Published on June 23rd, 2020
Written by Stanislav Budnitsky
On a cloudy afternoon in June 2017, I landed in Estonia’s capital Tallinn to attend the tenth annual European Dialogue on Internet Governance. As I made my way through the airport, I passed large advertisements depicting Estonia as “Positively Surprising” and identifying Cybernetica as “Architects of e-Estonia.”
Figure 1. Left: Brand Estonia advertisement at the Tallinn Airport (Photo by the author). Right: Cybernetica advertisement at the Tallinn Airport (Photo from 50×50.me)
“Positively Surprising” was the slogan of Estonia’s nation branding campaign.1 Enterprise Estonia, a governmental agency in charge of boosting the country’s global competitiveness, crafted the phrase as a part of an effort to present Estonia as a Nordic high-tech hub. According to Enterprise Estonia, the phrase conveyed that Estonia had “left the [post-socialist] transition phase behind and proved its existence as a small and strong country,” embraced “open thinking, innovation and development,” and would “continue positively surprising the world.”2
Video 1. Introduction to Estonia’s nation branding by Enterprise Estonia
An integral part of Estonia’s nation branding is the narrative about the country’s world-renowned e-government products and services, known as e-Estonia, for which a local IT firm Cybernetica developed the critical infrastructure.3 Since the introduction of Estonia’s first homegrown digital innovations in the late 1990s, Estonian authorities have meticulously cultivated a mythology of Estonia as a global digital leader.4 The myth of e-Estonia is meant to signal Estonian society’s technological savviness and thereby the country’s innate belonging within the Euro-Atlantic community.
Video 2. Introduction to e-Estonia by Enterprise Estonia
One of e-Estonia’s most persistent tropes suggests that wi-fi is available throughout the entire country. Estonia’s promotional materials include ubiquitous images of Estonians cheerily browsing the internet in forests, saunas, and pastures. The global media, enchanted by Estonia’s story of harnessing digital technologies to leapfrog the Soviet legacy, regularly report on e-Estonia under telling headlines such as, “In Estonia, Communism’s collapse paved the way for Wi-Fi everywhere.”5 Ironically, the airport’s wi-fi signal didn’t work beyond the exit doors, forcing me to step back inside to coordinate with my Uber driver, Andrei.
Video 3. “How Estonia built a digital first government” (PBS Newshour) – an example of typical Western media coverage of e-Estonia
During our fifteen-minute drive from the airport at the edge of Tallinn to my hotel downtown, Andrei shared his experiences with e-Estonia. Andrei enjoyed the convenience of e-government services but considered the idyllic image of e-Estonia to be overblown.6 Wi-fi, after all, was not everywhere but only in select places: as we were driving by a mall, he pointed out that teenagers gathered there in droves to use free internet at the food court.
Andrei, an upbeat, bearded thirtysomething, belonged to Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority. The Soviet rule between 1940 and 1991 had dramatically shifted the republic’s ethnic balance between the ethno-cultural Estonian majority and the Russian minority from 9-1 to 2-1, respectively.7 As representatives of the majority nation and language within the Soviet Union, most Russian-speaking newcomers throughout this period made little effort to integrate into the indigenous Estonian society and lived their lives essentially in a parallel socio-cultural environment.
Figure 2. Estonia’s ethnic makeup, 1897-2011. (Graphic from Wikipedia.org)
In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of Estonian independence, ethnic Estonian governing elites proclaimed the goal of preserving the titular nation’s culture and language as a priority of Estonian statehood. Consequently, they established a privileged relationship between the ethnic Estonian majority and state institutions.8 Only those individuals whose family presence in Estonia traced back to before the Soviet invasion of 1940 were automatically granted citizenship, thus initially excluding virtually all Soviet-era residents from post-Soviet Estonia’s state-building. Three decades after Estonia’s independence, Estonian- and Russian-speaking communities continue to differ significantly in their cultural and media consumption, political attitudes, and especially historical narratives.9
Figure 3. Attitudes of ethnic Estonians and Russians toward Estonian and international institutions. (Source: “Public Opinion and National Defense (October/November 2019),” Estonian Ministry of Defense)
The Estonian state’s ethnocentric philosophy underpins the material and social structures of e-Estonia. e-Estonia’s policymaking discourse and initiatives frame digital technologies as instruments for bolstering ethnic Estonians’ culture and language, and preserving Estonia’s ethno-national statehood.10 One governmental strategy, for example, posits that to maintain the “cultural memory and sustainability of the [ethnic] Estonian cultural space,” it is essential that “the most important cultural texts […] are made available in the digital environment.”11 Further, e-government tools in the Estonian language have more comprehensive functionality and accompanying information compared to their Russian-language versions.12 One result of this disparity is that Russian-speakers’ online engagement with the government is lower than that of Estonian-speakers.13
Figure 4. Display at the Estonian History Museum’s permanent exhibition, “Spirit of Survival. 11,000 years of Estonian History,” reads: “Those who have learned Estonian and can communicate with the natives in their language have always been loved most of all.” (Photo by the author)
Digital technologies in the service of the Estonian state reproduce rather than resolve structural issues within the Estonian society, including inequities between the two main ethnic groups. Andrei, for instance, was fond of Estonia’s online voting system, yet shared the supposedly common joke that when you voted online in Estonia, you voted for the ruling party. While some experts have raised concerns about the security of Estonia’s e-voting system, there’s no known evidence of electoral foul play.14 The joke, however, reveals the Russian minority’s lower levels of trust in state institutions as compared to ethnic Estonians.15
Figure 5. i-Voting introduction at the e-Estonia website. (Source: Enterprise Estonia)
The results of the most recent general elections in 2019, in fact, disproved the joke’s insinuation. With a record 43.8% of votes cast online, the ruling Centre Party, for which most Russian-Estonians vote, lost its parliamentary majority. To stay in power, the Centre Party, controversially, formed a coalition cabinet with the third-placed far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE).16 The unprecedented electoral showing of Eurosceptic and illiberal EKRE in the elections that involved the highest internet voting turnout puts in question the proposed correlation between Estonia’s digital successes and its progressive liberal nature.
According to the advisor on interethnic integration at the Estonian Ministry of Culture, the project of e-Estonia doesn’t benefit societal and professional standing of Estonian-Russians.17 To this day, for example, the country’s digital elite—entrepreneurs, developers, policymakers—remain almost exclusively ethnically Estonian.18 Indeed, Andrei mentioned that while filing for unemployment online was easy, finding a job proved much harder, hence his foray into the gig economy as an Uber driver. Andrei’s case may be reflective of the fact that unemployment among Russian speakers in the past decades steadily has been one-and-half to two-times higher than that among Estonians.
Figure 6. Left: Members of the Estonian startup scene refer to themselves tongue-in-cheek as #EstonianMafia. (Photo by the author) Right: Wall of Fame at Tallinn’s preeminent startup coworking space Lift99 features the most successful businesses launched by the #EstonianMafia. (Photo from Brand Estonia)
After parting ways with Andrei, I settled into my hotel for the night. The next morning, I sat in the audience at the opening of the European Dialogue on Internet Governance, which featured speeches by Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė. Kaljulaid’s address praised Estonia’s digital achievements and, using a moralistic binary, called on the democratic “white powers” to defend liberal values in cyberspace and beyond against authoritarian “dark forces.” The president also proposed that, in the European Union, each state’s national “culture must be preserved while going digital, because people expect it” and, on a separate note, that states must foster “a culture of governance where the power holders and citizens are de facto partners, sharing a responsibility for the future of their country.”
Figure 7. Banner of the 2017 European Dialogue on Internet Governance (Photo by the author)
While Kaljulaid’s speech invoked national cultures and a culture of governance as disparate items, the case of e-Estonia illuminates the need to scrutinize their interconnectedness. In Estonia, as elsewhere, the cultures and expectations that powerholders privilege informs who ultimately benefits from digital technologies and dictates who is included as a partner in building the country’s networked future.
Stanislav Budnitsky is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His current research explores how state nationalism influences global internet politics, focusing on Russia’s and Estonia’s approaches to internet governance.
- On Estonia’s nation branding, see Emilia Pawłusz and Abel Polese, “‘Scandinavia’s Best-Kept Secret.’ Tourism Promotion, Nation-Branding, and Identity Construction in Estonia (with a Free Guided Tour of Tallinn Airport),” Nationalities Papers 45, no. 5 (September 3, 2017): 873–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/00905992.2017.1287167; Sue Curry Jansen, “Redesigning a Nation: Welcome to E-Stonia, 2001-2018,” in Branding Post-Communist Nations: Marketizing National Identities in the “New” Europe, ed. Nadia Kaneva (New York: Routledge, 2011), 120–44.
- Leitti Mändmets, “The Story of Creating Brand Estonia,” Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yearbook, 2010, 73. https://vm.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/Leitti_Mandmets_0.pdf
- Kristjan Vassil, “Estonian E-Government Ecosystem: Foundation, Applications, Outcomes” (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, June 2015), http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/165711456838073531/WDR16-BP-Estonian-eGov-ecosystem-Vassil.pdf.
- Rene Mäe, “The Story of e-Estonia: A Discourse-Theoretical Approach,” Baltic Worlds 10, no. 1–2 (May 2017): 32–44. http://balticworlds.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/BW-1-2-2017-M%C3%84E.pdf
- Isabelle Pommereau de, “In Estonia, Communism’s Collapse Paved the Way for Wi-Fi Everywhere,” Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 2011, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2011/0304/In-Estonia-Communism-s-collapse-paved-the-way-for-Wi-Fi-everywhere.
- Several scholars have drawn attention to the distinction between the high quality of select e-Estonia services versus the totalizing image of a digital utopia that Estonia projects to the world and that Western media often reiterate. Meelis Kitsing, for example, called these high-quality services “islands of excellence.” See Meelis Kitsing, “Success Without Strategy: E-Government Development in Estonia,” Policy & Internet 3, no. 1 (February 1, 2011): 1–21, https://doi.org/10.2202/1944-2866.1095. See also Wolfgang Drechsler, “Pathfinder: E-Estonia as the β-Version,” JeDEM – EJournal of EDemocracy and Open Government 10, no. 2 (December 20, 2018): 1–22. https://jedem.org/index.php/jedem/article/view/513
- Estonia’s ethnic Estonian population shrank after World War II, due to war fatalities, Stalinist deportations, Westward migration and, since gaining independence in 1991 and especially since joining the EU in 2004, labor migration to Europe. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers relocated to Estonia during the Soviet era at Moscow’s encouragement, primarily to staff the newly built industries. Russian speakers are especially concentrated in Tallinn, where they exceed 35% of the population, and in Ida-Virumaa, the northeastern county bordering Russia, where they make up around 73% of the population.
- On the ethnic dimension of Estonia’s political system, see Vello Pettai and Klara Hallik, “Understanding Processes of Ethnic Control: Segmentation, Dependency and Co–Optation in Post–Communist Estonia,” Nations and Nationalism 8, no. 4 (2002): 505–29, https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-8219.00063; Priit Järve, “Re-Independent Estonia,” in The Fate of Ethnic Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, ed. Sammy Smooha and Priit Järve (Budapest, Hungary: Open Society Institute, 2005).
- See, e.g., Katja Koort, “The Russians of Estonia: Twenty Years After,” World Affairs 177, no. 2 (2014): 66–73; Raivo Vetik and Jelena Helemäe, eds., The Russian Second Generation in Tallinn and Kohtla-Järve: The TIES Study in Estonia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011); Triin Vihalemm and Veronika Kalmus, “Cultural Differentiation of the Russian Minority,” Journal of Baltic Studies 40, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 95–119, https://doi.org/10.1080/01629770902722278.
- E.g., A. Lorraine Kaljund, “Restoration Doctrine Rebooted: Codifying Continuity in the Estonian Data Embassy Initiative,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 41, no. 1 (2018): 5–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/plar.12240
- Estonian Commission on Sustainable Development, “Estonian National Strategy on Sustainable Development ‘Sustainable Estonia 21’” (Estonian Ministry of the Environment, 2005), 15. https://www.riigikantselei.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/Failid/estonia_sds_2005.pdf.
- Fredrika Björklund, “E-Government and Moral Citizenship: The Case of Estonia,” Citizenship Studies 20, no. 6–7 (October 2, 2016): 914–31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13621025.2016.1213222
- Sascha Trültzsch, Ragne Kõuts-Klemm, and Piermarco Aroldi, “Transforming Digital Divides in Different National Contexts,” in Audience Transformations: Shifting Audience Positions in Late Modernity, ed. Nico Carpentier, Kim Christian Schrøder, and Lawrie Hallett (London: Routledge, 2013), 191–209, 199-201.
- E.g., Drew Springall et al., “Security Analysis of the Estonian Internet Voting System,” in Proceedings of the 2014 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security, CCS ’14 (Scottsdale, Arizona, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, 2014), 703–715, https://doi.org/10.1145/2660267.2660315. While Estonian authorities insist that the e-voting system is secure, in 2019, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology Kaimar Karu led a taskforce to assess the system’s verifiability, security and transparency that produced a report with 25 improvement proposals. See Aili Vahtla, “E-Election Taskforce Report Complete, Includes 25 Improvement Proposals,” ERR (Estonian Public Broadcasting), December 12, 2019, https://news.err.ee/1013585/e-election-taskforce-report-complete-includes-25-improvement-proposals
- Estonian Russians’ lower levels of engagement with Estonian national politics can be gleaned from the fact that in the most recent general elections in 2019, voter turnout in Estonia’s only Russian-dominated county Ida-Viru was 48.2% among eligible voters compared to the national average of 63.7% (no other county’s turnout fell below 60.8%). See Estonian National Electoral Committee, “2019 Riigikogu (Parliament) Elections Voting Results in Detail,” March 8, 2019, https://rk2019.valimised.ee/en/voting-result/voting-result-main.html.
- Shaun Walker, “Racism, Sexism, Nazi Economics: Estonia’s Far Right in Power,” The Guardian, May 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/21/racism-sexism-nazi-economics-estonia-far-right-in-power-ekre.
- Wolfgang Drechsler, “Pathfinder: E-Estonia as the β-Version,” JeDEM – EJournal of EDemocracy and Open Government 10, no. 2 (December 20, 2018): 1–22, 13. https://jedem.org/index.php/jedem/article/view/513.
- Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel, “Estonia’s Digital Transformation,” in Great Policy Successes, ed. Mallory E. Compton and Paul ’T Hart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 143–60, 147.