How to become Estonian
By Abdul Turay
First published Postimees 26 February 2009
I recently gave a series of lectures at Hugo Treffner gymnasium and other schools in Tartu about the crisis of civic nationalism.
The students were fairly quiet during the lectures but I am told by their class teachers there was heated and furious arguments about what it all means for Estonia after I left.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with what exactly civic nationalism is, much less that it is in crisis so let me clarify it.
It means that my own country, Britain, might actually collapse like the Soviet Union, not five years or 10 years from now, but next year or the year after.
The same thing could happen to Belgium, Spain, South Africa even the United States. Canada came within a hairbreadths of collapse 14 years ago.
In Britain the danger is very real and imminent. If you're not familiar with British politics. You might be surprised to hear this.
There are broadly speaking two competing ideas about what makes a nation valid. On the one hand, as social contract thinkers like Rousseau argued, nation-states have legitimacy because everybody in the country agrees to live by the same rules what ever those rules may be. So in Britain there is representational democracy, constitutional monarch, an established church,(the Anglican church in England and Presbyterian church is Scotland) and a Common Law system for England and Wales and mixed system for Scotland. Since the 90's Scotland and Wales also have their own parliament and assembly but England doesn't. Most of these institutions are very ancient and in centuries past people liked them. They used to form the backbone of what gave Britain it's sense of itself.
The British national anthem “God save the Queen” for example doesn't express love for the country but loyalty to the monarchy.
In Britain people have lost respect for national institutions, no-one goes to church, people have contempt for parliament and jeer at the national anthem. Moreover in the 80's you had a Conservative Party government that alienated large segments of the population especially in Scotland. This led to the rise of Scottish Nationalism as the generation who grew up in the 80's are now politically ascendant.
The Scottish Nationalist Party, who want an independent Scotland, are calling for a referendum before 2011.
If the Conservative get into power again, as opinion polls say they will, the Scots might vote for independence not because they want it but because they don't want another Conservative government.
You are probably thinking what has this all got do with Estonia. Well there is broadly speaking another brand of nationalism, Ethnic Nationalism. According to this theory first put about by German philosopher Johann Herder in the early 19th century, a nation has legitimacy because people in the nation are all the same. They all speak the same language, look the same, sing the same songs follow the same traditions and share a common ancestry.
Estonia is a pretty good example of how one can create an ethnic nation from nothing as happened as the ideas of Herder and his acolytes swept across the Baltic region in the mid-19th Century.
“Don't have a ready-made national epic?” get Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald to write one.
Civic nationalism is potentially inclusive, and flexible, ethnic nationalism intrinsically is not.
Estonia's brand of ethnic nationalism is problematic.
In an increasingly globalised world with millions of people moving across national borders is ethnic nationalism feasible?
The nation's leaders want the country to become as prosperous as Sweden, Finland or Norway.
If Estonia does catch up, immigrants will come, there is no stopping it. They will come not just from Africa or Asia but from other parts of Europe where there are now millions of people who don't look typically Estonian. And if they don't come, it will only be because the great project for Estonia has failed.
Estonia still faces the question of a population decline. The economic situation is likely to throw a spanner in the works of the Government's campaign to get people to have more children. No jobs and no money means less children.
However it’s pretty clear if you talk to young people around the country like I have in the past few weeks, they are pretty adamant that Estonia's brand of ethnic nationalism is here to stay.
No one here will tolerate the notion that you could have a situation like you have in Canada with two languages with equal status under the constitution.
But here's the rub, although civic nation's are in crisis the concept of civic nationalism itself is not. In fact many previously ethnic nations are having to recast themselves as civic ones including virtually every nation in Western Europe.
Scotland is like Estonia a small Northern European nation. It has a world famous, clearly defined heritage and sense of itself. You'd would think the Scottish Nationalism would be ethnic. It isn't. The SNP has studiously courted the support of Asian Muslims, other immigrants and their descendants. They have encouraged these people to think of themselves as Scottish and recruited them as allies in promoting Scottish national pride. The party have an Asian Muslim Member Scottish Parliament who was born in Pakistan. They have even tried to get votes from New European immigrants including Estonians who have arrived in the country in the past four years.
By adopting an inclusive policy the Scottish National Party has gone from been a fringe party in the 80's to the party of government in the Scottish Parliament. In short the Scots have adopted their own civic nationalism to challenge British civic identity.
Maybe Estonia can learn from the Scots. Maybe the answer lies in taking more pride in Estonian nationality identity not less.
Estonia is a small nation but there is no reason it can't be a great one, As one student, a potential future prime minister I think, pointed out to me, “we can make Estonian something people from other parts of the world want to be.”
Immigrants needn't be a threat, they can be potential allies. People coming here are not going want to learn Russian or English, they going to want to learn Estonian, the common language.
For myself I can say that if I were continue to live here and to have children here I would encourage them to speak Estonian at home and to think of themselves as Estonian, even though obviously they are not going to look like everybody else.
It's not going be easy and the current economic crisis has put the issue on the back burner for now.
No jobs and no money equals no ex-patriots. But the problem isn't going to go away The issue should be debated at least.