Opinion

Opinion stories from and about Estonians.

Estonia’s decision of the decade: joining the EU

Joining the largest economic and political union in the world – the European Union – was the best decision Estonia could make in 2004.*

When Estonia restored its independence in 1991, it had a choice – to keep strong economic bonds with former imperial power Russia, or look to the West – towards Europe. After a brief false start, the country decisively turned its focus towards strong European integration after the centre-right Pro Patria Union, led by Mart Laar, won the parliamentary elections and  former film maker and writer, turned politician, Lennart Meri became the president in the autumn of 1992. Membership of the European Union and NATO quickly became the main objective of Estonian foreign policy.

Shaking off the Russian cloud

The route of action Estonia chose, along with its southern neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, was clear – integration with Europe and NATO, as soon as possible. The clear sense of direction owed as much to security concerns, as it did to economic interests. The hope was that by aligning itself with Western institutions, Estonia could shake off the Russian cloud. Looking at the recent situation in Crimea, Ukraine, it couldn’t be any clearer that the route chosen was the right one.

Swift institutional progress was made and reforms introduced, sometimes hastily, by politicians and public servants. European values and principles among the public – a source of moral and political inspiration for the country at least since 13th century – started to take hold of Estonia again.

Yet, throughout 1990s there were many who doubted the probability of Estonia’s accession – both internally and externally. There were politicians on the international circuit who were ready to have a negative bet on Estonia’s chances of joining the EU, let alone NATO.

But the persistence paid off. Estonia formally applied for EU membership in 1995 and in 1998, Estonia became the first of the former Soviet republics to enter membership negotiations with the European Union. In 2002, it was formally invited to join at a summit in Copenhagen and the Estonian Parliament then announced that a referendum on membership of the EU would be held in mid September 2003.

Questions about sovereignty

By that time, however, the public mood was not completely supportive. Estonia had had a first taste of economic progress on its own merit and there were opponents who claimed that EU entry would slow the country’s economic growth. Equally, there were people who argued that Estonia should not go straight from one union, the Soviet Union, into the EU, fearing the loss of sovereignty so soon after regaining the independence – despite the fact that these are fundamentally different unions, in terms of ideology and economic model. Doubts were raised about whether a small country like Estonia would be given an opportunity to have any say in European Union matters.

The elderly President Arnold Rüütel, a Soviet-era pro-reform and pro-independence communist who had managed to become elected to the presidential office after Lennart Meri, was mobilised among others to campaign for the “Yes” vote and persuade the doubters. The governing Res Publica Party even used a campaign poster, calling for Estonians to vote “Yes” “for access to millions of sexier men”.

In the end, about two-thirds of votes cast were positive, and on 1 May 2004, Estonia, together with nine other countries, joined the largest economic and political union in the world – the European Union. A month before, it had joined the NATO.

The benefits

What have been the benefits? The initial benefits stemmed from the EU’s “four freedoms” – the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people.

Estonian entrepreneurs could benefit from the huge European internal market. People could embrace the new opportunities offered by open borders, both in terms of higher wages and broadening their professional horizons in other EU countries (albeit restrictions applied in most old EU members at first, for people seeking work – apart from the UK, Sweden, Ireland and Denmark). Professionals could easily gain new experience in London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Rome; or Stockholm and Helsinki. Students could study for higher education in respected European universities without paying the sky-high fees applied to non-EU residents.

Financial benefits for the country – according to the Estonian Ministry of Finance, by 2020, the EU will have supported Estonia with approximately 11 billion euros. At the same time, Estonia has contributed less than two billion euros back to the EU budget. According to The Economist, Estonia’s GDP per person has increased 30% since the accession, as of 2014.

International clout

Increasingly, the long-term significance for Estonia is the international clout that the country has achieved, thanks to being the member of the EU.

Before, and for a few years after the 2004 accession, Estonia, among other new members of the EU, was still looked down upon by many in the old Europe. When in 2003 Estonia, along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, backed the US position on Iraq – rightly or wrongly, is another subject – French president Jacques Chirac took a bullying position and said: “These countries have been not very well behaved and rather reckless of the danger of aligning themselves too rapidly with the American position. It is not really responsible behaviour. It is not well brought-up behaviour. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.” In other words, the newcomers were told to shut up.

Things started to change after the global financial crisis. As Europe plunged into crisis, Estonia managed to lift itself out of the trouble by exercising remarkable budget discipline and, as a result, qualifying for and joining the euro in 2011. Still a relatively new member state, Estonia became part of the eurozone “core” and was cited as a model of how fiscal credibility can work for the higher growth and rising employment. Estonians working in Brussels have reported that this fact itself helped Estonia to have unproportionally high influence, for a small country, at the discussion-board on the EU’s spending programmes (MFF) for 2014-20.

Coupled with its digital success and obeying both the rules of the eurozone and NATO, the country became –as expressed by The Economist’s then international editor Edward Lucas in his interview to Estonian World in 2012 – the quintessential European insider. The EU IT Agency and NATO Cyber Defence Centre became located in Tallinn. Delegations from various European countries started flocking into Estonia, to study its e-government and digital solutions. Mistaken were those who claimed that the country’s word would count for nothing in the EU.

Sharing know-how with Europe

Yet, this is just a beginning. There are many Estonian-invented digital solutions that could be used all over Europe, but the country could do more – first, to make everyone aware of them; and second, to export them.

For example, Estonia is already cooperating with Finland and Latvia in order to make digital signature technology available across borders. It has also started to cooperate with the UK on the development of digital public services. Indeed, one of Estonia’s European Union policy goals is the development of an efficient digital single market, where the EU citizens and businesses are able to use electronic services in any member state. None of it would have happened without Estonia’s membership of the EU.

So the benefits in relation to the EU are becoming mutual. As Estonia becomes wealthier, it will receive less financial support. It can also apply its knowledge on digital solutions across Europe.

And Estonia, for its part, is still learning when it comes to embracing Western European values of tolerance, openness and the social inclusion. 50 years under the Soviet occupation had its impact. Tens of thousands of young Estonians, who have lived in liberal Western European capitals since the EU accession, have started to import more cosmopolitan, open-minded thinking back home. Estonia could soon become the first of the former Moscow-ruled countries to introduce a law that allows same-sex couples to officially register their partnership (Estonian parliament passed the law in 2014, but the implementing acts have not been passed – editor). The largest wage gap between women and men in the EU, however, still needs ironing out.

Never alone

In some EU countries presently, such as Britain, far-right parties are trying to turn back time and the EU has become unpopular. Estonia has no such issues. The support for the EU among Estonian citizens has remained consistently high, staying between 70%-85% – one of the highest in the EU.

The problems facing the EU, such as population ageing, stiff competition from Asia, energy dependency on Russia or a refugee crisis have become common across the board, for both old and new members. But Estonia has now got an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process. Its citizens can feel freer in the wider world.

Perhaps slightly ironically, it was the great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said in a speech in Amsterdam in 1948: “We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace.”

After a forced break, Estonia became properly part of Europe again over 50 years later, yet there’s already a clear sense of being European. Thanks to belonging to the EU and NATO, Estonians can finally feel they are “never alone”.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. * This article was originally published on 1 May 2014, to mark ten years since Estonia’s accession to the European Union. The article was lightly edited on 1 May 2019.

Editorial: Estonian World is not for turning

Estonian World finds itself in a new and unique position where, for the first time, the inclusion of a far-right party in the Estonian government demands an English-language “watchdog” media role from us.

For almost 28 years, Estonia moved forward. Successive governments introduced reforms, the country turned its face west and northwards, joined NATO and the EU. Estonia became one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. In social policies, many mistakes were made, and many people suffered the consequences. Yet, Estonia’s democratic pillars have always been intact, which has made it a very stable country – the progress of which is easily trackable by several international rankings and comparisons over the years.

The constitution of the country, passed on 28 June 1992, is clearly based on liberty, justice and the rule of law. Among other things, it says, “the rights, freedoms and duties of all persons and of everyone, as set out in the constitution, apply equally to citizens of Estonia and to citizens of foreign states and stateless persons in Estonia”.

The constitution also says, “no one may be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, colour, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other views, property or social status, or on other grounds”.

It also says, “everyone has the right to freely disseminate ideas, opinions, beliefs and other information by word, print, picture or other means” and “there is no censorship”.

Yet, with the inclusion of the far-right EKRE party in the government, all those fundamental values and freedoms have for the first time come under pressure – or even under attack.

The worries and concerns stem from the track record of EKRE leaders, father and son Mart and Martin Helme. The concerns are also based on the statements the EKRE MPs, Jaak Madison and Henn Põlluaas, have made in the past.

Here are just few examples.

Martin Helme, Estonia’s new finance minister, kicked the racism door open already back in 2013, when he proclaimed on Tallinn’s municipal television, “If you’re black, go back!”

Just last year, in May 2018, Mart Helme, Estonia’s new interior minister, publicly made racist remarks. “In Tallinn, the number of negroes has exploded (itself a blatant lie – editor),” Helme said at a public meeting. He then proceeded to tell a story he would bring out at other public meetings – how he was teaching black people as a university lecturer. “Listen, this is solid wood,” Helme said, while knocking on a pub table. “But if you knock against the negro head, it’s hollow!”

Jaak Madison justified the practices of the Nazi regime in a private blog post before the Riigikogu election in 2015. “In my eyes, fascism is an ideology that consists of quite a few positive and necessary nuances to preserve the nation state,” he said.

Henn Põlluaas, the new speaker of the Estonian parliament, has repeatedly vilified sexual minorities.

None of them has ever apologised as would be expected in a democratic and mature society.

The hatred and the lies that have been fuelled by EKRE’s leaders and some MPs and party members against foreigners and people with different skin colour has already had an impact. A prominent Estonian singer who originates from Brazil, told Estonian World her children have been abused at a kindergarten since EKRE’s rise into power. An Iranian specialist and his Estonian wife and children are preparing to leave the country because the racism on the street is proving just too much. These are just two quick examples of the nasty and racist undercurrent that may become much more forceful with EKRE in the government.

We remind our readers, people attacked are not “illegal immigrants” or “refugees” (Estonia has admitted just approximately 200 refugees since 2015 – and half of them have already left the country), but highly paid people (not that racism against anyone is justified), who love Estonia and contribute a lot to this country, either in taxes or cultural activities. Everyone loses out – including EKRE’s poor voters in rural areas – if those people leave Estonia because of hatred against them.

Last week, two Estonian journalists, Vilja Kiisler and Ahto Lobjakas, resigned in the face of self-censorship demands by their employers – from Postimees and ERR, respectively. Both were fierce critics of the EKRE party. The populist and aggressive party has already succeeded in the departure of some of the sharpest and wittiest journalists in Estonia. The concern is, this is just the beginning.

When three Estonians started Estonian World in London in 2012, we said that “we aim to publicise Estonia’s and Estonians’ successes and success stories in a positive, encouraging manner”. We still do – but if the fundamental values and freedoms of Estonia are threatened, as an independent media outlet with a global reach, we will not stand by. We will stick to the truth and report anything and everything that would undermine those freedoms and values.

With part of our team in Estonia, part of the team in the United States and the United Kingdom, there is no one who can demand “self-censorship” from us. Paraphrasing the former UK conservative prime minister, Lady Margaret Thatcher, we have this to say to those who are willing to forget their principles and values and suck up to the far-right EKRE and their nasty rhetoric in Estonia: “You turn [U-turn] if you want to. Estonian World is not for turning!”

I

The cover image is illustrative.

Hafiz Abdul Manan: The case for modern Estonian identity

Hafiz Abdul Manan, a mechanical engineer and a Pakistani expat living in Tallinn, argues that the fundamental cause of current Estonian political tension is rooted in crisis of values; Estonians need to unite and forge an identity that not just nurtures their culture and traditions but also makes them a valuable member of the global community.

A couple of months ago I attended a public talk, organised by the Tallinn-based English-language event series, Estonishing Evenings. The talk was aimed at discussing whether Estonia with its 25% Russian-speaking population can successfully integrate them despite an embittered past.

During the Q&A session, I asked the panel, how would they define an Estonian identity? Specifically, what are core values that make someone an Estonian? One panellist quipped that Estonian identity is tightly wrapped around nature – it is the love of nature that is the fundamental value on which the Estonian identity is formed.

For the past year or so, I have been trying to understand this: what exactly is the Estonian identity? What are the individual values that are essential for the formulation of an Estonian nation state? I have asked my colleagues and my friends. The first thing I always get is a look of incredulity.

“For the past year or so, I have been trying to understand this: what exactly is the Estonian identity?”

The answers I received vary, some thought that Estonian language is the core identity; anyone who speaks Estonian can be considered Estonian. Others formulated it more specifically, saying that a person could only be Estonian if they could trace back their heritage to Finno-Ugric traditions. In a year of inquiry, I was never able to get a consistent answer.

The Estonian love for nature is not a unique value

A national identity is formed by a set of core values. These values are formed by the journey that the nation has undertaken since its inception. It is shaped by geography and refined by the events the nation went through. It is very unique. The Estonian love for nature is not a unique value. The Swedes love their nature. The Finns love their nature. I am sure there are tribes in the Amazon who love and worship their nature in more diverse and deep ways that Estonians do currently. Since the identity is predicated on values, a unique identity necessitates a set of unique values.

“The Estonian love for nature is not a unique value. The Swedes love their nature. The Finns love their nature.”

This process isn’t easy; it takes decades for a nation to formulate its identity and perhaps centuries for it to be entrenched in the fabric of the society. The United States of America: a nation formed on the core value of individual sovereignty and the pursuit of happiness had to fight a four-year-long civil war a century after its independence for the very values it was formed on.

In terms of nation states, Estonia is still a toddler, still trying to figure out its presence in the modern world. Its growth was stunted by recurring occupations since its formulation a hundred years ago. So, no wonder there is a vacuum around this topic, because the question was of survival for the past 700 years. Now, when, finally, survival is not an issue, these deep existential questions have to be answered – no wonder I get looks of incredulity when I ask this question, because it has probably never been asked before.

The liberals have failed to come up with a sense of unique common identity

This question, I believe, forms the centre of the debate that is currently gripping the Estonian politics. I believe the left and the liberals have failed to come up with a sense of unique common identity. Inclusivity without proper merit just means a dilution of values.

Boundaries are necessary for survival. Our skin, for example, is a boundary that protects us from nature and sustains us. It protects us from outside interference to our survival functions, yet, on the other hand, it hosts at least 1,000 different types of friendly bacteria that combat pathogens. Boundaries are necessary; however, they should not be so rigid they prevent our growth, yet they shouldn’t be so flexible that we lose our uniqueness.

One the other hand, the conservative right-wing parties have seen a record growth in 2019. But the measure of their success is not in the number of votes that they secured; instead their triumph lies in the success by which they have cemented their claim to the question of Estonian identity: by rooting it in ethnicity, forming ethno-nationalism as a core value for Estonian identity.

Ethno-nationalism simply means that you have to have a common heritage comprising a common language, a common faith and a common ancestry. As we will see below, this is rife with practical problems. But first I want to explain the reasons for the rise and acceptance of such radical forms of national identity.

Fear of the unknown

Throughout its history, Estonia has been through tumultuous times. It has gone through occupations, wars and famines. But perhaps to a 75-year-old, the last 30 years have been most eventful: the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the restoration of independence, the opening of Estonia to the world and other nationalities, the rise in prosperity and the subsequent economic meltdown of 2008.

It is now a scientifically proven fact that the older we get, the faster the time seems to go. If we take the example of a 75-year-old Estonian person living in the countryside, they would have spent almost the whole of their lives without seeing any person of colour. To them, the last 10 years are a blur. Things changed and they changed fast. Faster than anyone could control or comprehend.

Change itself is scary; people crave consistency and reliability. When things get too uncertain, we take refuge in our common roots. Family is one of them along with your nationality. It’s not uncommon to see communities of Pakistanis or Indians getting together in the west because in the face of the unknown we get the most strength from our family and kin: people who share a common heritage.

So, it does make sense why the right-wing parties were able to get so popular so fast. Because they provided a sense of kinship and comfort to the lost masses of people. People who had been put on the side lines of the economic progress and they had a reason to feel neglected and hurt. I am a qualified professional with enough experience under my belt, but even I can feel the crunch of stagnating wages and rising living costs in Estonia. What, then, would a pensioner feel, living in the countryside?

Ethno-nationalism as the basis of Estonian identity cannot be sustained

The issue is that while your family and your tribe does provide you with a sense of comfort and control, too much emphasis stagnates your growth. When you add that to the formulation of the public policy, it becomes an extremely complex problem. There are a number of practical reasons why formulating ethno-nationalism as the basis of the Estonian identity cannot be sustained in the long term.

Firstly, Estonia has to confront with some real issue of falling birth rate and declining population. Even if the birth rate becomes positive today, it will take almost 30 years to reverse the population decline. There is no choice here; if Estonia wants to keep its economic progress, it has to allow immigration to support its infrastructure and industry. It has to come to terms with the fact that the people immigrating to Estonia will not necessarily come from the same common heritage.

Secondly, Estonia is a part of the global economy, which means it must compete in a global environment. If you only hire employees on the basis of their ethnicity and treat other like second-class citizens, you will fast lose the race against companies who will focus on merit and competence. Moreover, there is the question of ethnic Russian population. How can you hope for a nation to prosper if the loyalty of every fourth person in the country is questioned?

“If you only hire employees on the basis of their ethnicity and treat other like second-class citizens, you will fast lose the race against companies who will focus on merit and competence.”

Thirdly, the ethnicity debate will not stop just in its tracks. It’s a dragon that, once unleashed, will start to eat its own tail. The question of ethnicity is not either or; there is a whole grey region in between.

For example, how do you precisely define someone’s Estonian ethnicity? Language skills are easier to measure. But measuring ancestry opens up a Pandora’s box of problems. What happens, for example, if a child is born in Estonia who is half African and half Estonian? Will he be considered Estonian or not? If not, then to what degree are you willing to go back in the family tree to verify your Estonian identity?

What if someone has a trace of Russian blood in them? Will that immediately disqualify them from public office? To what degree should someone be a pure Estonian to hold public office? 80%? 90%? How will that even be measured? It’s a slippery slope and if you go down that road, you will eventually see it’s not just impractical, it actively creates divisions, even among people of same heritage.

What should the values be, if not ethnicity?

To me, there are two preconditions for the set of values that constitute national identity:

First, it should be universally applicable, ie if that value could be adapted by the whole world, it would make it a better place.

Second, the aforementioned value should be evident in the recorded history of the nation throughout its formulation – ie, the nation should have demonstrated that value throughout its existence as a nation consistently.

After deliberation, I came to realise that, as far as I am concerned, the fundamental values of the Estonian society are (but not limited to) resilience and resourcefulness.

“After deliberation, I came to realise that, as far as I am concerned, the fundamental values of the Estonian society are (but not limited to) resilience and resourcefulness.”

Estonia, in its tumultuous history, has been subjected to numerous invasions. Most of its existence, the nation has been under occupation of foreign countries. The last Soviet occupation almost made Estonians a minority in their own land, yet they were able to come back from the brink of that extinction. I don’t think any other nation (this small) has had as much onslaught and yet still managed to hold on to its language, culture and traditions. Despite the worst authoritarian regimes the world had ever seen, Estonia persevered and came back.

Secondly, Estonia does not have an abundance of natural resources; there are no mineral deposits or reservoirs of oil. The land is not suitable for mass agriculture. Estonia does not have the population numbers to sustain a massive industry.

Yet, this land has been inhabited since the prehistoric times. In the little time that Estonia has had after its independence, it has made the best use of the only resource that it has: the quality of the human capital. When you have nothing, you still have your will and your intelligence. Resourcefulness – I firmly believe – is the hallmark of the Estonian identity.

Estonia cannot afford to create divisions

These are chaotic times and chaotic times require an honesty of thought and speech. Estonia cannot afford to create divisions in an already small nation. It must find common ground that unites its people and brings them forth into the 21st century. The only way to achieve common ground is to hold a dialogue: a dialogue between people who might have wildly conflicting views but are still willing to sit down and talk.

“The only way to achieve common ground is to hold a dialogue.”

Because despite the differences, it’s a home to all of us. It must come up with an identity that nurtures its cultures and traditions, but, at the same time, makes it a productive member of the global community. If Estonia fails to do so, it will erase the terrific success story it has been since it restored its independence.

I

Cover: People attending the Kõigi Eesti Laul concert at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on 14 April 2019 (the image is illustrative/photo by Annika Haas). The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Kersti Kaljulaid at the opening of the 14th Riigikogu. Photo by Erik Peinar.

Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid: We have a crisis of values

In a speech given at the opening session of the XIV Riigikogu (the Estonian parliament), President Kersti Kaljulaid said that if we allow our freedoms and values to be attacked – an indirect reference to the rhetoric used by EKRE party leaders – then our democracy will also soon be in crisis.

Dear people of Estonia, dear members of the 14th Riigikogu,

Let us be honest: we are facing complicated times. As has been the case throughout the history of our country.

Our place on the map and our population size inevitably tend to keep matters complicated for us at all times. It is easy to make mistakes, and as one of the smallest European countries, we will never have enough strategic depth to be certain that mistakes will not threaten our survival.

Therefore, we must be sincere when assessing our situation and all together sincerely seek the best future for Estonia. Altogether, for all the people of Estonia, for all Estonians and all others who also hold Estonia dear.

I very much agree with those who say that this house that we have hastily managed to build in 30 years has quite a nice view from the penthouse and is tastefully furnished. But the sun does not shine into every room. I understand those who would like to tear this building down and start all over, hoping that there will be a sunnier corner for them in the new one.

We have been inept in balancing society

The development of our society in the last 30 years, in which we have managed to regain about half the 50-year economic lag that we developed due to the occupation, has been a success story. However, besides the rapid growth in productivity and income, this success has had another side – the resulting social changes have been painful. As I have said time and time again, we have been inept in balancing society, especially via social policy measures.

On the one hand, Estonia’s transformation is inevitable – urbanisation, the loss of jobs in the rural economy, an uneven increase of income. All developed countries have experienced the same. For us, these processes have been extremely rapid. The catch-up speed has been high, but the adverse side effects have accordingly been more complicated as well.

It is clearly impractical to demolish what we have built and to start fully from scratch, even though it may result in a considerable redistribution of the resources in society, as often happens in the event of sudden changes. But as we know and witness at least in one of the large EU countries at the moment – it results in confusion and economic chaos.

As I noted, due to our location and population size we probably lack sufficient strategic depth to ensure that demolition efforts do not jeopardise the survival of our state. In economic terms, we are also among the European average. Thus, the fall-back arising from the demolition work would pose for us a much more serious problem than for some very wealthy country.

Let us keep what we have

So, ‘No!’ to revolutions! Let us be conservative! A true conservative is someone who is able to sufficiently assess ongoing and upcoming changes in society and balance them in such a way that we never need a revolution!

Let us keep what we have and speak honestly about what to do better from now on by building, not by tearing down! Let us recognise our success as an e-state! We are proud of our role in the European Union and NATO, not merely as a member but as an active and dutiful contributor. Let us recognise and thank all those Estonian politicians who have led us so far. But let us also be honest about how to improve the functioning of society.

Prosperity and happiness will not reach all Estonians without effort. Given our current productivity, the life in the countryside no longer offers as many jobs as it did 30 years ago, and none of us want those collective farm jobs anyways, because low-productivity work does not pay well.

Balance differences in regional development

Yet we do have ideas on how to balance differences in regional development. It is easy to understand that not a single cent of the decreasing EU support can be spent in the capital, but we need to fix up the remote village roads. The division of corporation tax in such a manner that also local authorities benefit more from business in their territory will certainly be of help. We must vigorously stand for maintaining and, in some cases, re-establishing our county centres as strong centres that are able to provide everything that a person needs throughout their lifetime.

I am still convinced that local authorities still have a long way to go in providing their residents with social guarantees at a level that, given the prosperity of our country, we should already be able to afford. Indeed, it has taken too long for local authorities to realise what their duties are, but their inability is not merely their own fault – suffocating and uncoordinated ministerial bureaucracy often plays a great role here.

Social seclusion can be witnessed in the capital and in other larger centres, too. Poor language skills attributable to the fact that we still do not have a network of kindergartens and schools where the language of instruction is Estonian is one of the key factors in this regard. It is no privilege to remain languageless in a country where one works, be it temporarily or permanently.

The continuance of the bilingual school system for an unspecified time poses a threat to the lasting of the Estonian language and culture and does not in any way increase the social cohesion of Estonia as a country. We have one official language. It is our responsibility that all children moving from kindergarten to school are able to speak it, not to mention those who are about to finish school.

Act together and with integrity

Much needs to be done and the economic opportunities created in 30 years allow us to actually serve all the people of Estonia. Serve also those whose concerns have led them to wanting to demolish and start from scratch. If we act together and with integrity, we can glue our society back together. But this calls for honesty, a sincere will to understand everyone, the ability to notice the negative side effects beside the advantages of one’s political decisions, and the willingness to reduce such negative effects.

The major geopolitics of today are not favourable to us either. The biggest risks of the present world for the United States, our largest ally of global force, lie elsewhere and are related to China and, more broadly, Northeast Asia. The only reason why the United States would wish to spend its resources in our region for the purpose of ensuring our security lies in shared values. The values written on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, in the Declaration of Independence of the United States and, likewise, in our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution.

No one may be discriminated against

Section 12 of the Estonian Constitution states that everyone is equal before the law. No one may be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, colour, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other views, property or social status, or on other grounds. Incitement to ethnic, racial, religious or political hatred, violence or discrimination is prohibited and punishable by law.  Incitement to hatred and violence between social classes or to discrimination against a social class is also prohibited and punishable by law.

And so forth. The entire Chapter II of the Constitution describes to our people the freedoms safeguarded by the Constitution in all their diversity. Formulating, among other things, that there is no censorship and that science and art and their teachings are free. That everyone has the right to abide by his or her opinions and beliefs.

Naturally, the other side to every formulated freedom is the responsibility for how we exercise our freedoms. Freedom of speech does not justify lying. Drawing justified attention to risks is not fearmongering. Disagreement is not betrayal. Disagreeing with someone else’s opinions does not give one the right to call them stupid.

An inconvenient question asked by a journalist does not need to be answered where one does not know the answer or does not want to answer, but one cannot ban asking questions. Otherwise, Estonia would no longer be among the champions of free media. News accounts of course should not contain an opinion. Facts and comments should be clearly apart. It is the journalists’ sense of responsibility that keeps us among the champions of free journalism.

The opening session of the 14th Riigikogu. Photo by Erik Peinar.

Democratic values

Chapter II of the Estonian Constitution is especially clearly dedicated to democratic values. It is the bond that keeps us in a value space shared with all our allies. It is the nucleus text of the Estonian state which proves to the entire world that we belong to free Europe. It is a text that is sacred to everyone who serves the Estonian state as an official, politician, serviceman, police officer, teacher, doctor, journalist or artist. It is a text without which our state would not be free and without which the people in our country would not be free. And this text is also our security guarantee.

The spirit of our Constitution is alive when we use democratic values as citizens and patriots of Estonia and let others use them as well.

All world views are equal before the Constitution as long as they are not in conflict with the general rights and freedoms set out in the Constitution. The bearers of each world view are welcome to participate in the political process and compete for seats in the Riigikogu.

Having reached this house, every member of the Riigikogu is free within their mandate and can follow the Constitution and their own moral compass.

Should the latter two conflict, the Constitution naturally prevails.

What is happening in our Estonia today is a functioning democratic process. There is nothing wrong with democracy in Estonia. It was the voters’ responsibility to put together a new composition of the Riigikogu, and the voters delivered. Elections were held, the winners are clear, the political parties are free to discuss their possible governmental cooperation and each member of the Riigikogu is free to assess candidates for the position of the Prime Minister.

Today, the 14th composition of the Riigikogu commences work. Everyone who is here is here as a result of democratic processes. Estonia’s democracy works. Still, we should ask why, a month after the elections, a large portion of the people feel as if something has been broken in our society. Certain agreed limits no longer seem applicable. It is not a matter of world views but often of elementary politeness and respect. Of respect towards each other and the people.

Indeed, we do not have a crisis of democracy. The elections and the following events are procedurally in compliance with the Constitution and democratic values.

A crisis of values

Nevertheless, we have a crisis of values. The freedoms and values described in the Constitution as well as the defenders of those freedoms and values are attacked under various pretences. Those whose work is to defend values and freedoms are also under attack. Those who express their opinion as citizens to safeguard our freedoms and values are ridiculed, too. Those who feel that previous ways do not meet their needs and are therefore sceptical of freedoms and values are teased and ridiculed as well. If we let this continue, our democracy will also soon be in a crisis. By then it will be too late.  What can we do?

Lead by example. To help you in this endeavour, allow me to share a little personal memory of mine.

This memory has always supported me when I have stood in this very place or before a committee or faction of the Riigikogu as President of the Republic or in another role.

In 1999, a minister came before the Riigikogu with a plan that the minister sincerely believed in and that the minister considered necessary for improving things in Estonia. The discussion in this all did not prove too constructive. Or, perhaps, the plan was bad. I cannot quite recall. But the minister was sad not because the plan did not fly. The minister felt that this hall had attacked him as a person. Had called into question their common since and even appearance.

Discussing the matter, Eiki Nestor, the former Minister of Social Affairs, said: listen, dear friend, please remember this one thing forever or at least as long as you are a minister in the Republic of Estonia. Because it is a very important thing, the most important thing of all. Namely – when you speak in front of the Riigikogu, you always speak to your people. Never to merely this hall here. Never to the person who asked you a question. Never to the person who mocked or insulted you or commented on the shape of your nose when asking a question in this hall. From this platform you talk to your people and only to your people.

Let us respect each other and our people!

I

Cover: President Kersti Kaljulaid at the opening of the 14th Riigikogu. Photo by Erik Peinar.

Estonians in Sweden condemn EKRE’s attacks in a public appeal

The Estonian community in Sweden, in a public appeal, addressed to the Estonian president, prime minister and chancellor of justice, condemn EKRE’s attacks on minorities and say they’re not going to watch silently how Estonia is moving towards the Hungarian and Polish autocratic societies.

Estonian World publishes the appeal in full.

President of the Republic of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid

Chancellor of Justice of the Republic of Estonia, Ülle Madise

Prime Minister of the Republic of Estonia, Jüri Ratas

31 March 2019 in Stockholm

Public appeal of Estonians living in Sweden

Since the declaration of independence in 1918, as well as after the restoration of independence in 1991, Estonia has shown itself to be an innovative, respectful, open and a democratic state. The losses from the Soviet Union during the years of occupation here and beyond the Iron Curtain have left so many wounds healing slowly in our lives. The Estonian refugee community did not lose faith and the struggle for a free Estonia lasted for decades. Estonia’s development as a democratic country has been remarkable. In a short period of time, a poor and unknown country in the northern part of Europe has become a successful and acknowledged miracle of e-government and one of the world’s leaders in digital development.

Today’s political developments in Estonia make us worried. Since 2015, the Riigikogu has a particular political party whose leading members praise the loathsome, vile dictators of history, while immigrants, refugees, people of colour, the LGBTQ community and many other minority groups are the target of the particular political party’s hostility. A political party whose leaders have publicly expressed their desire to limit freedom of the press and the independence of the judicial courts and who threaten mass riots if they fail in succeeding to get representation in the next government. For many years, Estonia’s membership in the European Union and NATO has been questioned – our steadfast foreign and security policy direction, which was already established at the time of president Lennart Meri.

We condemn the attacks on people of colour and all minority groups, LGBTQ and Jewish communities, gynecologists, human rights defenders, cultural figures, journalists and judges. We are not going to remain silent bystanders when Estonia moves towards the Hungarian and Polish autocratic semi-closed societies under the leadership of populist right radical forces. This is the direction that would lead to a loss of confidence in Estonia from the European Union and other foreign partners. Not to mention the threat to Estonia’s constitutional order, democracy and human rights.

Signatories (alphabetically):

Peter Avo Andrekson, rofessor

Kristiina Gilts Stenhardt, architect

Leena Hurt, entrepreneur

Evelyn Höglund, teacher

Liine Jaanivald, lawyer

Maela Jaanivald, landscape architect

Epp Jaansoo, teacher and conductor

Ilona Jenkins, designer

Sofia Joons, musician and sociologist

Kristjan Jättenfeldt, office manager

Rein Jüriado, public official

Ann Jürisoo Arendi, physiotherapist

Krista Kampus, senior advisor at a think tank

Leo Kant, psychologist and university lecturer

Valdo Kask, freelance journalist

Redi Koobak, cultural scientist

Anu Kuusmann, entrepreneur

Alar Kuutmann, culture

Maimi Laks, designer

Ivar Lill, management consultant

Tiina Mark-Berglund, Statistician

Katrin Meerits, opera singer

Enel Melberg, writer and translator

Linda Meri, HR consultant

Tiina Meri, communication and editing

Lauri Metsvahi, musician

Mart Mägi, professor emeritus, honorary doctor of Tallinn Technical University

Aime Mölder, optik

Avo Mölder, computer specialist

Kristi-Maria Nurm, student

Oskar Nurm, student

Hendrik Nyman, teacher

Mart Nyman, criminal inspector

Ivar Paljak, doctor of technology, 4th Order of the National Coat of Arms

Indrek Parts, entrepreneur

Ivar Paulson, doctor of medicine

Pärtel-Peeter Pere, entrepreneur

Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, professor in media and communication

Peeter Puide, writer and translator

Aho Rebas, former cultural advisor, Valgetähe IV klass

Hain Rebas, professor emeritus, Valgetähe III klass

Karin Rebas, expert in education

Helju Rumma, editor

Leana Salu, conductor

Jaan Seim, former headmaster of the Estonian School in Stockholm, Valgetähe V klass

Katrin Sepp, psychologist

Karin Soots, teacher in early education

Mall Stålhammar, professor emeritus

Taave Sööt Vahermägi, CEO

Maarja Talgre, writer

Evelin Tamm, freelance journalist

Marje Taska, artist

Säde Tatar, freelance musician

Lemmi Tui

Toomas Tuulse, composer and musician

Tõnis Tõnisson

Marie Vaadre, European Parliament candidate (L)

Olav Vahtras, professor

Maire Vill, trainer and arent

Piret Villo, Phd, organic chemistry

Kristina Viira, national handicraft promoter

I

Cover: The representatives of the Estonian community in Sweden handing over the public appeal on 31 March 2019.

Benjamin Klasche: The fear of losing one’s home

Benjamin Klasche, a PhD candidate at Tallinn University and a German expat living in Tallinn, gives his view as to what drives people to vote for extreme parties like the Estonian Conservative People’s Party.

We live in tumultuous times. Globally, we have to deal with an environmental crisis that appears hard to pinpoint and even harder to solve. We are also facing growing migration flows within and beyond all continental borders.

In Europe, we are watching the looming Brexit creating the European Union’s biggest legitimacy crisis in its history and a growth of anti-constitutional – and therefore anti-democratic – forces in basically all European states. We live in the times of crises, in the form of complex problems that have no easy solutions. Even worse, often we do not know how a solution could even look like.

These crises are manifesting itself also in Estonia. People appear to deal differently with these phenomena. Some are hitting the streets, demanding from our politicians to adequately address these issues. Some have lost their faith in the ability of our politicians and give their votes to parties whose programmes are built on this exact shortcoming.

This also happened three weeks ago in the Estonian parliamentary election, in which the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) recorded its best election result (17.8%) yet. The opposers and the critics of EKRE’s ideology and political agenda are quickly ready to call their leadership and their supporters as stupid, populist, xenophobic, racist and more of the same, while they should be trying to understand why this party (and others alike) are gaining support.

Fears are hard to control

I have done it myself. I have lumped all supporters of extreme right-wing parties together and put negative labels on them, instead of imagining myself in their situation. Let me introduce myself a little bit more and make this point clear.

So far, I have led a life of great privilege that has allowed me to travel, study and live abroad, and therefore come in contact with many different people and cultures and learn about their history and view on the world. These privileges have made me in Zygmunt Bauman’s view a Tourist. A cosmopolitan, who can adapt anywhere and feel at home. A person that thrives in the age of globalisation and can only see it as an enrichment to himself and others.

Not everybody feels this much home out there in the world. In fact, most people do not feel this way (sometimes I also do not). By no means does that make them lesser people. They are just living in a world where other things matter more. A world where the feeling of home is based on familiarity. Familiarity with the land, the people, the language, the daily life. This is also a world where the thought of losing familiarity could lead to the loss of one’s home. I can only imagine how it must feel to be daily afraid of losing one’s home and when I do imagine it, it does feel terrible. Our fears are hard to control and appear often irrational even to ourselves.

Start talking to each other again

Now, we live in a world that is organised by states. Most of us come from one and belong to one. Theoretically, states have great benefits for their citizens. There are here first and foremost to keep us citizens safe and provide us with conditions that allow us to live a comfortable life. In other words, they allow us to make a home for ourselves and free us of fear.

What if we lost the faith in our states to provide exactly this? What if we think the current setup, in which governments are formed by interchangeable mass parties, is not working? What if we are afraid that we could lose our home because of this? This is exactly where parties like EKRE come in.

They instrumentalise the fear of their voters. They are loudly confirming that the government is incapable of taking care of its citizens. They focus on topics such as immigration, minorities and the demise of culture and exaggerate the impact that refugees could have. Instead of removing fears, they go the opposite route and intensify them. They make it look like they have extreme simple solutions to the extremely complex problems our society is facing. Naturally, this sounds like a great deal, but simple solutions have no chance of solving complex problems.

It is not the fault of the people that they are afraid. It is the fault of governments, politicians, societal leaders and frankly the fault of the unafraid ones that they have not been able to erase these fears. It is the fault of us, as a society, because we constantly fail to communicate the right way, we are incapable of explaining this highly complex world with its even more complex problems and challenges.

Only if we can grow back together, start talking to each other again, overcome the growing trenches of division between us, do we have a chance of tackling the large problems at our hands. If we don’t do that, we might all be in danger of losing our homes.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: A torch march organised by EKRE on 24 February 2019 (the image is illustrative). 

Toomas Hendrik Ilves: We want an Estonia where people can remain themselves

The former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, writes in a Facebook post that the Estonia we want should be a country governed by law, a country where people are not judged based on their origins, religion or native language, and a country where people can remain themselves.

Four years ago, on 23 June 2015, in my annual Victory Day speech, I said:

Every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Võnnu, or Victory Day, I have spoken about Estonia’s defence and security. And today, unfortunately, as a year ago, today there is something to talk about.

For a year and half now, a war has been underway in Europe.

Crimea has been annexed; Russian forces are fighting on Ukrainian territory in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.

For Estonia, this has brought the realisation that our freedom, our sense of security and safety is not as self-evident, as we are used to believing.

But we have also learned something else. We have learned about the solidarity of Estonia’s allies. And now, even the doubters know that Estonia has reliable allies.

Let’s take a quick look at the recent past.

Obama: the defence of Tallinn is as important as the defence of Berlin

The attack on Crimea began on the last days of February 2014. US fighter planes landed in Estonia and Lithuania on 6 March of last year, in order to secure the airspace of the Baltic countries. Less than 90 hours or slightly more than three days had passed from the moment, when the Estonian Minister of Defence sent a request to the US Ambassador to send fighter and tanker planes to the Ämari airbase.

During the Ukrainian crisis, the Baltic airspace has also been protected by Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Brits, Italians, Norwegians, Poles and Canadians.

The first company of American soldiers stepped with their boots on the ground in Estonia last April. US president Barack Obama visited Tallinn in early September, and said among other things that for NATO, the defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London.

At the subsequent NATO summit, it was agreed to strengthen the presence of allied forces in the alliance’s border countries.

Soon after, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks arrived in Estonia.

In March of this year, the US Army Europe practiced moving its heavy equipment through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

A little more than a month ago, all of Estonia was involved in Siil, the largest and most complex military exercise of our new independence era, which culminated in Viru County; and which many of you standing here in formation this summer morning in Kärdla participated in. I commend you for that! More than 14,000 reservists, including more than 60 Estonians from other countries, starting with the Republic of South Africa and ending with Finland, came to participate in that exercise.

Solidarity is the common denominator

At your side were military companies from the United States and Great Britain, anti-aircraft units from Poland, Belgium and Germany, warplanes from the US, Poland and the United Kingdom, a psychological operations team from Latvia and Dutch air force officers. A total of more than 600 allied fighters.

Throughout the past year, our allies have ensured their permanent presence in the air, on the land and sea. The large US naval ship, the USS San Antonio, is currently docked in Tallinn with 1,200 marines aboard.

What does this list of facts from the last year and a half tell us? It tells us that NATO works, NATO reacts and, therefore, Estonia is protected.

The common denominator of these events is solidarity – a normal and logical part of Estonia’s NATO membership. Ukraine lacks this, because Ukraine does not belong to NATO. Today let’s think about the efforts that we undertook 20 years ago, when we started on the path to NATO membership and radically reorganized our country to do so.

If we had not done this, just think about the sense of uncertainty that would prevail in Estonia today, the anxiety with which we would follow the developments in Ukraine, where every day Ukrainian soldiers perish.

But this is not only true today. The start of our history as an independent country was also supported by the solidarity of others.

Belonging to NATO and the EU gives us the sense of security

At the start of the Estonian War of Independence, a British fleet dropped anchor off Tallinn in December 1918. This was the first aid Estonia received from abroad during the War of Independence. A war in which a total of 111 British servicemen perished.

On 30 December 1918, the first unit of Finnish volunteers arrived in Tallinn. A total of five thousand Finnish volunteers fought in the Estonian national army during the War of Independence.

In April 1919, a Danish company arrived in Estonia.

Belonging to NATO and the European Union provides us with a sense of security. Even one that means that the war news from Ukraine reaches us less and less frequently. This inconspicuous detail, which we don’t even think about, means that Estonia does not need to worry. It means that we are protected.

It’s worth noticing that when we speak about NATO or those who helped us during the War of Independence, we don’t really ask ourselves or anyone else why they came or are coming to a sovereign country. We don’t use insulting words about them. We don’t think that their presence is something bad. And if things should get serious, the majority of the Estonian people would not object if very many foreigners came here to defend our freedom.

Currently, some of our NATO allies are having a hard time. They are asking for help from the European Union, another organisation that is important for us and is based on solidarity. These same countries, whose planes take to the sky to defend Estonia and all of us, need help. And we don’t seem to understand their plight. Where is our solidarity?

Instead, we hear and read about fears and hate speeches, insults and threats. Of course, I understand that the acceptance of war refugees from the Middle East and North Africa is a painful and contradictory subject in most European Union Member States. In addition to everything else, Estonia also has to bear the burden of the fears that are inevitably associated with a small nation. Here any turbulence to the population, and in the field of culture or language is immediately interpreted as a threat to the existence of the nation and the state.

Several dangers threaten the EU and NATO

But let’s speak about these fears in a calm manner. It will not help if we replace rational debate with panic right from the start and spurt out the basest of emotions.

Observing the developments during the last few months here and elsewhere in Europe, a fear has grown in me and many others that we are falling into the trap of abstract xenophobia, fear and general intolerance.

Starting with the immigration debate and continuing with other topics related to minorities, moods have intensified in the public arena that are turning inward and generate negation. But fear – even of something strange – is a bad guide and anger is an even worse strategy.

Which is why I ask each of my compatriots today: how can we defend our state and our values? How can we defend Estonia without becoming self-absorbed and without pushing aside those who are different? How do we jointly defend those same values that that protect us today and are embodied so directly by the allied NATO forces?

Who are our own, the ones we defend and how to become one of our own? This is a central issue regardless of the immigration debate, because the answer to the following question also depends on it: “What can a state do to make all the people living here feel like one of our own?”

Several dangers currently threaten the European Union and NATO. We naturally focus on one, the one we see in Ukrainian suffering. But others – other allies – have their own worries.

The European Union – an organisation extremely necessary for the development of Estonia and the preservation of its independence – is enduring several shocks. One of its fundamental values – solidarity – is no longer self-evident.

ISIS’s brutal killings are forcing peaceful people to flee their homes, exactly like 7% of the Estonian nation fled their homes in 1944, fearing the recurrence of the brutal horrors of the first Soviet occupation.

They fled in ships and boats across the sea, living thereafter in the barracks of closed refugee camps often until the end of the 1940s. Or they perished at sea, when refugee-filled boats were hit by bombs from planes or mines left in the sea.

How to become our own?

I ask again, who are our own, who we help and protect and how to become our own? If the Estonian people are our own to the Spanish and Italian pilots, the US marines, German staff officers and Belgian anti-aircraft units, who are our own?

Our own is Lili Milani, a genetic scientist recognised in Estonia, whose parents fled from Iran. Today Milani, as an outstanding Estonian scientist who speaks beautiful Estonian, along with her research group, her university and research institution are among the best in the world, also merited the President’s Young Scientist Award.

Our own is Staff Sergeant Roman Bõstrjantsev, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2009, and who is now a senior non-commissioned officer in the Support Command of the Estonian Defence Forces.

Our own is also Veiko Parming, who was born in Canada, and volunteered for the Estonian Defense Forces, later graduated with a master’s degree from the MIT, the world’s best university of technology, and returned to Estonia at his own expense to participate in the SIIL exercises as a reservist.

We also consider world-famous Skype to be our own. But do we considered the engineers from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic who have excelled at IT development there as our own, or how about the Hindus, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Malaysians and designers of other nationalities that work at Estonia’s best IT companies?

And so, let’s ask again and clearly, what is the Estonia that we want to defend and are asking others to help us defend?

What kind of Estonia do we want?

We want:

  • Estonia to be a country governed by the rule of law, where the courts and their judgments are just;
  • For Estonia not to go bankrupt or descend into a fatal tailspin;
  • To resolve mutual disputes without violence;
  • For people to be judged for their values, skills and attitudes, not their origins, religion or native language;
  • To refrain from classifying our people into the right kind and the second-rate kind, and those with different worldviews into enemies or worthless;
  • For the people in Estonia have the freedom to remain themselves.

Everyone here has the right to freedom and the fruits of freedom, to their opinions and beliefs, even if they differ from your opinions and beliefs.

Estonia is being defended, advanced and promoted in the world by our own people. And now we have to ask ourselves, in a situation where others are protecting us and we are their own, whom do we consider to be our own – the ones that we protect?

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Abdul Turay in a public letter to Jüri Ratas: EKRE are flat out fascists

The freelance journalist and a member of the Estonian Centre Party, Abdul Turay, says in a public letter to prime minister Jüri Ratas that the coalition with far-right EKRE party would not only destroy Ratas’s legacy – it would destroy the reputation of Estonia; Estonian World publishes Turay’s letter in full.

Dear Jüri Ratas,

I have had the greatest respect for you as a man, a leader, a father, and a politician until now.

If you form a coalition with EKRE, you will have shown that you are unfit to lead the country and even unfit to lead the party.

The grassroots who voted for the Centre Party, did not vote for you to form a coalition with EKRE.

EKRE stand against the interest of every single Russian speaker in this country. I have met Martin Helme (the deputy leader of EKRE – editor) – whatever he may say publicly, he does not like Russians. He hates them.

EKRE stand against the interests of every foreigner in this country. Not just dark-skinned foreigners, but white skinned foreigners, Swedes, Americans, Italians, British – every single one of us.

This is not an ideological issue, it is a political one.

If you do a coalition with EKRE you risk destroying the Centre Party, you risk losing the support of Russian speaking people, you risk losing the support of the international community in Tallinn and you risk losing the support of the international community in the world. And you won’t gain any new supporters.

EKRE are not a normal right-wing populist party. They are an embarrassment to the right-wing populist movement. They are not like UKIP in the UK or Trump in the US. They are a parasite clinging on the back of the right-wing populist movement. They are flat out fascists.

You said time and time again that you will not do a deal with EKRE. Now you have been shown to be a liar.  Nobody likes a liar. Some lies you can get away with. This one you can’t.

You lost the election, we lost this election. It’s painful, but it is true. It is time to accept this.

In this time of WOMEN, everybody round the world fully expects the woman who won the election to form the next government.

If this does not happen just because a desperate politician formed a coalition with a fascist party, there will be an international outrage. It will drag on for months. You will be crucified. You can count on it.

It will destroy the reputation of Estonia, scare away investors, tourists and entrepreneurs and businesses – and harm people’s jobs and livelihoods.

It will destroy your legacy.

If you do a deal with EKRE it will show that you have no principles. It will show that you will do anything to stay in power, do anything so that friends can keep their jobs.

This was the same mistake the Social Democrats made when they stayed in coalition with the Reform Party. Just multiply this by a thousand.

I and other grassroot members are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop this.

I may lose my job and my position in the party, but I will not be silenced and will not be intimidated.

The decision is with you.

I

Abdul Turay

12 March 2019

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Abdul Turay. Read also: Andrei Tuch: Welcome to Estonia’s new neo-Nazi government

Andrei Tuch: Welcome to Estonia’s new neo-Nazi government

If the Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition comes true in Estonia, the far-right EKRE will hold prime minister Jüri Ratas by the balls and dictate the coalition’s policy, Andrei Tuch writes.

The Estonian parliamentary election resulted in what initially looked like a rather worrying but non-apocalyptic result. Out of the 101 seats in the Riigikogu, the pro-business, pro-European Reform Party got 34; the incumbent coalition-leading, leftish-populist Centre Party got 26; the moderate nationalist Pro Patria (Isamaa) got 12 and the Social Democrats got 10. The worrying part was, the significant gain of the populist far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), which ended up with a whopping 19 seats.

The election was the culmination of a three-year reversal in what Estonians were used to seeing: Reform had been in charge since 2007 but found itself in opposition for just about the first time in history, after the ejection of former chairman Edgar Savisaar* made Centre much more palatable to coalition partners Isamaa and the Social Democrats.

Reform’s downfall was a succession of deeply unpersonable leaders, from the grey cardinal, Siim Kallas (forever tainted by an association with a bank scandal in the early 90s), to Andrus Ansip (the EU’s longest-serving prime minister at one time, kicked upstairs to Brussels after literal street protests – not against his party or policy, but against his personality), to Jürgen Ligi, holder of many ministerial portfolios but not his tongue.

But while the Reform leadership was irritating, it wasn’t exactly incompetent, and the newly-minted prime minister, Jüri Ratas, had a small window to prove himself to an electorate that wasn’t very enthused about the palace coup. After passing a couple of successful headline policies – an income tax exemption for low-income earners and free public transport in the countryside – and taking a blow from a deeply unpopular increase in alcohol duties forced through by the Social Democrats, Ratas moved to the, erm, centre for the remainder of his term, making every effort to be a leader for the broad cross-section of the country.

It wasn’t quite good enough. But he only had this one chance to be prime minister, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t hold onto that seat by any means necessary. If the country screwed him, well, the country can get screwed, too. 

Sensible coalitions brushed aside

The post-election math meant there was no absolute winner – which is par for the course in Estonia – but there were two likely coalitions. The most probable one looked to be a Reform-Centre government; with just two parties holding a strong majority of parliamentary seats, it could be a stable partnership of moderates, and even a potential “coalition of unity”: one to make money and one to spend it, and by the late 2010s, Centre remained pretty much the default-choice representative of Estonia’s Russophone community as well. That one is rightish and the other is leftish was neither a problem nor a novelty (there was already a Reform-Centre cabinet from 2005 to 2007); there were some policy incompatibilities, but compromise is what coalitions do.

The other option was a return to the pre-2016 Reform-Isamaa-SDE teamup. Sure, there was some lingering bad blood on both sides, but Taavi Rõivas – the guy who was booted out of the Stenbock House (the official seat of the government of Estonia – editor) by the unlikely conservative-socialist teamup – was long gone from leadership. Reform is now headed by Kaja Kallas (the daughter of Siim Kallas).

It looked like Estonia, the eager poster child of Europe, would have simultaneously a female president (Kersti Kaljulaid was elected president in 2016 – editor) and a female prime minister. Heck, they could’ve gone for an elegant bit of statesmanship and offered the chairmanship of the Riigikogu to senior Centrist, Kadri Simson. Imagine the photo ops: Kersti, Kaja and Kadri – a blonde triumvirate and a bloody triumph!

Sure, the 19 cryptofascists in parliament were nothing to be happy about. But both Reform and the Social Democrats had said outright that they would not work with EKRE. Centre was not only a left-wing party (and, on traditional policy markers, farther left than the Social Democrats!), but also the party of Russophones; and just a few years ago Kadri Simson became the unlikely champion of Estonia’s (admittedly half-baked) Civil Unions Act (that allows same-sex couples to legally register their cohabitation – editor). Centre had nothing to offer or gain from the party of “Estonia First” (And Ban Abortions While You’re At It).

Except, that is, for the premiership.

A coalition of Centre, Isamaa and the neo-nazis brewing

Over the week following election day, Reform made overtures towards Centre first, then towards Isamaa and SDE. While the Social Democrats have now said they are happy to join Reform, the two others were oddly reticent to begin the horse-trading for policies and cabinet seats. And now we know why. In a highly improbable twist of algebra, it seems there is a new coalition brewing: that of Centre, Isamaa and the neo-nazis.

Or rather, I should say, a coalition of EKRE with Centre and Isamaa support (described in Estonia with an abbreviation EKREIKE).

There was a time, back in the 2000s, when Reform’s rejection of a possible coalition with IRL (the union of Isamaa and Res Publica, a once-mighty but quickly spent centre-right endeavour) was explained by Andrus Ansip’s fear of being the Prime Minister in a Mart Laar** government. If an EKREIKE coalition does happen, Jüri Ratas will keep the Stenbock House office he so treasures, but he will be no more than the figurehead of a Mart Helme (the leader of EKRE – editor) government.

Not everyone shares this opinion. They point at the True Finns (a milder version of EKRE in Finland – editor) over in the North and say a stint as a junior partner in government will drive EKRE either to the mainstream – or out of relevance. They will either move to the centre just like Ratas did – or disappoint their core voter base and lose most of their seats in the next election.

And maybe they would, indeed, end up going mainstream like the True Finns – if they had been brought in as a junior partner to someone like Res Publica (a former political party that won the parliamentary election in 2003) at the peak of its power. A radical far-right party supporting a centre-right PM, against what they perceive as a red onslaught, might indeed find that once the substantive part of their manifesto is implemented, the broad base of frightened and uneasy voters gets siphoned off and they’re left with nothing but the lunatic fringe.

Succumbed to unbridled populism

Here’s the thing, though: EKRE has nothing to lose. Its voters are not the economically dispossessed, like the working-class Brexiteers of the austerity-ravaged United Kingdom – Estonia’s economic growth continues, unemployment is low, salaries are growing nicely and even the inflation is under control.

Nor is EKRE the voice of a rightward swing of a Scandinavian Welfare State that is worried about uncontrolled government spending and the national debt – EKRE’s actual stated policies are a mix of taking out loans to hand out money to the people (as long as those people are ethnic Estonians – with the purity criteria defined by the EKRE leadership, natch) while getting rid of most taxes.

Nor is it the voice of those genuinely worried about security: EKRE’s geopolitical stance is to get Estonia out of burdensome international commitments like the EU (where, mind you, tiny Estonia is one voice out of twenty-seven, a position of power it could hardly hope for anywhere else; and if you don’t believe Brussels stands up for the interests of the small countries, ask the Irish!), and basically just assume that our safety is guaranteed by the personal integrity of Donald Trump.

And most certainly, the EKRE voter is not the same as the upper-middle-class gay men of Amsterdam who vote for Geert Wilders (a populist Dutch politician – editor), so that he’d protect them from Sharia law.

The EKRE voter is, at the most charitable end, someone who’s succumbed to unbridled populism. But Estonia’s economy is in great shape, whether you’re a software developer or a construction worker. And the migrant crisis on Europe’s doorstep has so far resulted in a grand total of two hundred people and change coming to Estonia. That’s less than a cruise ship’s worth (and many of those have already left for Germany, where salaries are higher, the weather is more tolerable and not every meal is pork).

If you’re seeing someone on a Tallinn street – outside of the Old Town or the Cultural Kilometre – who has an interesting skin tone, then they’re most likely doing a master’s degree at TalTech while simultaneously contributing a healthy amount of payroll taxes to the Estonian budget, dude.

Deluded voters

The EKRE voter may delude themselves into thinking they are standing up for Great Estonia, or that they are fighting back a resurgent wave of Communist terror (they like to call everyone who opposes EKRE a socialist and intend it as a terrible slur***). They might even tell themselves they are voting against a man who allegedly once stole ten million dollars from a failed bank (and end up voting for a man – an EKRE MP Jaak Madison – who definitely stole an iPhone on the overnight ferry to Stockholm).

But the EKRE voter is a voter who is miserable and the source of his misery must be somewhere else than himself. It could be the woman in his life who left him and took the kids (or had the temerity to make a choice to not have his kids). It could be the unelected Brussels bureaucrats****. It could be the boss who yelled at him the other day – that asshole of a boss with his fancy college education and his too-tight jeans, a sure sign that he is one of them gays. It could be the ISIS infiltrator who is just biding his time before he turns Võrumaa into a caliphate. Or, if all else fails, it’s got to be George Soros.

Estonian voters have a naturally elevated level of background misery; and let’s be honest, there’s also a fair amount of racism here. It’s almost impossible to grow up in a country where everyone looks like you and not feel uneasy around someone who doesn’t. You’re not a terrible person because you have a cognitive bias, you’re only a terrible person if you embrace it.

Estonia’s xenophobic streak has always been there – from jokes about six-toed Latvians to the expulsion of Baltic Germans after 1918, to the reason why that Tujurikkuja (an Estonian television entertainment show – editor) cover of Ei Ole Üksi Ükski Maa (an important Singing Revolution-era protest song – editor) is so paralyzingly hilarious.

Jüri Ratas is not a statesman

This is why EKRE has nothing to lose, and by having nothing to lose, it will control Jüri Ratas’s government. For three years, Ratas looked like a capable statesman, but it is now obvious that he cares more about his own position as prime minister than he does about the country. And EKRE can’t help but exploit that. Like the Northern Irish Unionists who are holding Theresa May’s government hostage in the UK, EKRE will hold Ratas hostage, dictating policies and threatening to go into opposition if they don’t get what they want. Because if it fails as a party in government, it won’t make its voters disappointed and dissatisfied with them.

As history teaches us, when the Great Leader fails to live up to his promises, it is never the fault of the Great Leader. It is only due to sabotage from the Enemies of the People. And so, the Enemies of the People must be hunted down and purged.

As for Jüri Ratas, history will not remember him as the man who made the minimum wage free of income tax. It will remember him as the man who put the neo-Nazis in power in Estonia.

P.S.: For an excellent in-depth political analysis of the situation, point your Google Translate at www.poliitika.guru/risk.

* Edgar Savisaar lost his grip on the Centre Party partially due to health issues and partially due to being indicted on corruption charges. At time of writing, his criminal trial was halted because he was found too ill to face the court. He was not acquitted.

** Mart Laar, two-time prime minister, was the architect of Estonia’s free-market economy and capitalist miracle. He is now also out of politics on health grounds, but even when his party did badly, Laar enjoyed what was probably the second-biggest reserve of personal authority after near-mythical president Lennart Meri.

*** Never mind that EKRE happily hosted Estonia’s pro-Kremlin fringe, under the logic that those guys also hate the LGBT community and that makes them fellow travellers.

**** Stay tuned; we’re electing our Brussels bureaucrats two months from now.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Mart Helme, the leader of the EKRE party (the image is illustrative).

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam: An Estonian view

The question of what can become of a society and completely normal people when the said society goes mad, is valid again even in Estonia – a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam warns us about the horrors that can happen to each one of us.

Estonia has a full generation grown up who have no active memory of the occupation and even less idea of the actual war. Therefore, the question of what can become of a society and completely normal people when the society goes mad, is very valid. History merely stands for numbers – and numbers become easy to dismiss or manipulate. How to recognise when the same ideas come back to haunt us in different colours?

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I saw and was shocked by an old photo of a SS (a paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II – editor) officer in a newspaper article. The article describing war criminals and the person on the photo reminded me of a person of my acquaintance. A young, handsome face calmly smiling back from a passport-like photo.

This was a moment of realisation that unlike in children’s movies, good and bad are not easily distinctive and don’t often even have a distinct beginning. Evil is not neatly outlined like in James Bond movies. A villain can be a hero of their own story and believe their actions to be for good. History has shown that with right conditions (or conditioning), almost anybody is capable of unspeakable evil and hopefully also good.

In Spain or Italy, I’ve seen people having Lenin’s photo in their living room wall and demonstration on the streets with Soviet flags. These are regular people who believe they are standing up for what is right. They do not recognise the absurdity to claim that they would never pick up swastika while they have no problem lining up under flags and symbols that caused similar sufferings. If humans are capable of such a self-deceit and anybody can become evil, then how can we avoid repeating history?

Throughout time, good literature has been contributing to keeping history alive, hopefully giving us the chance to recognise and avoid making the same mistakes again. A powerful narrative can make history more than a boring paragraph in a textbook. Although only a small slice of history, Anne Frank’s diary is such a story. A personal tale by a young girl writing about her life in hiding for two years during the World War II.

What are the Anne Frank House and her diary?

Anne Frank's diary original

The Anne Frank House is a building in Amsterdam where Frank, her family and friends – eight Jewish people – were hiding during the Nazi occupation. They lived about two years in a secret annex built behind the bookcase on the top floors of the office building in Amsterdam.

Anne was 13 when her family went into hiding. Right before that, she started keeping a diary in a notebook she got for her birthday. She kept an uncandid record, describing their daily life, quarrels, joys and dreams as well as her personal thought about the people and herself. Following her own wishes, her father, Otto Frank (the only survivor of the group hiding in the secret annex), published her diary.

By today, Anne Frank’s Diary is the most translated Dutch book – into 70 languages, including Estonian – and sold more than 35 million copies. Today, the building of the secret annex and a few others next to it is set up as the Anne Frank House and is open for visitors. I was offered a chance by the Anne Frank Foundation to visit the Anne Frank House during my stay in Amsterdam.

My visit to the Anne Frank House

Que at the Anne Frank House

What would be a better reading material to a trip to Amsterdam than The Diary of a Young Girl but mostly known as The Diary of Anne Frank. With the story and Anne’s descriptions fresh in my mind, I approached the entrance to the house. Connected houses together form a museum and a Holocaust memorial with the secret annex as the culmination of a guided tour.

The secret annex itself has no façade toward the narrow street with a canal. The entrance to the museum is through a few neighbouring buildings. Despite it being February and a not-so-busy season in Amsterdam, I saw people turned away by polite but firm personnel in front of the house. While a small number of tickets should be available through the box office, most are pre-sold online. Even the lucky ones with a ticket have to wait for their time; each ticket has a half an hour time slot to enter.

The good news is, once you are in you are in, they give you a free electronic guide. I get to choose my guide from an astonishing number of languages. Unfortunately, but quite understandably, Estonian is not among the dozen languages available, but English is.

The Nazi occupation

The first part in the house is dedicated to the history of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. Already two years before Frank’s family went into hiding, numerous restrictions had been made on the Jewish population.

Anne’s list of restrictions to the Jewish population:

“Our freedom was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish decrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use street-cars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 P.M.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlours; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 P.M. and 6 A.M.; Jews were forbidden to attend theatres, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public; Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 P.M.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish schools, etc. You couldn’t do this, and you couldn’t do that, but life went on.”

The helpers

The next part takes me to the actual offices, warehouse and storage rooms that Anne also mentions in her story. This part is dedicated to the helpers, the people who brought them food and helped keep them secret. Acknowledged also by Anne as heroes in her story, they are the ones who took a risk of being sent to prison or executed themselves for helping fellow human beings. Photos, real names and what became of them.

Anne’s descriptions are set side by side with the photos and their known history, adding faces and the real names to the aliases used by Anne. They are being given the credit they so justly deserve. I looked at the faces, again only humans. Women with curled hair, men with serious faces and wearing a tie. Simple office workers, any one of them could have been my neighbour, parent or (hopefully) me.

The secret annex

The bookcase hiding Anne Frank family's hiding place.

Following the other visitors, we reached the bookcase that used to hide the entrance to the secret annex. The original bookcase is still there and protected by a plastic class. I was impressed by the way visitors behaved, I didn’t see anybody trying to sneak a forbidden photo or push past others. It almost felt as if we all tried to behave as if a place that had seen humanity at its worst, deserved our best behaviour.

Following Anne’s father Otto Frank’s wishes, the secret annex is left unfurnished. I moved from room to room, trying to fit the reality over the images that Anne’s descriptions had conjured in my mind. The pictures of movie stars on the wall, the tiny toilet and a tiny room she shared first with her sister and then with Fritz Pfeffer, a Jewish dentist and the later addition to the secret annex.

In a contemporary young adult novel, “The Fault in our Stars”, the protagonist, Hazel Grace, is granted her wish to visit the Anne Frank House. The 16-year-old girl who has lived a large part of her life with the constant inevitability from cancer describes her visit to the secret annex:

“Another staircase led up to the room where the van Pels family had lived, this one steeper than the last and eighteen steps, essentially a glorified ladder. I got to the threshold and looked up and figured I could not do it, but also knew the only way through was up.”

The last room of the secret annex belonged to Peter, Anne’s romantic interest (and the only age-appropriate male she saw in two years). From his room, the ladder is going up. The attic is out of limits, but the hatch is open. This tiny room and the attic where pieces of the sky can be seen through the holes were the rooms where Anne probably spent some of her happiest moments in hiding.

The betrayal of the people in the secret annex

Anne developed from a dramatic teenager into a young woman, into a hopeful young writer. Her journey unfolds through her diary – a person with a keen observation skill, recognising human folly and flaws in society yet sometimes absurdly optimistic. She dreamed of becoming a journalist, a famous writer and making a difference.

Anne Frank's room

“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!” she wrote.

Anne’s story talks about the moods in the Dutch society. That 15-year-old tells of her frights during the break-ins into the warehouse that became more and more frequent as the war continued. Each of the events increased the odds of their discovery. She sadly but calmly discusses the increasing antisemitism and expresses her opinion that the Jews were being taken to their deaths in German labour camps. It was a conclusion that even many grownups chose to ignore during that time.

“People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion,” she wrote.

As the people in hiding were listening the news about the progress of the war, D-Day (the seaborne operation by the Western allies to liberate Europe from the Nazi-German occupation – editor) got to have a more personal significance. In her last few entries, Anne is optimistic – it’s summer and she hopes the war to be over and go back to school by October.

The last part of the house is heartbreakingly sad as it’s dedicated to the Holocaust. It features interviews with Otto Frank, the helpers and people who met Anne and Margot in the concentration camps. By the last accords of the human madness that we call the World War II, the people in the annex were betrayed, “arrested” and sent to concentration camps with the last train taking Jews out of the Netherlands. To this day, it is unknown who betrayed their location.

Never forget, never repeat

Otto Frank

Anne Frank’s story is not only such a book and story that has reached us from the past, but it is probably the best-known personal narrative from that period. And why has the house where she wrote the story become so popular among the visitors? Is it a ghoulish desire for cheap excitement that causes people to line up to see where Anne wrote her story? I would like to think not.

A young person with her hopes, fears and dreams is something we can hope to relate to – a real voice telling her own perspective, straightforward and occasionally naive views of the world and changes around her. A teenager worrying about puberty, agonising over a crush and complaining how grown-ups don’t understand her, are details that make her completely human to us.

Thanks to her diary, we can glimpse at a true history, even if it is just a tiny morsel. It’s a story of a hopeful life that was cut short by madness – it could be a life of a sister, a classmate, a girl next door, myself…

————

Anne Frank school photo

“Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.”

– Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank

“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”

– Anne Frank

“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

– Anne Frank

I

Cover: Anne Frank in 1940 (Wikipedia).

Scroll to Top