What the papers say: Christmas trees and school principals

Estonian newspapers (photo is illustrative).
Estonian newspapers (photo is illustrative). Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Fallout from last week's firing of an Ida-Viru County school principal, the views of the Taltech whistleblower who first brought to light potential EU funding misuse at its Ragnar Nurkse Institute of Governance (RNI), and a variety of different Christmas trees have been in Estonia's daily newspapers and news portals on Monday, Dec. 9. All links in Estonian.

Secondary school principal sacking a political act

Regional daily Põhjarannik has digested reaction to the sacking of a secondary school principal in Kiviõli, Ida-Viru County, last week, finding unanimity in claims that it had been political jousting which ended up dragging a school into issues and removed a popular and successful head teacher, Heidi Uustalu.

The piece, by Erik Gamzejev, notes that daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) finds the decision, made by the alliance of Centre and Isamaa on the municipal council, foolish, with the rural municipality mayor Viktor Rauam being hysterical and acting as if Estonia was under attack again – referencing Edgar Savisaar's famous "Toompea is under attack" announcement in 1990 when the seat of the Estonian parliament was rushed by pro-Kremlin demonstrators – whereas it is simply power plays ahead of the 2021 local elections which is happening.

Daily Õhtuleht echoed the EPL comments, noting that the ruling coalition seems paranoid that some sort of Reform Party-supporting student body is trying to overthrow it and likening the behavior to former rural affairs minister Mart Järvik's claims of finding his office bugged, whereas the "listening device" turned out to be a simple WiFi signal booster.

The paper also notes that since the voting age in local elections in Estonia is 16, many of those at the school can already vote, with the oldest, at age 18, legally being adults, meaning their views should not be totally discounted either – even as this has happened at schools several times, most recently at the Viimsi secondary school, where the principal was fired only to be reinstated again, an event which led to the resignation of municipal mayor Laine Randjärv (Reform).

ERR's own Toomas Sildam also found the situation to be political, according to Põhjarannik, and indicative of an unpleasant atmosphere at the school where many teachers, let alone students, feel undervalued; Sildam also points out that Centre's misjudgment in the importance of the Estonian-language upper secondary school at nearby (to Kiviõli) Kohtla-Järve contributed to costing them the general election in March, adding they now seem to be making the same mistake once again.

Taltech whistleblower doesn't regret actions

Daily Postimees looks at the case of Keegan McBride, a 26-year-old U.S. national who acted as a whistleblower on alleged EU funding misuse at the Ragnar Nurkse Institute of Governance, part of Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) and McBride's former workplace.

McBride had taken his story to the paper in late summer after nothing appeared to be done about his concerns, which he had raised with the university's hierarchy in March.

While Taltech now seems to be pointing the finger at McBride, the latter says he does not regret his actions given it was a matter of conscience, and notes the many instances of positive feedback he gets over his actions, from the hairdresser, to service staff in cafes and stores, taxi drivers etc.

The paper also notes what it calls the infancy of whistleblowing as a concept in Estonia.

Wants apology

A piece in news portal Delfi late last week had given McBride's side of the story further, noting that he feels he has been publicly and little short of brutally defamed and attacked.

Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo, one of the people McBride raised his original concerns with, relating to alleged misused funds and incomplete time sheets regarding a specific RNI project, said in November that while the episode had been a teachable moment for the university, he was deeply disappointed that following his original, sincere, actions, McBride had then not cooperated with the university's own internal audit committee.

McBride says claims he was disloyal to his employer and had refused to cooperate, claims which found there way, in both Estonian and English, to the media, social media, and Taltech internal communications, but had no substance, since, McBride said, he offered to hand over all materials at his meeting with Aaviksoo in mid-March but the latter said at the time he did not want the materials, but is now claiming this information, including project names and details of alleged funding misuse, had not been presented by McBride.

McBride says the continued inaction led to him approaching Postimees, with the first article appearing on Aug. 22, followed by a meeting with Renno Veinthal, chair of the inquiry committee, who McBride offered all the relevant materials too on a memory stick; McBride says he remained in constant contact with the committee, with another meeting, this time with committee member Jaan Raik, being canceled the night before it was due, at the committee's orders.

Further attempts at cooperation and approaches were similarly rebuffed, McBride says, noting over 25 incorrect statements in the inquiry committee's eventual report, including presenting witness statements as if they were the university's own research gathering.

McBride says that his going public was a demonstration of his loyalty to Taltech and the RNI, and forced only by the rector's seeming inaction, and feels vindicated by shortcomings the Taltech internal report presented, including the fact that it is still potentially the subject of investigations by both the prosecutor's office and the European Commission, and maintains his original line, as well as a desire that the university apologize to him.

Christmas trees of all kinds

Christmas trees continue to pop up aplenty across Estonia.

Regional daily Tartu Postimees visited the offerings at Alatskivi (Peipsiääre parish), Kõrveküla (Tartu parish), Nõo, Elva, Ülenurme (Kambja parish), Luunja and Kurepalu in Kastre municipality. In most cases, the trees are left in situ year round, with the Christmas lights switched on at the beginning of advent.

The town of Rakvere in Lääne-Viru County is, according to regional daily Viru teataja, continuing its tradition of having unusual trees each Christmas – this year the town has opted for an actual tree, but as the accompanying gallery shows, some previous years' "trees" have actually art installations by urban artist Teet Suur.

Tori community hall in Pärnu County has opted for recycling materials to decorate its trees, which are indoors, regional daily Pärnu Postimees reports.

Plastic cups, toys, sheet music, lace curtains and necklaces are some of the materials which have been used, and sometimes reused from previous years, and are all brought from home.

The intention is to judge the entries – there are seven of them – and pick a winner.

Saaremaa hails its volunteer defenders

Meanwhile on the island Saaremaa, the most outstanding members of the four volunteer-based defense organizations, the Women's voluntary defence organization (Naiskodukaitse), the Young Eagles (Noored Kotkad), the Home Daughters (Kodutütred) and the Defence League (Kaitsellit) were announced, according to regional daily Saarte Hääl.

The event, held at the Lümanda Cultural Center in the west of the island on Friday, also marked the 101st anniversary of the formation of the Defence League's Saaremaa Brigade, and the 94th anniversary of Naiskodukaitse.

Saaremaa district Naiskodukaitse member of the year for 2019 was Raili Nõgu, Kodutütred leader of the year was Merle Kivi, with the organization's member of the year being Kristi Tuuling.

Taavi Tuisk was nominated as Noored Kotkad youth leader of the year, and young eagle of the year was Mark Lokgs, with Kaitseliit member of the year being Kalle Tiits.

Postimees, Pärnu Postimees, Tartu Postimees, Saarte Hääl, Viru Teataja and Põhjarannik are all part of Postimees Grupp, one of the two major commercial media companies in Estonia. Delfi and Eesti Päevaleht are part of Ekspress Meedia, the other major media company, which also publishes weeklies Eesti Ekspress and Maaleht. Õhtuleht is co-owned by Ekspress Meedia and holding company Alexela. Business daily Äripäev (not quoted here) is owned by Swedish media firm Bonnier.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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