Opinion Digest: Political values, journalistic freedoms, Russia and Ukraine

Estonia's three national dailies (picture is illustrative).
Estonia's three national dailies (picture is illustrative). Source: ERR

Opinions on topics ranging from the values in politics and society in Estonia today, to journalistic freedoms, President Kersti Kaljulaid's meeting with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin last week, and the recent election of a new head of state in Ukraine have abounded in the Estonian media since the week began. We'll take a look at some of these, starting with the week's big event – the Riigikogu centenary.

According to an editorial piece (all links in Estonian) in daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL), the special session the Riigikogu is holding on Tuesday is a very fitting way to mark the 100th anniversary of the Estonian legislature's foundation.

However, the daily points out, it is food for thought that the present-day incarnation of the Riigikogu seems to be having something of an existential crisis.

While foreign occupation obstructed the Riigikogu as a bearer of the people's will, so too did episodes in independent Estonia's history, not least the ''silent era'' of the mid-late 1930s, during Konstantin Päts presidency.

A representative democracy must have the people's trust, and consequently, the recently-elected MPs of the XVI Riigikogu must match the founders of the chamber a century ago, the piece argues, especially those likely to have to wrestle with their consciences in future votes – an oblique reference to the alliance between the centre-left Centre Party, the national conservative Isamaa, and the right-wing Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) which entered into office last week.

Crisis of values

The question of values in politics also concern an opinion piece in daily Postimees on Tuesday, by journalist Evelyn Sepp, which argues that prime minister, and Centre leader, Jüri Ratas, has to do more than make excuses for those he shares office with.

The contradiction between words and deeds is deepening, the article states, as is social tensions and the position of both minorities and majorities in society.

The piece notes with approval President Kersti Kaljulaid's words in her presentation at the opening of the XVI Riigikogu earlier in the month, that the Estonian version of democracy is not so robust as to be able to flawlessly absorb all shockwaves, likening what has been happening to domestic violence on a nationwide scale.

Attitudes to domestic violence may have changed over the past few decades from being a taboo subject to something which could be dealt with publicly, but this needs to happen in the present-day political landscape too, the piece says, otherwise there is little point in talking about direct democracy (a pet project of EKRE-ed.) when even representative democracy seems to be so under the cosh.

The language used by some of those now in office cannot be divorced from their acts, but at the same time the populace does not have to remain silent or be discouraged – in other words, since the soup was not cooked up by all of us, we don't all have to eat it, as the article puts it.

Russian-language in education: Secure, or not?

Meanwhile, investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress notes how when interviewed by ERR's own Arp Müller, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas dodged the question of what might happen with regard to Russian-language secondary schools under the current coalition.

The transition to Estonian-only education in high schools in areas with a large Russian-speaking majority has been an issue of contention for years in Estonia, most recently rearing its head in the case of the Kohtla-Järve upper secondary school. Whereas the Centre Party has been closely identified with favouring continued Russian language education in such places (not exclusively, but in tandem with Estonian), its partners in the new coalition, the national conservative Isamaa and the right wing EKRE may put this line under a lot of pressure, though according to Russian-language publication from the Tallinn City Government, Stolitsa, remained sanguine about the security of Russian in education, according to the Eesti Ekspress piece.

However, Mr Ratas did not address the issue head on, the article states, after the interviewer put to him that had the Reform Party ended up in office, Russian in education system would have been gradually phased-out, though he noted that having a government now that the coalition had passed into being on 17 April, was better than the vacuum that existed between the 3 March election up to that date.

On the question of citizenship, Mr Ratas said that in the case of those who had two parents with so-called ''grey passports'' (ie. stateless citizens resident in Estonia), granting citizenship would end up being more simplified than would be the case if one parent had ''third country'' (ie. non-EU) citizenship, though still would not give a direct answer about the education question, the article states, noting that Mr Ratas said that he had not read the Stolitsa piece, but went to reiterate the importance of education, not only in high school but from kindergarten level, in ensuring that being from a Russian-speaking family is no hindrance in later life.

Party support levels not radically changed since general election

According to the director at pollsters Turu-uuringute, Juhan Kivirähk, voter regret since the election of 3 March and the Centre/EKRE/Isamaa coalition coming to fruition does not seem to have been a major issue, even given the far-from-normal political atmosphere in the country during that time.

A Turu-uuringute survey from this month showed no seismic shift in voter support, Mr Kivirähk told ERR's Estonian online news, though one significant development meant that if an election were held today, Estonia 200, a party which narrowly missed out on Riigikogu seats on 3 March, would find itself in parliament, something which some might find unfair, he says.

Of the two candidates in the race for the prime minister's role, Kaja Kallas and Jüri Ratas, Mr Kivirähk argues that, in addition to their own parties, Mr Ratas saw more support from EKRE voters, and in contrast, Ms Kallas was backed by SDE and Estonia 200 supporters.

Moreover, doing a deal with EKRE had not damaged Centre's and Mr Ratas' support unduly, Mr Kivirähk claims, as it was seen as the lesser of two evils in remaining in office as opposed to sitting in opposition.

The odd one out in all this has been Isamaa, he says, which has seen a downward trend in support as not everyone in the party supported the coalition with Centre and EKRE (indeed one Isamaa MP, Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits, voted against the deal at the Riigikogu on 17 April).

Isamaa's support has dipped below the 9% mark, Mr Kivirähk notes, perhaps most poignant as, unlike most of the other parties (for instance Reform stated a refusal to work with EKRE, Centre rebuffed Reform after the election, EKRE said it would not go into office with SDE etc.), it did actually have other coalition options on the table than the one it ended up in.

As for EKRE, Mr Kivirähk says that while its support had dropped a bit too after its electoral success, blaming the media was not really defensible, since EKRE itself had behaved in appropriately. At the same time, voters taking a punt on a populist party like EKRE in order to shake things up might find things not working out for them as well as they had hoped, Mr Kivirähk states, mentioning that the support levels for the parties at present were transferrable when forecasting what might happen in the European elections in May.

Goings on at Postimees

Speaking of the press, journalist Vilja Kiisler notes that she quit daily Postimees due to differences of opinion with incoming editor-in-chief Peeter Helme.

Speaking to ERR's online Estonian news on Monday, Ms Kiisler said that she had enjoyed her time at the paper, which she only began in August last year, having previously worked for several years for business daily Äripäev.

According to the piece, some sources at Postimees had said an article critical of EKRE by Ms Kiisler, entitled: ''It's not the rhetoric, it's the content which is repugnant'' had been the tipping point in her relations with the daily's new chief, though Mr Helme maintains that the decision to quit was Ms Kiisler's alone, and that he had merely provided constructive criticism in writing a little more diplomatically.

Peeter Helme started at Postimees early on in April, replacing Lauri Hussar, who had stepped down in order to run for Estonia 200. Online news portal Delfi, which belongs to the Ekspress Group had previously reported that Postimees' owner Margus Linnamäe, an Isamaa member and donor, wishes to make the newspaper a conservative flagship, a worldview which Mr Helme shares.

Politicians to blame, not journalists

Media analyst Paul Rebane noted that in the current climate of attacks on the media, an oblique reference to EKRE vice-chair Martin Helme's calls to remove ''biased'' journalists from public broadcaster ERR's airwaves, it might also be salient to look at common mistakes which politicians of all hues make when appearing on air and in interviews.

Broadly speaking, Mr Rebane told ERR's online Estonian news portal, and based on conversations with many experienced interviewers, the problem is one of a lack of preparation on the part of the politician in question. This can lead to such peccadilloes as talking in generalisations, addressing the politician's party's key voters rather than the public as a whole, and not paying enough attention to presentation style and body language.

Other problems dogging some politicians include getting bogged down in details and figures, and a lack of empathy, he says, not to mention failing to grasp that in the modern era and even speaking in Estonian, a politicians utterances are likely to go ''international'' – a particularly unfortunate occurrence given some statements which have been made regarding minorities, nationality and the like.

Even taking ''Dutch courage'' is off limits these days, Mr Rebane notes, though that has not stopped some from seeming to appear (very moderately) under the influence, he said.

Ultimately, having a state controlled media is a very un-Estonian thing, he argues, pointing out that politicians have to take ownership of their own words and deeds.

He finishes off with the words of Russian general and some-time presidential candidate Alexander Lebed, who once said that: ''Fighting with journalists is as meaningless as fighting with a woman - if you lose, you will look stupid. If you win, you will look particularly stupid''.

Kaljulaid-Putin meeting significantly normal

Last week's meeting between Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and head of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin was, in retrospect, principally a very normal and polite conversation, but not more than that, according to ERR's Toomas Sildam.

No major breakthroughs were made, he says, though one or two things stand out. For a start, it was the first time the heads of state of the two countries had met since 2008, when then-president Toomas Hendrik Ilves met with his Russian counterpart of the time, Dmitri Medvedev. This was shortly before the Russo-Georgian war of the same year, and was followed by events such as the 2014 annexation of the Crimea, hostilities in eastern Ukraine, the Skirpal affair and so on.

Whereas the Ilves-Medvedev tête-à-tête only lasted around an hour, the current two presidents spoke for over twice that length last week, Mr Sildam points out.

Despite misgivings from figures such as former head of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) Riho Terras, now an Isamaa candidate in the European elections, the president's actions undermined neither European unity – something which Estonia is staunchly committed to – nor Estonian foreign policy, which has never ruled out potential political contact with Russia, Mr Sildam says.

Change of guard in Ukraine doesn't make everything crystal clear

The new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, elected at the weekend, may represent a welcome breath of fresh air in that country, but this should be tempered with a caution on what direction it means in future, according to an opinion piece by Kalev Stoicescu, of the International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS), published in daily Postimees on Monday.

Noting that Mr Zelensky's tenure is set to overlap that of Vladimir Putin's in neighbouring Russia, as well as the next US election in 2020 (which he sees a likely to be a contest between current POTUS Donald Trump (R), and former Vice President Joe Biden (D), Mr Stoicescu notes that outgoing Ukrainian head of state Petro Poroshenko was so focussed on his fight with arch rival Yulia Tymoshenko, that he completely misjudged the popularity of Mr Zelensky.

Strengthening Ukraine's status in the world as a potential NATO and EU member, not to mention the independence of its national Orthodox church from Russia, as Mr Poroshenko championed was all well and good, Mr Stoicescu argues, but it was outstripped by the greater need in the eyes of many ordinary Ukrainians to tackle corruption and poverty, something which Mr Poroshenko did not adequately carry out on his watch, and which is needed in differentiating the country further from its eastern neighbour.

However, while Mr Poroshenko himself is a confirmed ''oligarch'', his successor will have difficulty escaping that role sufficiently, Mr Stoicescu says, given his alleged backing by an even bigger oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, as well as clarifying Ukraine's relations with Russia.

Mr Zelensky may have been dubbed a ''comedian'' due to his background in entertainment; as president, he will have to play a more serious role, albeit with an ever-present smile, the article states.

Media landscape in Estonia

In addition to public broadcaster ERR, the Estonian media landscape is dominated by two companies. Postimees Grupp, formerly Eesti Meedia and headed by Margus Linnamäe as noted, owns daily Postimees as its name suggests, including its regional editions in Tartu and Pärnu. It also holds several other regional papers, news wire the Baltic News Service (BNS), TV channel Kanal 2, and various online portals including elu24.ee.

The Ekspress Grupp, headed by Hans H. Luik, owns weeklies Eesti Ekspress and Maaleht, daily EPL, the Delfi.ee portal, Kroonika lifestyle magazine and other publications.

Business daily Äripäev is owned by the Swedish Bonnier Group (which also runs commerical TV channel TV3), and daily Õhtuleht is reportedly co-owned by Schibsted and the Ekspress Grupp.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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