21st century identity crisis: Estonia conflicted over UN global compact on migration7 min read

Before I moved to Estonia, three different Estonian-Americans (including the outspoken former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves) warned me not to refer to Estonia as an Eastern European country. “Estonia,” I was told, “considers itself Western European, or at least Nordic.” When I first arrived in Estonia, ready to embrace everything from folk songs to kama, I started to see the resemblance right away.

Like its northern neighbor Finland, Estonians rave about saunas, treating visits to the small wooden houses filled with hot steam like a professional hobby. Estonian korporatsioonid, the influential fraternal organizations that dominate the social scene in local universities, borrow extensively from the German model of intellectual societies. However, it is Estonia’s impressive e-governance structure, which earned it the winning nickname “The Digital Republic,” that most sets the country apart as a progressive, forward-thinking, and futuristic leader of Europe.

E-Estonia boasts a remarkable suite of public services, ranging from i-Voting to digital identification to e-Residency, that far outpace the government services of some of the most technologically and democratically advanced nations in the world. Since the introduction of e-governance in 1997, the country has been an advocate in Brussels and in capital cities across the continent, for information societies that are secure, transparent, and impactful. It would be an understatement to say that Estonia constantly pushes the boundaries of civic technology, like with the recent data embassy initiative. The country has almost managed like welded metal to fuse together the innovation of the state’s bustling start-up scene with the government in Tallinn.

Estonia is not shy about exporting their inventive IT solutions to other countries. The e-Governance Academy in Tallinn, for instance, was created to consult with other states on how they can integrate similar digital services in their national regimen. According to researchers Piia Tammpuu and Anu Masso in their paper on the digitalized state as a commodity, Estonia has employed services like e-residency “for purposes of nation branding and national reputation management.” The marketing and public relations arm of the Estonian government works overtime to project Estonia as a modern, dynamic, and enlightened nation. However, despite a lengthy resume as pioneers in the e-governance space, Estonia will not be well-positioned to serve as a political and policy leader in the European Union community until they confront their extraordinary identity crisis as a Western-facing nation with Eastern European heritage.

If any event has brought such an identity crisis to light, it is the recent gridlock and panic over the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. On July 13th in 2018, the United Nations finalized the text for the Compact, a non-legally binding agreement on a common approach to international migration. By the end of the summer, Austria, Poland, and Hungary, countries which have previously received extensive criticism for xenophobia and government stances on migration, claimed they would not sign the agreement. Estonia, however, was expected to sign the document well into November, when the “migration mine” all of a sudden exploded and almost toppled the government.

On November 15, Estonian Justice Minister Urmas Reinsalu, a member of Pro Patria, one of three parties in the minority government coalition, vetoed any Estonian government signature on the UN Global Compact, sending politics scrambling. Not only did the Pro Patria party withdraw any and all support from the agreement, but members of the two major Parliamentary parties, the Centre Party of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and the opposition Reform Party, started to speak out against the Global Compact as well. The action by Reinsalu resulted in a dramatic two week period that involved flying accusations against President Kersti Kaljulaid, calls for the resignation of the Justice Minister, and the potential dissolution of a coalition that had governed peacefully for almost two years.

The pressure cooker deadlock climaxed on November 26 at a rally of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) in Tallinn, where a physical attack on Member of the European Parliament Indrek Tarand sent shockwaves across the country. Tarand, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) which supports the Compact, was at the protest to meet and speak with EKRE voters about migration. Violent political action is extremely rare in Estonia, one of the most peaceful countries in the world, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. Estonians brag more than anything about having one of the only nonviolent revolutions in history, a story I have personally heard countless times even from strangers. After the news broke of the violent attack, I walked into my office the next day to see my Estonian coworkers wearing their disappointment and frustration like zombies.

With his coalition in conflict, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas did something that the modern-day government has never had to do before: he punted the decision on whether or not to support the Compact to the Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament. The government, which typically makes all foreign policy decisions on a unanimous basis, surrendered, claiming they would abide by whatever vote in the Parliament. Although the Parliament eventually adopted the Compact on November 27, they did it with a measly vote of 41 members in favor and 27 against (33 officials of the 101-member Parliament decided not to participate). For an issue that some determined would influence and shape the reputation of Estonia in the international community, there was a lousy showing on the Riigikogu floor.

According to Gallup, Estonia ranks as one of the countries least accepting of migrants in all of Europe. Estonia is a victim of reverse migration, as it loses large swathes of its highly educated population, yet one in five Estonians think refugees are the state’s biggest problem, symbolic of the unwillingness to open borders to the very migrants that might solve the loss of labor and brain power. Some have proposed that Estonia’s illiberal stances on immigration may be rooted in discrimination, while others have suggested that the decades of suppression of Estonian culture and language by the Soviet Union have left Estonians still ultra-protective of their language, sovereignty, and territory. Estonia’s vulnerability to “Russification” by the Soviet Union and the lasting memory of the most recent mass migration into Estonian territory by ethnic Russians may still haunt them today. Although it may be Western- or Nordic-facing, Estonia cannot forget to confront and reconcile its Eastern European history.

What does the crisis over the UN Global Compact on Migration mean for Estonia? Not only did it almost topple one of the most stable parliamentary governments in Eastern Europe, but it also represents one of the greatest challenges to Estonia’s future development. The immigration conflicts that have roiled and rocked Estonian politics over the last few weeks have shown the European Union that Estonia is not yet well-equipped to lead conversations at the regional level about refugees, aid, or maybe even some aspects of foreign policy. In an era of refugee crises, how can Estonia step up to the policy plate when they cannot negotiate conflict over migration in their own coalition?

About a month ago, Estonia announced that they will not send any representatives to the United Nations conference in Morocco to express their political support for the Compact on Migration, evidence that this is one challenge that remains unsolved for a country that has digital and technological solutions ready for almost any other public problem. As someone that has lived in Estonia for the past few months, I may be biased in saying this, but I am rooting for Estonia and for the progressive forces that shined in the past to win over the country once again.

Anna Blue graduated with honors from the International Relations program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. After working for a small think tank in Los Angeles for two years, she arrived in Tartu, Estonia to pursue her Fulbright grant for a year. As a Fulbright researcher, she studies and investigates the policy and security impacts of Estonian e-residency.