The Baltic Rim Economies: EU-Russia relations – a view from Estonia


MEP Yana Toom for the Baltic Rim Economies journal:

The relations with Russia have always been high on the political agenda in Estonia. After the restoration of independence, guarded attitude towards the Eastern neighbour was characteristic of Estonian politicians, even during the first presidential term of Yeltsin. Russia was always under suspicion for alleged latent imperialism or aggression, for manipulating Russian minority in Estonia in its own interests. As for Russian politicians, they often considered their Estonian counterparts to be “Russophobes” who criticised Russia whenever possible. The truth was, as always, somewhere in between. However, it is quite obvious, that overall negative view of Russia from Estonia, as well as from other Eastern European countries, started to influence politics of the European Union long before well-known events in Ukraine in 2014.

When researchers begin to analyse today’s crisis in relations between Russia and the European Union, they will probably be surprised by the low level of expert evaluation, underlying political decisions adopted by both sides. In Brussels one can observe the lack of objective information, while experts feel colossal political and social pressure. Evaluation of political and social life in Russia carried out by Europeans is more and more influenced by emotions and ingrained phobias. Overall recession of journalism level in Europe has come to light at the time of Ukrainian crisis – numerous stories were overly biased or contained a critical number of factual errors and inaccuracies.

Journalists’ expectations of prompt maidan, oligarchical revolution or economic collapse in Moscow, as well as the tendency to give the floor primarily to marginal Russian politicians and public characters, appear very naïve.

As the relations between the EU and Russia became more tensed, the lack of unity between different European countries was more obvious, for example on the subject of toughening sanctions against Russia. For some countries the problem is the lack of unity even within their societies. Thus, for example, in Estonia, according to the survey, carried out in January 2015*, overwhelming majority of ethnic Estonians (66%) and only 27% of local ethnic Russians supported Estonian Government’s foreign policy.

Failures of diplomats and politicians bring military to the foreground, and this only aggravates the conflict. Military activities near the border already exceed everything we have seen after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Europeans, Americans, Russians – they all are sending each other signals. In Moscow, Washington and Brussels there are plenty of people who fuel a major military conflict because of Ukraine. Europeans might soon face the question: what objectives will be attributed to implementation of military pursue? What would serve as the red line, upon crossing which the military reaction will follow? What kind of role is reserved for NATO allies? Are Europeans ready to fight for the interests of “pro-European” Ukrainian government, which is notorious for its corruption and merciless suppression of political opponents? With further deterioration in international relations these questions will form another challenge for the solidarity of the European Union. However, despite distressing international background, hawks remain in the minority, and this gives off sparks for reserved optimism.

The threat of the military conflict may be perceived differently by general population and by the elite. If we consider the results of the above mentioned survey, carried out in Estonia in January 2015, we can see that only a quarter of the respondents saw the threat of military conflict between their country and Russia. It is even more peculiar, as before national elections (March 2015) many politicians made alarming statements and the subject of security enhancement has not left mass media. It all came to the situation, in which absence of fear-mongering was interpreted as pro-Russian position and the opposite position - as Western and even pro-NATO (which is quite odd for the EU and NATO member state). Moreover similar, invariably false dichotomy was replicated even in international mass media.

The absence of pro-Russian parties in Estonian parliament does not mean that they are not represented in other European countries. These are, as a rule, marginal forces, but some of them have every chance of becoming mainstream. Pro-Russian rhetoric in internal political debates in European Union member states can be used either by opposition in order to criticise governments in power, or by Eurosceptics. Moreover, some European leaders display provocatively good relations with Kremlin at the time of crisis. All these activities are being extensively covered in Russian media and that does not enhance the popularity of the European Union among Russian population.

At any rate, relations between EU and Russia have not yet reached bifurcation point and can be restored. Upon that, one of the major tasks for EU institutions, after lifting or easing off sanctions, will not only be to restore economic positions of Europeans within Russia, but also to improve the image of united Europe among the Russian population.


* National survey among Estonian population was carried out on representative sample, on the commission of Estonian Bureau of Yana Toom MEP in January 2015, by sociological firm Saar Poll. Financial support was provided by ALDE group of the European Parliament.