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Opinion: Estonia’s lasting isolation

Ceci n'est pas un coup d'état: Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas lost his coalition partners. He was not deposed
Ceci n'est pas un coup d'état: Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas lost his coalition partners. He was not deposed Source: (SIPA/Scanpix)

The fact that too many foreign journalists do not understand the Estonian language, and that they have no access to the local political culture and its players, has distorted reports abroad of what happened this week, writes ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

This week has shown that Estonia is still isolated.

It’s a reverse isolation of sorts: while Estonia has access to the whole world, the world has a much harder time accessing Estonia. The issue isn’t one of geography, or attitude — but one of language.

There are no more than a handful of publications in a language other than Estonian that inform people abroad about this country. Of those, only two provide regular and frequent news about current events in Estonia.

If someone from abroad needs information about any detail of social, political, or business life in this country, they usually have a very limited number of places where to find it, and a limited number of people to talk to.

This can have interesting effects.

A Center Party government, or the end of the world as we know it

Take this week’s reports in the foreign press about the impending change in government. Any reader of the New York Times, Die Zeit, or even more so any publication running AFP’s article on the topic will have thought that this country is on the verge of going to Eastern European, Russian-dominated hell.

They referred to a “pro-Western” government “teetering on the verge of collapse,” a “NATO-friendly” prime minister forced to resign, and a “pro-Russian” party about to take over.

Painting the Center Party as pro-Russian is out of touch with reality. Yes, they signed a cooperation protocol with United Russia. But so did the Finnish centrists, the party of that country’s current prime minister. We don’t see the foreign media express worry that Finland may get too close to Russia.

Language that would have made sense some 15 or 20 years ago, perhaps, but Estonia has been a member of NATO and the European Union since 2004. It’s a bit late for these labels.

Estonia is one of NATO’s few members who actually spend in excess of 2% of GDP on national defense, which means that even Donald Trump, if he sticks to statements he made during his campaign, would agree that it should be defended if attacked.

Estonia is a Western-minded country with Western-style politics

In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Estonia is on par with France, where the scaremongering AFP article was published, and ahead of quite a few other EU member states.

For most of the 25 years that have passed since Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, right-wing or center-right governments have been in power. There is a broad social consensus that Estonia belongs into the European Union, that it is a Western-minded country, and that NATO is its most important means of protection against its very large and very unpredictable neighbor in the East.

Yes, the Center Party has been very critical of previous governments. And yes, its former chairman, Edgar Savisaar, has always depended on the support of the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, which is one of the reasons why the Center Party has courted the Russian vote.

But that isn’t the only reason why Russians support the party. An important detail, and one that is obvious to anyone who follows Estonian politics, is that no other party has dealt with the particular issues and worries of that community to the extent the Center Party has done it.

Talking about Center criticizing governments made up of Reform and IRL, there is also the small detail that Savisaar and Ratas’ party has a very Western European idea of taxes. For years they have spoken out in favor of a progressive income tax, and a corporate gains tax, which would mean changing the Estonian system from the bottom up, as its current tax system has little to do with that of Germany, for example.

Over the past 25 years Estonia has become a very Western European place. Of course there are plenty of leftovers of the Soviet union and mindset, there is no denying that. But there is no danger that one of its parties would turn its politics upside down and change course to join Putin.

Actually, that is likely not what the foreign press would naturally assume either. But the problem is that the people who report about Estonia typically are at a disadvantage.

Can’t read an article in Postimees, writes ‘expertly’ about Estonia in a large British newspaper

I know of a single foreign news journalist in this country who speaks Estonian beyond the Intermediate or Upper Intermediate level. He is Finnish. Most others don't even make it to a point where they can read a newspaper article and understand what it says in detail. Those I know of who can, I can count on one hand. (Editor's comment: the Finnish media are the great exception, with several publications and journalists reporting news about Estonia on a regular basis.)

For most foreign journalists writing about Estonia, this means that while they are considered about as qualified in their opinion as it gets, they don’t have access to anything that would require a more highly developed understanding of the Estonian language.

And this is a problem. If you lack the language skills to read an Estonian text quickly, and if on top of that you are busy with a whole number of things and don’t get paid for in-depth research of the topic you are writing about, you cannot possibly get a good idea of what is going on here.

In the case of the journalist who wrote the AFP article, I would say we are talking about someone with a very superficial grasp of what is happening in Estonia’s day to day politics. In fact, I suspect this writer has a very limited understanding of Estonian history as well.

The other option of course is that it was written and submitted by someone interested in making things look worse than they are. Which brings us to the next point.

Big fish in a small pond: How to become an instant expert on Estonia

Whoever tells a story first controls it it. And the fewer people to tell a story there are, the more likely it is that the initial version becomes the most important one. This means for instance that if I wrote a newspaper article in German about the drawbacks of Estonia’s tax system, I would become an instant authority on the subject.

Plenty of foreigners’ understanding of what is happening here is seriously limited due to language. If journalists covering events in Estonia are located elsewhere and only occasionally stop by, there is even less understanding. Someone who parachutes in once every so many months couldn’t possibly know what is going on in detail, yet a lot of the writers who cover the Baltic states fit this description very accurately.

And as this is a small country on the Eastern fringe of the European Union, not too many people come here, which again means that the choice of local or informed journalists publications abroad can hire isn’t exactly stellar either.

The way the fall of Taavi Rõivas’ government was reported gives this away without a shadow of a doubt. If you live here and understand the language well enough, you know how absurd the notion is that Center Party chairman Jüri Ratas would turn Estonia away from NATO or the European Union. This is so obvious that it isn’t even an issue discussed in Estonia.

If you are well informed about what is going on in Estonian politics, you know that Ratas will face enormous difficulties holding on to the Russian vote, because he isn’t Savisaar, and because there will be limits to the concessions he is ready to make to the native Russian-speaking politicians (some of which absolutely are revisionists and Putin supporters).

And you know that Estonian politicians are a good deal more pragmatic than those in most Western countries: If they were not, you would hardly be witnessing a neoconservative party (IRL) negotiating a coalition with the center-left (Center and Social Democrats) while considering the inclusion of a far-right populist party (the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, or EKRE).

In short, Estonia is an EU country. Its politics have plenty more features of a typical Western European democracy than most foreign journalists seem to be aware.

How to make people more aware is another matter. Estonian officials promoting the country abroad have been terribly one-sided over the past decade. They have kept emphasizing the country’s achievements in the area of digitization and e-government more than anything else, and in quite a few ways created expectations that are now turning out to have been rather too high.

In everything else, Estonia is a blank page to most foreigners, often as not even to those who like it a lot, and introduce it to people abroad. And as information influences attitude, this may well turn out to be a problem in the future.

Editor: Editor: Aili Vahtla

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