Estonia in Transition

By Drechsler, Estonia | World Affairs, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Estonia in Transition

Drechsler, Estonia, World Affairs

Estonia today is an exciting, beautiful, truly European country and an independent, rather smoothly-functioning democracy. Thus, it is easily forgotten that a little over a thousand days ago, she was still a Soviet "republic," and not long before that, anyone who would have predicted the present situation would have been laughed out of court.(1)

The transition from colony of a totalitarian empire to pluralistic free-market democracy has been swift and successful. The economic aspect especially has found some positive attention in Western media and scholarship. And while Estonia is not yet "home safe," she is closer than all other former Soviet republics and on par with any ex-Eastern bloc country, excepting the atypical case of the German Democratic Republic and perhaps Czechia.

However, in recent times, people in the West have ceased to be interested in miracles such as this. After all, Estonia, to a large extent, is still terra incognita in Europe and America, and she is becoming more so the more normal everything becomes - something that would surprise many Estonians. The recent Russian troop withdrawal removed the last item that kept Estonia on the agenda. This lack of interest is, while understandable, somewhat unwarranted. There are serious problems and even more serious risks that concern Estonia directly, but almost to the same extent these problems concern the world at large, especially the West (the term is used here as meaning North America and Western Europe). Before going further into these problems, however, it must be pointed out once again that "Estonia in Transition" is basically a success story.


For most "Westerners" who know about Estonia, and for many Estonians as well, Estonia is known and perceived mainly in the context of her problems with Russia and the Russians.(2) This has led to the definition of Estonia as a Western country, i.e., one that in no way belongs to or with Russia, as it did not belong with or to the USSR.(3) Yet, while Estonia is truly European, "European" and "Western" are very different things - or, at least, so it appears to me. If one distinguishes between "Slavic-orthodox" and "Western" cultures, one will lose the idea of Europe completely.(4)

A binary mindset might see "West" and "East" as two mutually exclusive alternatives, the border presumably running between Estonia and Russia. To say that Estonia is the "outpost" of Europe or the West, however, or a border fortress of mind or civilization, means pushing a valid point so far that it becomes untrue. Europe first and foremost is an idea, and those who relegate Russia behind a separation line will have to explain why The Brothers Karamazov is not part of the European spirit. To use an old cliche, the Russian element gives considerable depth to the European mind, a depth that is needed and greatly appreciated by many continentals.

In consequence, in the hastiness of the Westernization currently taking place in Estonia, much that is not so bad gets lost; much that is not so great becomes the rule. If one ignores the fact that Estonia is not a border country but rather one of overlapping and, in the optimal case, fusing traditions, Estonia will lose considerably. Estonia becomes exciting when she is able - forgive, again, a cliche - to marry Russian depth and Scandinavian clarity. Estonia is perhaps the only place capable of such a feat; her Russian minority is able, at least on the (admittedly small) level of its intellectual leadership, to have Russian depth without the nationalism and imperialism so predominant in Moscow and even, if to a much lesser degree, in St. Petersburg.


Combining Russian depth and Scandinavian clarity is understandably difficult for many Estonians, especially because many feel threatened by having a one-third national minority of "Russian-speakers" in Estonia. This is discussed elsewhere in this issue in great detail,(5) but it might be worth pointing out that this topic is of great interest to the West, because here the problem of multiculturalism (or cultural pluralism) is more visible and pushed further to its consequences than anywhere else. …

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