The term “austerity” has emerged as an increasingly common word in Estonian, just as it is in English — Merriam-Webster even declared it one of its words for the year in 2011. In Estonian, the word “austerity” has a grey cast and an odour of poverty to it. Somewhere deep down, we associate it with the novel Purge by Sofi Oksanen [a Finnish novelist born to an Estonian mother].
But if we were to adopt a more positive view of austerity, we could make it Estonia’s very own Noka: after all, this is a key concept in our cultural and religious approach to the world, which is also a feature of our daily lives.
In Estonian literature, the “industrious, temperate and docile” Tuuli Botik, a character in Mihkel Mutt’s short story The Sources of Life, is renowned for her austerity. However, the practice of austerity, as opposed to talking about it, can be tedious.
How do Estonians practice austerity? The young girls go to London to work as waitresses. They earn a decent wages, but choose to live like mice, three to a tiny room. The men, who go to work on the buildings in Finland, bring their provisions for the week with them – sausage, cheese, cartons of soup and cans of beer – and leave nothing behind them apart from rubbish and a bad smell. When the symphony orchestra gives a concert abroad, the musicians bring bags of sandwiches, so they can spend their pocket money on books. Austerity is strict.
Austerity propelled our president into the global media
However, austerity can also be beneficial. The Estonian state has pledged to help needy (read: extravagant) EU member states with €1.3 billion of taxpayers money that will be handed over to the European Stability Mechanism. According to the ERR [the Estonian national broadcaster] website, “The special rate for this contribution takes into account our poverty and will be re-evaluated in 2023”, which means that if we didn’t live so thriftily, it would have been even worse.
President Toomas Endrick Ilves lashed out at American columnist Paul Krugman for his failure to sufficiently praise the Estonian economy. To save money, he sent the message via his Twitter account. Thereafter, Ilves was interviewed on the subject of austerity by the renowned CNN journalist Fareed Zakari. Austerity propelled our president into the global media, and this is to be expected, because the people who talk most about austerity are often the ones who earn the most either in Europe or in their country.
Let’s just say that austerity is a state of mental and physical health that is well-known to Estonians, and one that we have lived with throughout history. Now that the economic crisis has put paid to its project, launched in 2005, to make Estonia one of Europe’s richest countries, the Reform Party appears to have chosen an alternative objective – to feature in the ranking of the most austere countries in Europe, before setting its sights on being the most austere country in the world. Clearly, this is a very interesting goal for our political elite who want to avoid boredom while they govern Estonia.