Nordic branding – where are the boundaries?

As I was doing Nordic walking one morning, I thought – everything called “Nordic” somehow refers to a better quality, higher standards, something “cool” in general.
The Nordic Europe defines itself as a distinctive area through the messages of its leaders and understanding of its people, and this idea became accepted by the rest of the world. Traditionally, Nordic countries comprised the Scandinavian peninsula, Denmark and Iceland, later, Finland firmly joined the community. The common heritage and common languages were the starting point, but Finland is different in this respect, as it was a part of the Russian Empire and has a different language (of Fenno-Ugric group).
At present, Nordic countries share not only the history and culture, but more importantly certain philosophy of claiming being special among others. The distinct Nordic features are social guarantees for the whole of society, and in general, caring for human rights and democracy. It is manifesting itself in the foreign policies of the Nordic states, who are important donors of development aid, eager defenders and promoters of human rights and women rights abroad. They have also positioned themselves as negotiators and intermediaries in various conflicts of the world having reputation of being neutral and objective (and not freaking out!). For example, Norway mediated so-called Oslo accords between Israel and PLO, Finland’s Martti Ahtisaari proposed solution for Kosovo, to bring just some examples.
Looking at the map, we can see clearly that the region is rather historically and socially constructed, than existing in the world as a geographical objectivity. While most of the countries of the Nordic Europe are situated in Scandinavian peninsula, Iceland is far away in the Atlantic, on the half-way to the United States and closer to Scotland than to any of the other Nordic countries.
The constructing of Nordic identity is kind of “branding”. Central to the Nordic brand have been the ideas of Nordic “exceptionalism” – of the Nordics as being even better than the norm. The Nordic experience, norms and values became a model to be copied by the others.
Especially after the Second World War, the notion of the “middle way” between socialism and capitalism was combined with the perception of the region as a neutral but friendly bloc between the two superpowers, committed to the internationalism of the United Nations. The Nordic distinctiveness also manifested itself through cultural stereotypes. Since the modern “breakthrough” of the late nineteenth century, the Nordic countries produced many famous cultural figures, such as the dramatists Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, the composers Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius, the artist Edvard Munch, the writers Karen Blixen and Astrid Lindgren, to name just a few. Scandinavian functionalism in architecture and design became famous, and IKEA is one of the symbols of the Nordic design now. The literature of “Nordic crime” acclaimed much success around the world as well. And everybody knows ABBA!
The question is, if the boundaries of the area are set or not. After the fall of the Berlin wall and transition of post-Soviet and Warsaw pact countries towards democracy, the Nordic communities started an important cooperation with the Baltic Sea countries, especially the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
In Estonia, the debate of whether Estonia is becoming a part of the “Norden” was quite popular, especially as the former foreign minister and later President Toomas Hendrik Ilves promoted this idea. In 2001, in his article “Nordic State and a Human Being”, he wrote that Estonia has very similar patterns of social behaviour and will belong to the Nordic area. It takes time, but the time is doing its job.
Estonia was boasting a rapid economic growth and also positioned itself as the country of new technologies and especially a front-runner of digitalization. It is the country where the ID-card can be used for many dealings with the state and the private sector, including voting in the elections, electronic doctor prescription and “e-health” system. The Skype was invented by Estonians and the e-government using only electronic documents was introduced. It became kind of “export article” of Estonia, while many states around the world are taking over this experience. This is a good example of branding a small country in the world. The debate on the branding is very close to every Estonian’s heart, and the hot discussions on the “Estonian Nokia” (after the Finnish company) were going on in the public space.
Historically, Estonia used to be a part of the Russian Empire for two-hundred years – and it is not that big a period, if you consider the time-span of history. First, the pagan society, Estonia was occupied by Teutonic order, and baptized. Later on, Estonians took the Protestant faith, and it had big consequences for forming the national identity, as it meant overall literacy, Protestant work ethic and the identification with Europe as a whole, and Nordic countries especially. Estonia was partly under the Danish rule, and a part of the Swedish Kingdom. The days of Swedish rule are to this day referred as “good old Swedish times” among people.
For the present though, one important issue is the state system of economy. The Baltic states took to a very liberal idea of economy, which helped a lot in transition times. This is also the main contrast with the Nordic approach, where there is more state involved in the regulation of life. In this sense, there were enough voices against the self-identification with the Norden.
Estonia is closely associated with two Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania. The main common feature of the three states is their recent history, being in the Russian Empire, later independent, and then occupied by the Soviet Union. In the political choices after 1991, there are also similarities, as all the three states aspired for returning back to the West and integrating into the Trans-Atlantic and European structures.
As far as more distant history is concerned, Lithuania is certainly distinct, as it was a part of Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, and had experienced statesmanship in earlier years. Lithuanians practice Catholic faith, while Latvians and Estonians are mostly Protestants. Latvian and Lithuanian are Baltic languages belonging to the Indo-European group, while Estonian is part of Fenno-Ugric group and more kin to Finnish. The link to Finland as a “brother” nation is important in the political discourse of Estonia. If Finland could become the part of the Norden, with its different background and language, why Estonia could not? Though Estonia rates quite high as far as the corruption perception index is concerned (being on the 22d position in the world in 2016), and the general attitudes of the population are European-values oriented, there is still some work to do in order to be perceived in the world as a success story. The other issue is the importance of the Baltic cooperation, and the question of disentangling Estonia from its Southern neighbours, especially Latvia. Lithuania is more prone to position itself as Central Europe and construct a different identity. Looking from the Nordic area, it is also difficult to include new states in their midst, as thus the “branding” may become diluted and less convincing.


Some books on China, well, yes…

There is a huge variety of literature on China. As I started getting interested, I have read just a minor fraction of them. There is a general understanding that China is either on the rise, or getting tired of the growth and quietly declining. The main theme is: China is special, China is important. I have a feeling that it is somehow shallow. There are some approaches that try to analyse China by the Western standards, especially as far as economics are concerned, and some that go deeper.  

“The Water Kingdom” by Philip Ball is by far my favourite. It is artfully describing the way Chinese history is connected to water and rivers, which may sound a bit boring, but it is not boring at all! The idea is that “who controls water, controls China”. This book is exactly the example of going deep into the culture, including giving some sense of the Chinese “characters” connected to water, among other things (and the character for “water”, “shui”, is on the cover as well). It is also describing the art connection to water (water-colour) and the expressive idea of the art that emerged in China much earlier than in the West.   

“On China” by Henry Kissinger is, of course, a classic. I loved the history part of it, but later it became more and more concentrated on the nitty-gritty of diplomacy, which many find fascinating, but frankly, I think it is a little too much of dealings and meetings. Kissinger is the master of the “deal”, and I feel deep suspicion about this approach.

“When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques is really a good starting point of discovery, as it summarises really nicely the implications of the rise of China. It describes China as a civilization-state, ready to rise to the heights of its history as the Middle Kingdom accepting tribute from its neighbours and treating the rest as barbarians at the gates. 

“China’s Future” by David L Shambaugh is frankly here, because it was named by the Economist as the book of the year – it has been a disappointment. I read that it was just a collection of speeches by the author, and it reads as something put together in a haste, indeed. Economics, politics, something you would be able to grasp yourself without going into the issue. It is decorated with the occasional use of Chinese, but it does not bring much authenticity.  

“The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region” by Michael R. Auslin. I think half of the reason I got hold of this book is the intriguing title, so Respect! for theIMG_2268marketing part. It is actually more general, considering all Asia – but I wanted to include it here, because of the new voice (that I am sure will be repeated) on the theme – it is about the coming decline, though in fact just describing the possible problems of Asia. Nobody could deny they are there, the other question, left unanswered, is “who is next?”  

Do Russians in Estonia live in Cyber-Russia?

Let us imagine a feed of a person from Facebook: the article from “Estonians are afraid to express their dissatisfaction by the actions of the authorities”; the citation about liberation of Tallinn in 1945; the picture from the US with poster “Russia stopped Hitler, not America”; the link to the Soviet songs about victory; the article from “Latvia and Estonia are lying to the EU”; the extract from the newspaper of 1926 citing experiences of someone visiting Estonia in this year, and finding that the life was very poor there… I am sure, many can say that they do not know such a person, but he or she surely may exist!
Many Estonian Russian-speakers consume new media mostly in the Russian language, and have negative attitudes towards Estonian authorities, but positive image of Russia, as the Internet encourages the positive image of the big homeland where these people do not live their everyday life. The construction of national identity is taking place in cyberspace even more actively than in other spaces, as it is a convenient medium for this process.
Among the population of Estonia, about 330,000 are ethnic Russians, other non-Estonians comprise about 64 thousand people. It is important to note that among non-Estonians, not all are ethnic Russians, but many are Russian-speakers.
Media consumption is often cited as the main reason for diverse opinions and attitudes among ethnic Estonians and non-Estonians residing in Estonia. It is true that the sources of information are different for these groups, as many Russian-speakers prefer Russia’s TV channels and Internet sites. According to the Integration monitoring 2015, 50% of people consider social media as an important source of information as well.
The annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine started in 2014 showed the difference of attitudes very clearly. Especially diverse are the attitudes towards the need for cooperation with Russia and the understanding of security threats in general.
Estonians consider NATO as the main guarantee, Russians would like to have a good cooperation with Russia for better security.
It is clear that the Russian actions became more active towards the West, and the Baltic states included. The cyber-attacks on Estonia in 2007 are often cited as an example. The Russia’s arsenal of measures includes so-called “active measures”, hacker attacks and fake-news. The term of “post-fact” world has been coined recently to reflect the present situation. Cyberspace plays an important role in the dissemination of information. Russia uses so-called “trolls”, people who spread false information on the Internet. Much attention in the Western media and scholarship is paid to the fight against propaganda, but the mechanisms of the effectiveness of these messages from the Russian side are deeply rooted and necessary to analyse as well.
First of all, “medium is the message”, as McLuhan famously said. It is a tendency all over the world that people “move to the Internet”, and become “netizens”. In Russia, the state television is the main channel to influence and guide population, but its consumption is falling, as the younger people use much more Internet. The Internet is easier to consume and harder to control. The illusion of tailor-made consumption is created online, especially in the social media, where everybody can be instantly published and followed.
The other aspect of this complex process though is the initial attitude that brings people to watch or follow one or another medium. It is clear that the Russian-speaker anywhere in the world will prefer the news and other products in his or her own language, and the Russian language comprises 10% of the content on the Internet. In Estonia, as the official language is Estonian, Russian-speakers are supposed to master it in order to be employed in the public sector or promote their careers. The command of Estonian is also a necessary pre-condition to receive the citizenship through naturalization process. On the Internet though, the members of the minority are free to use their mother tongue, and they choose it in social media as well. It leads to the emergence of a virtual Russian-language speakers‘ community all over the world. These virtual Russians can be also called “cyber-Russians”. The phenomenon is well understood by the authorities of Russia and used in the creation of so-called “Russian World”. As a result, the construction of national identity is done both by the individuals who have certain attitudes, and by the national homeland of Russia, and these processes create synergy.
In parallel with recreating their national identity as connected to Russia, some members of minority also consume and produce negative news about their host society. So, this process has two sides, creating illusion of good life in Russia and bad life in Estonia. Russian speakers outside Russia see this idealistic picture of Russia created in the media, including social media, but do not confront the reality. At the same time, they live in Estonia, and confront the real life issues here. Russians inside Russia though see both real life in the street and virtual reality created in the television and other media by the authorities. It can explain that Russians outside Russia have more positive attitudes towards Russian authorities than the actual residents of Russia.
One can argue that the Internet encourages “dissident” attitudes against the real life in the country, for Estonian Russians it means that Estonia has problems, and for Russian Russians, it means they become distanced from Putin’s regime inside their country, moving to the Internet.
In addition, social media creates the phenomenon when a person starts consuming news, which are tailor-made to his or her attitudes, as he or she has Facebook or Vkontakte friends with similar attitudes. This process is encouraging the attitudes to become more radical and more deeply embedded into a person’s mind.  A person who is negatively predisposed towards Estonia and positive about Russia, for example, would post information to his friends, and disseminate it without being a propaganda producer himself or herself.