Opinion: A tale of two protests, and why both are doomed

One thing both of Saturday's protests would've had in common is Estonian flags.
One thing both of Saturday's protests would've had in common is Estonian flags. Source: ERR

Two protests took place over the weekend, both of them somewhat tilting at windmills. The larger of the two in particular ⁠— which seeks the overthrow of the current coalition ⁠— needs to seriously address its approach if it's going to make headway, since at the moment it looks more like an argument over preferences ("We don't like this party in office") rather than principles, writes ERR News' Andrew Whyte.

On Saturday, a protest against the ruling coalition headed up by Jüri Ratas gathered in Hirve Park, calling for his resignation and the breakup of his government. The venue was a signal one — in 1987, Hirve Park was the site of the first major, open protest against the Soviet regime and the dawn of the cataclysmic changes which culminated in Estonian independence four years later. A couple of leading members of one of the opposition parties were there, as well as a sprinkling of Estonian celebrities and businesspeople.

Just on the other side of Toompea, another gathering reportedly took place, which also made demands: in this case, that Estonia leave the EU. This second gathering accrued far less coverage than the first, so I have no idea of numbers, or even who organized it (reported simply as "nationalists"), and, as far as I can see, can be dismissed as a busman's holiday for a handful of embittered loons.

On the other hand, the real picture is a little less sharply defined than that, when taking into account the actions, as well as the words, of society as a whole and not only those who see themselves as "influencers."

The first gathering, the one that got all the coverage, was clearly announced and well-organized over two weeks before it took place, on its organizers' social media page. "Jah vabadusele, ei valedele" (JVEV) has been holding regular protests outside of Stenbock House every Thursday since March; its principal organizer is a well-know activist.

What was a little bit striking, though not entirely surprising, was the relatively low turnout for this event. Thursday protests are always going to be quite small affairs — people have to work and there's always next Thursday instead — but this was on the weekend, and the weather was mostly dry and sunny. A nice weekend, in other words.

At the same time, the organizers say that they were happy with the turnout and it was bigger than expected. Whether that is a damning indictment or not, and whether the organizers had expected fewer attendees is by-the-by — Estonia is a small country, and this would scale up to a few thousand people in a city the size of London, hardly a small protest.

Jüri Ratas probably reads the media too

Naturally, turnout is what it is — if I tried to organize a rally it would just be me and the cat and maybe a hobo on a park bench — but JVEV says that this is a movement of concerned citizens who want to break through the impenetrable shield cocooning Jüri Ratas and tell him that, "Well, sorry mate, no matter what your sycophants say, here in the real world people think you should step down." But I think we might need a slightly larger unifying force when we're talking about government overthrow.

Yes, JVEV said they were under no illusions about the likelihood of success, but they will remain a fringe group — in fact this is in-fixed into their makeup — for as long as they don't clearly state their aims, and engender more mass appeal.

You might say, "Well they do state their aims — the removal of Ratas' government." But let's face it, this protest is because the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) is in office. If EKRE had not been in the running for the coalition, still less for the Riigikogu, this movement would not have appeared. But Jüri Ratas is not EKRE, a party which has proven to be a royal pain in the a-- for him since at least April, and EKRE is not mentioned directly on JVEV's page.

It's probably true that EKRE won as many seats as they did in part because of a haughty disdain for some of the sectors of society whence their support came. "Elitist" is an overblown word, but "Tallinn-centric," "upwardly mobile," and "prosperous" are probably fair descriptors for a lot of those who support the two opposition parties, and you can trace the same DNA through to JVEV, who, as far as their spokesperson goes, seem to be on the same wavelength (maybe without realizing it) by implying that, hey, maybe we aren't just a nation of potato pickers after all and there are a small number of people with brains.

And I'm being quite generous here — there are others who take a much more critical line on JVEV (link in Estonian).

At the same time, a third event also taking place in Tallinn on Saturday — a literary street festival in Kadriorg — points towards where the real heart of Estonia lies.

Similarities and differences with the 1987 gathering

Nonetheless, JVEV does reflect Estonian society as a whole in that small, grassroots(ish) groups in all kinds of areas of activity will spring up overnight, and it should be viewed in this light too. Another area which is textbook orthodox Estonian concerns the small foreign import within JVEV's makeup. The scattering of expat would-be celebs, who as non-citizens can't vote in general elections here, are there partly because Estonians are generally pretty tolerant, despite what they say, and occasionally have their uses in bringing some kind of international allure to proceedings. However, their attempts to interfere and bringing their own, less pleasant, western-styles of protest (ironically nearly always carried out by white males from an anglosphere country), are, arguably a type of colonialism.

A movement more or less aligned with JVEV, Kõigi Eesti, seems to have ditched the English-language component of much of its output. Whether that is because the outsiders have fulfilled their purpose, or they were found wanting in the first place, we don't know, but it seems likely that non-Estonians are going to remain a curio to be wheeled out from time to time, safely ensconced inside a glass case, just as they are in Estonian society as a whole.

Ultimately, the original Hirve Park gathering brought thousands of attendees — at much greater personal risk — a year after Chernobyl, when Estonia was still part of a foreign-dominated police state. JVEV is obviously seeking to avoid a return to said police state, but this overstates the problem by a fair way.

Speaking of strawmen, the rather mysterious "nationalist gathering" which kicked off half an hour after the Hirve Park demonstration ended was considerably more quixotic still. Withdrawal from the EU for Estonia is simply not going to happen — never, never, never. It still might not even happen for the U.K. after a national referendum over three years ago.

Who organized this rally, how many attended and what its other demands might have been don't seem to have been reported in the mainstream media, which in turn can have the effect of propagating the "leftist media shutdown" conspiracy theory-type stuff so beloved of the alt-right, if that's what this movement is.

Protests just make for popular reading?

Neither protest is going to succeed in its aims. The JVEV organizer very rightly identified that recent events such as the no-confidence vote have had the effect of consolidating the coalition further, strengthening, not weakening it. More than that, the opposition has split (no Reform Party politician was present at Hirve Park). It also runs the risk of further pushing away the "silent (vast) majority," who don't like EKRE and might agree with much of what the movement has to say, but don't like being cajoled and resent the kind of "you're either with us or you're with EKRE" silliness that has characterized public discourse throughout 2019.

The raggle-taggle nationalist grouping (if the attendees were EKRE supporters, which some of them were bound to be) will find that EKRE's staunch ally, Isamaa, is avowedly pro-EU. But more than that, there's not even a mechanism in place to put a mechanism in place for exiting the union.

One further thing. There is a very curious phenomenon which flips the two demonstrations around, in terms of their reach. To paraphrase Mayor Larry Vaughn in "Jaws", you yell "anti-government protest," everybody says ''Huh? What?''.  You yell ''far-right,'' and we've got a panic on our hands. People love reading about the alt-right, the conspiracy theorists, the "incels" and so on, whereas they couldn't give two figs for a few hippies banging drums. 'Twas ever thus.

In other words, actions speak far louder than words. When a small, unknown gathering of right-wingers garners a lot more attention than the numbers of people who were actually at said meeting, and a well-publicized demonstration sparks little interest among those who were not there, it's a teachable moment, as they say.

Those who demand the resignation of the government could bear this in mind in their overall strategy, but it won't make a lot of difference in the long run either. If the current government falls, it will be as the result of a no-confidence vote getting through, and it can still weather plenty more outbursts from the Helmes before it gets to that stage, protests or no protests. Even boosting the numbers at future demonstrations will make not one whit of difference — about 600,000 people marched against the Iraq War in London in 2003; it still got invaded.

Those who want Estonia to leave the EU are so far out there that we might as well let them carry on, really.

In the meantime, interested parties need to think along other lines (hey, what about face-to-face public discussions, where people have to defend their stance in real time, and not just via (anti-)social media comments as the JVEV suggested?) if they want this to happen any time soon.


ERR News always welcomes opinion pieces in English on any and all topical, Estonia-facing issues. Email news@err.ee if you would like to submit a piece.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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