One of the perks of living in Estonia is that you are far removed from the endless barrage of propaganda that is American political discourse. On the downside, the longer you stay in Estonia and, especially, the stronger your command of the local language becomes, newer, potent forms of propaganda manifest themselves in your daily life.
Consider the case of Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar. He was prime minister of this country for a short period of time in the early 1990s. Ever since then he’s been running a never ending, so-far unsuccessful campaign to win back his seat in Stenbock House. Savisaar likes to lavish his voters with free firewood, potatoes, electronic greeting cards, and public advertising campaigns that border on harassment. His political demagoguery has earned him the exasperation of many an Estonian, not to mention the ridicule of his rivals. But the problem for his political opponents is that his critiques are not completely untrue.
Savisaar’s most recent attempt to woo voters is to pin the economic crisis on the ruling coalition. He’s been trying to do it for years now, with some success. His party did win the most votes during the municipal elections last October. And here’s their narrative, as put by Ain Seppik, a member of parliament and Savisaar’s right-hand man. Seppik said in a recent article that when Center was in coalition with Reform from 2005 to 2007, all was well. The economy was up, unemployment was down; Estonia was looking forward to an endless summer. Then things took a turn for the worse. Following the March 2007 elections, Reform callously dropped Center and decided to steer to the right with their new best friend and coalition partner Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica. The economy subsequently tanked, unemployment grew, there was rioting in the streets, and Estonia now faced cold, endless winters.
So Savisaar blames the ruling coalition for the high unemployment rate and the deep economic decline of the last few years. And who could argue with him? It’s true! Estonia does have high unemployment. Estonia has experienced an extreme economic slump. Of course, other countries have these phenomena too, his opponents point out. But little Estonia has the third highest unemployment rate in Europe. Gross domestic product meantime dropped 14 percent last year. The European Union on average saw a decline of 4 percent. Anyone who travels around Estonia can see that the money from the economic boom did not exactly trickle down to all. There are plenty of disgruntled have-nots in this country, and most of them can vote in parliamentary elections. So why not appeal to their interests?
Savisaar’s opponents fire back that they aren’t responsible for Estonia’s problems. Estonia’s paternalistic rulers instead argue that they are only responsible for the good in this land. As Prime Minister Andrus Ansip put it, his Reform Party has made Estonia what it is today. But the bad? Well, that’s like the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Some other superior force is behind the bad. Not the local politicians. I mean, without their foresight and wisdom, things could be much worse and when I say worse, I mean Latvia. Estonians owe their leaders everything, that lightning-quick wi-fi connection, that efficient online tax system, those gold medals our skiers won at the Olympic Games in 2006. But, wait a second, Center was in the coalition in 2006. Looks like Ansip and Savisaar will have to share the gold.
So you see, there are different narratives competing in Estonia. Flasher T, an Estonian blogger, has constructed his own, which is closer to Reform’s than to Center’s. In Flasher’s narrative, Estonia’s friends in high places secure it the green light for euro adoption next month, filling the sails of the ruling coalition with wind that will earn them the top slot in next year’s parliamentary elections. Since Eesti Pank director Andres Lipstok will be the point man for the currency change, Flasher hypothesizes that Ansip will retire to some sinecure in EU or NATO, while Lipstok becomes the flashy, new, attractive face of Reform’s 2011 ticket. And Flasher may be right. The Estonian media is undoubtedly slanted towards the ruling coalition: they are certain to make a hero out of Lipstok if that’s the way events shake out.
But they may not turn out that way. If American political discourse (and personal experience) has taught me anything, it’s that journalists tend to favor the winner. When the Center Party won the municipal elections last October, I noticed how the Estonian media suddenly went a little easier on the victorious party. And they have to go easy on them: you can’t interview politicians if they won’t speak to you, and if you can’t write your articles, then you are out of work. All journalists have to trade a little integrity for access, and that’s why if Savisaar does come out on top, and he is able to put a coalition together, the media spin might turn quickly in his favor. The Center Party’s narrative will prevail.
For some reason, the British parliamentary election of July 1945 comes to mind. Winston Churchill’s Conservatives were favored to win. Churchill had led the country through the war and enjoyed a certain hero status. With the war in Europe over, though, the British public turned their concern to employment, housing, social services, and they voted for Labour’s Clement Attlee instead. Of course, that’s an elementary school textbook’s version of events, but take it as an example of how fast the national mood can change, and how a prediction that would seem rather obvious — the Allies’ triumph in the war leading to Churchill’s certain reelection — was not fulfilled. Not to say that Savisaar is Estonia’s Attlee (the local Benny Hill jokes are often not off their mark) but don’t count on the “victory” of euro adoption translating to votes.
We will have to wait to see how Estonians vote next March. Either outcome will be interesting.