A curious case of Estonia: deepening ethnic ascendancy in ethnic democracy?

A curious case of Estonia: deepening ethnic ascendancy in ethnic democracy?

The recent years have brought a rise in popularity of right-wing populist parties [1] whose ethno-nationalist and anti-immigrant[2], and/or even downright xenophobic rhetoric[3] have met a growing appeal among the electorate. The electoral success and growing political prominence translate into a greater influence over policy-making, especially in Western Europe[4]. In cases when such political actors achieve a substantial majority in government, we may witness a shift in the very modus operandi of many democratic states, as they start catering for ethnos, rather than demos. Intuitively, an arrangement where one ethnic group is elevated over the whole of state’s citizenry seems odd at best – even more so in the context of a democratic regime – as it seemingly violates fundamental principles of equality and full suffrage. However, as our expert  Katarina Budrik further argues, this situation is not impossible for Europe, as the case of Estonia clearly demonstrates.

Between the re-establishment of Estonia’s independence in 1991 and its accession to the EU in 2004, numerous scholars researched its peculiar ethno-political situation. The conclusions ranged from ethnocracy [5], “nationalizing state” [6], control regime [7], – somewhat surprisingly – multicultural democracy [8], and ethnic democracy[9]. The most recent research on whether the features of ethnic democracy were present in the case of Estonia, unfortunately, are confined to the year of 2005, and even then Estonia showed its strong inclination towards ethnic ascendancy, or ethnic favouritism. Yet what about now? Perhaps years of independence and exposure to pro-diversity influence of the EU had changed the modus operandi of Estonia?

Let’s clarify some theoretical standpoints first. The concept of “ethnic democracy” was proposed [10], developed[11], and elevated into a mini-model [12] by an Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha. According to him, ethnic democracy is “a democratic political system that combines the extension of civil and political rights to permanent residents who wish to be citizens with the bestowal of a favoured status on the majority group. This is a democracy that contains the non-democratic institutionalization of dominance of one ethnic group”[13]. Essentially, ethnic democracy describes regimes where state caters for one “dominant” ethnic group, while satisfying minimal procedural criteria to be considered a democracy.

A mini-model proposed by Smooha consists of three components – features, conduciveness, and viability. In this work I will utilize – and hence elaborate more on – one of the features of ethnic democracy that is ethnic ascendancy. Conditions for its emergence in the case of Estonia were brilliantly analysed by Priit Järve [14] and thus will be left out from this work. The features of ethnic democracy are divided into three dimensions – ethnic ascendancy, perceived threats, and diminished democracy. Let us focus on ethnic ascendancy which entails that one ethnic group is propelled into the status of a state’s nation, and thus the state is revolving around “the nation”. Symbolic artefacts – e.g. monuments, anthems, symbols – and state policies are shaped by the dominant ethnic group and hence are biased in its favour. Additionally, there exists a stratification of citizenship as it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being included into the core ethnic nation.

Järve [15] argued that ethnic ascendancy was strongly present in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, especially its Preamble, which sets apart terms “rahvas” – citizenry – and “rahvus” – ethnic nation. The main task of the state is to ensure the survival of the rahvus and its culture. Since 2005 we have witnessed the deepening of ethnic ascendancy in this regard, as in 2007 the Preamble was amended, and the language clause added. Now, the state must ensure the survival of the ethnic group, its culture and language. There was arguably no practical need for this addition, as the status of Estonian language was well-protected by other, non-declarative articles of the Constitution – Article 6, Article 51 para 1, and Article 52 para one. Thus, the state is not just “owned” by “the nation”, but must actively cater for its needs.

Stratification of citizenship is, unfortunately, also present. In his criticism aimed at the application of Smooha’s ethnic democracy model to Eastern Europe, Moshe Berent [16] argued that the said states had a “civic” nation at their core while non-core minorities can integrate into society as well as be seen as equals to the members of “the nation”. However, two cases are quite illustrative in terms of how ethnicity may be used as an offense in the relations between two equals. In 2014, Minister of Finance Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party) attacked in a Facebook post of his fellow colleague and coalition partner Minister of Education and Research Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democratic Party), referring to his migrant background: “He, a son of an immigrant from a pink party, should be especially careful [with his words], yet he does not even bother.”[17] Moreover, Minister Ligi proceeded to call Ossinovski “rootless”[18], referring to the politician’s father, Oleg Ossinovski, born in Kazakhstan[19]. Again, such exchange took place between high-ranking government officials, both of whom were from the same political alliance. Additionally, Reform Party is considered to be liberal [20], without any radical ethno-nationalist leaning.

The scandal that followed Minister Ligi’s behaviour did cost him a seat [21], yet in less than a year he was appointed a Minister of Education and Research and in 2016 briefly served as a Minister of Foreign Affairs [22]. It all indicates that his political career did not suffer any serious repercussions.

This was not an isolated event. Another case of high-ranking xenophobia took place in 2016 during presidential elections. One of the candidates was Marina Kaljurand, a long-serving ambassador and then-Minister of Foreign Affairs. The fact that Minister Kaljurand was ethnic Russian was pointed out by an MP Martin Helme from right-wing Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) who insisted that the President must be Estonian “by flesh and soul” [23]. A similar view was expressed by Eve Pärnaste, a former member of the Constitutional Assembly, who stated that only ethnic Estonians should occupy the most prominent government positions, as the otherwise would be offensive to Estonian nation [24]. The emerged public debate led to a request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to investigate the status of Kaljurand’s citizenship – whether she had naturalised or received it by birth [25] – despite the fact that Kaljurand herself stated numerous times that she was a citizen by birth [26]. This resulted in Marina Kaljurand’s demonstration of her citizenship certificate in public [27], an act that was not requested from any other candidate.

Järve [28] also noted similar trends in pre-accession Estonia. He refers to three cases when politician’s credibility was attacked based on claims that person’s parent(s) were non-Estonians (e.g. Russians or Jews). As such, years of living side-by-side with ethnic minorities did not result in heightened acceptance, as ethnic ascendancy had deepened.

In terms of symbolic realm, the matters are not optimistic either. The Estonian flag, according to the Estonian Flag Act, not only represents the country but serves as “the ethnic and the national flag” [29]. Moreover, the list of Estonian state holidays and celebrations does not include those of ethnic Russians and Russophone minorities [30]. Festivities with religious background – Christmas, Easter, etc – are heavily rooted in Lutheran Christianity, even though Estonia does not have either an official state religion or church [31]. Orthodox Christianity, a religion practised mostly by minority groups, is not reflected in holidays.

In the lieux de memoire, we can also see a sharp change towards ethnic ascendancy starting from 2002 and peaking in 2007. After the restoration of Estonian independence and up until the mid-2000s, Estonian memory politics, especially in relation to monuments, was focused on monumental restitution, whereas afterwards the approach turned to monumental “revanchism”, characterised by the demolition of Soviet memorials to the fallen in WWII and replacing them with ones that fit Estonian historic narrative [32]. Such attempt to “revenge the history” paved the way to a series of events, known under the name War of Monuments which revolved around deepening ethnic cleavages as a result of contestation of memory spaces [33].

What about shaping the state policies? There are only minor improvements in the “Estonization” of politics. Pettai and Hallik [34] noted that since the restoration of independence up until 2002 not a single non-Estonian had held a ministerial seat. The first member of a non-core group to receive an appointment was a Russophone of Azeri origin Eldar Efendijev who served as the Minister for Population Affairs between 2002 and 2003 [35]. Since then to 2017, only four non-Estonians occupied ministerial seats – Jevgeni Ossinovski, Marina Kaljurand, Martin Repinski, and Mihhail Korb. On the parliamentary level, the participation of non-Estonians is also limited. An examination of lists of elected members of the Parliament reveals that a proportion of non-Estonian MPs was between 9.9% to 13.9% in the period from 2003 to the current assembly elected in 2015. These findings also correspond with a general trend of ethnic overrepresentation of Estonians in the Estonian public sector, as the law requires public servants to have high competence in the Estonian language [36], even in the case of service in the predominantly Russophone regions (e.g. Ida-Virumaa). Thus, many members of non-core groups may find their access to such jobs even as an advisor or secretary severely limited.

Ethnic ascendancy, as one of the features of ethnic democracy, has deepened over the years even though Estonia is enjoying both independence and the EU membership for a substantial amount of time. Since the examination of the situation by Priit Järve [37], several aspects had degraded to a much worse ethnic favouritism – the Constitutional reform added rather ideological language-related clarification to the Preamble; state symbols, such as the flag, were linked to the ethnic group; attacks on politicians’ ethnic background as well as suspicions regarding their “loyalty” are still present. Additionally, one can mention the emergence of monumental “revanchism” in memory politics and ethnic overrepresentation in public sector as related trends. However, a slight improvement can be seen in terms of non-Estonians occupying ministerial and parliamentary seats – although the percentage is low, it is still better than none, as it was the case with ministerial positions between 1991-2002.

There are several questions to be asked from here – what are the developments in other features, such as perceived threat and diminished democracy? Why is ethnic ascendancy deepening despite Estonia’s membership in the EU, a supranational organisation that takes its pride in diversity and minority protection? Is Estonia in its current state, a full-fledged ethnic democracy? Shall political scholarship re-examine Smooha’s model once more in the troubling times when demos can be replaced by ethnos?


[1] Arzheimer, K., 2015. The AfD: Finally a Successful Right-Wing Populist Eurosceptic Party for Germany? West European Politics, 38(3), pp. 535-556; Lazaridis, G., Campani, G. and Benveniste, A., 2016. The rise of the far right in Europe: populist shifts and ‘othering’. 1st ed. London: Palgrave; Luo, C.-M., 2017. The Rise of Populist Right-wing Parties in the 2014 European Parliament: Election and Implications for European Integration. European Review, 25(3), pp. 406-422.
[2] Jetten, J., 2017. Stepping in the shoes of leaders of populist right-wing parties: Promoting anti-immigrant views in times of economic prosperity. Social psychology, 48(1), pp. 40-46.
[3] Wodak, R., 2015. The politics of fear: what right-wing populist discourses mean. 1st ed. New York: Sage.
[4] Lange, S. L., 2012. New Alliances: Why Mainstream Parties Govern with Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties. Political Studies, 60(4), pp. 899-918; Alfonso, A., 2015. Choosing whom to betray: populist right-wing parties, welfare state reforms and the trade-off between office and votes. European Political Science Review, 7(2), pp. 271-292; Akkerman, T., Lange, S. L. & Rooduijn, M., 2016. Radical right-wing populist parties in Western Europe: into the mainstream? 1 ed. New York: Routledge.
[5] Yiftachel, O. and Ghanem, A., 2004. Understanding Ethnocratic Regimes: the Politics of Seizing Contested Territories. Political Gepgraphy, 23(1), pp. 647-676.
[6] Brubacker, R., 1992. Citizenship Struggles in Soviet Successor States. International Migration Review, 26(1), pp. 269-291.
[7] Pettai, V. and Hallik, K., 2002. Understanding Processes of Ethnic Control: Segmentation, Dependency and Co-Optation in Post-Communist Estonia. Nations and Nationalism, 8(4), pp. 505-529.
[8] Lauristin, M. and Heidmets, M., 2002. The Challenge of the Russian Minority – Emerging Multicultural Democracy in Estonia. 1st ed. Tartu: Tartu University Press.
[9] Smith, G., 1996. The Ethnic Democracy Thesis and The Citizenship Question in Estonia and Latvia. Nationalities Papers, 24(2), pp. 199-216; Järve, P., 2000. Ethnic Democracy and Estonia: Application of Smooha’s Model, Flensburg: ECMI; Järve, P., 2005. Re-Independent Estonia. In: S. Smooha and P. Järve, eds. The Fate of Ethnic Democracy in Post-Communist Europe. Budapest: LGI Books, pp. 61-80.
[10] Smooha, S., 1989. Arabs and Jews in Israel. Vol. 1: Conflicting and Shared Attitudes in a Divided Society. 1st ed. Boulder: Westview Press.
[11] Smooha, S., 1990. Minority Status in an Ethnic Democracy: the Status of the Arab Minority in Israel in Israel. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 13(3), pp. 389 – 413; Smooha, S., 1997. Ethnic Democracy – Israel as an Archetype. Israel Studies, 2(2), pp. 198-241; Smooha, S., 2001. The Model of Ethnic Democracy, Flensburg: ECMI; Smooha, S., 2002a. The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Nations and Nationalism, 8(4), pp. 475-503; Smooha, S., 2002b. Types of Democracy and Modes of Conflict Management in Ethnically Divided Societies. Nations and Nationalism, 8(4), pp. 423-431.
[12] Smooha, S., 2005. The Model of Ethnic Democracy. In: S. Smooha and P. Järve, eds. The Fate of Ethnic Democracy in Post-Communist Europe. Budapest: LGI Books, pp. 5-60; Smooha, S., 2009. The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Response to Danel. Journal of Israeli History, 28(1), pp. 55-62.
[13] Smooha, 2005, opt cit. note 12 above, p. 21
[14] Järve, 2005, opt cit. note 9 above.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Berent, M., 2010. The Ethnic Democracy Debate: How Unique is Israel? Nations and Nationalism, 16(4), pp. 657-674.
[17] Jürgen Ligi haridusminister Jevgeni Ossinovskist: “Tema, sisserändaja poeg roosast erakonnast, peaks olema üliettevaatlik”. Delfi, 23.10.2014, http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/jurgen-ligi-haridusminister-jevgeni-ossinovskist-tema-sisserandaja-poeg-roosast-erakonnast-peaks-olema-uliettevaatlik?id=70003587.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Eesti passiga venelane Oleg Ossinovski, Eesti Päevaleht, 07.05.2005, http://epl.delfi.ee/news/kultuur/eesti-passiga-venelane-oleg-ossinovski?id=51009997.
[20] Kuklys, M., 2013. Recruitment of Parliamentary Representatives in an Ethno-Liberal Democracy. In: E. Semenova, M. Edinger and H. Best, eds. Parliamentary Elites in Central and Eastern Europe: Recruitment and Representation. New York: Routledge, pp. 99-120.
[21] Ligi Submits Letter of Resignation, ERR.ee, 26.10.2014, http://news.err.ee/114033/ligi-submits-letter-of-resignation.
[22] Jürgen Ligi to be appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, ERR.ee, 12.09.2016, http://news.err.ee/119035/jurgen-ligi-to-be-appointed-minister-of-foreign-affairs.
[23] Martin Helme: Marina Kaljuranna põhiprobleem on see, et ta on venelane, Sakala, 14.04.2016, http://sakala.postimees.ee/3655817/martin-helme-marina-kaljuranna-pohiprobleem-on-see-et-ta-on-venelane.
[24] Pullerits, P., Põhiseaduse kaaslooja: Eesti võtmekohtadel olgu eestlased, Postimees, 29.04.2016, http://www.postimees.ee/3675293/pohiseaduse-kaaslooja-eesti-votmekohtadel-olgu-eestlased.
[25] Siseministeerium uurib Marina Kaljuranna kodakondsust, Eesti Ekspress, 13.09.2016, http://ekspress.delfi.ee/lisalood/siseministeerium-uurib-marina-kaljuranna-kodakondsust?id=75609869.
[26] Kaljuranna kinnitusel on ta sünnijärgne Eesti kodanik, Postimees, 15.04.2016, https://www.postimees.ee/3658073/kaljuranna-kinnitusel-on-ta-sunnijargne-eesti-kodanik.
[27]  Selgus käes: paber, mis tõendab, et Marina Kaljurand on sünnijärgne Eesti kodanik, Postimees, 14.09.2016, https://www.postimees.ee/3835727/selgus-kaes-paber-mis-toendab-et-marina-kaljurand-on-sunnijargne-eesti-kodanik.
[28] Järve, 2000, opt cit. note 9 above.
[29] Estonian Flag Act, RT I 2005, 20, 126, Riigi Teataja, https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/505062014001/consolide.
[30] Yiftachel and Ghanem, 2004, opt cit. note 5 above.
[31] Kiviorg, M., 2010. Religion and the Secular State in Estonia, Provo: ICLRS.
[32] Tamm, M. & Halla, S., 2008. Ajalugu, poliitika ja identiteet: Eesti monumentaalsest mälumaastikust. In: M. Tamm & P. Petersoo, eds. Monumentaalne konflikt: mälu, poliitika ja identiteet tänapäeva Eestis. Tallinn: Varrak, pp. 18-50;  Wulf, M., 2008. The Struggle for Official Recognition of ‘Displaced’ Group Memories in Post-Soviet Estonia. In: M. Kopeček, ed. Past in the Making. Budapest: Central European University Press, pp. 221-238.
[33] Brüggemann, K. and Kasekamp, A., 2008. The Politics of History and the War of Monuments in Estonia. Nationalities Papers, 36(3), pp. 425-448.
[34] Pettai and Hallik, 2002, op. cit., note 7 above.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Tammaru, T. & Kulu, H., 2003. Ethnic Minorities in Estonia: Changes in the Size, Composition and Location. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 44(1), pp. 105-120; Lindemann, K., 2009. Ethnic Inequalities in Labour Market Entry in Estonia. The Changing Influence of Ethnicity and Language Proficiency on Labour Market Success. Working Paper 125, Mannheim: Mannheimer Zentrum für Europäische Sozialforschung.
[37] Järve 2000, opt cit. note 9 above.; Järve 2005, opt cit. note 9 above.

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