Home / Articles / Democracy Versus Nation Branding in Estonia
For years, the international attention paid to the “tiny Baltic nation” of Estonia was overwhelmingly positive. After pulling itself out of the doldrums of their Soviet past, Estonia embarked on a new direction, emphasizing open markets, liberal democracy, technological expertise, and a Western-oriented, pro-European outlook. They were among the first post-Soviet states to join NATO, the European Union, and adopt the euro. It seemed that every journalist had to take a requisite trip to explore the country of 1.3 million, remarking that Estonia gave the world Skype, and is so forward-looking that citizens can accomplish most government services digitally — Estonians even vote online! Here are just a few selected headlines from The Atlantic, for example: “Estonia Already Lives Online, Why Can’t the United States?” (May 2020); “Is Estonia the New Finland?”; and “Lessons from the World’s Most Tech-Savvy Government” (January 2014).
In short, Estonia has been seen as a country constantly innovating and always progressing. Even when there was troubling news coming from Estonia — such as the 2007 cyber attack on essential digital infrastructure allegedly orchestrated by the Russian state — the media story mainly focused on what Estonia learned from the attack and how the country improved its cyber defense, rather than dwelling on any security lapse. Following the attack, NATO essentially rewarded Estonia for their good work on cyber defense, placing a “Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence” in Tallinn and developing the Tallinn Manual, a guidebook for all things cyber security.
The news coming from Estonia in the last few weeks, however, has been more a source of heartburn for much of the country rather than a source of pride. Following the election of Joe Biden as incoming president of the United States, Mart Helme of EKRE — a right-wing populist political party and current member of Estonia’s coalition government — remarked on a radio program in Estonia that Biden was a “corrupt scumbag.” Helme went on to say that incumbent US President Donald Trump “will win eventually … maybe even bloodshed but justice will win in the end.” The news circulated quickly around Estonia and soon appeared in several widely-read English press outlets, including The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Politico, and The Guardian. Helme’s comment followed what had already been statements of congratulations to the Biden camp from both Prime Minister Juri Ratas and President Kersti Kaljulaid, as well as other prominent Estonian politicians, like former Estonian Ambassador to the US and former Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand and Parliamentarian Marko Mihkelson, who offered their congratulations via social media. A day after Helme’s statement, and following immense scrutiny by the government and public outcry, Helme resigned as interior minister.
Mart Helme, and his son Martin, are the ideological and political force behind the EKRE party, which was founded in 2012 and translates in English to the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia. The party’s main enemies are globalism, immigration and social liberalism. On the issues of globalism and immigration alone, it is easy to see why EKRE might share sympathies with Trump. But no matter who the American president is, Estonia’s vulnerable geopolitical position, small size, and small military make it necessary to have good relations with the United States and with NATO. After Trump took office in 2017, Kaljulaid offered a note of congratulations — a courtesy of elected leaders, regardless of ideological differences. And as recently as last year, Kaljulaid met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Richard Burr — both Republicans — to affirm Estonia’s close ties to the United States. Helme has not shied away from salacious comments in the past, but his remarks on the 2020 election, which had potential to destabilize US-Estonian relations, were a bridge too far. As Kaljulaid remarked in a statement on Nov. 8, “[The] American people elect their president without help from our ministers, but the Estonian government must stand for our relations with our allies and our security.” In a Facebook post, Ratas admonished Helme, noting that such outlandish claims could do great harm to Estonia’s close ties to the United States. Moreover, the culmination of the Helmes’ commentary over the years has left not only political figures, but business leaders exasperated. “What Mart Helme and Martin Helme are doing is systematically harming the country we have built over the past 30 years,” said Transferwise founder Taavet Hinrikus in Politico. (TransferWise is a money transfer service founded by two Estonians; like Skype once was, it is hailed as one of Estonia’s most notable and recognized ventures).
This is not the first occasion in which Helme’s words have led to something of a public relations crisis. In May 2019, Estonia’s Reform Party initiated an unsuccessful vote of no-confidence on Helme after he called President Kaljulaid “an emotional woman.” In December 2019, Helme remarked that newly installed Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin — who at 34 was one of the youngest political leaders in the world — was a “sales girl,” a “street activist and uneducated person.” Finland is one of Estonia’s closest, and most historic allies, and Helme’s comment had both Kaljulaid and Ratas calling Finland’s prime minister and issuing public apologies on behalf of the government. This led the Reform Party — a free market, socially liberal, and pro-European party — to again offer a vote of no-confidence for Helme. Like the previous attempt, it too failed. Earlier this fall, Helme encouraged Estonia to adopt a referendum that would define marriage as that between man and woman, further following the proposal by suggesting if gay Estonians did not like it, “let them run to Sweden.” Ratas again denounced Helme’s statement.
Following Mart Helme’s resignation in November, the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) sought a vote of no-confidence on his son Martin Helme, the current finance minister. Martin Helme, who stood by his father, argued that Biden’s victory was the work of the “deep state” and further commented that “there is no question these elections were falsified.” The no-confidence vote failed by five votes, and Martin Helme remains in his post.
The many remarks of the Helme family over the last several years not only make governing a rather tenuous political coalition difficult, but also makes it harder for Estonia to stand out as the exceptionally good, always forward-looking, “tiny Baltic nation” that can do it all. A recent article in The Guardian surveyed the landscape of Trump support throughout Europe, highlighting the right-wing Viktor Orbán of Hungary and his political ally Janez Janša of Slovenia, before spending several paragraphs discussing Mart Helme’s views on the US election. For many that study the region, it was jarring to see the political dynamics of Hungary and Estonia somewhat aligned.
Until the arrival of EKRE on the political scene four years ago, Estonia had a fairly consistent messaging centered around markets, education, and technology and innovation. In fact, Estonia was a perfect fit for what a number of scholars titled “nation branding,” a term that has its origins in the tourism and marketing literature, but has since been adopted by communications scholars and social scientists. As defined by Melissa Aronczyk, nation branding “allows national governments to better manage and control the image they project to the world, and to attract the ‘right’ kinds of investment, tourism, trade, and talent” (2008: 42). Nation branding is predicated on generating a clear message to outsiders, which is especially needed if you are a small country that needs to differentiate yourself, and feel as though your story needs to be told. Estonia wanted desperately to escape its Soviet past, and settled on education, computing, and technology in the mid-1990s. It helped, of course, that one of the greatest champions of such a program — Toomas Hendrik Ilves — would go on to be president of Estonia. Even Estonia’s more tourist-specific branding has emphasized technology, in one such case connecting Estonia’s abiding love of the landscape and wilderness to its digital prowess. As authors Emilia Pawłusz and Abel Polese remarked: “The ancientness of the country and its rural charm are further juxtaposed with its progressiveness, fast technological development, and widespread access to the Internet” (2017: 7-8). One such campaign slogan noted: “Estonia – WiFi in the Forest.”
But nation branding, like any good marketing campaign, is built around a consistent message. What happens if the message you want to distribute is being buried by less than flattering portrayals of your country? This is the space where democratic politics confronts nation branding.
Much of what we know about nation branding is that it is a very top-down process, organized around the interests of bureaucracies, business leaders, and political elites, to name a few. While done with the interest of the greater community in mind, these processes are not always collaborative or infused with democratic politics. As Sue Curry Jansen argued: “Brand consistency may be a desirable objective from a marketing point of view; from a democratic perspective, it is not a desirable national goal” (2008: 135). Of course, not every story in the foreign press is a product of despotic branders hammering a specific message out. And moreover, news outlets in democratic societies are typically free to write or produce whatever they so choose, which can align with branding purely by happenstance. In the case of Estonia, e-voting and digital citizenship, just to name two examples, are interesting ideas that are deserving of press attention by virtue of their novelty.
But not every Estonian might resonate with a progressive, innovation-centered message, and in fact, could very well reject such messaging. As political scientist Nikolai Kunitson remarked in an interview with Euronews, there is Tallinn — with all its comparative wealth — and the rest of Estonia, where the standard of living is far lower, roughly 70% of that of the European Union on average. While it could be remarked that a good reputation and brand works in favor of all Estonians, it does not mean everyday citizens will get on board. EKRE’s outward support for Trump is unsurprising, as EKRE seeks to speak for those who have been “left behind;” EKRE’s support is more rural, less urban, and more working class, less upper-middle class. EKRE voters are less likely to e-vote than voters aligned with the more city-dwelling Reform Party. And EKRE sees global networks as generally hostile to their interests. They want an “Estonia for Estonians.” In the United States, many political observers are trying to make sense of whether we are living through the last embers of Trumpism, or whether we are only at the beginnings of a movement which will reshape American politics for years to come. In a similar vein, could the EKRE block grow, and with it, will Estonia’s outward-facing priorities emphasizing digital innovation get put on the back-burner?
It is far too soon to say the Estonian brand is dead. But it might be fair to say Estonia finds itself in a different political environment than when the “Estonian brand” was first created. For the last 30 years, domestic and international issues in Estonia have been greatly defined by its Russian neighbor. This includes feeling secure from the military threat posed by Russia, and seeking to resolve conflict among Russian-speakers and Estonians within the country. A brand that spoke to innovation and progress created distance between Estonia and Russia. But EKRE has changed those dynamics considerably. The EKRE bloc has doubled in size since 2015, and like other countries in Europe, the far right appears to have staying power. What if technological progress is not the most important thing to Estonians? What if a return to “traditional” Estonian values is what the public craves? We cannot fully predict such an outcome, but in the struggle between the brand and democracy, it is democracy — with all of its messiness — that can humble any nation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Aronczyk, Melissa. 2008. “‘Living the Brand’: Nationality, Globality and the Identity Strategies of Nation Branding Consultants.” International Journal of Communication. V. 2 (pg. 41-65).
Jansen, Sue Curry. 2008. “Designer Nations: Neo-Liberal Nation Branding — Brand Estonia.” Social Identities. V. 14:1 (pg. 121-142).
Pawłusz, Emilia and Abel Polese. 2017. “‘Scandinavia’s Best-Kept Secret’. Tourism Promotion, Nation-Branding, and Identity Construction in Estonia (With a Free Guided Tour of Tallinn Airport).” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity. DOI: 10.1080/00905992.2017.1287167. (pg. 1-20).