Democracy Promotion by Small States: The Case of Estonia’s ‘Niche Diplomacy’ Approach in Ukraine

Democracy Promotion by Small States: The Case of Estonia’s ‘Niche Diplomacy’ Approach in Ukraine


Democracy Promotion is an expensive undertaking, and doing it effectively requires expertise and time. While democracy promotion efforts by the United States and European Union (EU) are well-documented and studied, small states engage in democracy promotion as well. Due to various limitations, if small states want to be effective democracy promoters, they often cannot take the same approach as large countries. To investigate this topic, this paper will use the case of Estonia’s bilateral democracy promotion. It will investigate the following question: As a small state, what strategic approach does Estonia take to bilateral democracy promotion?

This paper will begin by providing a very brief overview of the literature on small state diplomacy, and then examine the concept of ‘niche diplomacy’. It will then introduce Estonia as a small-state actor in development, humanitarian aid, and democracy promotion.  After that, the empirical section will make the central argument that Estonia takes a ‘niche diplomacy’ approach to democracy promotion, by focusing its efforts on the nexus between digital innovation and democracy. In making this argument, Estonia’s democracy promotion in Ukraine will be examined.

 1. Conceptual Framework

1.1. Small State Diplomacy

In the literature, there are different methods of measuring state size. Most authors use indicators such as population, territory size, and economic development (Clarke & Payne 1987). Softer measurements such as action capacity and vulnerability – both domestically and internationally –are used as well (Thorhallsson & Wivel 2006). Small states can employ various tactics to increase their influence in international affairs. For example, studies have focused on the sizable influence of small states in the EU (Nasra 2011). While small states may be able to increase their influence in international organizations, in certain areas of foreign policy, such as bilateral democracy promotion, small states face tangible restrictions. Small states have limited financial resources, and democracy promotion is an expensive endeavour. Thus, it is valuable to investigate the strategies employed by small states to promote democracy abroad.

 1.2 Niche Diplomacy

One strategy in small-state diplomacy with applications for this paper is the strategy of ‘niche diplomacy.’ Niche diplomacy is the use of selectivity in foreign policy (Smith 1999). It is done through focusing efforts on specific areas or fields in which a state has “specialized interest and task-related experience” (Cooper 1997, p. 4). The logic is that small states do not have the resources to focus on every single issue in an effective way. Thus, to have the greatest impact, these states will direct their efforts towards fields where they have the most existing resources and “reputational qualifications” (Cooper 1997, p. 4). In pursuing this niche, small states may also form partnerships with non-state actors who have expertise in a particular field, such as the private sector, media organizations, or NGOs. This can be especially helpful if the state has a smaller sized public administration and foreign service (Jazbec 2010). The niche diplomacy approach has been applied to small states such as Qatar (Cooper & Momani 2011) and medium-sized countries such as South Africa (Van Wyk 2012), but not to democracy promotion.

1.3 Estonia in Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid

By any objective measure, Estonia is considered a small state. The most recent spending data is from 2017, in which Estonia spent 37.9 million Euros on development and humanitarian aid (0.17% of its gross national income), with 16.8 million spent through its contribution to the EU budget for the European Commission Development Cooperation Program, 18.3 million spent through bilateral cooperation, and the remaining 2.6 spent through the UN, World Bank, and other organizations (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2018). The Estonian National Security Concept lists maintaining the strength and influence of democracy as a key objective, and the Estonian Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid Strategy lists supporting the promotion of democracy and human rights as a key development objective. The next section will analyze Estonia’s niche approach to democracy promotion in Ukraine.

2. Estonia’s Niche Democracy Promotion in Ukraine

Estonia and Ukraine both became independent in 1991, but their paths since then could not be more different. Estonia has been an EU and NATO member since 2004 and ranks tied for 23rd on the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) democracy index, while Ukraine ranks 84th on the EIU democracy index. As a small state, Estonia is working with a limited budget and limited resources in Ukraine. To have a greater impact, the country focuses largely on the policy field – or niche – in which it is reputable and successful: digital innovation and information and communication technology (ICT).

Estonia’s expertise and competence in digital innovation and ICT have been well-documented, and it focuses on this niche field with its democracy promotion efforts in Ukraine. Supporting the development of democracy and state structures through assisting Ukraine in implementing e-governance and ICT solutions in public administration is an explicitly stated goal of Estonia’s development efforts in Ukraine (Government of the Republic of Estonia 2016). Furthermore, its 2019 strategic document issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on cooperation with Ukraine states that in strengthening democracy and state structures, “e-governance and the implementation of ICT solutions have an essential role” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2019, p. 6). To pursue this goal in Ukraine, Estonia partners with several non-government organizations that have expertise in this field.

The Estonian government funds multiple projects in Ukraine focusing on this niche. This included projects in partnership with the Estonian non-profit think tank e-Governance Academy. The projects include using technology to improve advocacy capacity building, e-Governance capacity building at the local and national level, and the introduction of ICT solutions in public administration. Estonia has also funded projects implemented by the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies which has assisted Ukraine with the implementation of an e-Heath system, and also funded a project implemented by the International Centre for Defence and Security which created a strategic plan for implementing regional ICT governance. Estonia funds a partnership between the Estonian School of Diplomacy and the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine, where the former runs capacity building programs in cybersecurity, e-governance, and ICT. It also funds a partnership between Tallinn University of Technology and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine to develop a master’s study program on e-governance in Ukraine.

Estonia has organized study trips, in which officials from the Ukrainian government have visited Estonia to learn about e-government and digital democracy, and Estonia has provided an expert evaluation of Ukraine’s e-government concept. Furthermore, a memorandum of cooperation was signed between the two countries which calls for cooperation in digital development, and more specifically in “implementing digital innovations, building e-mobile governance, and developing e-democracy” (Office of the President of Ukraine 2019).


This paper has argued that Estonia takes a niche diplomacy approach to its democracy promotion efforts through its focus on the nexus between digital innovation and democracy in Ukraine. A niche approach to democracy promotion may not be useful every time. To use the Estonian example, a country may need far more fundamental assistance and not be ready to focus on digital issues and e-government. But in cases where the specific niche is needed, a smaller country may be able to carve out a unique role for itself and be the go-to country on a specific issue.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.



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Nathan Russell is an MA student in the International Relations and Regional Studies programme at the University of Tartu in Estonia. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Ottawa in Canada. He is interested in regional integration, multilevel governance, and democracy promotion.