This article highlights the vital role of massive protests which democratize post-Communist countries that have strong senses of nationalism. While there are more ethnic Russian residing in Ukraine compared to that of Estonia, both countries share similar historical ties as they were both absorbed by the former Soviet Union as Soviet states. Both former Soviet countries used non-violent protests by forming human chains to demand for independence from the Communist rule in Moscow. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no violent transition from a socialist regime to a capitalist one in Estonia, and it is the first former Soviet country that implemented political reforms successfully in 1996. On the other hand, Ukraine went through two major protests in order to get “fair and free” presidential elections in 2004 and 2013 respectively.
Historically, Estonia had been a part of Denmark, Sweden, and Russia respectively before the World War I started, but it was annexed by USSR again few years after its independence on 24 February 1918. Due to its complex history and strategic location as the intersection point among the Nordic countries, eastern part of Europe, and Russia, the centuries-long Estonian song festivals promoted a sense of nationalism which contributed one of the reasons why Estonia managed to be independent from the former Soviet Union.
As Plaesterer mentioned in 1929, when Estonia was still one of the Baltic Provinces of the Russian Empire, the Baltic Germans, the local ruling elites organized the first song festival in the 1850s and 1860s. Part of the outcomes of this tradition was that people considered the “Singing Revolution” successfully sang oneself into a nation. In truth, the existence of rituals created by the festival were the fundamentals of Estonian political developments, ethnic consolidation, national consciousness and self-image, according to Giesen in 2006.
By the time during the second half of the nineteenth century, song festivals in Estonia became part of the Estonian culture because they created and preserved “national consciousness” under Russian rule. Even during “Russification”, the process which introduced more Russian elements to the former Soviet Republics, it failed to implement into the Estonian because by the end of the World War II, the new communist leader attempted to show that Estonian culture can be preserved under the umbrella of Soviet cultural diversity.
As the nationalistic ideology grew in Estonians’ minds, the citizens displaced solidarity to the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 openly. Decades later, under the last president of the former USSR Gorbachev’s democratic reforms, the patriotic movements of using the song festival as the means of political mobilization which gathered hundreds of thousands of demonstrators show their solidarity and unity in Estonia. The join-states human chain were formed across Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius for the sake of protecting their mass media in their respective countries. With a wave of patriotic events including singing patriotic songs during the “Singing Revolution”, declaring independence from the former Soviet regime in 1991.
Post-independence era after 1991
Like other formerly Soviet-ruled European countries, Estonians had a lower level of trust compared to other Western European countries. The Estonian public was no longer able to apply the same tactic by forming human chains and singing patriotic songs during the Tallinn Song Festival because the ruling government was no longer from Moscow but from Tallinn. Given the struggles of radical political reforms in five years, Estonia was still the most liberal part of the former Soviet Union which has the highest level of formal education of its population.
One of the biggest issues of Estonia is that its complex history leads to the rise of nationalism that may facilitate ethno-nationalism, the ideology which excludes the ethnic Russian minority which composes of 25% of the entire population. The nationalism of Estonia may benefit democratization in this place because it will enhance debates of various issues within civil society, yet it also causes a split of Estonian with different ethnicities.
The European parliament adopted a set of policies to settle ethnic Estonians and Latvians in their respective countries to relocate the ethnic Russians, affecting 450,000 and 750,000 people in Estonia and Latvia respectively. Such policy raised a question on how these countries could democratize if they couldn’t accept pluralism.
A decade later, there was the largest scale of ethnic riot caused by the proposed relocation of “Bronze Soldier”–a statue which depicts the Soviet history in Estonia. Among the rioters, most of them are ethnic Russians. In this case, nationalism can be problematic because Russian is the second largest ethnic group after ethnic Estonians in Estonia. While their differences in ideologies can facilitate debates of the construction of the Estonian history, it may also promote identity politics–ethnic Russians in Estonia could be excluded from being an “Estonian” even if he/she was born and raised in Estonia.
The Bronze Soldier incident also gives a rise of historicist arguments about the internationally recognized outcome of the World War II. The Estonian Socialist Republic participated the World War II as part of the former USSR, but now that the re-independence of Estonia makes it debatable to the expression of solidarity towards the soldiers who died in the Great War. Such debate about the interpretation of the World War II polarises both ethnic Estonians and Russians. This is the major drawback of how nationalism democratises a former Soviet country like Estonia.
Being the second largest European country after Russia, Ukraine has always been intertwining the histories between the East and the West. Unlike Estonia, Ukraine ties closely with Russia economically, linguistically, and culturally with some 30% of native Russian speakers in this territory.There was no major political reforms that truly democratized this former Soviet country due to serious corruption which ranks at 130 out of 168 countries, compared to Estonia which ranks at 23rd, according to Corruption Perception Index done by Transparency International in 2015. Even though the Orange Revolution resulted in democratically elected former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2005, it followed another EuroMaidan Revolution which ousted the pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych, triggering the Russian annexation of Crimean Peninsula as there was a short period of power vacuum in Ukraine.
The massive protest that led to second presidential election in 2004 has illustrated that a former Soviet country couldn’t stand alone from international organizations if they try to topple a regime which is backed by Russia. The election results were suspected by a student group Pora as the exit vote showed that Viktor Yushchenko won the election by 11%, while the Kuchma’s government showed that pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych had won by 3%.
In late November 2004, tens of thousands of protesters gathered at Maidan Square in Kiev, marching along the way to the Ukrainian parliament with orange ribbons and flags. But the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine were in favor of Viktor Yanukovych–the split of supporters nearly brought the country on the brink of a civil war.
Even though the Orange Revolution wasn’t engineered by any outside actors, various American and European foundations benefited Ukrainian civic organizations which assisted the demonstrations. For example, the Ukrainian research institute Razumkov Centre received $1 million for analysing the Yushchenko’s election campaign. It indicates that a country with high level of corruption needs more fundings from the West compared to those which are less corrupted.
After 9 years of the Orange Revolution backed by Yushchenko’s election campaign, the Ukrainian people stood up again in late November 2013 as they demanded a closer tie with the European Union instead of Russia which had a huge deal for selling natural gas. But few days later, it turned ugly as the Ukrainian officials deployed riot police to escort the peaceful protesters with baton and gears. The Ukrainian people went furious as they were summoned to the protest site at Maidan Square with morality, and it was a legitimate reason to encourage people taking to the street for the sake of protecting the armless student protesters.
But the protest became an anti-government demonstration as the protesters demanded the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to step down due to corruption and poor economy. The peaceful protest went bloody since Yanukovych mobilised the Berkut force that can take down protesters violently and avoided facing international scrutiny as he ordered police to beat up the protesters.
The protest went violent as the police started to use machine guns to kill protesters, resulting much resistance from the protesters by setting fire around the Maidan Square and avoided being cleared by the police force. The movement ended with Yanukovych fleeing to Russia as the protesters issued ultimatum to surround his presidential building.
Before the protest began, the European Commission had signed an agreement called EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trading Area, which brought Ukraine closer to the EU in April 2013. What Ukrainian protesters demanded wasn’t about being the member of the EU but to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which was approved in late May 2014, few months after the Ukrainian Revolution.
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