University of Tartu Professor Emeritus Marju Lauristin (Social Democratic Party) told ERR in an end of the year interview that it is still hard to say how thoroughly the coronavirus crisis has changed Estonia, while the state of society could be described as moleculization. Lauristin described as worrying the trend where intellectuals are criticized for becoming alienated from the people in a situation where political parties have privatized the country.
Did the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) leaving the government deliver social stabilization as anticipated? Or did fears outweigh reality?
EKRE's stay in the government seems like ancient history today.
In reality, it is the coronavirus experience that has changed society the most. Had EKRE continued in the government, it is possible they would have calmed down themselves because ruling during the coronavirus period is no lemonade party, as members of the party like to put it. I believe it would have also rendered their administrative style more balanced.
Whatever the case, we are living in a different reality today.
Societies and people usually mobilize in critical situations to overcome hardship. Has the coronavirus crisis rather united the Estonian society or split it?
The coronavirus crisis differs from other political disruptions. Whether we're talking about wars, empires crumbling or our Singing Revolution where people really did have a common purpose.
The pandemic is a health crisis on the one hand, while it is an administrative crisis on the other. The healthcare crisis concerns every individual personally and could not possibly have the same effect as major political crises.
Society and the state have adopted the stance that everyone can and must cope by themselves. The crisis has not just resulted in a political divide, regarding which too much has been said already, but also constitutes fragmentation of society, a kind of moleculization.
And it is a problem. The reasons are also largely technological as we got stuck in our homes and communicated exclusively through screens and microphones. Every such bubble led to an even narrower inner world.
We used to go to work and attend all kinds of gatherings in the past, spend time together. We saw reality with our own eyes, people busying themselves around us. Covid caused the Estonian society to congeal. And it hardened to a point where it became fragmented and brittle, like crunching sea ice made up of frozen splinters.
We will see the extent to which society will have changed once the coronavirus era ends and whether separation will be followed by the joy of finding one another again. Because the deficit of spending time together is great, I hope the joy of being reunited will be too. Perhaps it will unite us to a greater degree than the current isolation is alienating us.
You said that the state has emphasized individual responsibility in the coronavirus crisis. Was it wrong? Perhaps the focus should rather have been on overcoming it together?
It was there too. A society needs a very strong "us" feeling to be able to work together. That feeling was adamant in Estonian society some 25 years ago. But it had taken quite a few hits even before this crisis began. We often saw attempts to appeal to that unity fall on deaf ears.
Looking at the extremely individualistic American society, we see there is another side to it. Individual responsibility and potential are greatly emphasized. At the same time, we see a robust and functional state that takes matters into its own hands when necessary and provides a strong framework.
Action is taken as a community in the States and as individuals who act inside that framework, sometimes protesting but nevertheless respecting these bounds. It is like a framework full of bouncing balls – the structure is always there.
The problem in Estonia is that the Reform Party's market liberal ideology prescribed individual responsibility. For example, the consumer being responsible if they end up with poisoning. However, we have not managed to shape a state structure to keep the splintering society from falling apart.
In other words, we do not know in December of 2021 who or what will reunite the fragmented Estonian society?
It will not be a who, I believe. It will be what. A society is glued together by culture, a shared mentality, convictions and values, irrespective of whether we are talking about American, Estonian, German or Finnish society.
It remains unclear today how the crisis period has affected our perception of values.
I have kept an interested eye on developments. As an optimist, I would like to hope the coronavirus period has given us a lot more time for ourselves. That people have discovered themselves and their loved ones. That parents have discovered their children and vice versa. People have discovered their abilities and values. We talk a lot about the green turn. The latter requires consumer behavior to change. Covid showed us all the superfluous things we have – excessive obligations and trips. We have broken free of the superfluous, there has occurred a kind of clarification and self-cleansing.
Such crises also highlight foam and meanness that rise to the top. But we should not let them mislead us. It seems to me that the public space and media have held the door wide open to all that foam for too long. I believe we should rather look at the clear part of the derivative.
You said that we are discovering ourselves, the people around us in this crisis. Has the ability to understand people improved in Estonia? Rather, one would suggest the opposite is true, looking at social media.
I believe that mutual understanding is largely in the future still. You cannot know others until you know yourself, as people are fond of saying. We have spent a long time as if directing ourselves for a play called life and looking at others through that same theatrical prism. Now, we were forced to look at ourselves in the mirror of reality, without our makeup on. Getting to know oneself without makeup and others without makeup will help foster mutual understanding in the end.
It seems to me that the crisis shed light on another split that was perhaps noticed less often in the past. Educated and well-to-do people simply failing to understand those who have trouble coping. Some political scientists have described it as the emergence of an intellectual aristocracy that does not understand the plebs and holds it in contempt. One ready example is a part of society failing to keep up with digital solutions that is leaving it increasingly disadvantaged.
Your example definitely is a problem but it is one that can be solved. However, reading political scientists who suggest the divide is widest between the educated elite and the so-called ordinary people saddens me.
We used to host Russian intellectuals from Moscow or Leningrad back in Soviet days and they were always fascinated over the lack of conflict between the intelligentsia and the people. This conflict is very much characteristic to Russian society, looking if only at the classics where scholars are often referred to as unnecessary people. There has been none of that in our culture.
Let us look back in history, almost every family made efforts to put at least one son through university. The intellectual was and remains a family member. It seems to me that this kind of artificial conflict has largely been ideologically imported.
This conflict is used by parties like EKRE all over the world. We have seen the vilification of the educated elite in all totalitarian systems. For example, Hitler's Germany where an intellectual was equated to a Jew. Going after the learned has always accompanied totalitarian politics.
And it greatly saddens me when I see our public debate and media pick it up as something new and exciting – a problem between the intellectuals and the people. The former tend to be more worried about what will become of Estonia and what is happening to the Estonian people.
On the other hand – is society fragmented? Definitely, while this fragmentation is not one-dimensional.
One of those dimensions is indeed the ability to navigate high tech. We have several studies to suggest a completely new pattern of stratification. Whereas there are people who are counted among the learned but remain highly skeptical of technological development. I am immediately reminded of Lauri Leesi, former head of the French Lyceum, who has actively spoken out against using computers in the field of education, and he is far from being alone.
And it does worry me that more and more public services, including state ones, are moved online on the assumption that everyone can access them. The fact that roughly a third of people cannot or is reluctant to seize opportunities offered by the internet is ignored.
It is a major problem. These skills can be learned and obtained. For example, banks organized trainings for pensioners when paying one's utility bills moved online. However, we must always consider that not everyone might want a digital service and there must always be an alternative. And it shouldn't contribute to stratification.
We are often told that it would be too expensive. For example, when high-speed broadband fails to reach all corners so people could work from home and the state says it's too expensive. I believe that nothing with the potential of reducing inequality in what is a complicated situation should be considered too expensive. The state must always be looking to improve such things, whether we're talking about broadband, public transport etc.
Did the coronavirus crisis reveal Estonia having become an officials' state over the last decade? The way responsibility for vaccination organization has dissipated serves as a good example.
I have an even worse premonition.
That Estonia has become a state of political parties. Our state apparatus is built in a way where individual parties decide what happens in different fields.
For example, the party gets to decide who becomes minister, with even the PM effectively unable to tell their coalition partner that the person is not up to the job and should be replaced!
It seems to me that political parties have privatized the Estonian state. We can see the government's helplessness or at least hesitation in handling the coronavirus crisis. The parties that form the coalition today are not exhibiting statesmanlike conduct, with party ego or fear of losing positions taking precedence.
Officials play a bigger role if only in that they absolutely must decide! They are in charge of specific things and it is a complicated and stressful environment for them. On the other hand, it leaves them feeling that if they don't make decisions, no one will.
Therefore, I do not think Estonia is an officials' state. I believe that the role of an educated state official who is an expert in their field should even be greater, while it also needs to be different.
It cannot be that of a machine or myrmidon. A public servant is the face of Estonia. Politicians do not represent the entire country, local government social workers do, and I believe that the problem is that officials have been rendered faceless. They are no longer visible as individuals and often lack the possibility to make decisions based on their preference or conscience for that matter. That standing up entails the risk of burning one's fingers.
The situation in Estonia today is very different from what I remember from the 1990s. The mindset back then was that a public servant acts as a link between the state and people and is responsible for people, for the state functioning.
However, I see that this responsibility has at worst been replaced by this almost Soviet fear of superiors today. People ask themselves whether their boss is happy with them. But their bosses are politicians – a very dangerous tendency.
You said that the Estonian state has been privatized by political parties. Isn't it another problem that parties' ability to government has suffered? The Center Party is among the top political forces in Estonia, while it was struggling to find ministers. A poor situation indeed if a party is hard-pressed to find ministerial candidates from among thousands of members.
An astute observation on your part that people in parties have given up on being statesmen due to hierarchies or other fears. I believe that people should become ministers or join the government if they perceive in it a creative challenge.
People who know the calling of making Estonia better or act in a creative capacity. Without that feeling, what could attract talented, capable and ambitious people to join public service? Salary is usually not what motivates people who fit that description.
The other side of this partyfication is that political forces are too focused on political technology and staying in power as opposed to developing the country.
Do I have it right that the voice of artists and scientists also lost some of its potency in Estonian society in 2021? Even though the coronavirus crisis put the latter in the spotlight more often.
I do not think the voice of scientists no longer carries. The coronavirus crisis demonstrated that politicians are also forced to ask scientists for advice when push comes to shove. Unfortunately, only medical professionals were approached, while decisions that had to be made concerned the economy and social affairs. Economists and social scientists could also have been heeded.
Poor vaccination progress was largely due to poor communication. But professionals were not consulted or asked to step in. It seems in this light that the government dares not engage in full dialogue with scientists. Perhaps this leaves the public with the impression that the voice of scientists does not carry.
The scientific community includes many young and active people who have studied abroad and would gladly offer social input, with younger scientists active on Facebook. I would say that, unfortunately, the voice of scientists has not been heard to its full extent.
As concerns culture and artists, we emphasize the preamble of the Constitution that tells us that the idea of the Estonian state is to ensure the development and survival of Estonian culture and language. But what is Estonian culture? And what is the point of the Estonian language?
This understanding of culture comes from the 1930s and is promoted as such by EKRE.
They claim that their purpose is to preserve the Estonian language and culture. I'm afraid that EKRE policy has rather done a left-handed favor to Estonian culture.
Estonian culture is in a pivotal stage in its development and presently living a highlight. I believe that the level of international recognition of our artists and creative persons has never been as high as it is today. Let us look at the success of our cinema, literature of theater on the international arena. More broadly, our perception of nature and cultural environment are in the spotlight – we are no longer the province of provinces in Europe.
At the same time, we lack respect and understanding for the role of culture on the level of public opinion and politics. This is in part the work of EKRE and their disservice. Cultural institutions have suffered and continue to suffer under coronavirus restrictions. While we are told that culture is the leisure and entertainment sector.
Culture is the spirit on which Estonia endures, without which there really is no point to Estonia. And culture goes beyond the works of Estonians by birth and language. Let us take the Estonian National Opera ballet that is in an exciting stage of development because it has new stars from very different places.
I am not usually a fan of superstar shows, while I watched it this year and saw that Narva girl, Alika Milova. There was a general air of warmth and love for her. It was a turning point for me in that such things are now possible here.
Therefore, Estonian culture is living in exciting times, while the Riigikogu only took a formal and lukewarm interest in the list of cultural structures of national importance. They are supposed to be the landmarks of Estonian culture or its temples and the people should have been treated to a discussion on their broader significance.
Filing all of Estonian culture under entertainment and leisure time is extremely regrettable. Looking at our cultural magazines Sirp, Vikerkaar or Looming, they are hosting some of the most interesting social debates today. But the latter do not reach the wider public because very few people read the aforementioned publications. While television and radio programs cover works and authors, the process of giving meaning to society through culture is missing from public view. There is a wall separating people from the ideas culture generates.
And this is where what we discussed toward the start of the interview comes into play. The misconception that culture is meant for the elite and something that uses incomprehensible words to discuss abstract ideas that "the people" do not need in the first place. In truth, we can often spot ideas that shape the agenda of tomorrow first in cultural debates. People need to be able to see and hear about those debates. After all, artists have been opinion leaders in Estonia since the days of national awakening. This is work the media has not done. It seems to me that the fact people of culture and scientists are seldom noticed is down to the media and not wind direction.
It would be difficult for me to argue. Let us hope that ERR's initiative of boosting the relative importance of culture at least on our platforms will bear fruit. I know that debate shows and the desire to delve deep exist in the organization. Thank you for this rather lengthy interview!
Could I leave the listeners and readers with something?
I wish people would look at themselves with a happier face in the new year. And then at each other. May we continue to take life in Estonia forward actively and optimistically!
Editor: Marcus Turovski