Raul Rebane: Prime minister and February 24 ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Raul Rebane.
Raul Rebane. Source: Ülo Josing/ERR

Raul Rebane analyzes Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' decision not to attend the president's February 24 reception, saying that the step might prove much more significant than believed.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' decision not to attend the president's Anniversary of the Republic reception had nothing to do with scheduling, nor was it an emotional spur of the moment call. It was another message splitting society. The Helme family and a part of Isamaa support it, while most people are against it, as was the case regarding many things last year.

I also believe the premier's decision to be a mistake for at least three reasons.

First of all

The Anniversary of the Republic could be left out of political tactical games. February 24 is an important part of the national ritual system, perhaps its most important part. It is very important for a lot of people, with thousands attending different events and around 700,000 people taking part via television broadcasts – the majority of Estonians.

People like rituals, they are highly anticipated as ways to raise spirits and improve moods. Past actions of presidents, the people, political and cultural leaders have given us a functional scheme for celebrations and red-letter days.

What is more, such events form a pillar of our identity that separates our people from strangers, determines what sets us apart. Things like that need to be cherished.

The prime minister is a crucial part of this identity structure because of the moniker "prime" that starts his title. A rank and file politician deciding not to play with the others largely goes unnoticed, which is not something we can say when it comes to the premier.

It remains unclear what the decision aims to achieve. Is it to have the people say that [President] Kersti Kaljulaid is bad? Some will, no doubt, while most won't. It is not about Kaljulaid but the republic's birthday, and people are defending our feeling of unity, not the president.

Dragging the anniversary of the country down to the level of party or personal tactics is not right. There are a thousand other ways and 364 other days for that.

Secondly

The prime minister has cast his lot with a poor image group. Both Edgar Savisaar and the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) have tried to start their own rituals, media and other paraphernalia over the years.

Both have also beaten Ratas to the punch. They gave up celebrating February 24 together earlier and hold the priority. The prime minister merely joined their initiative that effectively makes him a follower. Not good for a prime minister.

Savisaar's attempts to drive a wedge between parts of society did not benefit his image, nor does EKRE represent a majority by any stretch of the imagination. Tying oneself to Savisaar's image and strategies is not a good policy, while it has become virtually impossible to prove now that there is no fundamental similarity between steps taken by Ratas and Savisaar.

Thirdly

It would have paid to give the matter more thought as the move could affect the prime minister's own future. Perhaps Ratas himself and others have thought that he would make a good president one day.

That good feeling has now passed at least for the time being after Ratas made insignificant an event the great symbolic significance of which he would have to defend as president. To hope that his political opponents and the people will not remind him of this down the line would be naive.

We are left with the question of whether the PM has allowed himself to be led into the penalty zone where mistakes are easy to make. Why?

The answer is probably that as the political sun began to shine from a different angle for Ratas in March, the shadows moved with it. The president is probably on the dark side of that sun. A clear value conflict is visible between the two. It almost seems that two identity models have collided.

The PM has now positioned himself with those looking for alternative ways of celebrating February 24. There aren't many. Savisaar's attempts are history now, just as no one remembers as heroes the group of people who decided to drive to Latvia to protest high booze prices on the 100th anniversary of their country. If the action was meant as a joke, it succeeded. Less so if it wasn't.

We are left with EKRE's torchlight procession, also constructing a parallel imagological system. Things are truly absurd here as the initiative belongs to a party that is protesting against the elite while ruling the country as that very elite! One would be hard-pressed indeed to come up with something more peculiar.

Until recently, Jüri Ratas managed to balance on the knife edge between the two value systems by employing his tactical mastery. We can no longer be sure as not attending the reception is clearly picking a side and equals morally participating in EKRE events.

In summary

There is still time to rethink it. However, if this step leads to the weakening of national ritual structure and sends national identity crumbling, things are bad indeed.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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