Author: David Smith
On the 23rd of August 1939, the leaders of Nazi Germany and USSR sign the treaty stating that, in case of a territorial modification in the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the "limit of the zones of influence of Germany and the USSR" would be the "northern border of Lithuania". Estonia, after Poland, will quickly understand the meaning of this pact : independent since 1918, the country is invaded by the Red Army in 1940, occupied by the Germans in 1941, taken back by Moscow and finally annexed to the paradise of workers in 1944. What David J. Smith calls "the war of 50 years" so begun in 1940 for the Estonians, to end only in 1991 with a new independence.
The book of this researcher in the University of Bradford (Baltic Research Unit, under Prof. John Hiden), if it talks about Estonia, is not an history of this country through the 20th century. Its interest lies elsewhere : taking place in a Routledge's collection on the post-communist transitions in Eastern Europe, the book deals with the Estonian form of this phenomenon. A short book, it is though a good tool of knowledge, carried by its author's intimacy with his subject, and his lucidity when it comes to the achievements of the transition in Estonia and the problems still at hand. The goal of the book is clearly not only to recall what has been done already, but mostly to describe a still complex situation. One can also find there interesting subjects of reflection, like the relations between Europe and Russia, but also concerning the nation-state and its challenges.
The History of Estonia is presented in the two first chapters of the book. It can be seen as the slow emergence of a national identity in an hostile environment marked by empires and the sharing of the region between them. Inside of these several empires, the inhabitants of this region have slowly begun to consider themselves as Estonians, by the slow process of an identity construction. The national awakening (ärkämisaeg) of the years 1819-1917 followed finally the general lines of these awakening in Europe. The reconstruction of a common past, the language, the common customs and traditions... The process came also as a replica of the one that took place in Finland. This movement, however, would have probably gone nowhere without the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The independence was acquired through a war against the German troops and the Bolsheviks. The new state got democratic institutions in 1920, and the movement towards national identity will be seen as a "movement towards Europe", like evoked after 1991 in the terms of the "return to Europe".
The new institutions, by their instability and maybe lack of political maturity, fail to manage the problems of the time. The crisis of 1929 will be the occasion of an "eclipse of liberal democracy". Estonia enters in 1934 a period of authoritarian regime under Konstantin Päts. It is the "Era of silence" that lasts up to 1939. International situation then catches back with the country : USSR takes it in 1940. The Germans come in 1941, but the wind turns again in 1944 and Estonia become then a part of USSR in the world's complete indifference. David Smith underlines the importance of these events in the emergence of the nationalist movement in the 1980s. The memory of the Inter-War independence is always present in the nationalist speech. The fact the Moscow occupied illegally Estonia gave birth to the concept of "legal continuity", which states that the country, independent but occupied, don't separate from Soviet Union in 1991 but gets back its sovereignty after an occupation parenthesis.
The Soviet era witnesses great deportations (49000 people in 1949 for example), executions and economic integration during the Stalin period. The immigration of Russian people coming to work in the "all-Union" factories is organized. The independence comes back in the context of the crumbling of the USSR, in the 80s. Mikhail Gorbatchev appears here as an interesting character. He is violently opposed to the independence of the Balts, and takes several initiatives to put "back on line" these parts of the Union. The man from the Perestroïka appears unable to conceive the national problem in USSR. The putsch of 1991 is the green light for the Estonians who take their independence.
The main part of the book comes after this historical presentation. It tries to show the main drive of the nationalist movement, and then to present the main problems posed by the post-communist transition in Estonia. Not a few of them in fact : tensions between a reborn state willing to exist and the necessities of integration into some transnational organizations; the question of the institutions and of the development of a mature civil society; the economic problems; finally the case of the big Russian speaking minority (approximately 30% of the population at the time of the independence). The links between these problems are presented, in the international context of Estonia.
In the economic, social and institutional domains, the picture drawn by the author is the same : if important progresses have been done, much is left to do, and Estonia is not at the end of the "road to Europe" that its leaders envision. The shock therapy developed in after 1991 to privatize the economy and cure generally the problems left by the soviet system has been fruitful, but has had social costs that the country has to manage nowadays. Estonia, by its geographic position and its economic and industrial tool, keeps however trumps in its game, that the book details. From an institutional point of view, a compromise has been found between the institutions of 1920 and the authoritarian interpretation of the "era of silence". David Smith however points the problem of the difficulties to emerge faced by a mature and responsible civil society. This civil society would adhere to the institutions and make them live. But the confidence is up to now undermined by unscrupulous political behaviors (a limited but annoying corruption, for example). Lennart Meri, who managed to impose himself as an admired and appreciated political person, appears like an exception. For the author, Estonian society is still fragile, and this fragility makes that the adhesion of the people to the regime is limited.
Domestically, it is the problem of the Russian speaking minority that is the biggest. It remains, even after the successive laws (1992, 1995, 1997). It turns into a political problem (some regions have a Russian majority, and are very agitated, like in Narva), but also a social, legal, economic (Russians were mostly employed in the all-Union factories) complex. But before all, the problem hampers the international relations of the country. Pressures here come from the Russian government, who abundantly uses the theme in its relations with Tallinn (sometimes in a very counter-productive way, like in the case of the commercial sanctions. P.103 David Smith says that even the Russians in Estonia acknowledge that the attitude of Moscow is more guided by geostrategic than by care for their own well-being), but also from Europe, who has often made of the attitude of Estonian government towards the Russian minority the test of their "europeanism".
David Smith presents the continuous efforts of the Estonian government in the matter, but calls the current system an "ethnic democracy". If the nationality laws in the country respect the European standards, Smith says that, in a situation where 30% of the population is of foreign origin, this is not enough. The system continues to function as a dominance of the "pre-war" Estonians and plays on the divisions of the Russian minority, that has never been able to organize itself. These divisions grow since the Russians are integrated by drafts. Under international pressure, the laws are softening slowly. But the problems remain, showing well the ambiguity that exists between the domestic realities and the international mediations. If the general atmosphere remains very "estonian" and rarely comes to riots, the situation is still tensed. The critics from Europe and the often random actions of Russia contribute to show the problem to the Estonians. At the same time, they feel troubled by these foreign pressures, who try to force a policy on their newly independent state. This could provoke a hiatus between the Estonian elite, who wants integration in Europe like an acknowledgment of "return to Europe" of the Estonian people, and the population who seems before all to be willing to benefit from an independent nation-state.
One can't say that David Smith hides the problems of the Estonian situation. If the official image of a democratic and economically stable Estonia is grounded on facts, problems remains in every domains. It is the merit of this book that it doesn't try to hide them while acknowledging the progresses of the 90s.
Apart from the "Estonian" aspects, the book opens fields of reflections. On the one hand, one can think about the consequences of the enlargement of euro-atlantic organizations to the borders of Russia. In this frame, do the Europeans take enough means to think their relations with Moscow? On the Russian side, can the Putin administration adopt, to quote an article from the Time of June 2001, a more "matter over mind" attitude towards its ex-soviet neighbors? The new situation of cooperation between Washington and Moscow, that one can hope will emerge of the ruins of the World Trade Center, could be the occasion to abandon a speech based on a sphere of influences approach.
The "Estonian test" David Smith talks about is also an internal test for the Europeans. How will Europe treat with these states that feel Europeans, have a will for Europe, but, to simplify, don't want to swap Moscow for Brussels, and are far from sharing all the views of the big Europeans? Will they have to be relegated in a sort of "European second league"? The challenges to the nation-state, both from the transnational organizations and from its minorities finds an interesting illustration in the Estonian case. All these subjects make this book most interesting and instructive. The subject would have deserved a slightly longer treatment, for some references have to be already known to understand everything. But finally, a good and informed tool of knowledge concerning Estonia in the 90s and the problems related.