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Marju Lauristin: Dismantling trust in society will leave no one unharmed

Marju Lauristin.
Marju Lauristin. Source: Grete Isabel Huik

A successful economy as well as national and social coping rely on trust, while conscious attempts to undermine that trust, which we have recently seen, will harm everyone instead of just individual parties or their voters, social scientist and politician Marju Lauristin tells ERR in an interview.

The inspiration for this interview is from last week when you spoke about a soon-to-be-finished integration study about people who live in Estonia but do not speak Estonian at a conference in Pärnu. About how they go about their lives in Estonia, who they identify as and how they affect us all.

The last two years have been quite pivotal for the people who fit that description as many changes that were previously postponed or held back have happened in the last 18 months. The most striking is perhaps the removal of Soviet monuments from public places, while Estonia's expedited switch to teaching only in Estonian has a much greater effect.

Please describe how our non-ethnic Estonian fellow compatriots feel in Estonia? I suppose it's too soon to talk about numbers.

Yes, it is too soon to talk about numbers because the analysis is not complete yet. We will hand over the integration study, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, by Christmas. Therefore, we cannot yet talk about final conclusions or figures. But many aspects have been clear for some time as we have been doing these studies for over 20 years.

Some things are outlined more clearly in the current situation and some processes are accelerating. Generally speaking, the war in Ukraine has left our Russian-speakers facing a choice, and while some had made their choice before, things have become clear also for those who hadn't.

Should the border crossing in Narva be closed, people need to realize that they will need to live in Estonia, understand where they are – whether in the West or East. And it goes beyond a choice between Estonia and Russia. It is a fundamental choice the principled nature of which has been clearly defined by Vladimir Putin who has said all along that he is at war with all of the West.

There are quite a lot of Russian-speakers in Estonia who plotted a Western, Estonian and pro-Estonian course some time ago. Their relative importance has been growing steadily, and looking at the younger generation – people younger than 30 – I would dare say a quarter of them can be referred to as new Estonians (uus-eestlased).

When we work or come into contact with someone like that, we often do not notice their name at all because they speak beautiful Estonian and are indistinguishable also in terms of their attitudes and behavior. And yet we cannot say they have been assimilated as they've not given up their mother tongue. Many of them filled out their forms in Russian, as we offer forms in both languages.

But looking at the heart of things, how they live and their attitudes toward war, they are indistinguishable from those of Estonians.

There is another group long since known to sociologists and one that clashes with the media's perception of a divide running along the language barrier. We gasp at still having people who speak Russian in Narva and other parts of Ida-Viru County. Of course they do – it's their mother tongue and everyone likes to speak their first language even over foreign languages they know well.

But looking at past studies, the results of which have only been confirmed recently, there is a group that we have referred to among ourselves as Russian-speaking Estonian patriots.

They are usually older people with no one with whom they could speak Estonian in Ida-Viru County, but what sets them apart is that they really are vey pro-Estonia, they feel a close connection to Estonia, feel proud when they see the Estonian flag (we have a separate question about that) and tend to agree with those who want Ukraine to win the war which they largely see as Russian aggression. They are also politically loyal, turn out to vote and feel just fine in Estonian society.

We often debate the need for Russian radio and television channels in Estonia, while radio stations, Russian Delfi etc. matter a great deal to these elderly Estonian loyalists.

There has also been a major change in that while Russian networks used to be the first choice of a considerable part of the Russian-speaking population, the trustworthiness and ratings of Estonian channels in Russian have seen a considerable boost. That is a very positive development!

On the other hand, the pro-Soviet people are still very much there. They are usually older people, with limited outside contacts, who are politically passive and are quietly living their lives. Many are retired, while others still work for major factories or used to be miners etc. and it is psychologically difficult for them to keep up with digital and other trends. They've been spending their time watching old Soviet movies and are difficult to engage since they do not associate with Estonians.

The two former groups have relatively close links to Estonians, while they [the third] live in their own world and are highly vulnerable to all manner of economic troubles. That makes them easy pray for provocateurs – people who are really struggling to put food on the table tend to be angry.

We can see the same thing with Estonians – people are angry.

There are also two groups we might refer to as surprises. Talking about people who voted for the Koos/Vmeste movement in Narva or who determine the mentality of the rulers of Narva and suggesting we need to watch out for Russian citizens – I hate to break it to you, but they are predominantly Estonian citizens who are disappointed, critical and cross. We all know Mihhail Stalnuhhin who is a perfect embodiment of this. It is not a matter of language proficiency or citizenship and is rather purely a matter of how people feel about what is happening in the country. And it is little wonder many in this group are beginning to gravitate toward the Conservative People's Party (EKRE).

Finally, there is the group that is perhaps most motivated to side with Estonia because of the new situation – the border being closed. They are younger people who are active in business but whose ventures have largely been on the Russian side, which has motivated them to hold on to their stateless status or Russian passport but who are now finding it useless. They are more interested in personal benefit rather than any mentality. They rather face West because they are pragmatic business people. They are rather passive politically and care little for where things are headed, while they want to improve their personal lot in life and make sure their business keeps booming. I believe the war-time choice will send them West rather than East.

In summary, as has always been the case, the Russian population is divided and differentiated. But the tilt is rather toward Estonia and the West than pro-Russian sentiment.

I was about to say that it sounds like there is no homogenous mass of Russian people in Estonia if I'm permitted to use a crass expression.

Nor is there an Estonian one. We also cannot say Estonians are homogeneous.

Exactly. It is often said in debates that we have a very versatile social landscape on the Estonian side of things, while the Russians all tend to think the same way, while in reality they never have and increasingly don't.

Especially now. If we compare how Estonian and Russian respondents answered the same set of question, the distribution of answers is very similar.

Did you give people the choice of which language to use?

Yes.

What was the outcome? How many of those we define as Russian-speaking opted for Estonian? That would be quite an interesting indicator.

Around 10 percent.

It's intriguing in that we would like to have more compatriots of the former type whom we can't really call Russian-speakers, Russians or aliens anymore.

How could we call them Estonia's Russians or Russian Estonians when a group is forming whom I would indeed call new Estonians.

Because how should we separate them from other Estonians – how many generations before we draw the line? I believe we have a social contract in that a person who shares our cultural experience, speaks Estonian or simply wants to speak Estonian is Estonian.

This again leads us to the divide between political choices and language. Allow me to return to Stalnuhhin who is an Estonian teacher, has written Estonian textbooks and is an Estonian citizen, while he is also a leader of the Koos/Vmeste movement (Stalnuhhin is not actually a member of Koos/Vmeste and ran in the last general election as an independent candidate – ed.).

Just as political polarization has become a lot more pronounced among Estonians – from EKRE to the Reform Party – it is the same story for Russian-speakers. But surprise-surprise, Russian-speaking radical conservatives who are pro-Putin are more likely to vote for EKRE than for the Center Party, if they turn out to vote at all.

EKRE did not do all that well among Russian-speakers at recent elections if we look at the numbers, but what the polls do reveal is that times when 70-80 percent of Russian-speakers used to vote for Center seem to be long gone. Rather, it is around 45-50 percent today and most parties, with the exception of Isamaa, have seen more Russian-speaking backers than before.

Absolutely. Looking at Urmas Reinsalu's attempt to turn Isamaa back into a leading political force, they will not escape it either. Isamaa need to start looking to Russian-speaking or rather Estonian-speaking voters with a Russian background. They are the ones gravitating away from Center and increasingly voting for Reform, the Social Democrats, Eesti 200, while Isamaa is still in with a chance.

I don't think parties' efforts to woo Russian-speaking voters have been too successful. Rather, Russian-speaking voters themselves have changed – their preferences have changed every election since 1992.

Children become young adults who then reach middle age, which process pushes out the oldest generations who still carry the Soviet legacy. I see it as an inevitable process.

When will we come to a point where the so-called Russian issue is of no significance to the average Russian-speaker or voter in Estonia? Perhaps we have already arrived where matters that concern Estonian-speakers, such as security, economic coping, education, will take over?

I believe it is too early to say today because the analysis is still ongoing, but we have quite a few question on perceived inequality among Russian-speakers in the questionnaire. Matters of equality and inequality have always been important from the sociological point of view.

While it's too soon to say for sure, it seems there has been a considerable shift here too – inequality has become a more prominent topic among Estonians.

So there is identification here too. The subject matter of social and economic inequality matters to quite a lot of people among both Estonian- and Russian-speakers. There is no national divide here.

Perhaps the most shocking fact in a recent Statistics Estonia report for last year is that 30,000 more people were living in absolute poverty in 2022 compared to the year before – it is a town full of people. They very likely included people from both language groups. It has been a very long time since we have seen such a drastic absolute poverty increase in Estonia. Rather, the trend has been the opposite.

The people are the same, while the cost of living has skyrocketed.

Precisely, and it has a considerable effect on behavior. It may be one of the reasons why Estonian-speakers are also becoming increasingly critical of government policies.

I believe it has already happened. Looking at the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), deprivation and inequality are key metrics among its voters, especially regional inequality, which also matters to people in Ida-Viru County. Many people see Estonia divided into Tallinn and "the rest" as a source of problems.

We talk about average salary, but if we compared the average wage in Tallinn to that in Southern Estonia, the difference is big enough to suggest being born in the south is a person's fate.

Or Ida-Viru County. Let us presume a person graduates from high school in an Ida-Viru city, they have inherited an apartment from their family but want to move to Tallinn or Tartu. However, money from selling the apartment isn't enough even for a down payment on a similar abode in the capital.

It is a very serious matter. The fact that young people starting their life away from home – whether after graduating from vocational school, high school or university – find it increasingly difficult should make us worried.

Getting an apartment in Tallinn is a pipe dream. And the same goes for other areas where the difference in real estate prices between centers and the periphery is draconian and securing a home loan is virtually impossible.

Talking about family policy, I would highlight the fact that we do not have a housing policy. It should be among our greatest priorities when it comes to young families.

It has rather been the bread and butter of national conservative parties in Estonia, talking about tax breaks, writing off loans having to do with children etc.

Not really. I would say that the Social Democrats (SDE), where I have also played an active role, have been very focused on family and housing policy.

I remember that when Urve Palo was population minister housing policy was one of our biggest projects. Or let us take rental apartments or family benefits.

Let us also recall the birth of the parental benefit, which is shrouded in mythology. But I think the debate appeared around the 2008 elections and there were two options, one proposed by the Social Democrats and one by Reform. The former wanted equal parental benefits, because all children are equal, and the benefit set at the average salary.

Reform wanted the benefit to match previous salary or be based on it, which rather catered to higher-paid people. Reform's option came out on top and remains in use to this day.

But it was an agreement between the left and the right that parental benefits are necessary to support young families, as well as from the point of view of the position in society of men and women. There was no disagreement over that.

The worst development in Estonian politics is that we have moved away from having a few common goals that transcend political dividing lines, which helped maintain a balance until recently. One such goal has been family and population issues, while national security and defense spending has been, and luckily still is, the other, even though there are signs to suggest EKRE are looking to undermine that too.

The third such topic has been teachers' salaries and the prioritization of education where promises made have survived different parties gaining the majority. We have also moved away from that now.

/.../

That is true. I would take this opportunity to ask a question I didn't initially plan to ask, but as we're on the subject – what is Estonia's goal today? If we look at the political narrative of the ruling parties, it seems that the core purpose of the Estonian people and society is fiscal balance.

That has never been the people's goal. Rather. I would call it Estonian mythology. We have turned fiscal balance into a false idol.

But if we look at real life and discuss what might be the main guarantee of our survival and where we should focus our efforts, it boils down to how Estonia, as a small country, nation, culture, economy, can weather a time of major changes, including climate change, which is no longer a scientific abstraction – wildfires, flooding and 40-degree summers that reach as far as Northern Europe have become our reality. This is no longer a theoretical game but our very real and stark present.

On the other hand, we have technological development, which used to happen more or less gradually, leaving enough time for adjustment – I'm referring to the e-state here. But the advent of AI has suddenly rendered it alien and in some ways daunting.

Thirdly – we once more find ourselves in a world embroiled in war and no one can say for sure whether the third world war has already begun, whether it is starting or whether we can still avoid it. That is scarier still.

It is scary. But all three are fears, while I asked about goals?

As I've said before, if we feel like the crew of a small ship navigating a stormy sea – Estonia has always been a small ship at sea – our main goal is to keep it afloat, keep it moving and even-keeled, succeed at finding our way and reacting to events around us.

/.../ It would be sensible to maintain this approach of practical reaction and refrain from going along with fetishes, myths and conflicts cooked up by false idols that mislead us and sap our energy, leaving us at the mercy of the waves and unable to see when we should turn, lower or hoist our sails.

If you'll permit, I will return to more down to Earth goals. If memory serves, Reform had an election slogan of taking Estonia among the five wealthiest countries in Europe in 15 years when Andrus Ansip was prime minister in 2006 or 2008. People poked fun and criticized it at the time. But thinking back 15 years later, it seems to have been a clear and good goal. Or am I mistaken?

It was clear in that it is always easier to count money than read books.

But you cannot afford to buy books if you don't have money.

We have been the most successful during periods when we had a lot less money than we do today.

But everyone was motivated to make that money.

And we've become wealthier since, while we haven't become any wiser.

We also said that 30,000 more people have fallen into absolute poverty – they have less money today and it has not rendered our society any more united.

That is the other thing. Society is more split into camps.

While we have more money at our disposal as a state and society than ever before, its distribution is increasingly fostering inequality – that is the real problem.

Marju Lauristin Source: Grete Isabel Huik

Looking at the state budget, or the roughly €18 billion the government will spend next year, are we making a huge mistake by retaining activities and expenses we had back in 1996?

I believe an audit is in order, as promised by Eesti 200 before elections.

But I also think that what has been proposed, abolishing all recent taxes, going back to the drawing board and building the pension and healthcare systems from scratch – it's impossible.

That said, there has been enough irrational spending and there is a lot of time and resource wasting in the state apparatus.

/.../

I would come back to Estonia's lack of a housing policy, reluctance to invest there. Instead, we have relatively modest benefits schemes that cannot help people shake off poverty.

I would emphasize developing public services that would be of economic use as not all services need to be state-subsidized.

And what might guarantee our success in the world of AI? Boosting our own mental resource, education and the ability to set surprising goals, as we did with the Tiger Leap program and our e-state. Steering our small ship and taking advantage of the waves and winds requires a collection of diversely educated people.

/.../

And where might we want to steer it? I would say that we should not want to be among the five wealthiest countries, even though we might eventually be, but among the five most resilient and intellectual. We should be among the five smartest countries, and we are not today.

I looked up a piece I wrote in 2011 after reading Estonia's human development report you had written. Perhaps not everyone realized at the time that we were coming out of one of the most serious economic crises Estonia had experienced. I thought about what might be the lessons from the crisis and compared the situation to Latvia and Lithuania the societies of which have seen very similar development. And what happened in Latvia and Lithuania in 2009-2010 was that hundreds of thousands of young and hardworking people left those countries. Looking back, this did not happen in Estonia.

Quite a few people did leave.

But the magnitudes are completely different.

Estonia is also a smaller nation.

The share of people who left was also different.

I was working in Latvia and Lithuania at the time and I experienced the atmosphere first hand, with people showing up at work to say that they will be leaving for Ireland or the U.K. next week.

In hindsight, it seems that the time was very difficult in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and people were poorer than they hoped they would be for a period. But what separated Estonia from Latvia and Lithuania was that people believed the politicians would stick to social contracts and do what is best for the people in broad strokes.

Precisely, that's correct.

People had absolutely no faith in local leaders, politicians in Latvia and Lithuania.

That is quite accurate. From a theoretical point of view, there is also such a thing as trust capital, next to financial capital.

It concerns listed companies that depend on trust, while it also concerns entire societies, because trust, given to governments on credit, has always been important.

The latter has been higher here. We have sported the highest trust rating in Eastern Europe. However, we have seen conscious efforts to erode trust in everything that is done in recent years, irrespective of who is ruling.

It is done in party interests, to win votes, while the end result is trust being eroded on all levels.

/.../

But can we say this erosion is the fault of individual politicians or political forces or are we forced to admit that absolutely every ruling party has been doing it for the last two or three election cycles?

No, if we look at who has made conscious attempts to undermine international trust, we are left with Trump in the U.S. and the "hats" at home (referring to the Conservative People's Party [EKRE] – ed.) in Estonia – those who say that we are the true people and they in the government are the malicious elite.

Even in Soviet times, Estonia did not have such a hostile attitude toward educated people, scientists and artists than what these politicians are now consciously promoting.

I believe that converting trust into political pocket change is a very dangerous phenomenon.

But isn't it a reaction? Isn't it a case where people who have done very well for themselves over the last 20 years have been saying for the last ten years that there are proper views and then there are views entertained in Southeastern Estonia, among Russian-speakers, among less fortunate and less educated folks, which are not good enough.

If we did a proper media analysis, we would see that this has always been around, starting already in 1992 or 1993.

The whole first and second Estonia discourse was born out this divide between winners and losers in the 2000s. So all of those things existed back then. They were prominent when [Andrus] Ansip was prime minister. There have been trust crises and governments have fallen.

But it has not culminated in total erosion of trust as a conscious tactic. Whereas turning trust erosion into a political tactic is largely a foreign loan, which was first introduced by the Brexiteers and Trumpists.

Historically, the game of opposites was played by the Center Party and Reform Party, while it has been Reform versus EKRE recently.

Center played the game under Edgar Savisaar and Reform played it in turn.

Or was it the other way around.

But it was not quite as all-encompassing. There were areas where an agreement between parties was possible.

/.../ There has always been common ground in refraining from tearing down the foundations, where longer-term things that help take us forward are shared, even though the details might differ.

The underlying principle of trust, which Mart Laar once put as having different views but the same love for Estonia – faith in that we share the same love has been consciously vandalized by – I don't even want to say that name – EKRE politicians.

I have personal experience in that I was returning from a conference and the taxi dropped me off in front of the Riigikogu building where yet another EKRE protest meeting was taking place. People yelled to me, "Why do you hate Estonia, Social Democrats?"

This is a consciously manufactured discourse. That "the others hate Estonia" – whether it's the Reform Party or someone else – everyone hates Estonia except that one party, so what that their policy is effectively dismantling Estonia.

But perhaps they are the ones who have been sidelined, cast aside and no longer see any other way out?

The problems these people face have nothing to do with such political slogans. But it is true that they can be used for such purposes. People are genuinely angry and inequality has indeed gone up – that is our reality.

But using that reality to fuel conflict and erode trust, which ends up doing a disservice to everyone – that is in the interests of a single political party.

And we haven't seen it before, not like this. Even at its worst, the Center Party never went that far.

Former minister and university rector Jaak Aaviksoo recently published an opinion piece in ERR where he asks what has happened to efforts to define and represent Estonia's national interests. I believe we cannot accuse Aaviksoo of trying to split society or of anti-elite sentiment, while his concern in some ways coincides with the concerns of those who no longer feel represented?

I would say that Aaviksoo was talking about something else entirely. He was talking about what we were just discussing – defining common interests. Not differentiation or confrontation, but efforts to define common interests. And I believe that defining common national goals constitutes a major challenge.

/.../

We need to clearly define the main factors contributing to our tiny Estonia's longevity, survival and development. What is in our interests to make sure we succeed? The threats we face are no joke, while turning them into a scarecrow and waving it at one's political opponents will not help us overcome them.

Rather, the problem is that it seems to me, Jaak Aaviksoo and many others that Estonia is not allowed to have national interests anymore.

Why?

If I look at how Estonia is represented on the EU level – any question that is in any way critical of EU policies, if only the green transition, automatically comes off dissident or revolutionary. That should not be the case. This results in our national interests being forced to take a back seat somewhere.

Now, every time I hear a journalist suggest that something "comes off" in a particular way, I want to say that things come off as the media presents them. The people are not in Brussels, nor are they on Toompea Hill. The people read about both places in the newspaper, listen to the radio or browse social media.

I have spent three and a half years or even a little more in Brussels and I can tell you how one can represent national interests there – and it's not by standing on the street corner shouting. It is determined, persistent and detailed work on texts and bills.

At least back when I was there, that is what all six of us were doing. These efforts were spearheaded by the Estonian Representation at the time, and as soon as a bill landed that looked like it might harm Estonia's interests, we came together to discuss these aspects and decide who should change or block what. It's constant work that's being done out of sight. It is not shouting on street corners.

But what I would say with concern is that our officials and politicians do lack persistence and the ability to do such work.

Looking at different countries and peoples, I admire the Finns who have managed to do it persistently for 20 years on all international levels, without shouting about it or advertising it. Because as soon as you start to shout about it, you end up fighting political skirmishes, which makes it very hard to get what you want.

But how then to explain that we are taken by surprise by a new limitation, rule or order in the form of a European directive almost monthly regarding which officials say that you agreed a year ago, while there is no public record of it whatsoever?

That is what I mean to say. All these directives and things are put together in working groups made up of ministry officials from Member States.

In many countries, these things are the work of parliamentary European affairs committees that go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. It is work that needs to be done, preventive work that requires knowing how to read legislative documents, whereas they move very slowly in Europe, they are not handed down overnight.

But still, after our officials have been part of such working groups for as long as two years, it is said we don't know how things happened.

We don't know because the officials, ministers and other politicians who run that particular administrative area have failed to pay attention, have failed to warn us, failed to defend our interests etc.

Let us take the well-known example of Estonian Air and airBaltic. While our so-called transport officials, whereas we even had our man in Havana at the time so to speak, failed to prove that Tallinn is far enough away from major centers to deserve a state aid exception for Estonian Air, the Latvians managed just that for their national airline.

Because the Latvians had very clearly defined national interests.

Let us come back to the press. You said that the media should not feel like it's the people. One aspect that is perhaps less than obvious is that digital media gives journalists a much better overview of what the people care and are excited about than we had 30 years ago. I believe the press might be much closer to the average or mainstream public opinion than it was in 1993.

However, what I would ask is how do you see the press having fulfilled its function in this situation of trust shortage?

I think the press has not attempted to maintain that trust. I believe it could be one of journalism's goals in what is a rather critical situation, it could even be a national goal. This does not mean praising everything the government does, far from it. But we should try to keep things proportional.

I'm also involved with a lot of other things besides politics and the press, one of which is education. I attend thematic seminars and conferences, come into contact with different projects, and I can see an impressive number of brilliant things happening with the involvement of teachers. I can see experimentation and a lot of motivation.

But if we look at the picture painted by the media, education is a destitute field from which we only hear messages of woe. While teachers' salaries do make for a very important topic, teachers are nevertheless a very persistent bunch when it comes to contributing to the development of education, despite what they are being paid. However, we see very little of that other side to balance out the lamentations.

Journalistic alienation is another problem. You said that journalists are in touch with public opinion, while the press also gives rise to public opinion. Just like advertising manufactures interests, journalism manufactures opinions.

If we look at how much of what makes up people's busy lives grabs the attention of the press, we are left with only a few examples – we all love Mirjam Mõttus' programs as it is one of only a few formats where we can see ordinary people in their everyday environment tackling everyday problems.

But most times we are dealing with reflections of reflections of reflections. That might be one thing that is working to amplify the feeling that everything is how it is, that everything goes wrong and no one can be trusted. We no longer have faith in the Estonian state and ourselves, which in the end is ruinous.

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Editor: Laura Raudnagel, Marcus Turovski

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