Opinion: 12 things we learned from this year's Lennart Meri Conference

Participants at Saturday's panel discussion on the rise of populism, Lennart Meri Conference 2019.
Participants at Saturday's panel discussion on the rise of populism, Lennart Meri Conference 2019. Source: ERR

The 2019 Lennart Meri Conference, organized by the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS), running May 17-19 , was the 16th annual event of its kind, bringing journalists, diplomats, analysts, academics, politicians and other expert speakers to Tallinn. The event was billed as "one past, many futures", suggesting a degree of uncertainty very much present in the Estonia of 2019. Here's a few things I learned from the one conference, many panel discussions.

1. A galaxy of talent and charm

This was a humbling event, which condensed the best of the field, into the one location. At the same time, it was something of a kick up the behind for many of us living and working here who, might we say, have become somewhat jaded over the past few weeks and months of elections, campaigning, governmental misbehavior, a somewhat subdued and gelded opposition, and silly hand gestures.

The conference is in Estonia, but it's not about Estonia. Nonetheless, any person based here who attended will have felt enriched by what they heard and saw. Oh, and there was gallons of actual high-octane coffee available too – I don't think I've slept since Friday night.

2. Lennart Meri casts a long, deep shadow

Apart from a brief interlude, where one panel speculated on what Jesus Christ's view on the current trend for European populism would be, hushed reverence for the titular patron of the conference pervaded proceedings, rightly. It's fairly clear that Estonia still misses him terribly, but it is Lennart Meri's international stature which has been so noteworthy. I can't think of a political figure from a country of Estonia's dimensions which runs him close, and it's not been easy for his successors (both of whom attended) in stepping into such a giant pair of shoes.

3. It's all about China

As conference director Eeva Eek-Pajuste pointed out in her closing remarks, whether the discussion was about northeastern Europe, or focussing on the U.S., Russia, Western Europe or the Middle East, or anywhere else, there's no getting away from China. Its silk threads telescope further than ever, it seems. Even the round table on Belarus opined, quite a lot, on how China views that country, e.g. is it practically a separate entity from the Russian Federation, or not. People have been commentating on the rise of China for decades, of course, but it provides a welcome counterpoint to talk, concerns, fears etc. about Russia which are, naturally, an ever-present here in Estonia.

 4. Even China struggling to deal with its own ascendancy

It might be tempting to think that, behind all of China's transformation into a true global and economic titan, lies some opaque, esoteric plan, which has its origins with Lao Tzu or someone. However, Beijing itself has had teething problems in getting to grips with where has got to and where it is going, it was felt amongst the participants on one China-focussed panel.

The Trump administration has thrown it a curve ball. Relations with Russia are far from a fait accompli. The west still doesn't know what to make of Beijing's spoon-feeding announcements on what its intentions are or might be. The supposed Chinese aphorism about the curse of living in interesting times is, I'm told, apocryphal, but nonetheless we do live in interesting times, and there are cursed, positive and nuanced components to all that – including in Estonia, where Chinese money is backing the proposed Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel, and possibly the proposed Saaremaa bridge.

5. Estonian opposition paying close attention

LMC 2019 was, as you might have figured out by now, a great place for people-watching.

Members from the two opposition parties were more in evidence than those from the coalition ones, however; Jüri Luik, Estonia's defense mininser, who moderated the opening panel was an exception, and I saw couple of Centre MPs, but not more than that.

President Kersti Kaljulaid did mention, at the closing event, that EKRE were not barred from attendance. With a representative of Viktor Orbán's administration on the populism panel discussion, as well as a semi-populist from the Slovak government, a charge of bias on the part of LMC might be hard to justify.

6. Audience Q&A of dubious merit

Audience Q&A are often a blight, though attendees expect to have that platform. The scope for, rather than just asking a question, instead making a statement of opinion, or beginning with a life story or anecdote, was just too great.

The format at the conference was such that there were guaranteed go-to questioners, based on seniority, followed by the rest, but instead of answering questions in turn, the moderator would rack up a few of them which the panel would then answer. This is where things could come a little but awry and, although there were some real gems in the rough there, it unnecessarily cut into break time. I know it's difficult to cut people off in mid-flow, but you just have to do it really.

7. E.U.-U.S.-China relations still to normalize

This really came up in the China discussion, where panellists noted that the E.U. as a whole tends to view China much more in terms of a trading partner, than a rival as America does. Just as China needs to get its direction squared away, so too does the E.U., not least with the rise of populism. This could inveigle itself not only in the parliament – which it already has, but also at the European Commission level, it was argued.

Other dimensions include problems with influencing via social media, especially given all the big companies are American. The E.U. countries and their friends really need a social media platform of their own, it was felt.

8. Social media influence concerns are very real

Which brings us to (anti-) social media and how out of control it seems. One Latvian panellist noted the fishy nature of a politically motivated social media page having many times the number of "likes" (tens of thousands of them) as that country's public broadcaster. When that happens, when you can't easily verify who exactly is involved in or behind a page, that's a big red flag over any such page.

Clearly, something needs addressing, with the big five companies. One analogy had us imagining their behavior, in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica and other security concerns, how things would look if instead of a social media company, a famous hamburger chain was in the sportlight.

In this scenario, an outbreak of food poisoning sees the deaths of hundreds of diners, purely as a result of poor hygiene in the junk food joints' kitchens. If the company then were to say "oh, sorry about that – we'll fix it but, you know, we need a few years, we're working on it", or even "this is really difficult to get on top of – it would help if diners could come into the kitchens themselves to help us clean up and maintain hygiene," well, they'd rightly be a laughing stock.

They would clearly be told that, no, you will halt business until you fix these issues. And yet this is the situation we have with Facebook and Google.

Twitter emerged somewhat less scathed, and is thought to have more potential life left in it than Facebook. Whatsapp is apparently most popular, since you get the direct access to the movers and shakers, once you have their number.

9. The riddle that is populism

Naturally, populism required some defining at one panel discussion, as well as categorization into "good" or "bad" varieties. The collapse of the Kurz government in Austria, on the issue of far-right coalition members doing deals with Russia, broke on Saturday, which concentrated minds.

However, there's no common agreement on the nature of the beast that has been unleashed and where it's going next. Opinions were sharply divided on whether populism has reached its high water mark now, or if, in fact, we have just had a taster of what is to come. Brexit and Alternative für Deutschland were felt to be a bit of a side-show, by some.

Apportioning responsibility to what is keeping populism alive (or what might threaten it) was similarly subjective: was it a question of finance? What happens when populists are in office – which makes them the new elite, so who replaces them in the populist cross-hairs? Are there tensions at a national and European level in the populist movement, or movements, which could be its undoing? Will populists sell-out their own countries, despite their claims to patriotism (as in the case of Austria). Is it just the internet which fuels these things?

We'll have the answer to many of these questions in Estonia in the coming months.

10. The speakers really made the event

I started off with this, but again, the standard of discourse at LMC 2019 was off the scale, due in no small part to a great roster of extremely gifted, articulate and experienced speakers. I'm bound to have been wowed by the knack some of the British journalists had for bringing clarity to an issue, in an fluent economy of words. Special mention has to be made of Oliver Bullough, Tom Nuttall, and of course Edward Lucas and James Sherr, as well as the Australian moderator of the China discussion, Bobo Lo.

This was complemented by the textbook brightness and energy of many American participants, even first thing in the morning, including Charles Kriel and Scott Carpenter at the digital elections round table, Molly Montgomery, moderator of the kleptocracy panel discussion, and Theresa Fallon, Dean Cheng and Torrey Taussig, panellists talking about China. The non-native speakers on the panels thus had to really dig it out, and proved more than worthy of the task.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted in the closing discussion the paucity of good quality English daily journalism in or about Estonia. He pinpointed the reason for that – simply unsustainable audience size. I would add to that the obvious reason that we're not an anglosphere country here in Estonia. I've not seen anything in English from countries, much bigger than Estonia, which could match the Atlantic, or the Spectator – both publications which have no Estonian equivalent, Ilves said.

I'm afraid, people will have to muddle along with us for the time being, though there is also a new, and pretty promising weekly digest here, overseen by an Estonian-based brit who's worked a lot with the e-residency program. Give 'em a read.

11. All-white delegates, the only black faces on hotel staff

For all the LMC's progressiveness, there was one thing which stood out which they might want to address. The only black people I saw there were hotel staff. Now, hotel work is invaluable of course. Were conference goers to be deprived of their food and drink, there would be far more outcry than there would over a missing panel discussion. But, looking around at the audience and panels, while they got the gender balance more or less right, it was about 99% white, I have to say. There were a few east and south asian people involved, but that was about it. Probably more work needed there.

12. Putting Wilmington, Delaware on the money laundering map

It appears, in the light of Danske and Swedbank, that the knives are out for the money launderers, thank god – both in general, and for Estonia's reputation in particular. While the people behind these nefarious activities are smart – they'll find work-arounds – the net is nonetheless narrowing.

A sense of urgency is in the air on this. If some of the billions of illicit funds slushing around found their way to terrorist organizations or maverick states, the consequences are unthinkable.

The damage done by these kleptocracies – the wrenching-apart of the potentially wealthy Venezuela is one of the most poignant – is enough to make any right-thinking person angry.

As reported by ERR News, focussing on "traditional" money laundering centres and shell company havens, such as the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands, doesn't give the full picture either. In fact, the UK and the US are league-leaders here, with Wilmington, Delaware, of all places, being reportedly the biggest "company creator" in the world.

The take-home for me is that we'll one day be able to talk about a pre-Danske and a post-Danske Estonia, thanks in part to the hard work of investor-turned-whistle-blower Bill Browder, as well as work still to be done in delineating responsibility of different authorities.

For instance, the Danske miscreants exploited the fissure between the jurisidiction of the national, regulatory authorities in Denmark and Estonia. New bodies are being established at both the E.U. and national levels. The police will have learned a lot from the experience too.

It will be interesting to see how this issue has evolved by the time we get to next year's Lennart Meri Conference. In the meantime, keep an eye on China...

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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