Tõnis Saarts: 30 years from the democratic turn – formula for success

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

To sum up the success of Estonia's democratic turn, the keywords of an economic model free from oligarchs, multiparty system, the Russian minority and the threatening nearness of Russia stand out, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Estonia celebrated the passing of 30 years from the restoration of independence a week ago. The fact the celebration is now behind us does nothing to discourage debate and asking wider questions. An intriguing example of the latter could be: "Why did Estonia do so well compared to many other post-communist states?"

And not just from an economic point of view but specifically political transition, building our democracy. Former delegate of the Supreme Council of Estonia Peet Kask emphasized at a recent conference of the August 20 Club that Estonia's restoration of independence was above all a turn toward democracy. A turn the results of which have proved lasting, unlike in many other post-communist countries that have shared the same history.

In other words, we should ask what we did differently compared to, for example, Hungary, Ukraine or Romania to have every think tank measuring the quality of democracy consistently rank Estonia among Western democracies?

Hungarian political scientists Balint Magyar and Balint Madlovic recently published a voluminous paper on types of post-communist regimes in which they point out that Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic are the only such countries where liberal democracy took root in the late 1990s and still persists. Being among the three most successful former socialist countries is not a bad result.

In order to understand this successful democratization, we need to look at less democratic alternatives the post-communist world has to offer and that could also have occurred in Estonia. Magyar and Madlovic propose an ample scale of regimes. They distinguish between conservative authoritarianism (modern Poland), patrimonial democracy (Latvia) and patrimonial authoritarianism (for example, Hungary).

Let us first look at one of the most widespread regime type in the post-communist world – patrimonial democracy that was characteristic of Estonia's Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania for some time.

Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Romania and many others currently serve as examples. Patrimonial democracy sports several characteristics of liberal democracy, such as free elections, media freedom, separation of powers, rule of law and protection of minorities, while all of it is overshadowed by a peculiarity: excessive power held by oligarchs. In other words, business and politics are so intertwined and corruption so extensive as to threaten normal functioning of democratic institutions.

How did Estonia manage to avoid the rise of oligarchs as virtually the only post-communist country to do so? The answer lies in the privatization reforms of the 1990s in which the process was transparent, convergence of economic power consciously avoided and foreign capital clearly preferred.

Why has Estonia not gone down Poland's path of conservative authoritarianism where a single conservative force holds the parliamentary majority and levers with which to control public media and constitutional review?

Our main difference compared to Poland is Estonia's rather fragmented multiparty system in which a single party taking over 50 percent of seats is very unlikely. We need to thank the authors of the Estonian Constitution for a proportional electoral system that makes it very difficult for a single party to monopolize state power.

Lastly, why hasn't Estonia followed in the footsteps of Viktor Orban and moved toward patrimonial authoritarianism like Hungary where abandoning liberal democracy has coincided with corruptive links between the economy and politics? Both aforementioned reasons apply: an oligarch-free economic model and preservation of the multiparty system.

However, there is a third factor that could be summed up simply as the "Russian issue." Fidesz came to power in Hungary for its ability to create alliances between different conservative social groups.

In Estonia, the creation of such a major conservative coalition is stuck behind the Russian minority whose political preferences are not likely to coincide with those of Estonian nationalists. What is more, Hungary's location means it does not have to worry as much about the Russian threat and can afford to contrast to the West. Estonia's geopolitical reality leaves us with considerably less choice.

To sum up the success of Estonia's democratic turn, the keywords of an economic model free from oligarchs, multiparty system, the Russian minority and the threatening nearness of Russia stand out. Of course, there have been other factors at play. While the relevant question today is whether we can retain the positive effects of the former two factors in the coming decades or whether we will gamble away our strengths without even realizing it?


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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