Ahto Lobjakas

Ahto Lobjakas is an Estonian political analyst, journalist and columnist.

Ahto Lobjakas: Estonia’s betrayal of Omar, the Pashtun interpreter

In rejecting the asylum plea of Omar, an interpreter who worked with Estonian troops in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, the Estonian government this week thumbed its nose at pretty much everything that’s been going for it in recent history.

Admittedly, it may have thought itself in good company after the British government took a similar stance. But there, the Afghan interpreters’ story hasn’t played itself quite out yet. The British courts must now decide whether the government acted lawfully. Omar, unfortunately, will have no such vibrant culture of civic activism to fall back on in Estonia. As the country’s president is fond of quipping, Estonia’s Kennel Club’ is by far the largest NGO in the country. Nor will Omar have recourse to a judiciary capable of overturning the Estonian government’s decision.

But the disadvantage at which Omar finds himself is greater — and more insidious — than being in receipt of inferior justice. Or the simple misfortune of having chanced in his quest for gainful employment upon an Eastern European ISAF nation with a relatively short history of the rule of law. The three Afghan interpreters in Britain may yet lose their case, but at least they would know Britain was pushed to the limits. Omar, on the other hand, will presumably never quite know what he was up against — or how the Estonian government allowed its agencies and ministries to play the system (and, it seems likely, the coarser prejudices of parts of Estonia’s populace) to thwart his hopes.

Although Estonian prime minister Andrus Ansip cited international custom in sidestepping questions about the grounds of the government’s decision, enough of the putative reasoning has emerged in the public domain to allow us to tentatively reconstruct the central arguments against Omar’s case — all of them are wholly spurious and specious, if indeed, jointly or severally, they did play a role.

First, it appears Estonia feared setting a precedent for other allies in Afghanistan. Yet the prime minister also said that, as is the international norm, each immigration decision is made on its individual merits without reference to ulterior circumstances. If so, we may have safely trusted our allies to reach their own conclusions irrespective of Estonia’s decision. We know already that the United States admitted dozens of Afghan personnel in 2012 and France has decided to let in at last a half of the locals who worked for it. Germany is still deliberating.

Second, by saying “yes” to Omar, Estonia would allegedly have had to open the door to some 60 more Afghan interpreters (as well as their families) who have worked with its troops over the years. The only permissible response to that is — so be it. When Estonia sent troops to Afghanistan, it did so accepting the eventual consequences of the act. The current government remains an unqualified guardian of that responsibility on behalf of the nation.

Third, it could be thought that by conceding Omar’s plea, Estonia would also admit, however tacitly, that ISAF will leave Afghanistan as a less safe and secure environment for those who work for its modernisation and democratisation. The British decision to admit some 900 Iraqi personnel after leaving Iraq is ample testimony to the fact that it is possible for a reasonable government to countenance such an admission in order to do its duty by those who stood beside it, risking life and limb.

Besides, Afghanistan’s increasing instability is attested by the tens of thousands of Afghans who are voting with their feet and leaving the country. In 2012, more than 30000 applied for asylum in EU countries. The emperor has no clothes, period.

In any case, the “individual threat assessment” the Estonian authorities said would be carried out in respect of Omar’s prospects in Helmand can have been nothing but a laughable exercise in self-delusion. No Estonian soldier may set foot in any Afghan setting as a civilian. Estonian diplomatic personnel travel around under 24-hour military guard. How would such an “assessment” even begin to be carried out?

One suspects it may have amounted to little more than accepting the public assurances of president Hamid Karzai, who, touring Estonia last week, said he would be staying in Afghanistan after the end of his tenure in 2014 “in the house the government’s building for me.” Karzai’s eccentric confidence in Afghanistan’s stability after the NATO pullout in 2014 would hardly count as evidence towards any balanced assessment. Of course, Omar may just have been plain unlucky — Estonian authorities may simply not have had it in them to publicly contradict Karzai.

Whatever the reasoning, one can only agree with Ahmed Rashid who, in comments ahead of the Estonian decision was made public, said that by denying Omar and his colleagues asylum, Estonia (and by extension other NATO allies) would be committing “a huge betrayal.” The author of “The Taliban”, a book which has sold more than 1.5 million copies, should know.

As an Estonian, however, I know Estonia’s betrayal went further. I’m ashamed that the leaders of my country, tens of thousands of whose citizens found asylum in Western Europe and North America in the wake of World War II, did not know historical justice when it stared them in the face. I’m ashamed that the leaders of my small country, which relies for protection and economic aid on the goodness of larger forces, did not know right from wrong.

And I hope against hope that the decision to deny Omar asylum had nothing to do with the increasingly poisoned immigration (and diversity) debate gripping Estonia (and many other European nations, particularly in the east) — a debate which is often racist, ignorant, and, on occasion, downright paranoid.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

Charter 12 – Estonia’s stab at direct democracy

After Iceland, Estonia is the second European country to engage in a radically novel democratic experiment. Against growing contempt for out of touch political elites, Estonian civil society is betting on crowdsourced constitutional reform.

Charter 12 is an Estonian citizens’ initiative, signed by seventeen prominent public figures (mostly academics and thinkers), calling for greater democratic accountability on the part of the authorities.

Its demands include a radical overhaul of Estonia’s electoral legislation as well as laws regulating the conduct of political parties in order to reverse what the original signatories feel is a dangerous  erosion of democratic feedback mechanisms in Estonia. Charter 12 was conceived as a response to rapidly rising levels of public anger after a series of scandals involving senior politicians unwilling to take responsibility for grave lapses of judgement – and unable to adhere to accepted canons of democratic communication.

Quickly attracting thousands of further online signatures, Charter 12 has by now set in motion a consultative process which could shortly see the country adopt at least two important pieces of crowdsourced legislation. There could be more to come if the procedure is successful. The drive will be overseen by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves personally, stung into action hours after Charter 12 was published on 14 November 2012.

Although responding to a pattern of events all too familiar for Central and Eastern European countries, Estonia – due to its size and technocratic prowess, especially in the area of IT development and e-governance – could become an important landmark for second-generation democratic reforms in the region.

A certain sense of disenchantment is on the rise in a number of CEE countries which, while ostensibly free, have failed to deliver to their citizens standards of democratic feedback on a par with western European and US models. Experimentation with direct democracy and crowdsourcing has currently been confined to relatively stable and affluent Nordic environments (above all Iceland).

Although still relatively poor, Estonia is not as dragged down by the encumbrances of transition experienced by most other countries in the region, having begun with a virtually clean political slate in 1992. Its population has proved its tolerance of change during periods of hardship – for example, Estonia adopted the euro in 2011 at the height of an economic downturn and a massive internal devaluation drive.

Given the requisite political will on the part of the authorities in Estonia, something truly revolutionary could emerge from the experiment in crowdsourcing now under way. Most of the initial signs are encouraging: the president is now willing to back up Charter 12 with all the weight of his personal authority.

The president could be further ‘incentivised’ by his ambition to make a name for himself as a global patron and pioneer of new technologies (a few weeks ago Ilves was appointed chairman of the steering board of the European Cloud Partnership by the European Commission). The dominant political parties, although likely to resist changes which could in effect marginalise them in the long run, are uniquely vulnerable right now – having been put on the defensive after the public backlash against the way they conducted themselves.

The backdrop

The Charter’s immediate backdrop was the unwillingness of the Estonian government to address – or even acknowledge responsibility – for a financing scandal in which the larger of the two coalition partners (the Reform Party) had become embroiled in May 2012. Silver Meikar, a former Reform Party MP, publicly admitted he had helped siphon cash off from unknown donors into party coffers via his personal bank account – further alleging that others had done the same.

An inquiry was launched by the public prosecutor’s office. Estonia’s minister of justice, who was party chairman at the time of these events, was himself interrogated by the authorities as a suspect, but flatly rejected the allegations. The prosecutor eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence, but made public the explanations various Reform Party members had given regarding where the cash they had deposited in their own accounts shortly before transferring the money to the party – often in excess of €10,000 – came from.

The explanations, whilst legally beyond reproach, contained gems such as “I borrowed the money from my mother-in-law” and “I donated my family’s savings.” Despite its usual stoicism, Estonian public opinion quickly became incensed. The Reform Party’s response was to expel Mr Meikar – but the minister of justice is still in office. None of the remaining three parties in the Estonian parliament (the Riigikogu) showed any eagerness to make the issue their own, suggesting that they had all benefited from similar financing arrangements.

To add insult to public injury, senior Reform Party politicians have continued making light of the situation. Various individuals have gone on record resorting to blatantly inappropriate language. Thus the finance minister dismissed the mild reproach of a junior female party colleague in openly sexist terms. The prime minister’s long overdue apology for the financing irregularities was vague and short. Needless to say, no one has resigned.

Measured debate

The Charter 12 manifesto was published on November 14 in the two major Estonian daily newspapers and attracted more than 17,000 online signatures in the days that followed. The charter’s potential momentum was quickly recognised by President Ilves, who within hours after its publication issued a call for a “measured” society-wide debate on the future of Estonian democracy. The next day, Ilves invited the original authors of Charter 12, along with representatives of the four parties in the Riigikogu, handpicked civil society organisations and a small number of constitutional scholars to a round-table meeting.

The meeting took place on 21 November and was live-streamed on the internet (a key Charter 12 demand) and broadcast on Estonia’s public television. After nearly two hours of deliberation, the meeting resolved, with the overt backing of the president and the somewhat less overt agreement of the four major parties, to crowdsource proposals to amend the current legislation in two areas: the creation and conduct of political parties and electoral law.

Drawing on the Charter, the president identified as key objectives: opening the party system to greater competition; reducing and/or abolishing the various measures currently hamstringing new parties and non-party candidates in elections; as well as making the different parties more equal with regard to public political financing. The president and the authors of Charter 12 also agreed that action must be taken to make the parties’ sources of non-state financing transparent; to oblige political parties to follow democratic rules in intra-party decision-making; and to remove the parties’ influence over civil service staffing decisions.

The procedure and timetable for the crowdsourcing exercise were largely spelled out at the 21 November roundtable meeting. Estonian citizens will be able to submit amendment proposals via the internet (and by ordinary mail) until 31 January, 2013. The material will then be assessed by a body of seven or eight independent experts, specially convened for this purpose, who will draw up the first drafts of the amendment bills. The bills will in turn be debated by randomly selected groups representative of Estonia’s demographic makeup, then given another going-over by the experts, to be finally presented to the Riigikogu by the president himself – no later than 31 March, 2013.

On  21 November, the president repeatedly expressed his wish that the Estonian parliament would have the amended legislation in place ahead of its summer recess – effectively by the end of June 2013. Given Estonia’s very high levels of Internet penetration and freedom, crowdsourcing via the web seems to be a particularly promising solution.

Hanging loose, and why you can’t trust politicians

The plan, as it stands, is far from foolproof. The power invested in the Estonian presidency is largely symbolic. The president cannot directly initiate legislation and would need to appeal to the Riigikogu to do so on his behalf. Most of Estonia’s mainstream media – whilst sympathetic to the Charter’s diagnosis of a crisis of democratic legitimacy – remains sceptical as to the sincerity and extent of the commitment of either the president or the establishment parties to these reforms.

There are fears the parties could attempt to hijack the process before it reaches the Riigikogu, pointing to the various (although far more limited) amendments already in the legislative works. However, the momentum is currently resolutely against the parties. The initiators of Charter 12 have no plans to formalise their collaboration, but intend to remain loosely operational and provide oversight – and directly intervene in the process, if necessary.

Historically, the omens are not particularly good. Eleven years ago, a few dozen prominent Estonian academics signed a forerunner manifesto pointing to a growing chasm between the elites and the rest of the country.

That, at the time, created an opening for a new party, called Res Publica, broadly populist in inclination, which went on to win the next elections in 2003. Res Publica imploded a few years later, but not before putting into place rules making sure their quick rise could not easily be repeated – making it very difficult to establish new parties, virtually preventing independent candidates from getting elected, increasing and securing public payments almost exclusively for the largest parties in parliament.

These are the very same rules that are now to blame for the democratic impasse highlighted by Charter 12. However, there is a key difference: ResPublica was mobilised by a handful of political also-rans of the 1990s on a right-wing, pro-order platform, while Charter 12 appears to have captured the imagination of a much broader swathe of Estonian society – that of the young and middle aged professionals, many with direct experience of life (and democracy!) in the west.

In contrast, the Estonian established political class largely consists  of individuals whose formative years have known little else but the greasy pole of domestic politics. Crucially, Charter 12 has quickly forged links with Estonia’s younger generation, the under-30s behind a series of street manifestations this year – another novel feature in Estonia’s hitherto rather staid political scene.

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Ahto Lobjakas is one of the signatories of Charter 12. This article was first published by UK-based website openDemocracy.netThe opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Toompea Castle, the seat of the Estonian parliament, in Tallinn.

US presidential elections and Estonia – what’s the impact?

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said that having lost an empire, Britain is looking for a role. Today, something similar could be said about the United States. Having shed its briefly held status as the world’s single “hyperpower,” the U.S. is now looking for a role in the world. It is not alone in this endeavour: along with re-elected President Barack Obama, the entire world is searching for a role for the U.S.

For most of the last decade, it seemed the “struggle for freedom” could take on that role. By now it is clear that that struggle is effectively lost. Afghanistan and Iraq are left not free, but struggling for survival. Neither Libya, Syria nor Iran are on “freedom’s agenda.” Rather than move towards freedom, China and Russia have reversed course.

The gradual fading of Europe on the U.S.agenda is part and parcel of that dynamic. The pivot to Asia means turning away from Europe. In the three presidential debates, Europe was only mentioned once – as an example of untoward economic practices. The foreign policy debate was dominated by alliances, but not those of the 20th century. Israel took centre stage – as did Iran, through a distinctly Israeli prism. Commentators in Russia, the ancient enemy, were astounded by the almost complete disappearance of their country from the U.S. radar screen.

The U.S. campaign was littered with signs that the world is becoming more “archaic” to quote an Estonian observer (who maintained the opposite). Balance of power, regional alliances and what looks like an instinctive realism once again dominate America’s global strategy. The competition between values and interests has been settled. Values lost. This explains in an indirect fashion why Europe had no clear favourite in the duel between Obama and Romney. The EU, once one of the major global forces for unadulterated moral good — if not always its best embodiment — is fading away. But, again, a lot of this was down to the U.S. itself: the leaders of Germany, France and United Kingdom couldn’t readily decide between Obama and Romney, because ideals nor ideologies no longer offer clear guidance — while Europe’s interests grow fuzzier.

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Europe has responded to the U.S. turning away a withdrawal of its own. Increasingly, countries in Europe are preoccupied by their own problems. In Estonia, this process is evident in the way that instinct instead of debate is coming to proliferate in foreign policy matters. Estonia’s main concern lies with Russia – and the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920 is a question of everything at once. The hope that a ‘networked’ world would bring with it a new (and better) kind of global order means confusing the message with the medium. Smart phones don’t make people smart, tweets do not found alliances, near-instantaneous communication does not bring countries together.

Four (as well as eight) years ago, Estonia’s newspapers devoted virtual acres to U.S.election coverage. What have we got to show for it today? The U.S. is a world away from us. A minuscule proportion of Estonians today would be in a position to make an informed choice between Obama and Romney. In Israel, on the other hand, polls showed nearly 60 per cent preferred Romney and 20 per cent Obama. Both Estonia and Israel are small countries — but one sits next to Russia, the other is located in the Middle East. How the world changes. Four years ago, Estonia’s aligning oneself with Germany would have been seemed like a bad, anachronistic political joke.

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This article was first published by Estonian newspaper Postimees.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

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