Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Estonian State of Mind

Down to Parnu, Estonia's summer capital for the celebrations of Estonian Independence Day. At the church service I was sat behind the Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, who had announced his departure from office the previous day. He seemed preoccupied and serious, as well he might. He is the longest serving Prime Minister in Estonian history, and a large number of his predecessors ended their lives in the Soviet GULAG. After the church service I was a guest in the VIP enclosure to stand with the President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves to watch the military parade. This was the largest such independence day parade in modern Estonia, and as an array of modern equipment and stern faced soldiers passed- including this year a detachment from the British Grenadier guards- I could not help thinking about whether or not Estonia was facing an existential threat. The American squadron of F-14s was slightly late, and we later learned that this was because they had been forced to divert to intercept a Russian intruder. It was a none-to-subtle reminder of the mischief that Vladimir Putin still seeks to cause, even with his NATO-guarded neighbours.

In his state of the nation address, later in the evening, President Ilves spoke of Estonia as a state of mind. He meant the pun, Estonia as a country based on intelligence and the lessons of collective experience, but also the Estonian attitude and indeed Estonia as a virtual society, the so-called E-stonia. It was a long and serious oration, as the address by the armed forces chief to the parade in the morning had been. Yet as the events in Ukraine have shown, Estonia has every reason to consider the uses of adversity, to think philosophically about its agenda and national personality. 

Ukraine has come through the fire this week. The clumsy and inept regime of Viktor Yanukovych had descended to snipers firing on the thousands of people protesting in the Maidan. It seemed that, with the Kremlin's encouragement, Yanukovych would drown the Maidan in blood in order to put down the rebellion. Then it seemed that he was prepared to cut a deal with the opposition. Then it seemed that he simply lost control over his military who refused to do his bidding. Thus he then chose to abandon K'yiv, and with his departure the regime simply collapsed. It was an extraordinary turn of events, to go within three days from the horror of a bloodbath to end with the complete victory of the Maidan and the removal of Yanukovych from office. At time of writing he remains at large, but as the scale of his greed- and execrable taste in interior design- were revealed as protesters took control of his mansion north of the capital, all sides made it plain that Yanukovych was a busted flush.  All sides, that is, except one: Russia.

The angry Kremlin denunciations of the government that has emerged in the vacuum following Yanukovych's fall seem like a big mistake. Yanukovych is a busted flush, it makes no sense to continue support for an obvious loser. Yet so much of what the Kremlin does these days seems to have remarkably little internal logic. The hostile and angry scowl that Russia habitually wears in its dealings with third parties is not merely for show, it reflects the deeply cynical, Manichean world view of Vladimir Putin and his cohorts. All weapons are used- from financial pressure to murder- to weaken perceived enemies. The ruling cohort treats democratic norms as a polite fiction and the State as a conveyor of wealth from the people to the rulers. The scale of Russian corruption is at least as brazen as in Ukraine, with the added caveat that the siloviki have been looting the country for 15 years longer than Yanukovych was able to loot Ukraine. Neither do the Russian leadership have any of the hesitancy or occasional scruples that made Yanukovych such a bad negotiating partner and ultimately a weak leader.

The Sochi Olympics- eccentric, isolated and occasionally bizarre- seem an altogether accurate reflection of Russia in 2014. The insane costs, incurred in the name of prestige, show the moral disaster lurking at the heart of Putinism. It is with a grim laugh that I greet Putin's attempts to proclaim his anti-gay persecution as part of a global crusade for conservative purity. The reality is the Putin despises all democratic norms and all rights except those that he claims for himself. It is a road that leads to barbarism. It is a road that runs from being an apologist for Stalinism to seeking to re-enact Stalinism, and it will ultimately fail.

So as Estonia celebrated 96 years since the first proclamation of the Estonian Republic, Estonia's leaders are preoccupied with avoiding the fate that befell the country in 1939-40. Yet, even as Russia seeks to destabilize Ukraine's new government, there is a growing sense that the tide of history is turning against Putinism, that the values spoken of by President Ilves are more secure. Perhaps, in the end, the best reply to the Kremlin is to quote the words of a great Russian, and a fine man, Andrei Sakharov:

"Intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture."

It is a lesson learned in Estonia, and is may now be learned in Ukraine. Perhaps before long it may ring out across the benighted land of Russia too.

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