Exclusive Democracies: EU Accession, Ethnic Hierarchies and Displacement in Estonia and Latvia

Licia Cianetti

Estonia and Latvia are two of only three former Soviet Union republics to successfully democratise and join the European Union. Although ethnic divisions and the marginalisation of their large Russophone minorities were flagged up by European institutions as potential stumbling blocks to EU membership, Estonia and Latvia's minority policies were eventually judged sufficiently liberal for accession. In a fairly short time both countries were deemed to have adopted democratic institutions and adapted to the market economy, making them poster children of the "return to Europe" and the effectiveness of EU accession conditionalities in steering countries in the "right direction".This paper looks critically at this success story within the context of recent fears of democratic hollowness and backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe and wider warnings of hollowing (post-democratic) tendencies in other advanced democracies. It argues that ethnic divisions and hierarchies that characterized Estonia and Latvia's post-Soviet state building were crystallised rather than tamed by EU accession. This consolidated a peculiarly exclusionary form of democracy in which minority voices were marginalised, scope for party alternation in government severely reduced, and socio-economic cleavages routinely displaced from the political debate by nationalist retrenchment. The cases of Estonia and Latvia show how the judgment on democratic consolidation upon EU accession was superficial, inherently political and tended to prioritise adaptation to the market economy over democratic and liberal values. They also provide a cautionary tale for all democracies, showing how functioning democratic institutions can coexist (and in fact be based on) structures of exclusion.

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