Opinion stories from and about Estonians.

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.


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?


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.”


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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