Opinion digest: Closer to Warsaw, farther away from Estonia (2)
In a recent opinion piece in daily Postimees, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote that one way to look at Rail Baltic was as a step towards the level other countries had already reached in terms of speed and comfort of their railway connections. The main weakness of this point of view was the fact that in Estonia, it lacked the necessary social context.
Any railway found its justification in the places it connected, Lobjakas argued. High-speed trains between major cities made sense, and were a more typical feature of sparsely populated areas, with routes leading around or past settlements and other obstacles. Where settlements and such obstacles were a fact that couldn’t be avoided, there typically were no high-speed train connections either.
In that sense, Rail Baltic was a colossus that found its justification only outside the realm of everyday life in Estonia, an antiquated dream of a railway connection to Berlin, with a route to Warsaw paid for by the European Union.
The problem, according to Lobjakas, is the fact that there is little to no social context. In this sense, the project was similar to the development of phosphorite mining in Estonia in the 1980s, he wrote. Then as now, the powers that be explained the project as a manifestation of progress, and that trying to oppose such progress was irrational, as what was coming was indeed inevitable.
An example of the project’s lack of social context was the fact that nobody had any idea how many passengers the connection to Warsaw would be moving back and forth, Lobjakas pointed out. After all, railway construction was expensive, and the chance that it could ever compete with the prices of plane or bus tickets lightweight.
Also, there was no guarantee that the freight volumes needed to make the railway a sensible undertaking would ever manifest. Yes, Finland was interested, but to think that major freight volumes coming from elsewhere in the world would ever end up transported to Central Europe using Rail Baltic bordered on the absurd.
Adding to it all, Rail Baltic would cut the Estonian ecosystem in half, leading to genetic limitation and decay on its west side if appropriate wildlife crossings wouldn’t be built.
The questions that remained were what kind of a country had no greater worry than to make it to Warsaw as fast as possible — and, in contrast, what kind of country would rather want to have comfortable and lasting connections to places like Haapsalu, Pärnu, Narva, Tartu, and other smaller places.
Lobjakas made the point that similarly, one could ask what it was that seemed to be drawing Estonia towards supposedly Central European Poland, rather than towards the Nordic countries. Why did the EU’s billions have to be spent on a connection to Warsaw, and why not on the much-discussed tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn?
Instead of thinking about Estonia as a subject and resource for historic progress, it could be considered in terms of its peace and quiet, or how much of it was still left, Lobjakas wrote.
Bringing Warsaw closer meant increasing the distance between the people and their surroundings. In that sense, Rail Baltic wasn’t so different from the use of insecticides and herbicides, from the African swine fever, or from the current administrative reform: Not much was needed beyond a technological imperative to leave what was once close very far behind, and very quickly.
Which wasn’t sustainable in the bigger picture, and an effect of running things based on an Excel spreadsheet.
Ahto Lobjakas is a journalist and political analyst. He has hosted ERR’s Olukorrast Riigis (“State of the Nation”) radio magazine since 2015, and in the past worked for the Estonian Forein Policy Institute as well as Radio Free Europe. The opinion piece referred to here was published in Postimees on Oct. 10.