Mari-Liis Jakobson: Street politics all the rage in Estonia

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Mari-Liis Jakobson. Source: Private collection

Mari-Liis Jakobson compares recent protests with past examples in Vikerraadio's daily comment. While Estonians have traditionally been slow to protest, some parallels can be drawn, she finds.

Things are happening again. The air is thick with tension and social media full of emotionally riled up men and women some of whom have spent a week protesting. Just as various social debates have done in the past, coronavirus restrictions and planned amendments to the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) have split people.

One side finds that while Covid restrictions are burdensome, they are justified, as are amendments necessary for more successful monitoring and control of the pandemic. The other feels measures are insufferable and unjustified and distrust in public authority is mounting with every new step.

The need to pick a side raises another question. Namely, why are people who have been glorifying civil participation, including protests, suddenly shaking their heads. Are people really that small-minded?

The short answer is that, of course, people are small-minded! Social psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have described so-called fast and slow thinking. The former is an intuitive process of providing assessment where we classify different phenomena as good or bad, dangerous or safe, pleasant or unpleasant in an instant.

But people – especially educated people – also have the ability to think slow – collect information, weigh argumentation and analyze situations where the premise and the conclusion drawn by fast thinking do not align.

Let us undertake an exercise in slow thinking and compare current protests to past examples.

Estonians have traditionally been slow to protest but some parallels can be drawn. There have been earlier protests against attempts to expand the capacity of law enforcement organs. For example, back in 2008, when the May 8 Movement (8. Mai Liikumine) organized protest meetings and a mass mail campaign titled "No to a police state!"

People took to the streets to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in February of 2012 that in a way went on to fuel more universal anti-government protests under the title "Enough false policy!" (Aitab valelikust poliitikast) that fall.

Street politics has become far more fashionable since then, with people coming out both for and against the Registered Partnership Act, refugees, the UN migration pact, the previous ruling coalition and many other things.

Comparing the NETS protests to the ACTA meetings in 2012, a few more parallels emerge. Both were fueled by suspicions that law enforcement might end up dialing back individual freedoms.

It is also noteworthy that both events saw a rather multi-faceted turnout. While the ACTA protests were organized by activists of the Estonian Internet Community, people who turned up included a lot of colorful characters not all of whom might have been up to speed with the legal side of the dispute. More than a few turned up to protest against the ruling government more than any one change.

We are seeing the same thing now – many protesters seem to lack a clear understanding of what bill 347 SE is really about.

The company is versatile and ranges from those who simply do not like wearing a mask and want to return to work to professional protesters and different kinds of soothsayers. Like the Arab Spring a decade ago, when Islamists and liberals came together to protest the powers that were.

However, there are also notable differences

Firstly, those against NETS have been on a collision course with decision-makers from the first. In the case of ACTA protests, activists sought contact with the legislator, held meetings, explained risks and made various proposals before taking to the streets. This time, MPs were simply sent 800,000 identical letters out of the blue. While mass mail is a completely legal and legitimate form of participation, it usually serves as a last resort measure after functional dialogue has proved impossible.

The ACTA protests also came off more sincere as the organizers had a concrete political goal and refrained from bravado and handing out portfolios in the post-protest government.

Thirdly, staging mass protests in the conditions of a pandemic goes beyond making one's voice heard and also counts as civil disobedience as it directly counteracts with measures to contain the virus. The situation would have been different had the protesters kept their distance and gathered in groups of no more than ten.

However, much has also changed in the way of context. I believe the police's reaction in Estonia would have been much more modest had the U.S. Capitol not been attacked mere months ago.

And another change of context. The 2012 wave of protests was difficult to pin down in terms of concrete reasons people came out, other than to protest the general ruling culture, while today, people's desperation has a tangible and practical reason.

As concerns political culture, I believe the Riigikogu needs to be commended for taking a time-out with NETS amendments. Yes, the measures would have made it easier to monitor the virus and enforce existing rules, but deescalating the conflict is more important.

It would be naive to think the decision could convert people who lost faith in their country a long time ago, while it serves as an important indicator that public authority is responsive to the rest of us.

Like a good apartment association chairman who applies the brakes when a plan seems to be dividing the residents. While the old lady on five will still believe that her neighbor from six is trying to poison her and the real apartment association head has been abducted by aliens, the others can find a way to move forward in a civilized manner.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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