Estonia’s Nordic dream


Picture of Karl Käsper
Karl Käsper

Kari Käsper is one of the founders of the Estonian Human Rights Centre


Estonia has long looked to the Nordic countries, mainly Sweden and Finland, for inspiration and belonging, rather than forging a common identity with its Baltic neighbours. Historically, Estonia has been shaped by the “good old Swedish times”, a national myth referring to the period from the 16th century to the early 18th century, when Estonia’s territory was under Swedish rule. Significant
reforms were introduced during this time, including the establishment of the University of Tartu. During the Second World War, many Estonians escaped as refugees across the Baltic Sea to neutral Sweden. Ties with Finland are even more profound. Estonians and Finns both speak a Finno-Ugric language and many Finns and Estonians were able to forge ties even during the Soviet days.

Estonia today shares generally secular-rational values with its Northern neighbours. Religion doesn’t play a large role in society; technological progress is viewed almost without scepticism. The success of Estonia’s e-government initiatives and start-up scene was preceded by the collective search for “Estonia’s Nokia”, when the Finnish company ruled the mobile phone market.

So why shouldn’t Estonia consider itself the sixth Nordic country? Parts of the progressive political elite already do. The Reform Party, which leads the government, titled its 2015 parliamentary election platform “Estonia: the New Nordic”. But in terms of attitudes towards other fundamental European values, such as social justice or human rights, Estonia couldn’t be further from the Nordic states.

The high taxation and well-functioning public services seen in Nordic countries are in stark contrast with the neo-liberal flat tax implemented in Estonia. The country is a fertile ground for e-government precisely because privacy has never been an important concern. Equal opportunities and gender equality measures are viewed by many Estonians as unnecessary meddling. And there are tough citizenship policies that negatively affect the Russian-speaking minority, which makes up a quarter of the population.

Estonians see immigration as their greatest concern, not re-starting stalling economic growth. They see Nordic attitudes to migration as misguided. Anti-immigration rhetoric and hate crime are rising, and the government has been reluctant to tackle it. There are also many differences on LGBT rights: although a civil union law that provides recognition and rights for same-sex couples came into force in 2016 in Estonia, its implementation has been halted by a political gridlock. In all five Nordic countries, marriage is – or soon will be – open to all couples equally (Finland’s equal marriage law takes effect in 2017).

Having achieved its primary goal of escaping Russian influence in favour integration with the West – notably through membership of NATO and the EU – Estonia is now trying to focus on the construction of its national identity. But it is unclear yet whether the Nordic model will be the dream, or whether Estonia retreats to the nativism seen in Poland and Hungary.

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