Monday, January 09, 2012

Estonian "orientation"

Edward Lucas has highlighted an interesting article on the ERR website by a former RFE correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas. The basic thesis is that Estonia has, as it did in the 1930s reoriented its foreign policy away from Britain and towards Germany. Then, as now, such a reorientation is a function of new trade and economic patterns. In the 1930s, Germany overtook the UK as Estonia's biggest trading partner, and over the past few years, the creation of the Euro as increased the significance of Germany to Estonia equally dramatically.

To my mind, though there is more to it than a shuffling of priorities in Estonia's government district, Toompea. Estonia has spent most of the time since independence was restored seeking to comply with the complicated rule book that sets out the terms of membership of both the EU and NATO. Once those goals were achieved, the next task was to comply with membership of the Euro. Once that was achieved, membership of the OECD and so on. Yet the fact is that Estonia has run out of clubs to join. The country has achieved as full a place in the international system as it can. This has left the political class somewhat adrift. In each political party there are signs of ennui, as though they are exhausted by the struggles of the past two decades.

The uneasy federation of nationalist Conservatives and Liberals in the IRL party has more or less fractured, with the ideological nationalists being squeezed out my more slippery technocrats. The result has been a series of increasingly serious corruption scandals- the latest concerning large payments being made by Russians in order to gain Estonian residency permits. Decisions being made by some IRL ministers seem based entirely on party political calculations- and this is causing significant damage both to Estonia's reputation for probity and competence. I have written about the increasingly mishandled privatisation of Tallinn Water in the past, but as both sides now settle in for a long legal battle, I can only view the miscommunication between the company, the economics ministry and the competition commission with something approaching despair. 

The Centre Party too remains under a cloud of suspicion as investigations continue into suspect donations from overseas (=Russian) sources. The controversial leader of the Centre Party, Edgar Savisaar has faced such allegations before, but the finger of suspicion is now being pointed in the direction of other parties. The Centre Party vote continues to languish, while former Centre politicians are trying to create a new political force that can appeal to both Estonian and Russian voters: the Social Democrats. Certainly the Sotsid  have the wind in their sails, yet this reflects the tired nature of Estonian politics: the Prime Minister is now the second longest serving leader in the EU, and people are increasingly bored with the stale sloganeering that has replaced the vigorous intellectual debate that was the joy of Estonian politics over the past two decades.

Huge decisions are going through Estonia's Parliament, the Riigikogu, with barely a debate. The decision to double Estonian national debt in order to support the Euro, was taken with barely a dissenting voice. This does not reflect unanimity- it reflects exhaustion. The parties are tires, and as allegations of corruption mount, it is clear that a political renewal is needed in the country. Yet here too there is a sense of ennui: the entry of the new Respublica Party a decade or so ago was supposed to sweep aside the old guard in Estonian politics- but ultimately it has failed. There is an urgent, growing need for a radical and uncorrupted voice in Estonian politics, but such a voice is not coming- at least not quickly. The growth of support for the Sotsid, reflects the hope for a new direction, yet the leadership of that party seem to be more interested in creating a new Centre Party- shorne of its controversial leader. Yet the policies of the Sotsid are the kind of tepid socialism that Radicals must have hoped would be long gone by now. 

So, Estonian politics is mired in political exhaustion. It may be some time before a new energy can be found- because although the older guard in Estonian politics is moving on, the new guard of smooth, hard faced and questionable professional political figures does not give much hope that things will change positively for the good in the near future.

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