Tõnis Saarts: Two crises not that different

Political scientist Tõnis Saarts.
Political scientist Tõnis Saarts. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

In a situation where the Reform Party accuses the government of lacking a longer perspective today, we should recall the squirrels' own actions and rhetoric from the previous crisis, Tõnis Saarts notes in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Government politicians like to compare the current coronavirus-induced economic crisis to the financial crisis from the beginning of the decade. Conservative People's Party (EKRE) politicians especially love to emphasize that if the Reform Party chose the path of austerity that took a heavy toll on people's prosperity back then, current rulers are taking care of the people and handing out generous benefits to those in dire straits.

At the same time, to look at ruling politicians' behavior and messages in a crisis situation, one is rather overwhelmed by the sensation of deja vu – we have seen it all before. EKRE and Reform, Reform Party and Center Party – analyzing their crisis conduct, one quickly realizes that there's not much difference at all.

In other words, the syndromes Estonian politicians come down with in a crisis situation look rather similar. They are the "infallibility syndrome," "search for an in-house enemy syndrome," "experts know nothing syndrome" and the "short perspective syndrome."

Let us start with the "infallibility syndrome." Looking at successful parties and politicians in Estonia, they tend to have one thing in common – they all try to come across as strong leaders who are never wrong. That was the case for Reform's Andrus Ansip, Edgar Savisaar of the Center Party and now father and son Helme of EKRE. Jüri Ratas' Center Party seems to be on the same path, while it has not arrived yet…

Admitting that mistakes have been made seems to be a taboo for ruling politicians, especially in the conditions of crises. Just like Ansip refused to admit his government made several mistakes reacting to the financial crisis, especially towards the beginning, politicians in Jüri Ratas' government deny not always having been able to react adequately in the coronavirus crisis.

The "infallibility syndrome" ties into efforts to identify in-house enemies or rather enemies of the people in crisis situations. The Reform Party styled itself as the most pro-Estonian political party back in the day. Anyone who dared seriously criticize the government during the financial crisis or claim that budget cuts came at a very high social price and that different solutions could be considered was usually labeled "pro-Kremlin" or "wanting to turn Estonia into the next Greece."

EKRE Minister of Finance Martin Helme also seems to be battling some sort of mystical forces today who would apparently take tough austerity measures and push the people into poverty should they come to power. Just like Reform back in the day, EKRE have become the embodiment of "pro-Estonian policy" whose proposed crisis measures are infallible and can only be criticized by enemies of the nation state.

The front lines of these in-house enemies are often made up of experts. Let us recall Andrus Ansip's famous saying that "if this is a crisis, it is the kind of crisis I would like to live in." The words were uttered after economic experts warned the government during the early days of the financial crisis that recession in Europe could quickly reach Estonia.

While it is true Reform learned to listen to experts to some extent as the crisis progressed, it was done selectively and those who dared to disagree were publicly shamed. We can see the same tendency in Jüri Ratas' government. Even though expert knowledge is not ignored when combating the coronavirus, the economic side of crisis management seems to be set in stone and input from experts seen as superfluous.

Because expert knowledge that offers glimpses of the bigger picture is deemed inferior, it is little wonder that short-term considerations important rather in terms of the elections cycle take precedence in a crisis, while politicians tend to lose sight of long-term development.

In a situation where the Reform Party accuses the government of lacking a longer perspective today, we should recall the squirrels' (Reform Party mascot – ed.) own actions and rhetoric from the previous crisis.

Experts grew tired of saying that "a good crisis should not be allowed to go to waste," and that Estonia should keep moving up the value chain and the government contribute to innovative policies. Members of the Reform Party countered by saying that the neoliberal model based on little state intervention and cheap labor has served Estonia well and that a shift was not necessary.

Reform only changed its tune once the crisis was over and talk of fine-tuning started to sound downright embarrassing. Once more, this is not that different from the current government for which debating the great challenges of the 21st century and vision-based planning are not exactly strong suits.

The picture we're left with when observing Estonian politicians in a crisis situation is nothing short of scary: infallibility, fighting phantoms, ignoring experts and a phenomenal knack for "wasting a good crisis" instead of hitching it to the buggy of long-term development.

What is even scarier is that the Estonian voter tends to reward politicians exhibiting such conduct at elections, as could be seen in the Reform Party's 2011 result.

The current crisis is just beginning and perhaps everything will be different and better this time? However, there doesn't seem to be much hope as a beaten path is always easier to follow than it is to blaze a new trail.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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