While the Estonian parliament wrestled with a new bill that would raise the age at which residents can begin receiving their pensions, a journalist sent me a few questions: Why don’t Estonians take to the streets to protest unpopular government decisions? How come Estonians prefer to cower behind anonymous Internet comments rather than to make their voices heard in public?
Like the men and women on Toompea, I struggled to find an answer. What could it be? What makes Tallinn unlike Athens and Paris? How come other Europeans let their representatives know when they are angry, but Estonians, yawn, are content to yell at the TV set or beat their chests in cyberspace?
Could it be temperament? Could it be that the glacial Estonians are too slow and peaceful to pick up placards and storm the capital to voice their concerns? Or maybe it’s the weather? Surely, a late March thaw is no time to stand around in a crowd of cold and unhappy people? I toyed with this idea at first, but eventually came to dismiss it. It is true that the Estonians are stereotypical northerners. It is true that Estonia is cold. But neither stopped the Icelanders from bringing Geir Haarde’s government to its knees last winter. Why, they even burned Christmas trees at protests in Reykjavik. So if there is an explanation for the Estonians’ aversion to mass demonstrations, that isn’t it.
With the iceman theory debunked, I tried my hand at the good old reliable post-communist explanation. Estonians were held captive at gunpoint for around 50 years by Moscow. You needed a visa to visit Hiiumaa. Under such circumstances, of course Estonians are protest shy. Why would anyone conditioned under such a system assemble in public to question the status quo? That’s just asking for trouble. I started to buy into this theory too, until I remembered the Latvians with their umbrella revolution and the Ukrainians with their orange revolution. They had communist pasts too, why, they had even been constituent parts of the same commie super state. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from taking it to the streets in recent years. Like the iceman theory, the post-commie theory doesn’t hold up.
So what could it be? What keeps Estonians indoors accusing each other of being national socialists or communists or both from the comfort of their own homes rather than taking their grievances to the halls of power? Without a simple theory to fall back on, I began to stitch together my own, new theory, a political one at that.
According to my political theory, Estonia has been run by basically the same politicians for years. Since 1999, Estonians have had Mart Laar (Isamaa) as prime minister, followed by Siim Kallas (Reform), who was replaced by Juhan Parts (Res Publica), who was succeeded by Andrus Ansip (Reform), whose current minority government is a coalition with Laar’s conservative fusion of Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit, and includes Parts as minister of economic affairs and communication.
It is true that the current coalition is a minority government, which, by definition, means that most Estonians did not vote for it. However, the opposition, a motley crew of Centrists and Social Democrats plus two smaller parties that are on life support, the Greens and People’s Union, is in no shape to offer any serious challenge to those in power. Reform and IRL’s jobs are secure. And, with parliamentary elections 12 memory-loss inducing months away, Ansip’s government is in a position to do basically whatever it wants. Estonians know this and therefore don’t bother to waste their time trying to influence those who probably will be unmoved by street demonstrations.
Critics of social democracy often refer to social welfare policies as manifestations of the “nanny state,” where the imaginary “nanny” of bureaucracy is entrusted to take care of you from cradle to grave. I would argue that what we see in Estonia these days is a paternal “daddy state,” where the government makes its decisions and, in most cases, once the leadership decides on something, it’s set in stone. Isa teab paremini, as they say, father knows best. And if you disagree, what are you really going to do? Vote for Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar? If you’re a pensioner, chances are you probably already do. And if you’re not? Well, I’m sure the party spokesperson will circulate some talking points to allay your concerns.