A Dutch journalist once asked me if we Estonians were afraid of Russia. No, I replied, we are just cautious. Perhaps I was too optimistic, perhaps not, but one can say with some amount of certainty that a sub-conscious fear of Russia was the main reason Estonia transformed so quickly from a soviet state into a fully-integrated member of the European Union.
This reluctance to be too optimistic — this caution — has been very often ignored by the larger nations and Estonia is frequently accused of being paranoid about Russia. The reason for this difference in views is that those larger nations have never faced the prospect of being completely wiped off the map. The purpose of this article is not to go into the details of the horrors of WWII. Suffice it to say that Estonians felt their existence was threatened during the war and in its aftermath.
After regaining independence in 1991, it was clear that Estonia had only one choice — integration into Western structures. The economic facet was of only secondary importance, since the main motivation for economic reforms lie elsewhere — in history and culture.
An example of the other options was provided by Edward Lucas, a journalist for the Economist, who in his book The New Cold War recalls how in 1992, Igor Rodionov, the then head of the Russian military staff college (and later Yeltsin’s defence minister) said Moscow would insist on:
- the neutrality of East European countries or their friendly relations with Russia;
- free access to seaports in the Baltics for Russia;
- the exclusion of ‘third country’ military forces from the Baltics; and
- the non-membership of the Baltic states in military blocs directed at Russia, etc.
Up to 31 August , 1994, when Russian troops left Estonia, it was not very realistic to speak about Estonia’s joining NATO or the European Union. Even after Russia's military forces withdrew, those speaking about possible NATO membership for the Baltic states could have been called candidates for the madhouse. All in all, in the 1990s, NATO membership for the Baltic states seemed a very distant and unlikely future.
Consequently, the prospect of tenuous hard security meant that the only way to move forward was to seek consolation in the soft security provided by the European Union. But the EU does not count soldiers, it counts reforms. The EU did not plan the Big Bang enlargement from the beginning. To the contrary, in the 1990s, the potential new member states were told that each country would join the EU when it was ready.
There was a sort of deference to the former territory of the USSR in some Western circles and it was considered a major breakthrough when Estonia was among the first six countries to be invited to accession negotiations with the EU in 1997.
This absence of hard security and the remote possibility of becoming a member of the EU based on the country’s own merits meant that Estonia had to follow an accelerated path of reforms. The reforms themselves started at the beginning of the 1990s, but they took a definite shape after EU negotiations began in earnest in 1998.
Being small offers both negative and positive opportunities in international politics. Since Estonia — with a population of only 1.3m — was nowhere the size of Poland (38m), it could not count on inevitable admission to the EU. EU enlargement without Poland was unthinkable and that fact was well understood in Warsaw. On the other hand, the smallness of the country and the possibility to start from scratch plus the understanding that a window of opportunity had opened, enabled Estonia to exploit its incredible flexibility in order to be in the same line with the bigger countries in 2004 when EU enlargement finally took place.
The real prospect of joining NATO came considerably later than the chance to join the EU. In fact, only after 9/11 did Washington recognize that the rest of the Eastern European nations should be admitted to the alliance in order to secure their allegiance in the war against terror. Before that, the EU remained more or less the one single option for Estonia, even though Estonian politicians appealed to NATO membership very often in their rhetoric.
Looking back at the 1990s, we see that external factors played a role as well. The aftermath of the Cold War offered a sense of hope and prompted many politicians to begin speaking of "the end of history". All this combined with Russia’s weakness at the time gave Estonia a rare window of opportunity, but it would have remained unused if Estonia had not been committed to hard reforms which in turn were motivated by the wish to decisively turn Estonia's back to its soviet past. Caution served Estonia well.