Keit Spiegel: Estonians abroad should feel they matter to Estonia

Every Estonian should feel they matter to Estonia and are a part of their country – regardless of their location in the world, Keit Spiegel, an adviser on diaspora affairs at the Estonian foreign ministry, writes.

To achieve that Estonians abroad feel connected and included, it is vital to enhance communication and cooperation between the state – the Republic of Estonia – and the Estonians abroad. The state has ongoing activities that help preserve and promote the Estonian identity abroad, but the focus should also shift more to supporting activities that foster the diaspora’s participation in the Estonian society in various fields. This requires a long-term vision and a systematic approach.

Diasporas have long been a feature of the international environment. Strong diasporas have the power to impact the culture, economics, politics and the societies more broadly in the countries they live. As the world has become more competitive, many countries have had a conscious shift in the increased policy awareness of the potentially positive contribution that diaspora inclusion can have.

In the case of Estonia, the communication from the state’s side has so far not been systematic enough. Also, the positive impact contributed by active diaspora members through their (mainly voluntary) activities has not been sufficiently acknowledged. But, for a small country like Estonia, efficient diaspora engagement and forward-looking diaspora policy can be especially useful as it can unlock a lot of hidden potential.

A small country with a strong diaspora

Estonia is one of the smallest countries in Europe, with just around 1.3 million people – but it has a large diaspora all over the world. It is estimated that there are up to 200,000 people with Estonian roots living abroad, accounting for approximately 15% of all Estonians.

The largest communities are currently in Finland, Russia, the UK, Germany, Sweden and North America. It is important to understand that the communities are not homogeneous, differing in size, opportunities and background, as well as their needs and expectations to the state.

The fifth European Estonian Song and Dance Festival in Leicester, UK, in 2018. Photo by Chris Key.

Estonians have mainly emigrated as a result of three migration waves.

The first migration wave from Estonia started already in the middle of the 19th century – towards the east and mainly driven by economic reasons and due to the availability of higher education in Russia.

The second wave was mainly to the west. It was largely a forced emigration, driven by World War II (also known as the Great Exodus of 1944). It was an escape from the threat of a new Soviet occupation.

The third wave, from the beginning of 1990s, is related to the restoration of Estonia’s independence and its accession to the European Union in 2004. The emigration happened mainly for economic reasons, but also for studies and seeing the world, for example.

The Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, meeting Estonian-American children at New York Estonian House.

According to a recent research among Estonians living abroad – carried out by the Estonian foreign ministry – around 76 per cent of the respondents valued strong communication between the state and the diaspora and showed clear willingness to support Estonia through different activities globally. Not only does the diaspora make Estonia bigger by having a positive impact on its image, cultural, economic and international affairs, but Estonians living abroad are also an “additional resource” or a “brain bank” – supporting “brain circulation” rather than “brain drain”.

The next steps

The Estonian foreign ministry, in partnership with a public sector innovation team, is currently piloting a project to build bridges between the Estonian entrepreneurs and the diaspora, fostering business diplomacy. The term might seem unfamiliar to many at first, but what has been realised during the extensive interviews of the project is the fact that most Estonians abroad actually foster Estonian business relations – but they do it often unknowingly. To promote and support that further, it is important to develop an active network with different initiatives.

It is vital to contribute to a multi-directional communication, so that Estonians abroad receive all the practical information needed from the state; communities in different countries interact regularly and that the state is actively involved in diaspora activities.

For support, it is important to set up a more regular communication between the Estonians abroad and the country’s embassies. This would foster effective information exchange and a stronger connection with the state – because in many ways, the embassies are the first link between the diaspora and Estonia. It is also important to support the diaspora media outlets.

The Estonian embassy in London. The image is illustrative.

Estonia is widely recognised as an e-state with all kinds of digital services. It is important to introduce all the different benefits these systems hold, because most activities can be done securely from a distance (99% of all public services are digitally accessible in Estonia).

An efficient diaspora engagement only works in a “two-way street” principle – it is merely not just the state’s actions in involving its diaspora and offering services, but a cooperation and partnership with the diaspora. Communication and inclusion are the key that can help make every Estonian feel like they belong and are cared for – regardless of their distance from Estonia.

A sense of belonging between the diaspora and the Republic of Estonia is supported by recognition, encouragement and strong support for citizens’ initiatives of Estonians living abroad.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Canadian-Estonians celebrating Estonian Independence Day in Toronto. The image is illustrative. Photo by Peeter Põldre.

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