Jaak Aaviksoo: Self-igniting scandals and inflammable Estonia

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Party political patterns are not hard to spot in recent scandals, while society's general inflammability is down to more than just political competition, Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

Judging from the press, summer forest fires seem to be getting worse everywhere in the world. Tragic footage of the destruction of the ancient city of Lahaina on the paradise island of Maui serves as a testament to the devastation a random spark can cause if the surrounding environment is critically flammable.

But critical inflammability is characteristic not only of nature. The political landscape can also catch fire and quickly spiral out of control in the case of unfavorable developments. A telling example of this is the attack on the Capitol in the United States. Unfortunately, examples are creeping closer to home.

Let us glance over forest fires in Estonia and move on to the recent scandal – the spark of unacceptable methods used to conduct a demographics study has fallen on fertile political soil, and the ensuing flames will probably not die down until the politically motivated sides have exhausted every last opportunity provided by the scandal to further their interests.

But it is not the first such scandal this year. Another three cases at least fit the pattern. I would begin with the Liberal Citizen Foundation's (SALK) openhearted self-promotion that quickly escalated into a saga of meddling in elections and illicit political donations, and which hasn't really gone anywhere. The struggle to cancel persons and organizations backing certain worldviews rages on, with the watchdog (Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee – ed.) struggling to rustle up the votes it needs for a "fair and just" decision.

There is likely more to come in [EKRE MP] Jaak Valge's performance to draw attention to attempts to rehabilitate Stalinists, which turbulent political seas have seen channeled into a criminal investigation by the powers that be. Wielding Kafkaesque irony, it is described as "supporting or justifying acts of aggression, genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes." In whose interest this is being done probably requires no explanation.

The presidential office's funding drama also falls into this category where a conversation between two officials perceived as embarrassing has been turned, with the help of the sides themselves, into a corruption scandal bordering on a constitutional crisis. A Riigikogu select committee is convened and preparations are made to investigate past crimes based on a rhetorical slip-up by the prime minister.

Inspired by the Riigikogu State Budget Select Committee, the Constitutional Committee convenes to try and get to the bottom of the demographics study scandal. Apparently, constitutional order is threatened.

Party political patterns are not hard to spot in these scandals, while society's recent general inflammability is down to more than just political competition.

Gradually and a result of party propaganda, society has been split in two, largely following the current coalition-opposition divide, which also makes itself felt in the four scandals. In both camps, louder voices are radicalizing and increasingly treating the opposing side as the enemy from which Estonia needs to be delivered. No longer as a rhetorical device but rather expressis verbis. And a lot of people are willing to sincerely participate in the fight. Therein lies the inflammability.

This begs the question of why.

There are likely several reasons, while it seems a vital precondition of healthy democracy that things that societies aren't ready to accept should not be introduced even if one has the votes to do it. I picked up on the first such decision when the Registered Partnership Act was passed nine years ago. It has happened again since then, and the pattern seems set to continue.

The pressure put on society by such decisions destroys trust and understanding that normally helps us overcome different interests and replaces them with mere aspirations of power. Once that happens, anything goes in the pursuit of power, practical debates give way to rhetorical skirmishes, even sensible proposals are voted down and every scandal is turned into a weapon for the holy struggle.

While the practical aspects of recent scandals are largely clear by now – the dean's unacceptable behavior ignited the demographics study scandal, the [University of Tartu][ ethics committee will have to shape a position regarding the study's future and [the university's] research structure is functional – things are far less rosy when it comes to political inflammability.

Hopes that fall rains will help cool down the political landscape are slim. As players on both sides are still interested in escalating the confrontation, things are about to get even more inflammable, with sparks flying here and there.

The lion's share of society seems convinced that there will be a car tax, that even the president has been put in his place and the whole debate is little more than smoke and mirrors. We'll see.

The other flammable piece of draft legislation is the so-called hate speech law. It has not been convincingly shown which major problem the planned law is meant to fix in Estonian society, whereas the government seems to lack the will to explain the matter in Brussels. It seems that it is simply something that the coalition has decided, period. The way in which the aforementioned scandals have played out has also fueled fears that the law will be used to silence political opponents – even without sufficient evidence for a conviction, a solid complaint can be used to process matters until opponents lose all political relevance.

The Riigikogu speaker has promised to find a way out of the impasse. But if the desire to stop political climate change is sincere, it should perhaps first be considered whether to do it by force or whether it would pay to think about it first.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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