The Eesti Kontsert saga and the opacity of state appointments in Estonia

Laine Randjärv (Reform). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Now that MP Laine Randjärv (Reform) is assuredly not to be the next head of the Eesti Kontsert Foundation, it's useful to examine the story so far, what went wrong, who said what to whom and so on — though on another criterion than newsworthiness in the normal understanding.

Readers might question the relevance to an English-language site of a story on the appointment of the head of what is essentially a concert-organising public body in Estonia. However, that would miss the point of how things work here.

Getting an idea of the place of organisations like Eesti Kontsert (EK), what goes on behind the scenes (so far as we know) and why even the prime minister has his ten cents' worth on the question provides clues on how organisations, companies, political parties, hierarchies and much more work here, and how omniscient the nexus of state and society really is.

Paying attention to the Estonian way of doing things, taking seriously that which is cherished here, allowing Estonians to speak for themselves rather than seeking to speak for them, and realising that, despite its many flaws, things do work here, often quite well, could save many a foreigner in, or coming to, Estonia hours, not to mention euros, in headaches and soul-searching.

What is Eesti Kontsert and who cares?

This will equally be the case for students, businesspeople, tech workers, startup employees, travellers, embassy staff, those relocating to "work in Estonia," even that old standby of Central and Eastern European life — the foreign male with the local lass. If it comes to it, even those of us as far down the food chain as expat journalists, current and former, might want to take stock.

Let's try and do just that with the Eesti Kontsert (EK) debacle.

To understand EK necessitates turning the clock way back to the grim depths of the first Soviet occupation of the country in 1940-1941 and the founding of the State Philharmonic Society of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR). That the body was so hastily set up even during the privations of wartime hints at the centrality of high(er) culture in Estonia both Soviet and independent, something anglophones often struggle to grasp. Following wartime disruption — the Nazis presumably put a lower value on culture — the Philharmonic Society was restored, featuring famed conductor Gustav Ernesaks as its artistic director. Managing several venues in Tallinn, the ESSR Philharmonic Society went on to boast male and female choirs, orchestras, dance ensembles, musical soloists and more — something of a go-to body for a wide range of live music.

A many-splendoured thing

With the advent of Glasnost and Perestroika across the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the Philharmonic Society, in keeping with similar organisations, was patriotically renamed Eesti Kontsert ("Concert Estonia"); Aivar Mäe, the current head of the Estonian National Opera ("Rahvusooper"), was a subsequent director.

Today, EK maintains the broad sweep with symphonic, chamber, jazz and children's music all on offer in the over 1,000 concerts it hosts per year, both within Estonia and abroad, together with several festivals, activities for schools, and overall coordinating music in Estonia.

St. John's Lutheran Estonian Church in St. Petersburg, buil tin 1859 to serve the Estonian community there. The Church doubles up as a concert hall, under EK's aegis. Source: Januarius-zick/Wikimedia Commons

Add to the list of responsibilities the management of Estonia Concert Hall in Central Tallinn, concert halls in Tartu, Pärnu and Jõhvi, and, since 2011, even a hall at the Estonian Lutheran St. John's Church in St. Petersburg, Russia, and it's clear both how multifaceted the body is and how prestigious the role is, one which any appointment to will be subject to scrutiny from friend and foe alike.

Will she or won't she...

Eesti Kontsert's hierarchy matches this complexity. It has an artistic council including representatives from the Ministry of Culture (ie the government), of which more later, the musicians' union, broadcasting, and at least one regional concert hall. A supervisory board is involved as well: Margus Pärtlas, Tea Varrak, Marika Tuusis and Madli-Liis Parts, with Indrek Laul as chair. Many of these names appear in the following narrative, starting with Madli-Liis Parts, who announced on 24 October that EK had decided not to conclude a contract with Laine Randjärv, a Reform Party MP who has served in the Riigikogu since 2011.

"We received a lot of misleading information... and came to the conclusion that as information varied during and after the process of appointing Ms Randjärv on when she would take up the post, we can't conclude an agreement with her. We have to start with a clean sheet," said Ms Parts.

Laine Randjärv was chosen by the board unanimously — though not subsequently cast out unanimously, as it turns out — on 13 September, and was due to start work on 1 February 2019, replacing current incumbent Jüri Leiten. Selection to head such bodies, as well as private sector ones, is often referred to as a "competition" ("konkurents" in Estonian), so we'll stay consistent in calling it that.

Nevertheless, the progress of events during and after the competition gets a bit murky here; more information is likely to emerge on what happened, but the main issue cited revolved around Ms Randjärv's start date.

Detractors saying it's all about the money

As she is a sitting MP, Randjärv says she asked to postpone the start date for a month or two, to coincide with the general election, which will take place on 3 March. However, her detractors say that she actually did so to claim €21,000 in "compensation" which she would have lost had she started on 1 February as purportedly agreed. Ms Randjärv on her part says that delaying the start date would make no difference with regard to this potential money, and that the delay was really so she could continue work on an unfinished post-graduate thesis. An MP over fifty years old taking time out to do postgraduate research may be out-of-the-ordinary in, say, the UK, but in a country which values education highly, the work-study-work pattern is much more common.

Strangely enough, St. John's, the Estonian church of our story, played a role too — Ms Randjärv had scheduled work trips there which would account for the postponement as well, according to a report on ETV news broadcast Aktuaalne kaamera.

Whatever really happened, the mixed messages cause some to get cold feet about the appointment, they said, voting 3-2 against Ms Randjärv getting the job, on Wednesday 24 October.*

Others see the élite's fingerprints here as elsewhere

The case has raised questions on the extent to which the board was leaned on by those in government, given elections are quite soon. Minister of Culture Indrek Saar is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDE), while Minister of Education Mailis Reps and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas are from the Centre Party; Ms Randjärv is from the opposition Reform Party, as noted.

Culture minister Indrek Saar (SDE). Source: ERR

More broadly, it has also brought into the spotlight the running of state and public, or semi-public, bodies and the need for reform there; it also transpires that EK has budget issues as well as leadership ones.

Laine Randjärv's argument

Ms Randjärv says she agreed to the contract's conditions from the get go, and to start on 1 February.

"I did not submit any controversy or any new dates," she said, saying the reneging on the deal was a malicious act and that the formerly-unanimous council had been influenced by external forces.

Via her lawyer Maria Mägi-Rohtmetsa, she stated that since the ink on the contract had dried, her rights have been trampled on, and she has requested documentation on the processes from EK.

Whether this will be forthcoming remains unclear; certainly EK are on the defensive, hiring law firm Sorainen and questioning how the ERR got hold of internal reports regarding the case, which head of news Anvar Samost said will be explained in due course, but without compromising sources.

The view from inside EK

Whilst the overturning of Ms Randjärv's appointment was a surprise to some, including Ivari Ilja, rector of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre (EMTA) , who called the move "incomprehensible" in a social media post, sometime between 13 September and 24 October, something changed with three of the board members, Tea Varrak, Marika Tuusis and Madli-Liis Parts, who opposed the appoinment as we have seen.

Indrek Laul, chair of the EK supervisory board. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The interface between the state body and the state itself

This brings us to the heart of the matter — the role of government in influencing the decision. A key figure is Minister of Culture Indrek Saar (SDE). Mr Saar is unequivocal in stating he did not try to influence things, even though some of the board members and artistic directors are likewise members of the SDE.

"I can say with 100% certainty that l as minister will not interfere with the selection process, regardless of public response after the fact," he said.

Nonetheless, Meelis Kompus, director of communications at Mr Saar's ministry, said that contrary to Laine Randjärv's claims, no agreement had ever been fully concluded in the first place.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas speaking on the topic on Vikerraado, 31 October 2018. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Moreover, Tea Varrak says that Ms Randjärv herself tried to move things along, contacting Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) several times on the phone as well as contacting Minister of Education Mailis Reps (Centre), asking the latter to lean on her subordinates on the EK board (including Ms Varrak herself), as reported by investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress.

Mr Ratas was quick to reject any idea that he pulled any strings: "I had a phone conversation with the person in question, but it was not the case that I attempted to influence the decision. This would not be the right thing to do," he told Vikerraadio on 31 October.

Journalistic comment

ERR senior political commentators Toomas Sildam and Anvar Samost said that the episode demonstrates how a new committee overseeing state bodies like EK may be needed.

Ms Randjärv's falling from grace was also an indictment of the actions of EK head Indrek Laul, since he had championed Ms Randjärv, they said, speaking on ERR's "Samost and Sildam" political radio show on Sunday, 28 October.

"The question arises to what extent the ministers of culture and education played a role here," said Sildam. Other question marks hang over the relationship between Ms Randjärv and the elections — what use her votes in the election would be, and why a month or so's delay in her appoinment would make any difference.

Toomas Sildam (left) and Anvar Samost. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The development is also part of a trend in which the public sector is not attracting the best leaders, according to Samost, not to mention the opaque nature of the decision-making process.

Given the size of Estonia's population, it is vital that appointments are transparent, based on merit, and that all questions regarding salary, notice period, etc. are hammered out in advance in lieu of the current situation, where those in positions of authority can pull the ripcord on those appointments which are not amenable to them. The alternative is risking having a small cadre of lesser-quality public sector apparatchiks running the show, a situation reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Two things at least are clear: this is not the end of the story, and EK's top job is not going to Laine Randjärv regardless of her competence and regardless of whether there's any truth to the money-grabbing smear.

Don't let the saga put you off attending cultural events falling under the EK umbrella, though — many them are top notch.


* Reportedly Tea Varrak, Marika Tuusis and Madli-Liis Parts against the appointment, versus Margus Pärtlas and Indrek Laul for it.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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