Interview with Joakim Ekman

Below is a short interview with Joakim Ekman, in his role as Theme Coordinator for the Sustainable Societies theme at the BUP Symposium 2020. Joakim is moreover the BUP National Centre Director for Sweden, hosted by Södertörn University, Sweden, where he is a Professor and Director of Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES).

1. How did your interest in Sustainable Societies begin?

My interest in what may be labelled Sustainable Societies covers matters relating to society and equality, or if you will, democracy and political and social inclusion. My interest in these issues dates back to the early 1990s. Because of the events in Poland and Germany in 1989, I had taken an interest in the general development of the societies in Central and Eastern Europe. There were so many interesting changes, relating not only to democracy and market economy, but also to issues about collective identities (Eastern and Western Germany), as well as state borders and ethnic conflicts (the former Soviet Union and the by then dissolving Yugoslavia). Also, in the Baltic states, you had problems relating to citizenship and social exclusion. I found the entire region fascinating, and after defending my doctoral dissertation (in 2001), I became involved in a number of projects that in different ways focused on democratic developments, and setbacks, in the post-communist region.

Photo of Joakim Ekman
Joakim Ekman

2. How do you work with Sustainable Societies today?

I still focus on democracy from a grassroot perspective, that is, the way ordinary citizens orient themselves to democracy and political institutions. In recent years, the region has been characterized by a general backlash against what is sometimes referred to as “European values”. We have seen instances of populist challenges to European integration and what the European Union represents: tolerance, liberal democracy, respect for human rights and the protection of minority rights. Following the 2004 and 2007 eastern enlargements of the EU – sometimes described as a “return to Europe” following decades of communist rule – we have throughout the post-communist region witnessed what has been labelled “democratic backsliding”, Euroscepticism, the rise of radical right populism, the spread of corruption, an authoritarian “backlash” and the rise of xenophobia and chauvinism. And, of course, the 2015 refugee crisis confirmed the inability of the EU to stick together. My present research relates directly to these developments.

3. What goals do you have with your work?

Most of my work is not really applied research, conducted in order to solve specific or practical problems. Rather, it has to do with specific, and not seldom, more confined academic debates. But of course, I welcome any interest from stakeholders, media or the general public. This fall (2019) we published a book on political orientations in the three Baltic states, looking specifically at attitudinal differences between the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian majority groups and the Russian-speaking minority groups in the three countries. We can document significant differences when it comes to levels of political dissatisfaction, support for non-democratic regime alternatives, and attitudes towards the European Union and Russia.

4. What role do you think networks among universities in the Baltic Sea Region play in achieving these goals?

As I see it, we all benefit from international collaboration. Is not a matter of “us” (say, the Scandinavian countries or Western Europe) providing “them” (say, the Baltic states, Russia or Eastern Europe at large) with knowledge about how to do good research. That idea is outdated. Rather, it is a matter of mutual learning. Using again my recent project on public opinion in the Baltic states as an example, we could not have done it without the help of researchers and public opinion specialists in the three countries we focused on.

5. What role do you see The Baltic University Programme has in collaboration between universities in the Baltic Sea Region?

The Baltic University Programme (BUP) is probably the most interesting international network from my point of view, BUP is an established and recognized network, and it includes a large number of universities in precisely the region that we focus on. My ambition is that Södertörn University could be instrumental in strengthening the BUP, for example by bringing in perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences into the activities of the network. Moreover, I find the BUP network interesting because it does not only support activities for researchers and PhD students, but also for teachers and Master students in the region.