Leg cuffs and watercannons?

Matthias Kolb writes in Berliner Zeitung that having declared 2009 a year of innovation to defy the economic crisis, politically Estonia shows signs of “stagnation”:

Estland trotzt der Krise und hat 2009 zum Jahr der Innovationen ausgerufen. Politisch stehen die Zeichen auf Stagnation.

What exactly does that mean? In Estonia, “stagnation” is a term that is mostly used of Brezhnev’s rule in the Soviet Union: a time of slow decay when nothing much happened, there was no total terror of Stalin’s time but no signs of “perestroika” in sight either; it was a grey, dull era of slow and deepening Sovietization, with freedom and creativity still banned. More generally, “stagnation” or “stagnated” is used about any times of silence, decline and unfreedom or about people, places and situations that are boring and unispiring.

In a democracy, “stagnation” as a term referring to lack of change is tricky. When it comes to regime change, we could say “stagnation” in a democracy is a good thing, meaning that the democracy stays democracy and does not turn into something else. As Estonia is a liberal democracy now, we could sincerely hope that it will “stagnate” as such. But this is not how we habitually refer to continuity in democracy, so Mr. Kolb must have something else in mind.

Does he mean that not much is happening in Estonian politics? One could not really say that, after a recent government crisis, ongoing debates about how to deal with the economic crisis and EU elections that did not pass without surprises. The economic depression then? That is not a uniquely Estonian thing, and is not usually referred to as “stagnation”. Lack of political freedom? No hint of anything like that in that small liberal democracy with all kinds of political powers from conservatives to pure populists visibly represented in the public sphere and even quite weird movements active in its margins.

Well, here comes the answer – “Stagnation is symbolized” by the Freedom Monument opened in Tallinn on June 23 (“Symbol für die Stagnation: Das “Freiheitsdenkmal”, das am 23. Juni feierlich enthüllt wird.”).

OK, got it: Estonia is now “stagnated”, because after nearly 90 years, it finally raised a monument in its capital to visibly celebrate its freedom and independence (the War of Independence took place in 1918-1920, and the plans to raise the monument, have been there since 1922 and have been postponed for different reasons until now).

Kolb writes: “Das sogenannte Freiheitskreuz ist eine militärische Auszeichnung, die seit 1919 im Freiheitskrieg vergeben wurde. Viele Kritiker erinnert es an Eisernes Kreuz und Nazi-Symbolik.” (The so-called Freedom Cross is a military symbol that was used in the War of Liberty since 1919. It reminds many critics of the German Iron Cross and Nazi symbolism.)

The designers of the monument had chosen the Cross of Liberty to symbolize Estonia’s freedom as it was the original symbol of the War of Independence. Kolb does not say who are the “many” who see Nazi symbolism in this – as far as I know the only people making that comparison are the provocators for whom anything referring to free Estonia is a Nazi symbol; the same people who denounce Estonians as Nazis and Jews as global conspirators in the same breath. In fact, in 1919 there were not so many Nazis around in this part of the world.

Not everyone in Estonia likes the Monument’s traditional design, and there has been a lot of debate about it. One does not have to like it to be a “good Estonian”. However, as Estonia’s President noted in his speech at the unveiling of the Monument, we should not forget that it is only because the War of Independence was won that Estonians today do have the freedom to criticize their government and to “disagree with its choices, political or aesthetic”.

Somehow, that simple truth has escaped the professor of political science at Tallinn University, Raivo Vetik, who (if Matthias Kolb is interpreting him right) claims that “like in Russia, in Estonia they try to establish social cohesion and the right ideology with leg cuffs and water cannons”. (Wie in Russland versuche man in Estland, mit Fußeisen und Wasserwerfern “die Einheit der Gesellschaft und die richtige Weltanschauung einzuführen”.)

Really? Has professor Vetik been taken away in leg cuffs for saying that? Or at least dismissed from his University position, as happened with automatic certainty in the Soviet Union when an official said something in public that questioned the one and only “richtige Weltanschauung”? Even called in to a dusty office to “have a conversation”? Nope. In places where there really is no freedom of speech and opinion, one is immediately punished for complaining about the lack of that freedom in public (and even more so if one does it in foreign press). So the very fact that Mr. Vetik can say what he says and carry on with his daily business proves him wrong. As for the comparison with Russia – how many journalists and human rights lawyers have been killed in Estonia lately?

No water cannons in the streets either, although with summer temperatures hitting +30° C some people might think it would be fun to have them around.

Mr. Kolb does not offer us more explanations for his judgment about Estonia’s alleged “stagnation” than the existence of the new Freedom Monument whose design not everyone likes. It might have helped his case if he had been a little more careful spelling the names of the people he interviewed. One spelling mistake in a foreign name is human, but three names spelled wrong – Koresaar for Kõresaar, Poder for Põder and Avikso for Aaviksoo – give the reader a signal that maybe, just maybe the writer was not so terribly careful with his subject in general. Anyway, it takes a little more than a monument and a cross (and some cross people) to blame a young democracy for “political stagnation” and be taken seriously.

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One Response to Leg cuffs and watercannons?

  1. Abigail says:

    Often all it takes to inspire a story like this one is for a would-be writer to have friend or acquaintance with an axe to grind. In the west during Soviet times, Estonians had a reputation for being dissidents, freedom fighters and anti-communists. So on the strength of just being Estonian some people from Soviet-occupied Estonia were accepted, even welcomed at western institutions, in Congressional offices….Mikk Titma at the Hoover Institute, for instance. For some reason, Kalle V. Tenno was considered an expert source of info on what was happening in Estonia by Senator Bradley’s office, etc. And then the Estonian SSR nomenklatura began apearing on US TV reports on the period 1990-2, giving mixed and confusing messages about what the Estonians “really” want. Mati Hint assured American viewers that all Estonians care about is their culture, there is nothing political going on. So this German writer has his own biases and prejudices and very little real in depth information, but he does have a friend in Estonia who is eager to fill him in on the real scoop….

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