and anti-corruption, positions on international ratings of press and Internet freedom, and fulfilment of Euro-Atlantic integration over the course of the last quarter-century since regaining independence, progress has been substantial. However, these constant improvements will always be on fragile footing if integration and social cohesion are not ensured.
The evidence of ethnic tensions and conflict contributing to disorder, human rights violations and significant decline in quality of life can be seen around the world. In Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the civil war in the country’s east show how ethnic tensions can be stoked and enflamed both from within and by external actors. In the Middle East, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) was enabled by the Sunni-Shia-Kurdish-Alawite-Turkish divides. Further away in Myanmar, historic Buddhist-Rohingya enmity and recent bloodshed is inhibiting that country’s democratic transition. As the events of the Bronze Soldier Crisis of 2007 showed, Estonia is also not immune to the potential pitfall of ethnic conflict.
Fortunately, Estonia has taken this question into consideration in its internal and international security doctrines. The 2010 National Security Concept commits Estonia to pursuing an “integrated approach, where the foreign policy, defence policy and internal security policy, as well as cohesion and resilience of the society“ are employed in a complementary manner to ensure security. Furthermore, despite the demographic changes that occurred during the period of Soviet occupation, Estonia has constantly worked to enable individuals living in Estonia to pursue and attain citizenship. After independence in 1992, 68% of residents in Estonia were citizens and 32% had undetermined citizenship. By 2003, the citizenship amount had increased to 81% and by 2014 to 84%, with the corresponding number of persons of undetermined citizenship decreasing to 12% and 6,5%, respectively.
Formal policy documents and national statistics, however, tell only part of the story. Integration has been far from an easy process, but success stories can be found in fields such as sports, politics, Defence Forces, and in civil society initiatives. These often come to our attention in the form of inspiring individuals, such as footballer Konstantin Vassiljev winning “Citizen of the Year” in 2011, social democrat Jevgeni Ossinovski becoming the first non-ethnic-Estonian cabinet minister, or Lieutenant Vladimir Kolotõgin being awarded the Citizen’s Day medal in 2013 for dedication to furthering national defence awareness in Eastern Estonia.
My own experience confirms that integration is at work on the micro level as well. My colleagues at the Foreign Ministry, whose mother tongue is not Estonian, are valued and successful diplomats. My ethnic Russian friends on our fourth division amateur football team get along well with both the Estonians and players from other countries. I still have very positive memories of the non-ethnic-Estonian compatriots with whom I served in the mandatory military service.
Yet the key will always lie with the right combination of government policy and social attitudes. Estonia, as a small nation with a large, aggressive, revisionist neighbour must do it all it can to consolidate its society and attempt to eliminate the prospect of ethnic tension or conflict. This involves not only domestic policies such as financial commitments for equitable regional development but also accepting and tolerant individual behaviour towards other residents of different backgrounds or social groups. Only with a shared understanding of the rights and duties prescribed by the constitution can we, as citizens and residents of Estonia, move together toward a more fair, more prosperous and more secure future.
The opinions in this article are those of the author.