Erik Gamzejev: The Ida-Viru hostages of 21st Century municipal politics
The situation in Ida-Viru County's towns and cities would have long since been in better shape were it not hobbled by municipal politics dedicated not to the development of these towns, but to the maintaining of an iron grip on power by local clans, says Erik Gamzejev, editor-in-chief of regional paper Põhjarannik, in commentary provided to Vikerraadio.
Over the past couple of decades, perfect pyramids of power have been established in Narva and Kohtla-Järve. These include key local political figures that have interdependently been woven into these pyramids, select businessmen, and employees in leading positions at municipal institutions. The rapid construction of a similar pyramid is currently underway in the county seat of Jõhvi as well.
The premise is simple. Generally speaking, key positions at municipal institutions only go to those who are entirely obedient of the clan ruling the town. In this case, it is ensured that the directors of schools, kindergartens and other municipal institutions are elected to the municipal council. Sprinkle in bigwigs from sports clubs, associations and nonprofits dependent on the municipal budget as well.
On the municipal council, they carry out the will of the local top brass without asking too many questions. Outwardly, everything appears quite democratic.
The strong mortar that holds this pyramid together is public funding and municipal jobs. In towns and cities where well-paying jobs are hard to come by, being a cog in the wheel of the municipal system is one of few means available for many young, active people both to maintain a satisfactory standard of living and for an opportunity for personal fulfilment. It is a sort of being a hostage in its own right, where naturally nobody is holding a gun to your head, but nonetheless there isn't really anywhere to run.
All kidding aside, it isn't even possible to move out of Kohtla-Järve, as the cost per square metre of flats there is 20 times smaller than in the capital city, and ten times smaller than in most other county seats. Banks also say no outright to flat renovation loan applications.
In time, Stockholm Syndrome begins to set in: the hostage begins to empathise with the hostage-taker, and becomes increasingly convinced that the local barons are doing the right thing. There is nothing left for them to do but play along and think to themselves that life isn't actually so bad. The few times they have to vote in favour of an embarrassing decision — such as sharp raises for municipal leaders, financial allocations to local oligarchs, or electing a local party leader an honorary town citizen — well, that won't kill them. Surely something will trickle down to them as well in gratitude.
Double standard in place
Currently, when the group that had been in power on Narva City Council collectively quit the Jüri Ratas-led party, the Centre Party condemns such municipal politics. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that this system was built under the Centre Party brand. Now that Narva Centrists are being pressured to quit the party in order to preserve their jobs, they have simply suddenly become victims of the machine they themselves created.
But while the moment of clarity has reached the renewing Centre Party, that the regime cultivated in Narva belongs on the ash heap of history, why, then, are they accepting the fact that their party mates in Kohtla-Järve and Jõhvi continue to carry on the same way? I suppose this is the pragmatic approach — because if they act as decisively in those towns as they did with Narva City Council leader Aleksei Voronov and his people last summer, they may face repercussions in the other aforementioned towns as well. Surely those town leaders realise this as well, and that knowledge simply fortifies their audacity even further.
In Narva, the Centre Party demanded the resignations of eight council members from the city council after they faced allegations of corruption. No one in Jõhvi, however, so much as raises an eyebrow over the fact that the Centre Party is in cahoots with company led by infamous businessman Nikolai Ossipenko, whose business, according to a court ruling in force, earned €1 million in criminal proceeds as a result of criminal collusion with leaders of the neighbouring town of Kohtla-Järve. His companies have also committed tax fraud on a large scale. Why doesn't the board of the Centre Party demand the immediate exit from this coalition here?
The saddest thing here is the fact that this kind of brutal municipal politics just gives rise to increasing feelings of powerlessness and bitterness in active local residents. On the one hand, Ida-Viru County is earning an increasing amount of positive attention, and both locals and friends from further away alike are full of good intentions to do more for this region. But when these efforts — such as the recent sad story of Narva's bid for the European Capital of Culture — clash with politics based on the wants of the local clan, this enthusiasm begins to wane as well.
This cannot be allowed to happen under any circumstances. All of Estonia's bigger political parties are responsible for ensuring that this doesn't happen. The Centre Party because it gave birth to this monster and only selectively fights it. But all of the others because of the fact that they have generally only exhibited more serious interest in these towns in the months leading up to elections. The police and courts have won a handful of corruption battles against Ida-Viru municipal governments, but they have not yet been successful in truly breaking up this type of regime.
One can only imagine what kind of great things could have been accomplished in Ida-Viru County already if only the governance of its bigger towns and cities had not been held hostage by clan politics for the past couple of decades. Hopefully emancipation from this system will come about faster than locals lose hope in the possibility of change.
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Editor: Aili Vahtla