The case for investing in human rights in Estonia

The case for investing in human rights in Estonia

Estonia has been going through a lot of changes recently and is often seen as a example for positive growth and progress in Central and Eastern Europe nowadays. But under the surface, the efficient state holds no values on which universal human rights could be based sustainably. Kari Käsper outlines some solutions for a democratic and independent Estonia.

Estonia has changed tremendously in the last decades. In many ways, a lot of progress has been made. The country is a member of the EU, NATO and OECD, it ranks among highest in various rankings, including the Press Freedom Index and Freedom Online index. Estonia has built up a modern and efficient state. There is relatively little open corruption, the state seems very open and transparent and there seems to be no problems with human rights. It is a hotbed for startup and innovation. And there are no hate crimes reported. Estonia seems to be an ideal place to live in many ways.

At the same time the success seems to be largely for show. It is an open question still whether the mechanical and formal reforms have actually made a change in the hearts and minds of people? Has it all been a huge lie, self-deception in order to live the Western dream? At the latest Estonian Lawyers Days the word self-colonization was used to describe the application of European law in Estonia. The state is efficient, but ultimately meaningless, because it holds no values. The same could be said for the business sector or civil society.

What has happened in Hungary is not an exception. It is a rather extreme form of the processes that take place elsewhere, including in Estonia. There is gap between how things are and how things are shown to be. In Estonia, there is a word combination JOKK means “legally it is allcorrect”, which is used derisively for business deals that use legal loopholes to make money. It seems that the Estonian state has been built up using the same principle.

In order to integrate to the Western structures driven by a current fear of Russia and historical experiences, Estonia has had to bow to external forces in the form of conditions and prove itself worthy the protection. This has resulted in a formal, but strict fulfillment of all demands with very little understanding or analysis of what these mean or what stands behind those demands.

Because these requirements were set at a time of neo-liberal rule in Western Europe, Estonia became a poster boy of these reforms. The thin state mentality has created a state that is largely irrelevant and cannot do much for economic or social development; its toolbox is rather empty. The state has become a very well-developed machine that has little corruption and is transparent, but does not deliver the growth and progress that it should.

The Estonian state is very good at the outward promotion of Estonian success stories, which mostly deal with technological achievements (Skype, paperless government, e-voting, etc.), but not only. Estonia tries to show itself as a beacon of human rights and democracy as well. Many of the technological advancements have been possible not because Estonia is a particularly creative and innovative, but because of the lack of constraints by the state. There is no strongly developed understanding of human rights, which means that e-government solutions that represent a massive possibility for infringement of human rights, are not critically evaluated, but just adopted. In Estonia, there has been no serious and critical discussion about data retention laws and mass surveillance; instead a state infrastructure has been developed that allows the state rather easily to track a lot of things. Likewise, any criticism of the dangers of e-voting are met with derision and accusations of lack of patriotism.

At the same time, civil society has not taken to fulfil its democratic role. Largely dependent on state funding and mostly interested in service provision, there are only very few organisations that engage in advocacy. As the interest of foreign private donors in the region has vanished, these organisations are struggling to find funding in the form of project-based support, which prevents them to work effectively.

So there is a state that is more interested in efficiency of governance and not in a development of tricky value-based issues that require smarter, inclusive and sometimes unpopular decisions, a mostly irrelevant civil society and a free press that is however struggling with its business model, there is a growing danger concerning backsliding in human rights and democracy.

The three main topics of discussion this year in Estonia have been first the disability benefits reform that was opposed by most independent disabled people organisations, but adopted nevertheless; second the same-sex partnership act, which has been left half-adopted with implementing legislation delayed until after the next elections in March and third the creation of the Russian language TV channel to battle Russian propaganda.

If one takes just the example of the discussions around the Russian-language TV channel than it is apparent that this was not done due to concerns about democratic participation of the Russian minority, but for entirely other reasons.

The Estonian public discourse is engulfed in fear and paranoia of Russia, even more so today than usual. This is understandable because of the Russian actions in Ukraine and other countries and because of the large ethnic Russian population living in Estonia. According to the results of the latest census, there are ca. 890 000 ethnic Estonians living in Estonia and ca. 320 000 ethnic Russians. All other ethnic minorities have smaller numbers.

Many Russians (especially the majority that has either a Russian citizenship or is stateless) have little to no political representation rights, because non-citizens are not allowed to belong to political parties, vote or stand as candidates in the parliamentary elections and stand as candidates in the local elections (they can vote in local elections, however). This was a decision made by the Estonian political elites when Estonia regained its independence, to ensure smooth integration with Western political structures and escape influence of Russia. These decisions made 23 years ago have resulted in a fast economic development (at least in terms of the neo-liberal understanding) and membership of EU, NATO and OECD. The cost has been the political disenfranchisement of the ethnic Russian population which has fueled societal segregation andcreated a flawed democracy.

Recently, however, the Estonian political elite has become worried that the Russian minority might be used against the Estonian territorial integrity in a way similar to what happened in Crimea and is happening in Eastern Ukraine. The prevailing view is that many Estonian Russians watch Russian TV stations and are thus subjected to anti-Western propaganda. Thus it is necessary to offer them a more balanced and objective media channel, which is why the Estonian government decided last week that Estonian public broadcasting ERR will get 4 million Euros to create a Russian-language TV channel.

This is a fundamentally wrong decision, albeit a convenient one.

It is a wrong decision because it treats Estonian Russians as objects not subjects and reinforces the idea that they are the problem and their minds need to be changed, very much similar to the employment benefits reform, which also saw as the main obstacle for disabled people not working the lack of motivation of people with disabilities. This paternalistic view reinforces the understanding that people are not capable of thinking for themselves, that they can be influenced by propaganda and that it is the governments job to tell people what is right and what is wrong, who is the enemy of Estonia and who is not.

It also creates a false impression that there is one ‘objective’ way of looking at things, which can easily lead into propaganda. I mean, if the Estonian government is creating a TV channel, which it says is not to be used for propaganda, even the fact they have to mention it makes one doubt its objectivity. Coupled with the recent serious discussions on the need for “psychological defense” for Estonia, impartiality on issues of integration seems to be impossible if not intentionally then because of the difficult historical context. This is such a difficult topic for Estonia that wading into it has cost Jürgen Ligi his job as the Minister of Finance a few weeks ago.

There are no easy solutions, because all the effective options need a more equal treatment of Estonians with Russians, which is more difficult for Estonians to handle, because of historical wrongs perpetrated against Estonians and Estonia.

These options should be on the table in order to make sure that there is a democratic and independent Estonia:

  1.  Ensure that any and all instances of discrimination against Russians (and other minorities) in Estonia can receive an adequate legal response, either in employment or in other areas. Investigate in detail where the most systematic problems (rental market, recruitment) are and deal with them. Invest money in this section, because this means a more just society that is more stable. The Estonian equality body (Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner) suffers from chronic lack of funding (it receives annually ca. 70 000 Euros from the state budget), last year only 2 people turned to the office with complaints based on ethnic or national origin. There are very few cases in courts and employment dispute commissions. This means that there are massive numbers of unresolved discrimination claims. If we deal with these claims and give access to remedies, the perception of Estonia discriminating against Russians can be easily countered.
  2. Ensure that all people that live and intend to continue living in Estonia are part of the Estonian public sphere. This means that there has to be a solution to statelessness and citizenship issues. It is possible to create a radical plan to ensure that in 10 years almost all people who are permanently living in Estonia have (at least) an Estonian citizenship. If there is enough time to prepare and everyone knows that it will happen, the political parties will have to be more inclusive or face the loss of the Russian votes to others. Any other solution for integration does not work, because citizenship is fundamental. This means that many more Russians will get a say in Estonian politics, which is more democratic and leads to a better governance on the whole. If Russians are 25% of Estonian people, then this should be also reflected in government, its policies and resource allocation.
  3.  Spend considerably more on educating all citizens to make up their own minds. The best guarantee of the continuation of Estonian democratic statehood is a citizenry of independent autonomous individuals that are able to make up their own minds. So what is needed is education of people to recognise propaganda, to evaluate and analyse information based on source and strength of its argument, to make rational, research-based, not emotional decisions. I see every day that people cannot cope with all the information, they are unable to understand what is authentic and what is astroturfing, many people seem to lack functional reading skills and critical thinking is not appreciated or taught. Media has a key role in this, but not only. This also means that civil society must play a larger role than the state-dependent sideshow it is today.

Thus it is my argument that the Russian-language TV channel is really meant to placate the majority population that something is being done. It will have no impact on the situation or mindset of Estonian Russians, because it conveniently misidentifies the problem, as there is not enough political courage and/or will to do something that has a real impact.

Thus, there is still a way to go towards functioning democracy and inclusion of minorities. The reason for the lack of interest in my opinion is the lack of willingness to actually change something as human rights and democracy are seen as foreign transplants even by many inside the political establishment that are either not really necessary or just a part of a transaction in exchange for access to EU and NATO.

Thus there is an enormous opportunity in Estonia, but also in other CEE countries, for stable and prosperous developments, but this requires a fundamental change of mindset towards recognizing the flaws in terms of human rights and democratic development. This requires a huge investment in human rights and democracy involving the state and its citizens, but also genuine political leadership.

Fotocredit: az via flickr


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