Opinion: UN Seat concentrating minds, not divisive folly

UN General Assembly vote on non-permanent Security Council membership at UN headquarters in New York, Friday, June 7.
UN General Assembly vote on non-permanent Security Council membership at UN headquarters in New York, Friday, June 7. Source: President's office

Estonia's recent UN Security Council (UNSC) victory might tempt many to assume that, in the whole "globalists/federalists" versus stay-at-home nationalists war of words dominating recent months, the former won and confirmed their primacy, while the latter have been dealt a richly deserved blow and will now retreat back to their caves.

As always, it's a bit more nuanced than that. Among the ranks of those most identified with supranational megaorganizations like the UN, there are cracks. The most obvious of these runs between the current president and her predecessor.

Kersti Kaljulaid was instrumental in putting Estonia on the map, if that is what the UNSC non-permanent seat does. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, on the other hand, saw it as something of a white elephant, and thus far has not said anything publicly on the matter, since the seat was awarded on Friday.

The problem, Ilves says, lies in non-veto membership, which is what Estonia, together with Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam and St. Vincent and Grenadines, has.

This is of little value, Ilves argues, since the big boys — the five permanent members — can veto at will, with just one dissenting voice from their number able to scotch a proposal even if all the other members are in favor. Resources might be better funneled towards improving Estonia's status in NATO and the EU, he says.

Nationalists seem unified, globalists do not

Whether this situation at the UNSC will change in future and whether Estonia can help to initiate these changes is another question, but from that perspective the UNSC spot could seem something of an "everyone gets a prize"-type prize.

At home, too, one of the parties superficially most committed to "globalization," the Social Democratic Party (SDE), is not all of one mind. It overlooked the person who would have been its first ever female leader, backed by at least one former MEP from the party, to pick a man who had been lining things up behind the scenes in his favor for months, long before outgoing leader Jevgeni Ossinovski stood down. All of which suggests that demagoguery is not something confined just to the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE).

Speaking of which, the Kert Kingo saga, if nothing else, proved that the old adage that Estonians are stubborn in extremis, particularly when it comes to anything related to foreigners, is alive and well in 2019.

There's an almost comedic greatness to Ms Kingo's utter unwillingness to engage in international trade meetings as, well, international trade minister, and apparent non-interest in the successful functioning of the role.

Her party also still has the initiative, at least on the surface. It, too, elected its leader the same day as SDE. Mart Helme was returned, unopposed, for the seventh time in a row.

And yet, just as it would be a mistake to assume everyone in the "globalist" camp all read from the same hymnsheet, so too would it be foolish to think the surface-level unity in the far-right camp is freely felt, without pressure, threats, or at least a lot of window dressing.

Iron man Urmas Reinsalu was in New York for the UN vote too, as foreign minister, and looked happy with the result. Reinsalu is in office with EKRE, however (the foreign minister is with the national conservative Isamaa party).

He also led the charge against the UN's Global Compact for Migration (nothing to do with the security council and thus non-binding on member states) at the end of last year, before EKRE were in office.

Indeed, many at the time thought he and his party were something of a trojan horse for the opposition EKRE at the time — their light blue a little more palatable than EKRE's royal blue.

Consensus always necessary

Ultimately, this is how Estonia works. Parties — most of them — have ideals. But then they end up in office, either at a governmental, or EU or other level, with parties who on paper don't share their views, or are even at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Since they all get on well enough on a personal level, no contradiction is seen in these line-ups — they all went to the same schools, were in the same college fraternity/sorority, have friends and distant relatives in common, rely on each other for business links and so on.

The other semi-unifying issue is what to do with the nearby external threat, one which at the same time is a necessary evil. (I could well wrong about this, but can't shake a sneaking suspicion that, somewhere along the line, a money trail of some kind leading back to the Russian Federation — obscured and diverted and masked by bank accounts, companies and persons in different locations along the way, for sure — could be found for every one of the major political parties in Estonia.)

It's a cliché to say the country is too small to rock the boat. It might be easier to say a colorful but hugely poisonous, spiny fish, which nonetheless can provide lifesaving nourishment if used correctly, has launched itself into the boat, and everyone is scrambling round to keep it in view at all times, and avoid coming to grief, even at others' expense.

The games that EKRE and SDE have been playing with each other for months now are case in point. They are both in this together, and know full well the rules of engagement as their beautifully choreographed dance passes into its next movement.

Expats here more than just a useful resource

The small(ish) expat community is an ever useful, ever eager resource for the, most likely Reform Party-backed, Kõigi Eesti movement to utilize where needed.

Nonetheless, the expat community are no Aunt Sallies; they too intuitively know the score. The difference is, they will approach the poison fish problem quite differently, trying to scare it away by banging tin lids together, rather than rearranging the deck chairs quietly to their own temporary advantage as the native political players do.

I'd estimate that from what I've seen, the English-speaking expat community is roughly split about 60-20-20, where the larger group is in favor of the "globalization" approach, and the two smaller ones are either out-and-out EKRE fans, or have no strongly-voiced opinion.

In any case, expats have a limited shelf-life for Estonian politicians. As an Isamaa candidate for the European elections said to me, "Well it's okay with you, you live here, but we're more interested in people outside the country who don't know anything about Estonia."

The international image is paramount; once you become part of the furniture here, you can't help much with that, in other words.

Best in the long-term to live in the real world

And there lies the crux of the problem from both/all sides in this controversy.

The rest of the world, believe it or not, does not sleep with a framed map of Estonia above its collective bed. Moldova just called snap elections in the midst of a crisis. Do you really think that the mass of the reading public in the U.S. or even in the U.K. distinguishes between the two places?

And trying to drag them to their keyboards in order do so, like the person desperate to be popular, while failing to nurture those expats who have given up a lot — in some cases everything — to live and work in Estonia is never going to get anywhere.

The EU and NATO, as well as the UN, do not exist for Estonia to get things out of, needless to say, but are bodies of coequal partners who work together for a common benefit; they were this decades before Estonia was independent, and they will continue to be so in the future.

They are all long-range projects to the nth degree, hence why they will outlive and outlast the much more short-termist, prone-to-upheaval Russian Federation (Russia ironically is one of the UNSC permanent members) in its current guise.

Changes can happen at the margins for sure — Brexit for instance — but when you have your eye on the UN General Assembly presidency for the year 2052, as Estonia has, you can bet that these organizations as a whole are going nowhere.

This, ultimately, is why I put globalization in quotation marks. It's more just a question of living in the real world as it is and will be, nothing to do with building something new and far-reaching and evil. This makes those opposed in principle to these bodies and Estonia's membership in them almost akin to flat-earthers.

Of course, flat-earthers are hardly a new thing either, which is why recent months, as I've said before, are more blip than blasphemy. There's one, seemingly united and cohesive Flat Earth Society. In the real world, there are differences of opinion which can be resilient and hardy, but don't ever come to represent an annulment of the laws of gravity or put the brakes on the locomotive of global maturation.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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