Last week, some very well known Estonian intellectuals and public figures issued a petition called Harta 12 (Charter 12). The petition came about in the light of recent allegedly murky dealings, where the governing Reform Party received large amounts of donations in cash. The authors of Charter 12 allege that those currently holding power in Estonia no longer feel the need to take heed of the public. Adam Garrie argues that Charter 12 is very vague in its statements and fails to fully comprehend the current democratic processes in the world.
From Magna Carta to Martin Luther to the English Chartists to Vaclav Havel and Charter 77, social and political events have often sprung from charters of one variety or another. There is always some element of righteousness mixed with quixotic idealism in such charters and Charter 12 is no exception to this rule. The idea of improving one’s government is generally a well-founded aim, but the statements in Charter 12 are so vague that they scarcely have any precise meaning, and the prescriptions to the supposed problems are simplistic and again highly vague.
Charter 12 reads rather like a high school level political diatribe from a misplaced idealist. The intention is obviously a noble one, but the form in which it is expressed and the ultimate conclusions misread and mis-assess a central feature of modern politics. Whether one wants to accept it or not, the age of purportedly democratic nation states, especially small and medium sized ones, is over. This age was of course a relatively short one in world history, lasting from 1945 to the early 2000’s in non-Communist Europe, and from the early 1990’s to roundabout 2008 in the Warsaw Pact and European states that became independent after the collapse of Soviet Union. Even three of the world’s largest and most powerful nations are far from democratic in any real sense. The US is an oligarchy masquerading as a Presidential Republic, China is likewise a neo-mercantile oligarchy masquerading in Maoist costumes, and Russia is essentially the property of one man, governed by his managers. Against this backdrop, Estonia’s political system for all its imperfections looks rather a safe place to be.
But Charter 12 is not a comparative piece; indeed it deals only with Estonian politics and does not even explicitly mention the European Union. The piece, when dissected to its core, is essentially a love letter to a vague concept of representative democracy with overtones that suggest a desire for a kind of ‘Basic People’s Congress’; the local administrative unites of Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”) in Libya.
The piece does not argue for the virtues of representative democracy, but rather presumptuously assumes its intended audience (ostensibly anyone who votes in Estonian elections) favours this particular system of governance. The truth is that representative democracy, as put into practice in half of Europe after the Second World War and virtually all of Europe (with several important exceptions) after the collapse of Soviet Union, is not a system which can easily cope with the economic strains, let alone the economic benefits of a fully globalised, digitised and culturally fluid world. Many Eurosceptics from Helsinki to London complain that the current eurozone crisis is a result of a deficiency in democracy. In reality it is the out-dated model of democratically controlled fiscal policy that is one of the core problems in the current crisis.
Because of inadequate preparations, a common monetary policy was introduced into the eurozone without taking into consideration the need for a common fiscal policy. Indeed it is the widely divergent fiscal policies of eurozone members which have allowed debt to spiral out of control, thus threatening the stability of not just southern Europe, but the world. Indeed it is the bickering currently on display in southern European parliaments which has delayed a potential and highly necessary re-constitution of the eurozone; a re-constitution that would necessarily require a more united if not fully common fiscal policy. This is just one pertinent example of how the process of representative democracy has retarded economic growth much to the detriment of men and women throughout the eurozone. In this sense the democracies of fiscally irresponsible eurozone states are holding the entire community ransom as they thrash out failed budget after failed budget.
With this in mind, wouldn’t it be better if those interested in improving Estonian governance focused on what government could do to further incentivise international commerce to come to Estonia, how to properly invest in digital infrastructure, cutting remaining regulations from the Soviet past and working with the European Union and others to promote Estonian culture to the wider world?
Indeed, the role of government in the modern world can be defined in the following way. Government in an ideal state must do only three things: 1. Promote economic growth 2. Expand and maintain public services 3. Invest in and promote art, sport and culture. Frequent elections and an overemphasis on populism rather than harnessing a country’s best intellectual, economic, educational, managerial and artistic talent are more often than not a stumbling block to prosperity. It is what’s happening now in the eurozone at this moment. Appeals to the gutter are never a good starting point for serious political maturity. In spite of a political system born in the 1990’s, Estonia’s governance is one of the most mature in Europe. Corruption exists, but it is a corruption that is generally manageable and does not get in the way of the ordinary work of government the way it does in many older democracies.
Charter 12 also talks about ‘listening to the people’. Thankfully, the Estonian public isn’t demanding the same things that large sections of the Greek public are doing. But if the public of Estonia or any country in the world were starting to call the leaders of modern Germany Nazis (as has happened in Greece – Editor), if they were calling for unilateral withdrawal from European Law, if they were calling for the forcible re-location of legal residents, I would certainly hope that those in government would not listen to the ‘people’.
The populist claptrap in Charter 12 for all its liberal credentials sounds like a poorly written version of some of the populist rhetoric being thrown at the urban populations of Russia prior to the October Revolution. This is to say nothing of how the National Socialists cleverly used the representative democratic process to take over Germany in 1933.
In a way I’m giving the writers of Charter 12 too much credit for robustly advancing an ultra-populist ideal. The piece is written in a rather circular, highly ambiguous tone where clichés are thrown around more rapidly than punches at a hockey match. This vagueness is combined with a kind of veiled call for a kind of uprising, though the tone in which it is written thankfully prohibits this from being taken seriously. The only proposal which was not either vague or childish was the idea of citizen proposed initiatives. It must be said though that this process is often a cumbersome one and if such initiatives are binding on a government it can lead to populist chaos more quickly than almost any other legislative process.
Ultimately any Estonian government will rise and fall on the same basis as any government in any modern nation. If the economy grows, if public services are broadly efficient and if the culture remains vibrant, the government will succeed; if not, it will eventually fail. Even Putin’s popularity in spite of elections that are generally not democratic in any idealistic sense, rests on the fact that he has an economic record for growth and avoiding the pitfalls of the recessions that have plagued much of Europe, Japan and the United States over the last four years. There are plenty of political charters and manifestos circulating in Russia today, but in spite of concerns about freedom of information, the more important reason that such things are widely ignored by the Russian public, is because most of Putin’s pragmatic opponents can’t foresee anyone who could do a better job in terms of economic growth and management of public services for the time being. In Estonia, the country that has the most cyber-freedom of any in the world, Charter 12 will eventually fizzle out and nothing will change as a result of it. Hopefully it won’t distract people long enough to seriously affect the more important economic debate. I seriously doubt it will do.
The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover photo by Phillip Martin