Estonia: Young democracy beset by scandals

4 September 2012 – Postimees (Tallinn)

Tallinn has been swept by a series of similar scandals. Politicians take their time responding, preferring to keep a low profile for fear of being caught up in their turn. In the meantime, the institutions that are meant to oversee checks and balances in Estonia are struggling to gain credibility and finding it hard to make progress.

It's been three months since the Silvergatescandal broke, so far without any repercussions. The protective shield of the Estonian political elite seems so impenetrable and their refusal to look at themselves in the mirror so tenacious that we needn’t be unduly surprised.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that this particular political upheaval has had no consequences: a number of politicians are being investigated by the justice system, and the Manichean conception of politics brandished by the ruling parties in their quest for legitimacy has lost its force. At the same time, the Commission on the Constitution of the Riigikogu [Estonia’s parliament] is awaiting proposals from civil society and experts before it amends the law on political parties.

Cartelisation of political life

However, none of this will be enough to counter the emergence of a phenomenon of ‘cartelisation’ in political life – in which political parties are increasingly coordinated in their bid to protect their interests. It is a phenomenon that has set in particularly swiftly in Central and Eastern Europe in countries with limited experience of democracy, and Estonia has emerged as a "shining example" of this trend.

One can understand the silence of our political elite, which has made certain forms of party financing a taboo subject which cannot be broached in political battles. At the end of the day, Silver Meikar’s real “offense", not only for his own party, Reformierakond (the Reform Party), but for the other parties as well, lies in having stepped over the line of this tacit agreement. Even the opposition parties, which are usually quick to exaggerate every little misstep of their colleagues in government, are keeping a low profile. Everyone knows that people in glass houses should not throw stones.

In the light of the Silvergate scandal, Estonia’s political parties increasingly resemble a club of conspirators whose members are too uneasy to raise potentially damaging issues in public. At the same time, the gradual merging of the parties with the structures of the state has added to the growing isolation of politics from Estonian society. In short, the political elite is increasingly living in a bubble.

No extraordinary capacity for analysis is needed to grasp the danger such a situation poses to democracy. Basically, we have arrived at a stage where if the four parties represented in Parliament decide to look out for their mutual interest, there is no other voice in Estonia that will be able to say "no" to them loudly and clearly.

Culture of abuse

Institutions like civil society and the media, which along with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, could exert pressure for change, have yet to succeed in breaking the law of silence. Civil society has grown somewhat stronger in recent years, but the culture of protest in Estonia is insufficiently developed, and the ruling parties are strong enough to hijack public initiatives. As a result, most of the country’s disillusioned and angry citizens have preferred to sit at home and complain.

Although the media have reacted strongly to this scandal, coverage has focused on identifying the guilty, and there has been no constructive debate. Indeed the culture of debate is beginning to disappear, ceding ground to a "culture of abuse” that undermines the effort to discuss and resolve issues in a balanced way that is respectful of others.

Finally, the president’s reaction has come as a surprise. He certainly did issue a warning, but one that was much milder than his reaction to another recent scandal (concerning the centrist Keskerakond) which was much less serious for Estonian democracy.

This is the big picture of Estonian society: the (social) institutions ranged against our cartel of political parties are currently incapable of forcing politicians to look in the mirror. The consequences for the country are sad. We have built a system that lacks sufficient checks and balances to control our democratic political parties. It is a system at risk of becoming completely self-enclosed and deaf to the voice of society to the point where any self-criticism is no longer possible.

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