Messages of the Transnationalism Chapter

  • The number of people and companies who are active in more than one country, i.e. who are transnational, has grown in today’s opening world. Transnationalism is amplified by digital media, which enables participation in the media space of the homeland as well as close communications with loved ones even while abroad. As being active in several countries is becoming increasingly common, the world needs new concepts in devising integration, employment, taxation and social welfare policies.
  • Transnationalism brings along a significant change in the approaches to migration. An increasing number of travellers are not staying in the destination country permanently and do not wish to be integrated into the society of the destination country, but rather retain a strong connection with their homeland, culture and close social circle so that they can move on or turn back as needed. Transnationalism also has its negative effects: constant travelling decreases social security, identity becomes more vague and there are negative influences on health, family and relationships.
  • Transnationalism does not mean only a drain of workforce and brains; it can also be treated as an opportunity to obtain new knowledge and skills and to be more visible in an interconnected world. Numerous companies and research institutions use international mobility for obtaining new skills and finding new markets and specialists. Many countries devise their own transnationalisation policies in order to engage transnational entities in promoting themselves or finding new markets.


One of the important indicators of an open society is its internationalism: people, products, money and ideas are increasingly open and mobile. To understand this world, one must grasp mobility, whether we like it or not, as there are many phenomena that can no longer be treated as country-centred. In today’s world, even a lot of local activities are situated in a globalised system. For example, the main supplier to the farmers of South Estonia is an international chemistry concern with products developed in a university laboratory located in California, prices formed on the international food market, which in turn is influenced by world weather. Many Estonian families have members who have lived or worked abroad. Even the firewood market is international, not to mention research or information technology.

Therefore, the concepts of various social phenomena have changed: a family, a company or a national university can no longer be viewed in the context of one country alone. The international scope of many of these phenomena, however, has not been fully and meaningfully discussed and often there is also a lack of accurate means for measurement and evaluation. An internationalised society is inevitably regulated by the laws of many countries, while national censuses or registers are not adequate for measuring the population or the economy. The simplest example is the family - the basic institution of society - which has historically developed as country-centred, but now many families have become transnational, i.e. cross-border. International families bring along a multitude of legal nuances, from the recognition of a marriage, religion-related issues, the procedures of tax incentives and social supports, up to the legal and organisational issues involved in sending a grandchild to her grandmother’s place for the summer holidays.

This chapter looks at the different aspects of living and being active in multiple countries. One of the keywords here is transnationalism, which could be concisely defined as being active in several countries. On the one hand, it is a good concept for generalising the processes happening around us, but on the other hand, transnationalism is still lacking a universal and generally-accepted definition. How active must a person or a company be abroad, or how much must they earn there to be called transnational? How tight do the connections of a person living abroad have to be with the media space of the homeland to feel transnational in the new domicile? We will not pretend to be able to provide a more precise definition of transnationalism in this chapter, but rather look at some of the varied faces of transnationalism and describe them, using Estonia as an example.

First, transnationalism can be looked at from the viewpoint of migration theory, as a situation where a person who has moved abroad retains a tight connection with the culture of his or her homeland or previous homeland, with their loved ones and their networks. From this viewpoint, we will look at the Estonian community living abroad, the diaspora, in this chapter. ‘Diaspora’ was initially a word with connotations of forced resettlement, but over time it has come to denote communities living abroad in a broader sense. Today, however, there is reason to view communities living abroad and maintaining their national identity in a new way, as transnational entities. We must note that the English word transnational sounds too forceful and violent in this new meaning. The Estonian term hargmaisus (with its image of branching into different countries) seems to have a better resonance with a modern Western view of the world.

Communities can be transnational, because fast and cheap transportation and communication technology enable them to keep close contacts between themselves as well as with the homeland while living in a country far away. In a number of countries, this is even considered a problem: some immigrants don’t want to hear anything about integration, preferring to continue living in the world of their traditions, in their community and their media space. In a digital society, each person designs his or her media space. In Estonia, this topic is most relevant with our Russian community. Most Estonians see the non-integration of the Russian-speaking population as a problem. Yet at the same time, we like the fact that many ethnic Estonians who have travelled abroad keep their ties with our culture and society. Estonian expatriates are a part of Estonia, and even one of the Presidents of the re-independent Estonia came from abroad. As Estonia is in the middle of a demographic crisis, it would naturally like to decrease emigration and bring people who have studies abroad and obtained valuable experience there back home, to develop our national culture and economy. That, however, is no easy task.

In the first sub-chapter, Kaja Kumer-Haukanõmm and Keiu Telve will look at the reasons behind the three waves of emigration from Estonia, their similarities and distinctive features. All waves of migration are characterised by Estonians sticking together, retaining the language and culture and cooperating. The last emigration wave that started with the restoration of independence is probably also the one that is best characterised by transnationalism: the ties between the emigrants and their homeland and culture are tight. The reasons are the opening world, burgeoning media and logistics. There are Estonians living abroad who are not very integrated with their local life, and thanks to digital media, know more about the news and cultural life back home than many people here. A lot of questions can be asked to which there is no one answer. Are the Estonians living outside of Estonia and tightly connected to our cultural space a part of Estonian society? Or are they foreigners? When abroad, are they lost souls for our society and should we put our efforts into developing re-migration policy? Or are they valuable envoys for us, living abroad?

The second discussion of transnationalism presented in this chapter is based on the employment-market approach, where transnationalism is seen in terms of working someplace other than one’s home country. True transnationals have never been defined very clearly - is there any difference between daily, weekly and seasonal pendulum migration abroad? Should foreign workers who work over 183 days per year abroad be considered transnationals, as is defined by Eurostat and the UN? Be that as it may, there are a lot of people in Estonia whose job is abroad and who commute between the homeland and the job abroad with very different schedules. The best-known Estonians working abroad are the mostly unskilled labourers working in Finland, for whom there is even a special term - Kalevipojad (a reference to Estonia’s mythic hero who visited Finland). In reality, however, there are compatriots working in many countries and there are many foreigners who come to work in Estonia. We live in a mobile and connected world with open borders. It is not hard to find work in or commute to Helsinki, London or the US. This is a lifestyle trending globally. There are a lot of countries with an area larger than Estonia, but for instance in the US, commuting over 4,000 km from the East Coast to the West Coast is not seen as transnationalism. But Estonia being so small, the inhabitants of Estonia are much more transnational.

Some theorists find that transnational employment is good for everyone involved: the destination country gets the needed workforce with no immigration, the person from the source country gets a job with no emigration. Others find that transnational commuting is a burden for people and their family members, and people are wasting their lives and polluting the environment by constant travelling, so nobody benefits. Rein Ahas, Siiri Silm and Margus Tiru write in the second chapter about ways of measuring this kind of transnationalism using roaming data from mobile phones.

The roaming data of mobile phones is well-suited to measuring cross-border activities. Because phones have become the ‘closest companions’ of people, they are carried everywhere and their usage data can be used for drawing conclusions concerning people’s cross-border activities. Putting together the data of the roaming services of the two largest mobile operators in Estonia, we get a pretty good idea of the numbers of Estonian commuters, transnationals and employees working abroad. The problem here, however, is that there are no data or data collections for specifying the data obtained as a result of such cell phone-based research. The roaming data of mobile phones do not reflect the whole truth for sure. But registers, censuses and surveys all have their own problems in ‘catching’ people who are active in several countries. Neither do we know to what extent and why people who are active abroad keep their home-country telephone numbers active and in use, nor how the prices of roaming services affect the usage of mobile phones. Many questions still remain relating to methodology and the specification of data.

The authors propose a concept of transnationalism based on the active usage of a homeland telephone number while abroad. The unification of roaming fees should not affect the usage of a homeland telephone number when travelling abroad. If an Estonian working in England keeps his or her homeland phone active every day, he or she has reason to be available for the friends, colleagues, state institutions or companies in the homeland. He or she has a strong connection with life in the home country, therefore he or she can be called a transnational. If the connection with the home country weakens, there is no longer any point in keeping the Estonian phone number active abroad and the status of transnational has ended.

Mobile phones show that almost 30,000 inhabitants of Estonia spend time abroad often and for long periods, most of them probably in relation to working, studying, family ties or having a second home. There are probably millions of such people in Europe today, and tens of millions globally. The authors discuss the connections between these transnational people and their homeland, given that, according to a nation-state concept, all citizens should live in their home country. But now we see large numbers of people active in other countries. How do they fit in with present definitions of state and citizenship? Where do they exercise their right to vote? How should their social rights and freedoms be ensured? All of these questions cannot be solved simply by developing the e-state and providing services like e-residency.

The third topic concerning transnationalism is the internationalisation of entrepreneurship. Companies active in several countries are an inseparable part of the modern economy and the transnationalism of companies significantly affects the transnationalism of the many people connected to these companies. In the case of Estonia, the mainstream of internationalisation is the activity of various types of subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies in Estonia. Companies develop, manufacture, sell and mediate here, and each company has its own logic and structure. The expansion of Estonian companies abroad is also an important factor, as well as the movement of entrepreneurs and companies that had their roots in Estonia to other countries in order to accelerate their growth with the help of the identity of a well-known country or business centre or international networks. There are such Estonian-grown companies successfully operating in a number of countries.

The internationalisation of companies brings along a movement of people and knowledge, as international companies have become a kind of global training and career corridor. In the third sub-chapter, Rainer Kattel and Urmas Varblane talk about the manufacturing and innovation networks of companies located in Estonia. They show that the parent companies of international businesses in Estonia are usually located close by geographically. Because of their proximity, these Estonian subsidiaries are tightly connected with the internal communications, experience sharing and training activities of their parent firms. This supports the development of the Estonian daughter companies and the improvement of the professional skills of the local people. The problem is, however, that the Estonian subsidiaries tend to be rather low in the value creation chain of international companies, and participation in research, development and innovation activities is low. Also weak are the connections of the research activities of Estonian universities and institutes, which are also developing along international channels, but different ones.

Kattel and Varblane introduce the two logical premises of the activity of transnational companies active in Estonia. As a rule, the Estonian subsidiaries of international companies perform narrow production tasks or subcontracting duties and are not able to import knowledge or high-level product development. The more capable managers and engineers can be transferred to other parts of the company located abroad. Thus, the promotion of their leaders may have a negative effect on Estonian companies and will often not return any knowledge. If the Estonian divisions of international companies are more independent and have more rights to grow and develop, they also cooperate more with local partners and import international specialists. These companies have a greater developmental effect on the economy and society of Estonia.

The economic effect of transnationalism can also be assessed from the viewpoint of the employees, not just the companies. The general opinion is that free movement of labour has a positive effect on the professional skills of employees, as the employment market becomes more flexible and imported knowledge and experience help develop the region in various ways. Therefore, the open employment market and the mobility of the workforce have usually been treated as positive phenomena in the professional literature. The article by Maryna Tverdostup and Jaan Masso on the return migration of Estonian young people who have worked abroad points out the logic of the situation that there is a higher proportion of young people among the demographic that has worked abroad. However, the low education level of people from Estonia who have gone to work abroad and then returned is surprisingly at odds with observations in the literature on work-related migration.

It is common in modern Europe for highly-educated and qualified specialists to travel. The emigrants and re-migrants of Estonia, however, are distinctly characterised by a lower-than-average level of education. The reason for this is the attraction of simpler jobs in Finland, where significant numbers of low-skilled labourers go to work, and also then affect the re-migration flow. The study shows that for similar reasons, the job position and salary level of people who have returned from abroad is lower than those of people who have never worked abroad. Comparing people doing the same job, on the other hand, shows that the returners receive a higher salary.

Research is one of the showcases of internationalism and openness. It can be said that research has no homeland, therefore it is a field perfectly suited to transnationalism. Today, research is a contributing factor to success in business and a creative lifestyle and because of this, scientific research fits in well with the mentality of today’s open society and its geographical conceptualisation. Interestingly, however, research is a field where the word ‘transnationalism’ is rarely used, and the authors here also find it hard to write about transnational science. Research is in itself an international phenomenon.

Researchers, on the other hand, are important bearers of transnationalism. In the fifth sub-chapter, Marion Pajumets describes facets of the international activities of research groups and scientists. Estonia lies on the outskirts of the research community and in order to be a top-level expert, it is important to be educated and work in successful research centres. One of the central topics here is the returning of ‘enriched brains’ from the research centres of the world to the homeland, or at least getting them to work for our benefit. Pajumets’ article shows that unlike in the case of regular work-related transnationalism, the salary and the working conditions tend to be rather unimportant factors for travelling researchers. It is the development of one’s career in research, the opportunity to learn from top experts and having the means for conducting research that matter.

Research interests are differently motivated than employment migration by nature, therefore successful scientists cannot be lured with just money. The mobility of scientists is further complicated by the life trajectory of researchers who tend to travel when they are young and often re-migration is hampered by changed marital status and the needs of other family members. Pajumets reaches the conclusion that we cannot and should not try to keep Estonian scientists out of the international research circuits in order to avoid brain drain. We should rather put our efforts into making our own research centres exciting and vital junctures on the global education and research landscape, for Estonian as well as foreign researchers.

Transnationalism is a rather new phenomenon and we have said repeatedly that its definition is only developing. In the last sub-chapter, Mari-Liis Jakobson writes that although the subject is new, various policy areas and institutions concerned with transnationalism have been developed in the world. Transnationalism policy means the application of measures with the aim of creating, maintaining and strengthening ties between the state and the people who currently live abroad either temporarily or permanently. Transnationalism policy can be focused on cultural and religious ties, migration or foreign policy or the participation of those working abroad in reaping the benefits of economic success.

There is no common way to administer transnationalism. Some countries have corresponding ministries or state agencies, some have dedicated departments or NGOs. The most widespread transnationalism policy is related to language studies and strengthening the cultural ties of compatriots living abroad. The most complicated transnationalism policy is related to foreign lobbying in favour of the country of origin. The transnationalism policy of Estonia includes the application of various measures: we have the third Compatriots Programme (2014-2020) underway already, focusing not only on a narrow diaspora policy, but also our cultural space and the use of digital media within it, as well as e-residency and the Global Estonians Network coordinated by Enterprise Estonia (EAS).

Estonia can be called an open and transnational country. We have an active community abroad, and there are numerous Estonian companies, employees, researchers, artists and officials active in other countries. No doubt there are those who think that we could be more open and active. There are also those who find that we are too open, that the people are running away too soon and the economy is taken over by strangers. An analysis of the migration waves and our history, however, shows that openness and activity have been the strengths of Estonia throughout history. The rise of Tallinn and Tartu, for example, has been historically related to periods of development in international trade. At present, it is important for us to develop policy areas and action plans for benefiting more from our openness and transnationalism.

We assembled an expert group of authors for this chapter and a few Estonian employment market specialists and economic experts, asking them to forecast the trends of transnationalisation in the coming five or six years and to explain whether these trends are beneficial for Estonia or pose a threat. We distinguished geographically between countries that are close by or remote. Members of the expert group forecast a moderate growth in emigration as well as immigration.

None of them called the immigration or emigration processes of Estonia unequivocally good or bad, as negative and positive traits were shown for each migration type, which means that the impact of migration and mobility is diverse. The experts make an exception for the immigration of highly-qualified specialists as a decidedly positive process regardless of the source region. Immigration of low-skilled people from culturally-remote areas was seen rather as a threat, however, but the probability of it manifesting in the near future was estimated as low. The continuous emigration of low-skilled workers from Estonia can be viewed as a negative phenomenon also because it can be a threat to our economy. On the other hand, the drain of low-skilled workers may accelerate innovation on the part of local businesses.

Experts found that emigration is hard to influence across all the categories under discussion, because it is motivated most of all by differences in remuneration and working conditions as well as job offers, for example from huge infrastructure projects built with EU money outside of Estonia. The state’s actions can have a stronger influence on immigration. An aging population and an increasing lack of workforce dictate the need to turn the Estonian environment into a place where new immigrants who want to work and integrate here would feel at home, whether they be Ukrainian workers or Finnish engineers.

The experts agree quite unanimously that Estonian-based companies are likely to take more and more of their production and development activities to other countries. The reason for this is the attraction of foreign markets as well as the pressure of rising input costs in Estonia. This can (but doesn’t have to) be dangerous to Estonia, especially in the case of businesses owned by foreigners or in the case of companies being sold. The present experience shows that the expansion of an Estonian-based company abroad doesn’t necessarily result in decreasing work volumes or a smaller number of white-collar employees for Estonia; these may even increase. A lot will depend on whether we are able to direct this objective process.

Experts find that the inclusion of Estonian-based companies and their employees in international cooperation programmes and networks, for example in technology and product development, is a very positive thing. It is especially beneficial if the role of Estonian companies in them is not limited to that of the ‘younger brother’. This is again a challenge for the policymakers.

While worrying primarily about immigration and emigration, we have been paying too little attention to international work-related migration, commuting and remote work. This was seen as beneficial for Estonia, especially in the case of highly-qualified workers. However, remote work is not an opportunity just for the select few, but rather accessible for specialists in various professions, like employees of international call centres, various technical check services, dispatchers, etc. In the case of commuting and remote work, there may be legal and tax-related problems involved, but these can be solved. Estonia as an e-state could make itself known as a remote work platform with the correspondingly skilled specialists.

As transnationalisation is growing, wider political involvement is needed. The experts considered it important that besides activities directed at retaining the ties of people living abroad with the homeland and Estonian culture, or aiming to facilitate their re-migration, we should also look at ways to use the abilities of people from Estonia in the interests of Estonia, even if they are not planning to return, at least for now. This could be related to their speciality, for example high-tech, or their knowledge of the country of residence, its culture, tourism and business opportunities, people who could be beneficial to Estonia, etc. These are areas that we haven’t explored yet.

Retaining the connections of people living abroad with Estonia and Estonian culture is very important, because it is a prerequisite for effective activities with various aims. The forms of activities and cooperation, however, must be somewhat varied and take into account specific people and geographic regions, for instance looking at Finland or Australia.

Transnationalism is developing fast and we need to put a lot of effort into researching it, understanding it and developing the necessary policy for it. This is an exciting project for Estonia, on which the future of our country depends.