Budnitsky, Stanislav (2022). ‘A Relational Approach to Digital Sovereignty: e-Estonia Between Russia and the West’, International Journal of Communication, 16: 1918–1939. [Open Access]

Stanislav Budnitsky envisions Estonia’s process of national digitalization as a case study for the competing views between Russia and the West in relation to nationalization through the digital sphere. Particularly interesting here is Estonia’s post-Soviet recognition of its deficiencies in its telecommunication networks and its response to the challenge posed by the dissolution of the greater Soviet state. Finding itself in a socioeconomic emergency, the country intensified connections with the west and favoured western technologies for the process of rebuilding outdated networks. The implications of this decision making are problematized and explored through a relational lens.

Budnitsky writes that ‘Estonia’s technological pivot westward was an integral part of its national ideology of “returning to Europe,” an existential goal of integrating into the Euro-Atlantic community while materially and symbolically distancing from its Soviet past and the Russian state’ (1919). This re-branding was dubbed E-Estonia and led to a certain intentional break with the status quo, changing the country’s national situation in regard to US-Russia relations. The impact of this move is not to be underestimated, as the author asserts. The concept of E-Estonia has implications hinting at a new national identity, further removed from Russia’s political and socioeconomic influence. At the same time, diverse conceptions of ethnicity, elitism, and power need to be addressed in order to obtain a fuller understanding of national identity. Who is making the rules in E-Estonia? Budnitsky references the dichotomy of ethnically Estonian ruling elites and members of the populace of Russian descent.

‘How national governments employ the language of digital sovereignty’, the author states, ‘reflects their ideological commitments’ (1920). This assertion suggests a critical engagement, the analysis of which could lead to a more complete understanding of the creation and maintenance of a national identity in the modern age. Openness in digital networks, a concept embraced by Estonia, and in line with Western Europe, is said to embody ‘the liberal values of governmental transparency, democratic participation, and individual empowerment’ (1921). But Budnitsky’s approach has a further dimension, namely that of relationality. How national identity is created is a continuous process involving the Self vs. the Others dynamic. We come to understand ourselves in relation to differences from this and that other. In so doing, a clearer identity can be discerned, communicated, and embraced.

The value of this approach, according to the author, is that ideas of sovereignty dictated from governing elites, as well as the those asserting that identity is inherently relational, can be combined productively. ‘Taken together’, writes Budnitsky, ‘these claims indicate that it is analytically productive and sometimes imperative to attend to relational dynamics between the national Self and its Others to grasp the logics of digital sovereignty’ (1931). At stake is ascertaining the material significance of digital sovereignty, how and why its construction and deployment affect real people on the ground. Budnitsky’s approach in this article suggests further application in other spheres, which may offer greater clarity to understandings of a national identity while taking into account the complex, relational processes imposed upon countries in the digital age.

Andrew Costigan