Thursday, September 21, 2006

Writing in praise of (very) small countries

Writing in praise of (very) small countries

By Edward Lucas

Dozens of angry e-mails are sizzling in my inbox. Last week’s headline (not written by me) referred to Estonia as a “very, very small” country. That was wrong for several reasons. A grammarian pointed out quite rightly that the word “very” is rarely necessary in good prose, unless used for contrast. Secondly, it should very – note the correct usage there – rarely be used twice.

Most letters were from Estonians and their champions. Estonia, they howled, is not “very, very small” or even “very small”. It is not a micro-state like Monaco or San Marino. And, at 1.3m, it is much bigger in population than truly small countries like Luxembourg (465,000) and Iceland (297,000). It is at the bottom end of a category of around a dozen European countries with populations of between one and five million: Some of them have rather small land areas but most are around the size of Belgium (which nobody calls small). They could fairly be called small-medium countries. Most of them are ex-communist and have only recently gained, or regained, independence. So their twitchiness about size is matched by twitchiness about statehood.
I sympathise. Back in the mid 1980s, I was a producer at the BBC World Service, and I wanted to compile a report on the nascent independence movements in what were then known as the Soviet Baltic Republics. My then boss, a Russia expert, pooh-poohed the idea. “They don’t want to be independent. They can’t. They’re tiny.” I backed down, but she was wrong. Lots of countries look small when you have an unthinking big-country worldview. It is certainly quite expensive to be independent when you are small, not least because of the absurd number of pointless international organisations, all needing their letters answered and meetings attended.
But never mind. Saying “too small to be a sensible size” is dangerously close to saying “too small to exist”. Even now, many people in old Europe, I suspect, still groan inwardly at the thought of having to remember all those funny little countries with their strange languages and tiresome complexes. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were so much easier to deal with than the 23-odd countries (more if you include the would-bes like Kosovo and puppet states like Transdniestria) that took their place.
Never mind that either. Small countries are often more interesting than big ones, and size may be one reason that the Baltic states and Slovenia have done rather well in the past 16 years. Politics works faster in small countries: you can draft a policy today, agree it tomorrow and expect everyone to know about it by the end of the week. Information moves more smoothly. Feedback loops are tighter: if something works, you see it quickly and can copy it. If it goes wrong, you can change course.
The downside is cronyism. When most of the bright people are connected by family, education and neighbourhood, it is hard to separate executive and judicial authority, let alone business and the state. Backs get scratched, shoulders rub, punches are pulled, ears get whispered in. That’s certainly a problem in Slovenia, where the old communist elite still retains a remarkable, if broadly competent grip on the commanding heights of power. The best way to avoid the problem is to be very open to outside competition and influence. If foreign trade is several times gross domestic product, and most important businesses are owned by outsiders, then chummy old-boy (and old-girl) networks erode, while the advantages of smallness remain.
The problem is small-mindedness, not small countries.


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Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Good post, Mr. Lucas -- as usual! There are certainly both advantages and disadvantages to being small -- among the latter, it's not just the countless "pointless international organizations" but government itself that costs a lot, per capita (even when dealing with the not-so-pointless organizations -- the percentage of the population employed in wading through EU paperwork is certainly high here in the Baltic States, for instance). On the other hand, I suppose that the armies of functionaries, multiplying like they did in the interbellum, form a sort of backbone for the nation-state...

One of the major advantages I would mention relates to the openness you urge. People from smaller countries don't usually expect much understanding from those who hail from larger ones. Estonians learn Finnish, Latvians Russian, etc. -- whilst it's expected that citizens learn our languages, nobody expects it of visitors. Many here also tend to take an interest in smaller communities -- the Estonians in the Fenno-Ugric peoples in Russia, for example. Latvia offers development aid to Moldova and Georgia. In literature, there are Latvian translators of Faroese and Icelandic. Since the cost of being small is high in so many areas (e.g., Russian books are cheaper!), people have to be more open to other cultures than those cultures are to us. The economist Nicholas Balabkins noted that growing up pentalingual in Daugavpils stood him in good stead. Smallness isn't the only factor in multilingualism, of course -- but Luxembourg is also a leader in that realm. We can't afford to be insular.