Interview: Artur Talvik on Estonia's newest political party ({{commentsTotal}})

Artur Talvik, founder member, though not leader as such, of Richness of Life.
Artur Talvik, founder member, though not leader as such, of Richness of Life. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Artur Talvik is a leading member, albeit not the leader, of the newest political party on the scene in Estonia, called Richness of Life (Elurikkuse erakond in Estonian). However, he is a long-established figure, having previously been at the helm of the Free Party. The son of the late Mati Talvik, a stalwart ETV journalist for many decades, Artur first caught my attention in the documentary The Singing Revolution, in which he appeared.

"Yes, I was co-producer of that movie," he tells me as we settle down for an interview, fortified with coffee, at his home in Tallinn's tranquil Kassisaba subdistrict.

"I went to theatre school and, having worked for a short time at the puppet theatre [the iconic NUKU Teater, where many an established Estonian actor has cut his or her teeth -ed.], I went behind the scenes. First I was an assistant director, then we started our own company. After about 10 years, I became co-owner of a film-making company called RUUT. Our last big feature film was December Heat (2008, about the 1924 failed communist coup attempt in Tallinn). Then followed a hard period, with the economic crisis of 2008-10. The company still does TV, but not films or commercials."

So why the jump from film-making to politics?

"My driving force is actually from having been a community activist for many years. This experience sees me living on the Juminda Penisula in Lahemaa [to the east of Tallinn -ed.] half the time, where community-related stuff really happens. It is so interesting, as we have done so many sort of advanced things. How the community started to gel is kind of my empirical background for politics. I have seen a kind of idealistic society there. Of course, it's not the case that everybody is happy and cheerful every day, but it works. There are eight or ten villages; officially there's about maybe 500 people. The community is so small, it may not seem like a 'real' community, with worries that it might lack competences. But 500 people is already a proper size — there's a lot of different competences to hand, surprisingly."

Subsidiarity the key

It's worth mentioning here a word that Artur mentions a lot: Subsidiarity. In short, subsidiarity is an approach to governance which places a stress on local organisation, reserving for central government only those activities which really cannot be conducted on a smaller scale. An early study of it, if not by name, is to be found in the writings of the French 19th Century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, particularly in his two-volume work "Democracy in America," from 1835-1840.

"Our concept at Richness of Life is that it's kind of a voluntary thing. Why I moved into so-called 'big politics' is because we saw that the things being done were often in conflict with local governments or state institutions. We started to explain to [the state and local governments] that they should understand that we live here, and if you want to put down regulations and rules on how we live, you will have to negotiate. It's not a case of authorities turning up and saying you do this, that and the other. This was something new for them, a new concept, so they were kind of a bit 'Why should we do that? We are power!'"

But is this ideal transferable to an urban environment?

"Absolutely, local elections should elect the head of the local community. These heads would then be the members of the municipality. You can't change from a representative to a more direct democracy just like that. But I believe that participatory and direct forms of democracy are a good antidote to the ills of representative systems. These are in a corner. Representative democracy is gone, in fact, because it doesn't take responsibility — no one really understands how decisions are made."

The forest

One of Richness of Life's key sacred cows coincides with the national psyche — Estonia's forests.

"It's crucial that we protect the forest as one of our main issues. It's plain to see how industrial levels of logging remove too much, especially of more valuable tracts of forest, without evaluating it properly.

"The forest is a very cultural thing, which has sustained us through various times — as a resource, refuge, food source, holiday spot, even as some sort of psychological salve. About half the forest is owned by 'everyone,' we could say, but the problem arises with the thinking that, since I'm the co-owner of this piece of forest, I can start to do clearcutting and things like that, even in national park areas."

Apparently, logging takes many different forms and isn't merely a razing of everything to the ground. Only certain trees, or types of trees, can be cut selectively, for instance, or trees cut at different heights, etc.

"Cutting so many trees reduces biodiversity and lowers the GDP too. We should innovate ways to better utilise the less valuable wood sources," says Artur.

"Projects like Rail Baltica have been mishandled. The proposed link is both unwise in an environmental sense, and as an economic one too. Building through wetlands, when we still don't know what the through-flow is going to be like, both in terms of goods and passengers, is stupid, and more likely than not, the eventual cost will be even higher than currently estimated. Yes, we need good rail connections with Europe, but this has to be done in the right way. It's important to have a good rail link to Pärnu [which has currently been suspended until Rail Baltica enters into operation -ed.] and Tartu, and why not with Riga. But we want to take it to the people more — ask them whether they want a new corridor or to use the old one, whether the speed at 160km/h is okay and so on. We have had an unofficial referendum on the isse to demonstrate our commitment to this. It's the same with the proposed Saaremaa bridge and the tunnel link to Helsinki. Are they non-starters? Should we open things up to Chinese money, for instance, or keep capital in the country? First off, we should ask the people these things."

Grassroots organisation

"We are a party — not in a conventional sense, more like a political movement. We have five major points we stand for — a caring and sustaining economy, contemporary and enriching education, an efficient state organised from the bottom up, a community-minded, dispersed state, and comprehensive security and sense of confidence."

Mr Talvik (right, fur collar) on recent active duty with Richness of Life, picketing ERR's TV House no less, over concerns that the party was not properly represented on ETV pre-election debates. Hopefully this interview goes some way to assuage that. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"Another point is that our board doesn't make political decisions; it is more like an executive. We don't have a chair as such, we simply have a candidate for prime minister [currently Mihkel Kangur -ed.]. This person doesn't have as much power as a usual chair. We decide everything else collectively."

About Richness of Life's electoral chances, Artur is optimistic, in particular over the longer term, of being in tune with the arc of history.

"We have the Riigikogu elections in March to focus on first, then the European Parliament elections two and a half months later. I hope it goes well for us. This dissatisfaction with the political class is a worldwide phenomenon, yes. On the one hand, people are protesting globally; on the other, the economy isn't really growing. The existing welfare state model here in Estonia is also in crisis. The amount of money which goes to social and health care already makes up half of the state budget, and is growing, which means making cuts elsewhere, for instance in education or security, which is crazy."

Techology on a knife edge and could fall either way

"At the same time, we have a digital revolution which could transform everything totally. For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) could be either a stress or a real opportunity for human development. Everything is up in the air — we are walking on the knife edge again, and it can fall either way — either very well, or be the ruination of everything.

"It is clear that the old-fashioned banking system is dying out. What the replacement will be is not clear yet, but it is likely to be digitalised for sure. Transferwise is a great example of this so far, but it is just a small step. I believe that blockchain and crypto have been almost a dry run for what will come later; you can see that society wants something more — wants to get rid of the financial power in the world, the one-percenters.

"This is a big fight we have on our hands. You can see how the bitcoin system got attacked by the financial establishment. But you can see that more change is coming and that bitcoin was the trailblazer. We also have the telecoms companies, who are taking over the banking system, with, for instance, mobile payments. The biggest banks themselves are many times less capitalised than internet companies, so we can already see the changes in place.

"This new way of doing things is very much connected to the digital world as a whole — digital democracy and a digitalised world helps with participating in direct democracy too, which is not so expensive anymore. You don't have to muster people in the one place, for one thing."

People need decision-making authority for their own good

"Going back to subsidiarity, this is somewhat of a misused term. What it really means is that decisions which are made by communities are actually made by local municipalities. At the moment, the Riigikogu makes these decisions and then so much of this is passed up to the European Parliament. But we should give s much more decision making ability back to the municipalities".

"I'm not afraid of giving more decision making to the people — they are wise enough to be able to do this themselves".

But what about the fact that some people won't make decisions, or get to comfortable with the status quo?

"Well that's another point, but the welfare state has tended to make people lazier as they are only really bother about their own income. They tend to view the state as a kind of service company — and this is an attitude of 'hey I paid my taxes, you should provide a service"'.

"This needs to be changed. Welfare should translate to a good, participative life — you should manage by yourself, doesn't mean that we leave behind those who really need help but people should understand that you can't have this state doing everything. Simply because there aren't the resources".

Is Richness of Life a libertarian party?

"It's the same with the controversy around the UN Global Compact at the end of last year. This needs a serious debate, not an emotional one. Politicians need to start the debate — but the problem is the lack of trust in politicians which is an issue."

With all of this, should we take it to mean that Richness of Life is a libertarian party at heart?

Artur Talvik speaking at a Richness of Life press conference. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

"I'd like to get rid of all the old labels. In first place should definitely be the environment, so we have both 'liberals' and 'conservatives' in the party."

But is there space for another eco-based party in Estonia, given that the Estonian Greens are already an established party?

"The Greens are social-liberals, so they have a more fixed position. We have a lot of environmentally-minded people who are not happy with the Greens' thinking. We call Richness of Life a post-ideological party. Whereas the old fashioned parties try to find common views in every point of life, what we have is the five most important things we are fighting for [see above -ed.], but beyond that is down to the people, or if we have a political decision that is needed, we go and vote.

"That's not to say that this will be easy. There are a lot of old ways of thinking which need to go and, elsewhere, say in the US, the conservative-liberal split has polarised society and made things unworkable. Thus we're in uncharted waters, and need to focus on the future and get the best solution for the future. But you can't make good decisions when society is fragmented, though that is hard to explain to people when these things are so ingrained."

Prognosis for March

At the same time, Richness of Life, which according to most recent polls has been hovering around 1% of support, will still need to work within the framework of the current electoral system and coalition system of government in Estonia.

"The electoral system in Estonia is really old-fashioned. For instance, parties can't form unions and run together - otherwise we would have made one with the Greens and also the Free Party already, and been in a stronger position. But the law doesn't allow it. We still need to find common ground with parties though. As regarding the environment that might be harder with the more conservative parties [such as Isamaa and EKRE — ed.] but with a more direct democracy, there would be more scope for cooperation with other parties; and cooperation is what we need.

"I've been deliberately avoiding fighting with parties like EKRE — this is a mistake liberal parties often make, but I think it is much more effective to 'hug the enemy' so to speak, as well as to analyse just why people are so frustrated. Part of the reason for this in my view is that two parts of the country have been growing apart form each other — in a sociological sense we need to slow down to let the others catch up. And again, more decision-making powers in the hands of the people would help with the healing process."

Not just another environmental party

"One other issue which concerns us is that 'richness' also concerns things like conserving languages. Experts say that only around 10% of languages spoken today will still be around at the end of this century. This means we have to protect smaller languages like Võru and Seto, but at the same time, this should not be for nationalistic reasons. With regard to the Russian-speaking population here in Estonia, this is getting better but the language teaching could be much improved.

"I see so many Estonian-speaking Russians, but another dimension is still the propaganda TV channels and similar that come out of Putin's Russia. This is still very strong and there's a long way to go with that.

"Ultimately we need to make a society which is one which is conducive to all — Estonians, diaspora Estonians, Estonians who have recently moved abroad, the Russian-speaking population, expats, those who have come to Estonia under the immigration quota, and so on. The only way to do this is by reforming politics, but we can see it is going this way across Europe in any case. Old-style 'politics' is kind of dying out ... we hope! And we help with this too!"

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Editor: Aili Vahtla



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