Opinion

Opinion stories from and about Estonians.

Letter from the editor: Why Estonian World?

Dear Estonian World readers and followers,

First of all, on behalf of the Estonian World team, I would like to take this opportunity and thank again everyone who has become our reader and follower in last four months, since we started.

Estonian World was established by few like-minded Estonians living abroad, the main team being based in London, UK. So why an English website, writing about Estonians and Estonia? It’s a question that has been asked from us many times in last four months – although the tone of the questioners has been rather pleasantly surprised one, thankfully.

To give you an idea, let me shed some light into philosophy that prompted the creation of this webzine.

From a granary of Moscow to darling of the West

When I arrived to London more than 10 years ago, Estonia was already on a map of free, liberal Europe. Regaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it had been fortunate to have successive pro-reform governments, which had turned Estonia successfully toward West, implementing changes and applying for the membership of the European Union and NATO.

Yet in the early 2000’s Estonia was not yet a member of the EU and for example, many British people didn’t have a clue where it was located, let alone knew anything positive about it. There were many instances when people confused it with former Yugoslavian countries or thought that Estonians speak Russian.

As I have recently heard from many Estonians living abroad, it turns out that I wasn’t the only one stubbornly explaining to those willing to listen, that Estonia is “a Nordic country, similar to Finland”, rather than Slavic country in “Eastern Europe”. And let me stress here that I didn’t carry any prejudice against Latvians, Lithuanians, Polish, Ukrainians, or Russians. Unfortunately this prejudice against “Eastern European” countries was, and still is, carried by many citizens and some media outlets in “Old Europe”. So it made perfectly sense to distant Estonia from the rest and in many ways deservedly so.

Just until about 6-7 years ago, there wasn’t much to talk about, when someone in abroad asked about Estonia, or what was Estonia famous for. The exception could be when someone knew about Arvo Pärt (my biggest surprise was when a captain of the steamboat on Ullswater lake in England´s Lake District turned out to be a massive fan of Pärt, having collected all of his records) or supermodel Carmen Kass (posters featuring her as a “golden girl” for Christian Dior´ J´adore campaign in early 2000´s certainly turned some heads even in London´s underground system).

It all started to change in 2004, when Estonia joined the European Union. Low cost airlines started to fly to Estonia and more and more people beside Swedes and Finns got to know us by visiting the beautiful Old Town of Tallinn. The positive image was cultivated by interested journalists and media outlets, such as The Economist, praising the economic reforms and entrepreneurial spirit surrounding Estonia.

Ironically, when the economic crisis of 2008 brought many countries, such as Ireland and Greece, to their knees, Estonia´s global image was strengthened further. Taking part of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan also helped along. As Edward Lucas, the international editor of The Economist, told to us in one of the first articles that we published back in July, Estonia became “an insider” and was not an “outsider” anymore.

The birth of an IT-tiger

Suddenly there was also another word on people´s lips: Skype. At first, only handful of tech geeks or few enlightened entrepreneurs and those in business knew that this internet telephony company was started in Estonia, but a global snowball effect gradually got hold of more and more minds. Skype-effect gave a kick to a generation of entrepreneurs whose aspiration did not end with the borders of Estonia, or Helsinki and Riga at best.

These Estonians were now thinking global. Almost overnight, you could read about another aspiring start-up stemming from Estonia on TechCrunch, Wired Magazine, or Wall Street Journal. Estonians are currently behind more start-up businesses per capita than any other nation in Europe. As the vice-chair of all party parliamentary group of British Parliament, Sir Malcolm Bruce, recently told us – Estonia is punching above its weight.

This global approach is accompanied by aspiring artists, photographers, musicians, dancers, actors-actresses making their way in London, New York, Berlin, Paris, Rio, Tokyo.

So there you go – we now have global Estonian companies and global Estonians to talk about, and to talk to. There were increasingly others in the world writing about Estonia – we wanted us to write about us.

Estonians remain Estonians everywhere

Although it´s a short time, in four months we have already gathered from the interviews and feature stories that most of these cosmopolitans have not forgotten Estonia. They don’t agree that once they have left Estonia, they have got nothing to do with the country anymore. They don’t understand the question that is sometimes put forward by people back in Estonia: ”Will you ever come back?”

In a way, they have never left – just that the world is increasingly global and people travel and conduct their business more freely than ever. They carry at least some traditions with them; they follow Estonian media, listen to Estonian music, and miss at least some things. Even if not necessarily happy with some developments in Estonia, even if they have had some negative experiences back home, most of them still proudly promote their country to foreigners. And last, but not least – very few would definitely rule out a return to their homeland, eventually.

EW as a global focal point

Increasingly, there are also people around the world who have done or doing business with Estonia, or who follow her culture and affairs – and prefer to gain deeper insights than just short news stories. EW is in English, so that as many people as possible can read about this little country and its people punching above their weight.

Where we look from, Estonia is not a tiny Russian enclave, nor a province of Scandinavia – but rather a country on the 58th parallel north, between Asia-Europe long haul flights, with the most cyber-freedom of any in the world. Country, which is geographically small, but “thinking big”, as first encouraged by notable folklorist Jacob Hurt in the 19th century.

These are the reasons why we created Estonian World webzine – not to be a nationalistic or political voice waving with flags, but rather to be a global focal point for Estonians, and for those interested in the development of Estonia, be it a technology, business, or culture.

EW is fair and balanced – and forward looking

I would hereby also underline the fact that EW is not funded by, nor represents any political party or pressure group. It was set up by young, positively minded individuals who genuinely care and are proud of Estonia.

We have indeed opened up an opinion section, but as an English site, will avoid publishing anything that would undermine the national interests of Estonia and its people. At the same time, EW is not an Estonian government´s voice on the world stage.

As most of our contributors live outside Estonia, from Britain to United States to Germany to Japan, it´s inevitable that from time to time we would see things from a different perspective, or that we would let someone´s voice to be heard, whose opinion is not necessarily welcomed and liked by everyone. For example, living in modern, tolerant societies, it´s hard to accept and tolerate the fact that some politicians in Estonia still degrade fellow female colleagues, or that a member of parliament offends minorities without consequences.

The world is an intertwined one – it did not start, nor will it end in Estonia.

Estonian World is here to stay and we hope that you’ll enjoy reading it more and more – there will be many more exciting features to come!

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Cover image by Eiko Ojala (the image is illustrative.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Adam Garrie: The Vagueness of Charter 12

Last week, some very well known Estonian intellectuals and public figures issued a petition called Harta 12 (Charter 12). The petition came about in the light of recent allegedly murky dealings, where the governing Reform Party received large amounts of donations in cash. The authors of Charter 12 allege that those currently holding power in Estonia no longer feel the need to take heed of the public. Adam Garrie argues that Charter 12 is very vague in its statements and fails to fully comprehend the current democratic processes in the world.

From Magna Carta to Martin Luther to the English Chartists to Vaclav Havel and Charter 77, social and political events have often sprung from charters of one variety or another. There is always some element of righteousness mixed with quixotic idealism in such charters and Charter 12 is no exception to this rule. The idea of improving one’s government is generally a well-founded aim, but the statements in Charter 12 are so vague that they scarcely have any precise meaning, and the prescriptions to the supposed problems are simplistic and again highly vague.

Charter 12 reads rather like a high school level political diatribe from a misplaced idealist. The intention is obviously a noble one, but the form in which it is expressed and the ultimate conclusions misread and mis-assess a central feature of modern politics. Whether one wants to accept it or not, the age of purportedly democratic nation states, especially small and medium sized ones, is over. This age was of course a relatively short one in world history, lasting from 1945 to the early 2000’s in non-Communist Europe, and from the early 1990’s to roundabout 2008 in the Warsaw Pact and European states that became independent after the collapse of Soviet Union. Even three of the world’s largest and most powerful nations are far from democratic in any real sense. The US is an oligarchy masquerading as a Presidential Republic, China is likewise a neo-mercantile oligarchy masquerading in Maoist costumes, and Russia is essentially the property of one man, governed by his managers. Against this backdrop, Estonia’s political system for all its imperfections looks rather a safe place to be.

But Charter 12 is not a comparative piece; indeed it deals only with Estonian politics and does not even explicitly mention the European Union. The piece, when dissected to its core, is essentially a love letter to a vague concept of representative democracy with overtones that suggest a desire for a kind of ‘Basic People’s Congress’; the local administrative unites of Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”) in Libya.

The piece does not argue for the virtues of representative democracy, but rather presumptuously assumes its intended audience (ostensibly anyone who votes in Estonian elections) favours this particular system of governance. The truth is that representative democracy, as put into practice in half of Europe after the Second World War and virtually all of Europe (with several important exceptions) after the collapse of Soviet Union, is not a system which can easily cope with the economic strains, let alone the economic benefits of a fully globalised, digitised and culturally fluid world. Many Eurosceptics from Helsinki to London complain that the current eurozone crisis is a result of a deficiency in democracy. In reality it is the out-dated model of democratically controlled fiscal policy that is one of the core problems in the current crisis.

Because of inadequate preparations, a common monetary policy was introduced into the eurozone without taking into consideration the need for a common fiscal policy. Indeed it is the widely divergent fiscal policies of eurozone members which have allowed debt to spiral out of control, thus threatening the stability of not just southern Europe, but the world. Indeed it is the bickering currently on display in southern European parliaments which has delayed a potential and highly necessary re-constitution of the eurozone; a re-constitution that would necessarily require a more united if not fully common fiscal policy. This is just one pertinent example of how the process of representative democracy has retarded economic growth much to the detriment of men and women throughout the eurozone. In this sense the democracies of fiscally irresponsible eurozone states are holding the entire community ransom as they thrash out failed budget after failed budget.

With this in mind, wouldn’t it be better if those interested in improving Estonian governance focused on what government could do to further incentivise international commerce to come to Estonia, how to properly invest in digital infrastructure, cutting remaining regulations from the Soviet past and working with the European Union and others to promote Estonian culture to the wider world?

Indeed, the role of government in the modern world can be defined in the following way. Government in an ideal state must do only three things: 1. Promote economic growth 2. Expand and maintain public services 3. Invest in and promote art, sport and culture. Frequent elections and an overemphasis on populism rather than harnessing a country’s best intellectual, economic, educational, managerial and artistic talent are more often than not a stumbling block to prosperity. It is what’s happening now in the eurozone at this moment. Appeals to the gutter are never a good starting point for serious political maturity. In spite of a political system born in the 1990’s, Estonia’s governance is one of the most mature in Europe. Corruption exists, but it is a corruption that is generally manageable and does not get in the way of the ordinary work of government the way it does in many older democracies.
Charter 12 also talks about ‘listening to the people’. Thankfully, the Estonian public isn’t demanding the same things that large sections of the Greek public are doing. But if the public of Estonia or any country in the world were starting to call the leaders of modern Germany Nazis (as has happened in Greece – Editor), if they were calling for unilateral withdrawal from European Law, if they were calling for the forcible re-location of legal residents, I would certainly hope that those in government would not listen to the ‘people’.

The populist claptrap in Charter 12 for all its liberal credentials sounds like a poorly written version of some of the populist rhetoric being thrown at the urban populations of Russia prior to the October Revolution. This is to say nothing of how the National Socialists cleverly used the representative democratic process to take over Germany in 1933.

In a way I’m giving the writers of Charter 12 too much credit for robustly advancing an ultra-populist ideal. The piece is written in a rather circular, highly ambiguous tone where clichés are thrown around more rapidly than punches at a hockey match. This vagueness is combined with a kind of veiled call for a kind of uprising, though the tone in which it is written thankfully prohibits this from being taken seriously. The only proposal which was not either vague or childish was the idea of citizen proposed initiatives. It must be said though that this process is often a cumbersome one and if such initiatives are binding on a government it can lead to populist chaos more quickly than almost any other legislative process.

Ultimately any Estonian government will rise and fall on the same basis as any government in any modern nation. If the economy grows, if public services are broadly efficient and if the culture remains vibrant, the government will succeed; if not, it will eventually fail. Even Putin’s popularity in spite of elections that are generally not democratic in any idealistic sense, rests on the fact that he has an economic record for growth and avoiding the pitfalls of the recessions that have plagued much of Europe, Japan and the United States over the last four years. There are plenty of political charters and manifestos circulating in Russia today, but in spite of concerns about freedom of information, the more important reason that such things are widely ignored by the Russian public, is because most of Putin’s pragmatic opponents can’t foresee anyone who could do a better job in terms of economic growth and management of public services for the time being. In Estonia, the country that has the most cyber-freedom of any in the world, Charter 12 will eventually fizzle out and nothing will change as a result of it. Hopefully it won’t distract people long enough to seriously affect the more important economic debate. I seriously doubt it will do.

 

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover photo by Phillip Martin

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.

Adam Garrie: Why a secular Syria is good for Estonia

It is bitterly ironic that the Russian Federation, a country whose courts have just imprisoned several young women under the guise of protecting a religious institution and religious sensibilities, is a vastly more robust supporter of secularism in the Middle East than is Estonia.

Less than two weeks ago, Urmas Paet (Estonian foreign minister) called for the international community to work towards easing Syria into a ‘transitional government’ which is of course a rather cryptic way of saying ‘regime change’.

I do not doubt Paet’s sincerity in wanting violence in Syria, particularly violence against unarmed and uninvolved civilians to end, but I must truly question his judgment if he thinks that regime change will either end specific acts of violence, or the culture of violence that has fomented in Syria in the second half of 2012. In a recent interview with RT, Bashar al-Assad stated that Syria was “…the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region”. This statement is deeply important. Indeed, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US led coalition, the Middle East and wider Arab world had either fully or moderatly secular governments in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. All of these governments are now either formally or effectively controlled by people that would be considered religious extremists in any European society.

map_of_syria

Syria is in this sense is the last bastion of secularism in a region that has been no stranger to religious warfare. Does Urmas Paet, who represents the world’s most secular country on the world’s stage, really believe that the world would be a better and safer place if yet another secular government was to be led by any member of the many religiously fanatical opposition armies currently shedding blood in Syria? Would he really trade a president who allows women to participate in civic affairs, who protects religious minorities, and who himself is from a religious minority, for the opposition fighters who have been condemned by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as war criminals?

The fact of the matter is that whilst the Middle East’s impact on Estonia is thankfully very little, the world would be safer for Estonia and certainly for Estonians abroad, if Syria remained a secular country, rather than one controlled by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood who are very much waiting in the wings, let alone the al-Qaeda style extremists who are already ravaging parts of Syria.

The region has been made unstable enough due to Turkey’s own supine religious revolution which has seen Recep Erdoğan abolish crucial elements of Turkey’s modern ultra-secular constitution by stealth. Turkey, once a bastion of secularism, progress and modernity in the region, is now being led by a Prime Minister who is labelled a mad Caliph not just by the President of Syria but by members of Turkey’s Kemalist opposition party, the CHP as well as the majority of all Kemalist newspapers and websites around Turkey and the wider world.

I do not imagine for one moment that many Estonians would be happy living under the Ba’athist regime of al-Assad, but Estonia like all countries must accept the world for what it is rather than what they think it ought to be.

A regime change in Syria would not result in easily accessed Wifi throughout the country, a flat income tax and fully digitised public services. It would instead result in a secular country governed imperfectly as it is, being transformed into a place where progress would be retarded by the forces of religious extremism, sectarian repression, sexism and ultra-censorship. If Sergei Lavrov understands this, why can’t Urmas Paet?

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sten Hankewitz: Can your enemy’s friend be your friend?

“This is my last election … After my election I have more flexibility.”

“I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

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This exchange happened between US President Barack Obama and Russian then-President Dmitri Medvedev in March 2012. Between then and now, Medvedev became Prime Minister (and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin President), and Obama was re-elected. The era of more flexibility has begun.

By the title of this article I am not trying to imply that Russia is necessarily an enemy of Estonia. Russia is more like a highly annoying mother-in-law who at all times tries to criticise her son-in-law and tells her daughter how evil the guy is. Nothing the son-in-law does pleases the mother-in-law – she can find a fault in anything and everything.

Good relations with Russia depend on Russia

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Good relations with Russia have always depended on Russia itself. If Russia doesn’t want to have a good relationship with you, then it doesn’t really matter what you do. You can jump all the hoops you want, it’s Russia that dictates your relationship with it. And Russia for all its might definitely doesn’t need good relations with Estonia (or Latvia for that matter). They’re too insignificant to be useful in that regard, therefore Russia has made them look very significant as their enemies, as a huge risk to their national security. And they don’t (Russian government) get tired of reminding everyone of that.

The United States, however, is a different matter. Russia knows how important its relations with the superpower are, so they’re trying to do whatever they can to be on the good side of the US. Let’s not forget that the official demise of the Soviet Union started from the fact that they needed to make huge “concessions” regarding the human rights situation in the Soviet Union – they needed the US to save them from the huge economical mess they had created, and that was the precondition of then-President Ronald Reagan to even think about helping the Soviets. So has the US remained extremely important until this day.

A relationship of trust with a pariah?

When elected President four years ago, Barack Obama started working hard on changing the entire US foreign policy. Countries that were staunch allies of the US, were disregarded and neglected, and countries that didn’t have particularly warm relations with the US, were embraced and brought forward as future partners. Russia was one of these pariah states Obama opened up to with his new START treaty for reduction of nuclear weapons.

By signing this treaty, Obama left the US and Europe in a much weaker position. President Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, entered into a relationship of trust with Russia – a country of dictatorship, appointed leaders, few human rights, and an openly expansionist policy. Many American presidents before had tried to have a working relationship with either Russia or the Soviet Union, but none before have actually trusted a pariah that imprisons or murders people inconvenient to the ruling regime.

Barack “Appeasement” Obama

By promising to be even more flexible with Russia on his second term, President Obama expands his trust. At the moment we have no idea what else he might take up, although we do know that he promised, “the best is yet to come”. For a president who has neglected his country’s relations with its natural allies, and whose government´s lack of action has all but destroyed the American economy and the American way of life – the so-called American Dream – this promise sounds really, really scary.

So here’s a thinking point for Estonia and other European nations that Russia (or the Soviet Union) has either occupied, waged war against, is constantly trying to undermine or is outright dangerous to. Can President Obama, who is synonymous with the word “appeasement”, who has openly declared to be friends with a dictatorship and is promising even more “flexibility” with this pariah regime, really be considered good, supportive or even neutral? Can we really say that he’s a good choice for president from Estonia’s perspective? Or is he about as much of a good guy as FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) who sold Eastern Europe to Stalin in a heartbeat?

The Cold War hasn’t gone anywhere

You can think what you will about Mitt Romney. But when he called Russia America’s geopolitical enemy number one, he was dead right. He knows that the Cold War did not end 20 years ago. The Cold War cannot end before Russia has become a functioning democracy, before Russia stops threatening its neighbours and initiates normal relations with other countries. As long as the mentality of the Soviet Union is alive in the ruling regime of the Russian Federation, as long as its leaders keep believing that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, the Cold War is alive and kicking.

So we’ve got to ask ourselves, can your enemy’s friend really be your friend? No, he can’t. At best, he’s useless. At worst, he’s outright dangerous.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

Estonian President Ilves: Citizens themselves should determine organisation of the EU in future

The European Union needs a new Convention of the Future of Europe, whereby the member states, meaning its citizens, can adopt decisions regarding the organisation of the future Europe, said President of the Republic of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Giuliano Amato, former prime minister of Italy, at a discussion held in the European University Institute (EUI), Florence.

The current decision-making mechanisms of the European Union are slow, clumsy and get in the way of rapid progress, stated President Ilves and Giuliano Amato, the Vice President of the Convention of the Future of Europe, which drafted the Constitution of Europe. They both see the future of the EU as more federal and consider the possibility of the European Parliament having two chambers, in which one chamber would equally represent all the Member States, and the other chamber would be elected according to the current procedure, as one of the options.

However, President Ilves warned against so-called trans-European elections that would inevitably include advantages for larger member states. “This would break the European Union,” he said. “National identity and the interests of all the member states must be respected. This is a part of the solidarity that the European Union relies upon.”

The Estonian head of state emphasised that as the European Union is not a project for the elite only, it is not sufficient for governments and politicians to discuss the future of our community: “There must be a discussion and debate among the citizens of the European Union to determine what the future of the community will be.”

Pictures: Picture pictures www.pictures.com

Gender in Estonia: Observations from a foreign feminist

I came to Estonia as a visiting PhD student, a folklorist, meaning that I was primarily interested in tales and traditions. However, I’m also a feminist and a gender studies scholar, so I couldn’t help but notice some of the gender dynamics around me.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in July 2011 was just how many pregnant women there seemed to be. There were many women out and about with small children, too. Coming from the United States, where most maternity clothes are meant to hide the pregnant belly for as long as possible, it was a refreshing change to see so many pregnant women out in public life. I subscribe to third-wave feminism, which promotes women having choices regardless of whether women choose traditional things like motherhood or modern, feminist things like having a career (or try to juggle both!).

With birth rates low enough to not replace population decreases due to mortality, it makes sense that Estonia  would have policies encouraging women to give birth. I later learned about Estonia’s progressive maternity leave policies, which I’d heard nicknamed the “baby salary,” whereby women can apply for 12 months’ paid leave during the birth of a child, and men can also apply for parental leave. This is, perhaps surprisingly, better than the situation in the US, where maternity leave is not guaranteed at the federal government level, and most states do not offer job protection or paid leave for women who wish to have children. And paternity leave? Practically unheard of in the US, unfortunately.

Gender_equality

So on the surface, Estonia’s doing pretty good in terms of gender legislation. More options for women – meaning, not having to sacrifice their careers in case they want to have children – generally means more gender equity. It also seems that young people in Estonia receive a good amount of sex education in schools. Having greater access to knowledge about sex and sexuality usually means fewer unplanned teenage pregnancies and less disease transmission which, again, is an issue we’re having trouble with in the US.

However, Estonia also has one of the EU’s largest pay gaps between men’s and women’s wages. Men earn up to 30% more than women – and that’s a lot! Especially in a country where wages are, overall, considered to be on the low side compared to the rest of the EU. Although there is equality legislation in place, it seems that the gender gap is slow to close, in part due to workforce segregation that keeps women in low-paying public service occupations.

This tallies with my experiences exploring Tartu and the rest of Estonia. The store-clerks and secretaries I saw were overwhelmingly female. I also sat in and lectured to graduate seminars that were almost all women. Perhaps this has to do with the military service policy in Estonia affecting the ages and genders of university students, and perhaps it has to do with women seeking higher education in order to escape the low-paying jobs that require little education to obtain. Either way, it seems that the workplace, as with many spheres of Estonian life, is very gender segregated.

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Gender segregation doesn’t automatically mean gender oppression (though it can). For instance, I was delighted to find a very active belly dancing community, wherein women form strong friendships and achieve a high degree of solidarity. I had an especially good time practicing American Tribal Style® with the women of Fakesnake, a Tartu-based troupe that studies the American improvisational style of belly dance that I had also studied in the US. While not all of the members spoke English, we all spoke the same dance language, so we were able to instantly synchronize our movements and perform and play together.

I got the sense that although Estonian heritage has a number of traditional dances to offer, many modern Estonian women prefer the independence of belly dance because they don’t have to wait up for a male dance partner, and could focus instead on dancing as a form of communication with their friends.

I was concerned that in a university town such as Tartu, alternative sexualities seemed invisible. Then again, I’m a native of California and have most recently attended school in Bloomington, Indiana (which is known as the gay capital of the Midwest), so I’m used to quite a lot of counterculture. Estonia does not currently recognize same-sex marriages, but then again, most parts of the US don’t either. Still, I would love to see more tolerance, which could be aided by organizations such as gay-straight alliances.

It seems to me that the general attitude in Estonia toward sex and gender was not overtly oppressive or sexist, but there are still deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that can be harmful. For instance, it seems like Gender Studies as a discipline has yet to take hold, and I met very few Estonians who identified as feminist. The desire to simply not talk about gender seems very strong. This happens in the US too, and is often accompanied by a smug attitude toward the past, acknowledging that feminists helped women get the vote, which is cool, so we don’t need feminism anymore.

We Can Do It Rosie the Riveter

In Estonia, it seems that the reverse is true: women have always been strong and have always had many rights,so why do we need feminism? I’m of the opinion that feminism helps point out inequalities based not only on gender and sex but also on the intersection of race, class, and other identity factors. Feminism also helps us see that narrow gender roles are not just something that negatively affect women, but they can impact men, too. Being forced to conform to damagingly limited stereotypes sucks for everyone.

Overall, my experience in Tartu was wonderful, and I never felt that institutionalised sexism affected me negatively. Then again, I stayed only 10 months, and circulated mostly in university culture, which tends to be more egalitarian. It’s also worth noting that I experienced more sexual harassment in Estonia than I ever did in the US, including incidents where men groped and grabbed me while I was walking in public areas. I felt upset and violated. I wondered how common these events were, and how Estonian women felt about them. I wondered what kinds of life experiences these men had, in order to feel like it was somehow appropriate to molest a stranger in public.

In the end, these are the observations that come from living in a place just long enough to learn my way around, make friends, and start to get a feel for the culture. There are surely aspects of Estonian culture that I don’t yet understand, and this is one of the reasons I’m hoping for a chance to come back. In the meantime, perhaps gender equality will slowly continue to improve, as more people come into contact with global cultures and realize that there’s more than one way to go about these things.

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This article was first published by the University of Tartu blog. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover picture: a scene from the “Three Kingdoms”, a Sebastian Nübling’s production for the Tallinn-based theatre, NO99.

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