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A new way for Estonia

An article I have written for Estonia's largest national daily:

Estonia is gaining a name for being an open and innovative country.

In the 1920s, the country adopted an open ultra-democratic Parliamentary constitution, and in the 1990’s it followed an open ultra-free market economic policy.  Perhaps these maximalist positions reflect the individualist character of Estonians. Yet since independence was restored, the economic policies of the 1990s have proven far more enduring than the political policies of the 1920s. The rapid reforms initiated in the early 1990s have helped to create an era of growth and general prosperity. The country measured itself against external yardsticks: joining NATO and the European Union, joining the Euro, joining the OECD.  Renewed Estonia has achieved membership of every club that it very well can join- it has become top of the class, lauded for economic freedom and technological innovation.
Yet even as Estonia has grown up into a generally prosperous and successful economy, there is a growing sense that the country is stagnating. Repeated political funding scandals have left the impression that the new multi-party political class, like the single party class before, is focussed on a self-serving agenda; one that only incidentally serves the mass of the population. The dramatic intervention of the NO99 Theatre Company’s “Conference of United Estonia” just before the last general election highlighted serious concerns about the moral foundations of Estonia’s democracy. No party was immune from criticism and the entire political class breathed a sigh of relief when those behind this extraordinary theatrical happening did not follow through with their threats to participate in the elections, after all. Now several figures are competing to create new political parties to “challenge the status quo”, yet to my mind, this tide seems to be born more out of ego than of principle, and perhaps the fact that No99 did not act to enter Parliament is an even more telling criticism than this flurry of party forming.

Yet if there are criticisms to be made of the politicians in this “era of stagnation”, then other questions also need to be asked. The accession to the European Union has taken hundreds, even thousands, of the best educated and most international minds of the country away from Estonia. These are not just the political figures we chose to send to Brussels, but a whole range of others, from translators to lawyers, from civil policy makers to technical specialists. Once in Brussels, many quickly become accustomed to the wider culture and often easier life in the European Capital rather than more Spartan conditions they get in the Estonian capital. It is a brain drain that Estonia can ill afford. Closer to hand EU accession has meant that medical doctors, for example, find far more lucrative opportunities in Finland than in their homeland and it is the Finnish health care system that benefits from their skills, not the less well funded Estonian hospitals. Meanwhile the pressure on the small Estonian labour market- buffeted by recession and emigration- makes it harder for Estonian companies to pay affordable salaries for good quality talent. In fact the pool of talent has dwindled even as salaries are squeezed upwards. Estonia’s dream of Nordic prosperity is being lost- and the overly restrictive immigration policy means that those who leave are not easily replaced. While many Estonians have voted to leave their homeland, few are replacing them, and even those who might choose are often prevented from coming. The fear that a new wave of immigration would swamp Estonian culture, as it threatened to do in Soviet times, remains very strong.

Immigration strikes at the very root of the identity of the Estonian state. Estonia was founded in 1918 as the nation-state of Estonians. With nearly 90% of the population in the 1920s being Estonian speaking, the infant republic could afford to be generous with the German, Swedish, Yiddish (Jewish) and Russian speaking minorities. Cultural autonomy was a proud chapter in the history of Estonia- and a marked contrast with its neighbours, even Latvia. After 1991, state support for cultural autonomy was continued- as the remarkable activity of the Vene Theatre and the Vene Kultuurikeskus, among many others, testifies. Yet, actually, although Estonia has recognised and indeed supported the Russian minority, it remains a point of pain- and a potential threat to the social and political cohesion of the Estonian Republic. Of course those Russians who still reject the idea of the Estonian state, and who still refuse to learn, still less to use, the Estonian language must take their full share of the blame. Yet Estonians too-sometimes for cynical political reasons- have been content to watch Russians leave- albeit mostly for the West, rather than for Russia; or to develop parallel political and social structures that minimise Russian speaking engagement with the Estonian speaking majority. After 22 years, the fact is that too many of those who still live here have not found a satisfied place in society.  Estonians are fearful that such accommodation would expose their beloved homeland to greater influence from the corrupt, undemocratic and hostile regime currently in charge of the Kremlin. Neither are those fears unfounded- so no major attempt by the Estonian state to reconcile the Russian speaking minority to the democratic Estonian state has truly been made. As a result, there is still the possibility that the Kremlin could find fifth columnists to subvert Estonia to their will. In part the sense of stagnation might be that despite all the integration into Western security and economic structures, there is a sense that even membership of NATO might not be enough to ward off the Russian threat. Estonian vulnerability is still keenly felt, despite the nominal security that NATO and EU membership has bestowed.

Yet to my mind, the way that Estonia has chosen to pool her freedom in the European Union has also carried a different cost- the price of mediocrity. In the first 15 years of restored Estonian independence, Estonia strove to adopt best practice: the flat tax revolution and the world’s leading E-government platform were the results. Yet as part of the EU, Estonia is being forced to make uncomfortable compromises: in February the new money transmission regulations for the Eurozone will reduce the speed of payments from ten a day to five a day. Meanwhile much is being made of the multi-billion euro Rail Baltica project. Such multi-country infrastructure projects involve huge financial and political commitments. Yet few are asking the real question: why is Estonia sponsoring 19th century technology, when the proposed “high speed line” will barely be faster than a road. Meanwhile, we can all see that driverless car and truck technology is almost upon us. The Estonia of 15 years ago would be building highways in readiness for the technological leap to driverless vehicles, not investing billions in a clearly inferior technology. Estonia is losing her vision of future excellence, and many of those that might have helped to shape that uniquely Estonian vision are busy learning the grubby system of EU compromises in Brussels.

Yet that is not to say that Estonia should -or even can- turn her back on the European Union. The question is how to combine Estonian culture and - largely English speaking- European culture in a harmonious way that protects both Estonian identity and Estonian prosperity and democracy.  As the bright vision of a European Estonia fades a little in the dawn of the new reality, the question of this new vision for the country grows more urgent.

President Ilves has engaged with a new debate: constitutional changes, social reform and so on. He has also shown a commendable capacity to listen to different points of view. Other politicians have been less willing. I think that President Ilves grasps that the vision for Estonia must be- as it was for figures such as Jaan T├Ánisson- a moral as well as a political, economic and social vision. Yet, the political class as a whole does not recognise the burning sense that the cheap and petty compromises involved in the party funding scandals have let Estonia down badly. The national project that inspired Estonians in the 1990s has faded in the bleak light of local reality as much as European reality.

Of course, power does not rest solely with politicians or even political parties: it also rests on other social interactions and –especially- money. The political discourse in many countries, notably Russia, is almost entirely driven by the corrupt allocation of money to power and vice-versa. So, one might say that some disillusionment was inevitable. Yet, as we await the transition to a new political generation across the political spectrum, there is a fear that this new political generation, who have known nothing except professional politics, are particularly compromised by the system- in short that they may be worse than their predecessors.

When Noor Eesti, a century or so ago, spoke of “more European culture” for Estonia they were not, as today they might, thinking of the functionalist agenda of a European Union, but of European values that stood in opposition to the backward obscurantism of Tsarist Russia.  In a sense Tuglas or Suits were campaigners for universal values, and that is still true of the best of Estonian society today. The international respect for Estonia’s e-government system is rooted in the understanding that it has truly revolutionary potential for changing the way in which the citizen and the state interact. The success of Skype reflects the fact that Estonian skills are competitive, indeed pioneering, within a global market. In the 1920s Estonia wanted to be the best democracy in the world, in the 1990s: the best economy in the world, in the 21st century: to have the best technology in the world. The need for Estonians to be global leaders is perhaps over-compensation for small size, but it is deep rooted, and it is certainly a significant part of national identity and national pride.

However, in my view, in order for Estonia to become the world’s first e-state, there is a need to revisit both the current democratic structures and the current economic policies. In short, Estonian society will need to end the “era of stagnation” by making some new national choices. To a degree Estonians have already made some pragmatic decisions: notably citizens who are resident overseas can still participate in e-elections. This policy- also adopted in Latvia- has ensured that even those who have moved away from the homeland are still part of virtual Estonia. In Lithuania, which has a much larger diaspora, the failure to offer e-voting has meant that overseas participation in domestic politics is a small fraction of Latvian or Estonian participation, which may be a reason why Lithuanian politics looks so much more old-fashioned. More seriously, Lithuanians are losing touch more quickly and more permanently with their homeland. More than 100,000 Lithuanians live in the UK, and many are choosing to become British citizens. Incidentally, the UK’s attitude to citizenship is the opposite to that of Estonia: they actively welcome dual nationality, believing that all residents with even a partial affiliation to Britain should have the opportunity for full civic participation.  Estonian citizens who choose to take British citizenship do not lose their Estonian citizenship, whereas British citizens who might want to become full civic members of Estonian society must give up their British passports.

The fact is that in the globalised e-society, the narrow, nineteenth century, definitions of national identity are beginning to blur. Those who try to hide from this process are unlikely to survive, but cultures, societies and states that develop flexibility may yet thrive- and Estonia has an opportunity to be among the success stories. The rapid growth of e-government services and especially e-voting offers Estonia the possibility of far greater democratic participation and therefore greater supervision of the political class. Tomas Hendrik Ilves has sometimes mused that Estonia might become like classical Greece- the Athenian forerunner to global e-democracy, and it is an inspiring vision. It is, however, not exactly popular with the political class which fears a huge loss of power, and quite possibly a threat to their entire existence. However, the small size of Estonia in this case becomes a source of strength, since neither politicians nor civil servants can act anonymously. Yet if the traditional definitions of citizenship- such as where you live- are beginning to blur, then it must hold that the loyalty of citizens will need to become more values based.

Estonian innovation is surely built around the sense that the future must be better than the past: and thus Estonia in the restored republic has pragmatically selected from the past, without making too much of a fetish of how things were done in the first independence. Given the mistakes of the 1930s era of silence, that is clearly no bad thing. Estonia, despite the national tragedy of occupation, has not- as many other states have- become a prisoner of the past. Neither, in my view, should it become a prisoner of the present. The current “era of stagnation” is an opportunity for the country to debate a new future and to set new national priorities that can be flexible enough to build greater prosperity and yet retain and even build new fundamental values and principles.

The growth of citizens movements and civic initiatives outside the state reflects the growing maturity of Estonian society, and yet, for the time being, these remain outside the narrowly party political Estonian Parliament. We focus much on political personalities, little on political principles. The gossip of politics- who is up, who down- has drowned out a far bigger debate: what is this Estonia that we have created actually for?

As a long-time friend and now resident of Estonia I hesitate to provide an answer, but I do think that the question must be at the root of the national debate that the nation and the state are now undertaking. I believe that e-Democracy can help to enable Estonian democracy and society, but whether or not Estonia chooses the road to a virtual state, it will still need to restate the values and principles that the very name of the Estonian Republic should embody.

In the first independence economic weakness undermined the democratic political experiment. Perhaps in the second independence economic strength might help create the democracy that T├Ánisson and others so profoundly hoped for- but with the addition of technology and enterprise that he could not even guess at. That sounds like a project worthy of the centenary of the Estonian Republic that is now in sight.


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