We can unite to promote our differences

14.12.2016 | By Evelyn Kaldoja

It was couple of days after the NATO summit of this summer. I was staying over in Poland a little longer to take a deeper look at the country’s politics. During one interesting conversation with a Polish colleague I was asked what I and Estonians generally thought about the idea of Intermarium.

I’m sorry to say, that I had to ask him to clarify what exactly he meant. Thus I learnt about a concept which is supposedly being developed under Polish leadership and which supposedly includes my country as well.

I follow Estonia’s foreign policy. I closely cover it for the biggest daily newspaper in the Baltic countries. I concentrate on NATO-related topics and Baltic politics. But this was the first time I had heard of the idea of Intermarium in a contemporary context. And I can confirm with my hand on my heart that this is not something that has been mentioned publicly in our foreign policy discourse. I told to my colleague in Warsaw as much. Who, in turn, concluded that in this case the idea has been oversold in his country.

I can almost imagine how our officials heard of the idea, listened politely and kept their poker faces while fully aware that this would go in the drawer with things of little importance. After self-briefing myself with a little help from Google I came to the conclusion that this initiative is probably something similar to the little Bucharest summit 2015. Good intentions on the part of our allies which leave us half-hearted and somewhat cautious. For good reasons, I would say.

We did send our president (who does not go to other summits since we are a parliamentary country) to Bucharest. Although I heard the expression «play summit» from an official working for our government before that event and our public took little if any notice that this summit took place. We do send our class «A» ambassadors to Warsaw and share the view on many current issues with Poland. And I would guess that for an average Estonian it is a lot easier to relate to an average person from any of the proposed «Intermarium» countries than to an average person from any of the Western European countries.

But somehow, it is in this context I feel like reminding that after World War I Finland was also considered a Baltic country by some. Especially in the sense that it was also one of the «pays limitrophes» – the buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe. In a way it was a very nice set: two countries where people speak Finnougric languages and the only two countries in the world where people speak Baltic languages.

But it would be totally useless to refer to Finland as a Baltic country nowadays. Not just because they themselves like to be in the Nordic set. But they actually have become so incomparably different. And I would not blame only the World War II and the Soviet occupation that followed for us. I would highlight that Finland itself stood out already in 1930s. Lithuania became an autocracy in 1926. Estonia and Latvia followed the suit in 1934. Finland never did and unlike its southern neighbors resisted Soviet invasion with military means and by that retained the core of their territory as a free country.

No, I am not from the bunch that would suggest that Estonia is now a Nordic country as well. Most charts and things that can be measured with statistics – but I am certain that a look into people’s attitudes as well – would clearly point that we are the closest and most comparable with Latvia and Lithuania. I think it is a good and like-minded bunch to stay in and I have never been a supporter of the idea that Estonia should aspire for becoming a Nordic country.

But I would still recall the contradictory reactions to Freedom House’s this year’s report «Nations in Transit». My country was still there, along with more than 20 countries that had the misfortune of belonging to the «Soviet bloc» for decades after World War II. My country was also the only one among them with the ranking below 2 (1.93 for Estonia, after us came Slovenia with 2, Latvia with 2.03, Czech Republic with 2.21 and Poland and Lithuania with 2.32; at the bottom stood Azerbaijan with the score of 6.86). There was some pride among Estonians for being the first in something. But it was mostly overtaken by the feeling that maybe we should not be competing at the «special Olympics» since we are perfectly comparable with normal Western democracies.

According to the very same source Estonia’s level of press freedom is slightly closer to the same index of Norway, Sweden or the Netherlands than any of the CEE countries. We were not the best of the «suggested Intermarium» in this year’s chart compiled by Reporters Without Borders – they gave Slovakia 12th and us 14th position. But we were the only two of this proposed set that made it to the first 20. Hungary was 67th. Poland’s 46th and Romania’s 49th position also clearly show something. It can be a tradition in some countries that journalists working for the public media will be sacked when the party in power changes. It is just that I am happy my country is more like Finland in that sense – politicians and society retain the kind of media hygiene that will not allow them to stick their greasy hands to the editorial boards of the public television or radio. And, in turn, private media does its best to self-regulate political balance and their readers are extremely sensitive about getting biased information from the news content.

We are also the best of the «Intermarium set» in Transparency International’s famous Corruption Perception Index. Four places up from the next one which this time is Poland.

I am perfectly aware of the fact that the paragraphs above look like tasteless bragging. But I am trying to make a harsh point here. It is healthier for us – like for any other CEE country – not to sit in the children’s table and compare themselves with other unfortunates who had the «luck» of being captured by the Soviet system. Every one of us has to aim for the highest possible places. We are European countries! With educated populations and democratic societies! We all should aim for the highest places in those charts.

But this was about «personal» goals of any of the respective countries. The other thing is the labels outsiders put on us. I am totally allergic to the term «post-Soviet». While being Eastern Europe is sort of geographical fact for us (although maybe not for the C-part of the CEE countries), this term also tends to come out the very wrong way in so many contexts. For example, if France 24 talks about terrorists getting their arms from Eastern Europe it actually tends to mean Ukraine but a whole load of countries from South of Europe to the North of Europe gets the blame. Or, if the very same channel mentions East European human smugglers in a specific, there is a high likelihood that only Albanians are the ones to blame. We all are their faraway «savage land».

So, I would be really careful not to re-enforce those terms in the bad sense with our own behavior. It is OK if the whole Eastern flank of NATO reminds of their geopolitical discomfort. It is also OK to stick together if European farming subsidies seem to never fully apply to the ever-new members, i.e. us. It would be really nice if we had a common campaign to explain to the Western Europe that we actually are really diverse and have no horns and tails. But I would not like to see my country tied to the same set when somebody else’s political leader makes a controversial statement about human rights or somebody else’s government will be called up by the EU for the visible violations against the rule of law.

CEE is a colorful set of countries with people who remember rougher recent history than their Western counterparts. Quite often we in this neighborhood – from sea to the sea and not sufficiently far away from Russia – do get each other better. And we have some significant common interests to stand up for. It is true that Western countries sometimes try to slightly bully or just do not understand their Eastern partners. And one cannot deny that they, their media or general public sometimes finds an easy scapegoat in the form of the «threatening and wild East».

But we cannot make being the eternal victim the core essence of our being. Even less a reason for deliberately forming a bloc inside the good Western-initiated blocs they invited us to join. We have to acknowledge and propagate our own diversity. That is something we could do together. And, among other things, we should stress that not only the languages, religiosity and pre-20th century history but also contemporary political events, parties in power and general societal attitudes differ significantly.