The trap of neighbourhood – Finland’s image in Estonia and Estonia’s image in Finland

Hannele Valkeeniemi,
Press Counsellor,
Embassy of Finland,

Tight connections between Finland and Estonia are praised in every oration. Nevertheless, strong ties in culture, history, and economy can also trap us. We don’t stop to think if we have the correct image of one another. I call this proximity blindness.

We know each other of course very well. But comparing to the amount of interaction, work and tourism, we achieve less than we could. We still kind of suffer from unfamiliarity caused by the occupation of the Soviets.

The Soviet Union did it’s best in order for Finns and Estonians to forget their common history and everlasting connection. Today this would be called as information war. It systematically caused oblivion. The Soviet Union took it as far as even killing the dead – they trampled on old graveyards.

Even now it is not easy to identify what is the impact of selective memory. The Soviet Union collapsed but occupation in one meaning succeeded: the connection over sea was disrupted. We grew away.

Television was the window to the free world

Finland existed in occupied Estonia, of course. Television brought the butcher’s and American TV-series to the other side of the bay. That meant “fake news” to the occupier and a surreal dreamland for estonians.

For finnish Cold War children Estonia faded away. Those who spoke on behalf of Estonia in Finland were often blamed as far-right extremists.  But the biggest impact was forgetting about Estonia. The existing lack of interest is a remnant of this.

The perception is still tenuous what kind of help was sent from Finland during Soviet stagnation years. It was necessary to keep quiet. An image of a cold hearted Finland was created this way.

Interaction multiplied already during the last years of the Soviet occupation. Estonians saw two pictures now: ordinary Finns giving support and official Finland avoiding. Both of these images were true, but neither of them offered the whole truth.

Media waving the Estonia-card and Finland-card

According to studies we tend to make up country images at around 20 years. Many nowadays decision-makers grew up when Finns were primarily “drunken reindeers” and Estonia had mafia feuds. Maybe this explains why conversation in Estonia about Finnish tourism is focused on alcohol, although studies show that alcohol doesn’t play such a role anymore.

Almost 100 000 Estonians live and work in Finland, but in media they are the most invisible minority. “Talsinki”, twin capital economic region has already merged into one, but in public discussion it has diminished to discussion about the tunnel.

It is now one generation since the end of the alienating occupation. Border crossing is frequent. Simultaneously the Estonian media don’t have a single permanent correspondent in Finland. The Finnish media at least have a couple in Estonia.

Finland is closely followed by the Estonian media, but mainly by media quotes. Domestic, problem concentrated Finnish media picture doesn’t reflect ordinary Estonians observations of Finland as a safe welfare state. Again we have to different images of Finland.

When information is insufficient, it is easy to use it to own advantages or media click hunting. I call this as a use of Estonia-card or Finland-card. It creates division which is also good material for hostile information operations.

To part of the Finnish media, Estonia is only seen as a stage for security politics. This also shows the lack of interest. This is why Estonia was also under the spotlight in 2014 after annexation of Crimea. Lavish stories and “green men” were searched in  Narva. To no avail.

“Booze rally” news are typical examples Estonia-cards that are used more for news-entertainment than representing reality. Other Estonia-cards in Finnish discussion are Estonian tax model or success story of digitalisation. Media stories are mainly one-sided, and narrative is to blame Finland.

Half truth becomes the whole truth when you knowledge is inadequate. In those occasions we exchange the wrong companionship. And even more, supports information war.

Centennial celebrations as game-changer

Fortunately, nowadays our mutual country images are in good progress. Mutual centennial celebrations in 2017 and 2018 were extremely good landmark. We both had good reason to stop and listen to each other’s stories, to concentrate on each other’s histories, refresh memory and fill in gaps of ignorance. And what was most important: we expressed equality in our relationship.

The best cure for underachieving is interaction. Working in Finland or shopping in Tallinn is not enough. For the bigger picture you need sit down at the kitchen table. Very good milestone took place in May 2018, when the governments of Estonia and Finland hold a joint meeting to celebrate the 100th anniversary of both countries.

We can’t afford to have a tenuous image of one another. Underachieving literally costs money as unused opportunities of the merged economic region and tourism. The real collaboration starts when when orations change to better knowledge of possibilities and shared interest.

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