No future for ethnic purity

Estonia will have to give up striving for ethnic purity if it is to become a prosperous country in the long-term. Photo by Sébastien Bertrand.

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 so let me clarify it.

It means that my own country, Britain, might actually split 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 splitting 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 1990s 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 1980s 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.

With the Conservatives in power again, opinion polls say 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 globalized 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 past months 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, like Estonia, is 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 Europe 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 1980s 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 national 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 continuing economic problems have put the issue on the back burner for now.

No jobs plus no money equals no expatriates. But the problem isn’t going to go away The issue should be debated at least.

Abdul Turay is a freelance writer living in Tallinn. Read more of his incisive, thought-provoking work here.


Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.

8 Responses for “No future for ethnic purity”

  1. Mark Splinter says:

    Quite simply, you can’t fix a small country’s problems by alienating foreigners. The Baltic States have demonstrated that perfectly. Now all they need to do is realise.

  2. E. Briedis says:

    The Baltics would be better if the Russian speaking non-citizen persons would return to their own homelands or just learn the native language – that is not the proper solution to all nations – but in the Baltics, the problems are different – it is like trying to get a rapist out of your bedroom.
    Every ethnic Balt has at least one or more ‘immediate relatives’ who were shot or deported or worse by the communists (my uncle was shot, my aunt sent to Siberia). Almost every ethnic Balt was displaced – if you owned something, it was taken – just imagine your police dept as a real and menacing terror organization.

  3. Harald says:

    “The nation’s leaders want the country to become as prosperous as Sweden, Finland or Norway.”

    Three of the least ethnically diverse countries you will find.

  4. Roger B says:

    I reject the authors argument totally.

    Immigration has destroyed the character of my country, Britain. It has made it a rather unpleasant place to live in. Multiracialism DOES NOT WORK.

    What the author is doing is asking Estonai to drop immigration controls, saying this will make Estonia rich.

    Japan is rich and lets very few foriegners in. China is becoming rich and is staying Chinese.

    Relaxing immigration controls will lead to lots of people from the Third World coming to live. They will “import poverty”, sending money out of your country back home. Schools will struggle with the number of children they have. They will commit crimes you did not have before, such as gang rape (look at your neighbour Sweden), gang attacks on Estonians, mugging.
    They will bring their diseases and spread them to you.
    Many of them will not work, or will work in low paid jobs and pay no tax, so YOU will have to pay for there medical treatment, crime, and large numbers of children.

    Look at the problems other countries have with immigration. Look at the trouble in Malmo, Sweden. It has a huge ghetto called Rosengaard where Swedes are in danger and the police are afraid to go.
    Look at the riots in France. Look at the problems Germany has in its chools with Muslim pupils. What about the milliions of Africans and Roma in Italy? The immigrant crime wave in Australia?

    Is this what you really want?

    Immigration from non-European countries will destroy Estonia just as it is destroying my country, Great Britain.

    Remember, you can’t try out this policy for a trial period. You will become flooded very quickly. There will be no going back.

  5. Leah M says:

    The xenophobia and racism in these comments are a bit chilling.

    As for England, @Roger, immigration started long before the 20th century and you will find that most of the “non-European” immigrants come from former British colonies. And as for China, the 56 “official” ethnic groups would disagree with your assessment that China is mono-cultural. It may be dominated by the Han Chinese ethnicity (who have some racist attitudes towards the other ethnic groups), but it is not simply “Chinese”.

    @E. Briedis: I understand your point. I do not necessarily agree with it, but I understand it. One thing that I have discovered over the years is that there are many shades of gray when it comes to the issue.

    And @Harald: Norway, Sweden and Finland actually are quite diverse and have sizable “non-white”/”non-European”/”non etc..” populations. Not the size of US or Canada, but still bigger than one would think. See: Somalian refugees in Finland.

    My point is: things are a lot more complex than they seem. I believe that it is important for the Baltic States to think about the possibility of folks of different backgrounds immigrating to their countries. Many of these immigrants (some of color) are already here or have been here for a while (See: Soviet policies encouraging students and workers from Africa, Asia and South America to come to the Soviet Union to escape racism back home. And yes, there was also racism in the Soviet Union). But, if this conversation does not happen now, when will it?

  6. Harald says:

    Leah, it is true there are sizeable “non-white, non-European” (your words not mine) populations of refugees in Scandinavia. Those refugees then tend to get sent home when the situation in their home countries changes as is the current case with Iraqis being sent home from Sweden. Hence the large Somali population etc.
    There is an important difference between temporary refugees and permanent economic migrants who, in Scandinavia, are generally expected to assimilate.
    I do not understand why you find it “chilling” that people can politely disagree about the benefits of multiculturalism?
    You sound far too intelligent to come out with a crass “this is how the third reich got started” argument so I would be interested to know precisely what it is that is giving you the chills?

  7. Leah M says:

    @Harald: I never mentioned the Third Reich. Why would I? Nor would I ever say something like “this is how the third reich got started”. I am Jewish and even I know that those are strong words.

    As for the chilling thing, I was responding directly to Roger and E.Briedis, specifically. I only note racism when I see it and I do not see it in everything. And I would have not responded to this thread if I did not feel the need to comment on the on-going conversation. I am not condemning anyone’s words, I am only pointing out that some of the language used is quite xenophobic and slightly racist. Especially if one points out that ” The nation’s leaders want the country to become as prosperous as Sweden, Finland or Norway.” -“Three of the least ethnically diverse countries you will find.” which seems to indicate that a multiracial society is not a prosperous society. And then there is Roger’s comment about how immigrants, particularly dark skinned ones, have “destroyed” his country. How is that last comment not xenophobic? How does it not directly demonstrate a “fear of the other”? Especially immigrants?

    Again, I welcome the conversation and would rather people speak their minds than not say anything at all.

  8. Roger B says:

    Leah, My comments are not xenophobic or racist. I just want my own people to have a home of their own, and reject the argument – used on my own people – that multiracialism is a positive thing. For us, and many others it has been a disaster. Why is it wrong to point this out? Why is it wrong to disagree with the cult of multiculturalism?
    The lies that were fed to us in order to accept immigration from the Third World are being peddled in the article. I put it to you that it is wrong, and fascistic, to accuse me of racism just for speaking out against what I see as a wrong. After all, I live in the UK and see what Third World immigration has done to my country. To NOT speak out would be wrong.
    When you see Israeli tanks shooting at unarmed Palestinians do you see anti-Arab racism ther by the way?

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