While the Anglo-American and EU-dominated liberal world order faces collapse, Estonians have so far shown resilience against populist groundswells.
For most people, a new year usually starts with a renewed sense of hope. We hope our lives will be better off; we hope the world will be a better place. This year is no different. But for the first time in my generation, there’s a sense in the air that the world – at least the parts belonging to western side of the Northern Hemisphere – may take a turn for the worse and become a nastier place to live.
“For the first time in my generation, there’s a sense in the air that the world – at least the parts belonging to western side of the Northern Hemisphere – may take a turn for the worse and become a nastier place to live.”
Ever since I became aware of my societal surroundings, for most part I have always found a reason for optimism. Starting with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev-initiated glasnost in the still Soviet-occupied Estonia in the mid-1980s, following up with the Singing Revolution, the end of the [first] Cold War and Estonia regaining independence; then my country gradually becoming part of the West again, myself living in the free, borderless, multicultural and tolerant world – it has all been part of my life in the last 30 years.
For the first time in my informed life I’m seriously concerned that all of this is under a threat; that there is a possibility of a change for worse – that the realm I have held dear will become unrecognisable.
Bending the arc of history
The first signs heralding perplexing times have been around for few years. So much so that The Economist magazine, the London-based weekly published since 1843, called the liberal internationalists of the world to “engage” in its “The World in 2016” edition, published in December 2015. The traditional annual edition predicts the upcoming trends in economics and politics.
Paraphrasing the outgoing US president, Barack Obama, the liberal magazine said that “more than is usual in a single year, decisions in 2016 could bend the arc of history”. Britain’s in-or-out referendum on the European Union membership and the US presidential election were the most important decisions on this timeline – and indeed, they did bend the arc of history.
It remains to be seen whether the decisions taken by the electorate in the UK and the US – to leave the EU and to elect unpredictable Donald Trump as a president, respectively – will make the world a worse place; the jury is still out. But one is certain – the Western world is currently changing, and the change is more unpredictable than any time since the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s.
The loss of Britain and rise of Trump
The United States and the United Kingdom are the two countries that have both policed the world in the last 200 years – the UK in the 19th century and the US in the best part of the 20th century. We may argue whether their leading role in the world affairs was good or bad – but the fact is that they both opposed tyranny and dictatorship; together they crushed Communism, Fascism, Nazism – the ideologies that were responsible for the murder of over 100 million people, all combined.
Both the US and the UK represented common sense, pragmatism over moronic ideologies. They stood for globalism, an open and intertwined world. Now, for the first time since World War II – when the Nazi Germany and the imperial Japan terrorised large chunks on the planet Earth over a period of eight years – the Anglo-American democratic world order is under threat, or to put it more bluntly, about to collapse. And what’s bewildering about it – this time around, the forces dismantling it are not external, but mostly internal, coming from within (albeit there are signs that in both cases, a foreign power, Russia, played its part, however minor.)
The old-world policemen could retire from the global stage, at least for a while.
In the next few years, Britain will be pre-occupied with the post-Brexit outcome – exiting the EU, ironing out new policies, struggling to cope with the economic uncertainties, while experiencing an exodus of young, cosmopolitan talent from the country that was just few years ago considered a bastion of multiculturalism.
“Both the US and the UK represented common sense, pragmatism over moronic ideologies.”
The country that once helped liberate mainland Europe from the Nazis, has seen a spike in hate crimes and the former UKIP leader and a populist clown, Nigel Farage, has become sort of a national hero. The post-Brexit Conservative cabinet includes a minister who called companies to publish lists of their “foreign workers”. In terms of public rhetoric, the tolerant Britain I know and loved – I lived in the UK for 13 years, over ten years in London – appears unrecognisable to me in 2017.
The destiny of the United States under Donald Trump is also unpredictable. There are predictions that the US will become a more isolationist country, focusing on its internal affairs, while some analysts forecast that the US cannot afford to give up its position as the world’s pre-eminent policeman. The danger is that just like during the George W. Bush presidency, when the US invaded Iraq, the new major intervention will come for all the wrong reasons.
In continental Europe, there are voices that argue for a more dominant international role for the European Union, in the backdrop of the general Western demise. The bad news is that apart from struggling with a sluggish economy in most member states, the populist, nationalist or far-right parties have recently also made gains across Europe: in Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland. In other words, the fate of the EU itself may soon be in peril.
France, once one of the leading countries in the EU and projecting strength along with Germany and Britain, suddenly looks very vulnerable. It is struggling to cope with Islamic extremism, while a far-right politician Marine Le Pen is becoming a mainstream political leader – all set for a time bomb to explode.
“Germany is widely seen as the last big rock in the democratic world order as we know it.”
Germany is widely seen as the last big rock in the democratic world order as we know it; its chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the last major liberal leader standing.* In Germany, too, there will be elections this year – but the hope remains that Germans, still reminiscent of their country’s Nazi past, will not give populists a chance. After living and working in Cologne for few months last summer, I personally also remain hopeful and optimistic about Germany.
Where does all this leave Estonia?
The good news is that Estonians have so far shown resilience against populist groundswells. The only party in the parliament that could be regarded as truly populist – the Estonian Conservative People’s Party – is supported by approximately ten per cent of the population, its popularity recently declining.
The rise of fake news in the post-truth world is becoming an issue in Estonia too, but majority of Estonians are still holding a centre ground and remain critical on the dubious informants. Perhaps, after living under various foreign powers for centuries, the Estonians have developed a sense of scepticism and tend not to rely on one information source or authority.
“The rise of fake news in the post-truth world is becoming an issue in Estonia too, but majority of Estonians are still holding a centre ground and remain critical on the dubious informants.”
The biggest threat to this common sense originates from the Vladimir Putin-led Russia, the cradle of post-truth world – a large number of Estonia’s Russian minority tends to receive information from the Russian media, which in the form of Russia Today started to implant the disinformation virus the last decade. There are signs in the social media and online commentaries that there is also a growing number of Estonians – albeit still tiny – who follow the new, Russian-initiated anti-establishment paradigm. In the darkest hours, it resembles 1940 when a number of “useful idiots” really did welcome the occupying Soviet forces to what soon ceased to be independent Estonia.
More focus needed
Then there are some other stumbling blocks, long predicted, that are gradually starting to bite – emigration from Estonia has exacerbated shortages of high-skilled labour and lowered productivity, while the demographic situation is anything but rosy: the population is ageing and shrinking. This, in turn, means the Estonian pension system is under increasing pressure and someone – in this case, the working population of Estonia – needs to fill the gaps.
Economically, Estonia has a very little room for manoeuvre. Being part of the eurozone and the EU, it very much depends on those. As the annual growth rate in the EU averaged 1.7 per cent in the last 20 years, there isn’t exactly much to jump about the future prospects.
“More focus is needed – while the country has limited resources, Estonians should place more emphasis on developing and executing things they already do well, while stop wasting money on absurdities.”
Luckily, the entrepreneurial spirit is still strong in the country – provided that the new, Centre Party-led government will not start squeezing businesses. More focus is also needed – while the country has limited resources, Estonians should place more emphasis on developing and executing things they already do well, while stop wasting money on absurdities. Populist fixes, such as fighting against alcohol consumption by forbidding the sale of spirits in certain places or increasing taxes will not take the country forward.
Keep the shell strong
In this increasingly uncertain world, Estonians need to stick together, keep their heads cool and cherish the conventional wisdom. For security reasons, Estonia does not have an alternative to the EU and NATO membership. As the Estonian MEP Marju Lauristin recently said: “[without the EU membership] Estonia would be like a turtle without a shell, exposed to be hit from anywhere.” So, we ought to keep supporting these alliances as we have done before.
“Without the EU membership Estonia would be like a turtle without a shell.”
Estonian World, an online magazine that was founded in the cosmopolitan London in 2012 and is now rated #1 Estonia authority in the social media by the Paris-based agency, Agilience, will be here to defend the democratic values more than ever before.
I wish all our readers peaceful new year!
The opinions in this article are those of the author. By “liberal” throughout this story the author means classical liberalism, not liberal as it’s perceived in the US (left-wing). Cover collage by Estonian World.