James Oates: The Estonian state of mind

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James Oates, a Tallinn-based British businessman and the Chairman of the British Estonian Chamber of Commerce, says that even as Russia seeks to destabilise Ukraine’s new government, there is a growing sense that the tide of history is turning against Putinism and that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s road to re-enacting Stalinism will ultimately fail.

Down to Pärnu, 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 the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, still seeks to cause, even with his NATO-guarded neighbours.

“During the Independence Day parade, 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.”

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 Kyiv, 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. 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 does 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 that 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 Republic of Estonia, its leaders are preoccupied with avoiding the fate that befell the country in 1939-40. Yet, even as Russia seeks to destabilise 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.”

So as Estonia celebrated 96 years since the first proclamation of the Republic of Estonia, its leaders are preoccupied with avoiding the fate that befell the country in 1939-40. Yet, even as Russia seeks to destabilise 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 may now be learned in Ukraine. Perhaps before long it may ring out across the benighted land of Russia too.

I

Cover photo: Independence Day parade in Pärnu/Courtesy of Estonian Defence Forces (photo by Esper Kaar, Kristjan Saar, Siim Teder, Ardi Hallismaa).

This article was first published on James Oates’ website.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

About the author: James Oates

James Oates runs Cicero Capital, a specialist investment company based in Tallinn. He is also the Vice Chairman of the British Estonian Chamber of Commerce.

  • JRSepp

    Thank-you for sharing these thoughts. Putin certainly does given the impression that he is somewhat of a ” throwback”. Can help but wonder what follows once he exits stage left. Cheers from the USA .

  • voskresene .

    Are you kidding? Putin wants to re-enact Stalinism? What does that mean? Does this fellow know what Stalinism is? Where is the historical analysis here other than mentioning the Soviet Occupation of Estonia in 39-40? Where is the discussion about all the nuances in the Ukraine (eg Western attempts to co-opt the protests and hand pick the new leader and how actions like this might provoke a country like Russia to act in the way it has, the historical connection with Ukraine, the pipelines, the potential for gas exploration in Western Ukraine and what that could mean for the EU and Russia etc etc)? I understand why Estonia, a country I have been to more than once and really like btw, is a bit paranoid about their big neighbor to the east. They have historical reasons for this. But what about Russia’s justified paranoia that outsiders want to weaken them economcially and seize their land? It’s happened on several occasions in history. And while there is a lot of corruption in Russia among the political elites, the EU also has it’s own problems with corruption and has systemic problems due to it’s fiscal union. The current policy by NATO and the West has set the stage for more of a “throwback” kind of guy to come to power in Russia and push back. The kind of rhetoric in this article and in the mainstream media in the West (ie Putinism and Stalinism in one sentence. Come on! Seriously?) is going to cause many people inside Russia who don’t like Putin much to rally behind him just as they did in WWII with Stalin. And then what? I am sure the author is a talented businessman and financier. He can’t find his ass with both his hands on this issue.

    • UN

      Did you read this Kremlin script from the Russian media or they sent it to you directly? Another “useful idiot”, just like the West has always had them – only to get a shock when it’s too late…”Russia’s justified paranoia”? “Outsiders want to “seize its land”? What kind of idiots are you trying to fool here?! How many times throughout the history has Russia invaded its neighbours, deported the indigenous populations from their lands, being the hotbed for murderous regimes, responsible for millions of innocent deaths? The list would be way too long to include here – but anyone with a reasonable amount of brain cells can find and read the history. But one suspects that one cannot always cure stupidity and ignorance…

      • voskresene .

        I never denied the fact that Russia or the Soviet Union (and no, they are not one and the same) have been hostile towards their neighbors in times past. If you would take a breath and go back and read what I said a little more closely you would see that I said that I understand why Estonia is paranoid of Russia, but to totally ignore Russia’s own problems with outsiders coming in and the other issues I mentioned in passing that are really why all this is going on in the Ukraine only shows you are the one who is engaging in stupidity and ignorance by buying into the overly simplistic narrative being promoted by corporate media outlets that the EU=good, Russia=bad. I honestly don’t think there are any real good guys in this situation, but the type of hysteria being pushed by the likes of you and the author of the article above is not helpful. Before accusing me of being a “useful idiot” for the Kremilin, maybe you should pull the tool shoved up your own hind end out since it seems you have your own issues in this regard.