Estonia: The Mouse That Roared?
By Robert J. Kaiser
What does it take to start a cold war, and how will we know when we're in one? Though it may not seem the obvious place to look for answers, recent events in Estonia are telling. The removal last month of the bronze soldier statue commemorating the Soviet Union's WWII dead from Tallinn, Estonia's capital, sparked a wave of rioting in the city by ethnic Russians, angry demonstrations outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow, and a "cyberattack" on Estonian Web sites. Perhaps more importantly, Russia and the West were swept up into the vortex of these events, leaving them in decidedly colder positions than previously.
Sixteen years may have passed since Estonia regained its independence as a result of the Soviet Union's disintegration, but Russia continues to loom large in the tiny nation state, where cold war thinking and rhetoric dominate its international relations. Many Estonians see Russia and the Russians as the principal security threat facing their homeland. As then president Lennart Meri put it in 1999: "On one side Europe, on the other Russia…We are on the border, and therefore only a small push is needed to make us fall into one side or rise into the other." Acting on this cold war impulse, Estonia's leaders essentially closed the border with Russia. Following independence, Estonia became a member of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and a number of other Western interstate organizations, in order to help secure its place in the West, outside of Russia's orbit.
Likewise, the state's decision to join the EU and NATO in 2004 was driven by geopolitical insecurity: by the fear that Russia would again become an expansionist power upon recovering from the economic traumas associated with the disintegration of the USSR and post-soviet transition.
With Russia’s recent re-emergence on the global economic and political
scene, Estonian security concerns are once again on the rise. For many
Estonians, the bronze soldier statue has become an avatar of the Soviet Union's
(and now Russia's) expansionist tendencies, of the USSR's occupation of their
homeland from 1940 to 1991, and of the continued presence of a large number of
ethnic Russians who migrated to Estonia during the soviet era -- and who many
still perceive as occupiers to this day.
At the time of independence, ethnic Russians accounted for over 30 percent of Estonia's total population. Estonia pursued a set of exclusionary policies, including the denial of citizenship. Remarkably, over 140,000 of the 300,000 ethnic Russians who live in Estonia today remain stateless. For many of these ethnic Russians, the bronze soldier statue stands as a symbol of the sacrifice their parents and grandparents made to liberate Estonia and Europe from fascism, and as a marker of their right to live in Estonia. In recent years, the statue has also become a site where ethnic Russians gather to protest their cultural and political exclusion in Estonia.
In a clear reflection of the cold war thinking and rhetoric that prevails among Estonia's leaders, the defense minister justified the removal of the statue by claiming that an increasingly aggressive Russia was using the Soviet-era monument for political purposes. The demonstrations and riots that accompanied the statue's relocation were similarly blamed, not on the failure of Estonia's Integration Program to accommodate the needs of the state's ethnic Russian population, but rather on "instigators" operating under orders from Moscow to stir up trouble between Estonians and Russians, or to make Estonia look bad in the eyes of the West.
Russia's reaction to the statue's relocation -- consisting of proclaiming Estonia a fascist state, using strong-arm tactics against Estonia's ambassador in Moscow, and exerting economic pressures on the state -- played into pre-existing cold war stereotypes, making Estonia's claims that Putin himself was behind the demonstrations outside their embassy in Moscow and the "cyberattack" on their Web sites all the more believable.
Although the EU was initially reluctant to take sides, on May 24 the European Parliament declared the statue incident a "test case" of EU solidarity and voted to condemn Russia and to assign it most of the blame for the violence. EU solidarity effectively makes Estonia's cold war with Russia the EU's cold war with Russia, and this has already contributed to a failed economic summit in Samara and a growing gap between Russia and the other seven members of the G8.
In the United States, too, rhetoric is heating up to the point of evoking cold war-era tensions. While much of that rhetoric has surrounded Putin's resistance to the Bush administration's proposal to deploy a defensive missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Congressman Lantos's reaction to events in Estonia ("Russia: Rebuilding the Iron Curtain"), along with the Senate and House resolutions condemning Russia for these events while expressing solidarity with Estonia, reinforce the notion that the cold war is being revived in America.
The statue incident shows that although the cold war formally came to a close in 1991, a new cold war actually began for Estonia and other post-soviet states in that year, and that it persists as a way of thinking and talking both in Russia and in the West. Now that the Baltic states are part of the EU, the cold war that was brought to life there has re-animated the all-too-familiar geopolitical slogans and posturing in Washington, Moscow and Brussels. The United States and the European Union must actively resist being seduced into making Estonia’s cold war with Russia their own. Otherwise, without even realizing it, we could find ourselves in the midst of a new cold war -- all for the sake of the mouse that roared.