We are convinced that the triumph of right-radical populism is far from inevitable in Europe and Estonia. That said, we must not sit around waiting for radical populists to discredit themselves as such an experiment would be far too costly for society, Raimond Kaljulaid and Sven Mikser write.
Tõnis Saarts' article 'Estonia's mutiny against the West' includes several thought-provoking observations that help better understand the emergence of right-radical populists in Estonia, the timeline and causes.
That said, we cannot hurriedly accept Saarts' central thesis that the rise of anti-liberal policy is particularly characteristic of Eastern Europe and that its roots lie in disappointment arising from failure to emulate the Western way of life.
Liberal democracy under pressure
The picture in Europe is more versatile. Liberal democracy finds itself under strong pressure on both sides of the former iron curtain. Anti-liberal parties have found considerable support in Poland and France, while their success remains marginal in Lithuania and Portugal.
Anti-liberals in non-democratic states despise liberal Western decadence, while they are not against prosperity that liberal democracy and free societies have managed to create. They do not see democratic freedoms as a necessary prerequisite for growing prosperity, instead trying to convince voters that the money for social benefits exists somewhere and simply needs to be redistributed differently.
That is how they can promise everything to everyone, while not having to worry about answering the question of the conditions that need to be maintained or created for sustainable growth of prosperity.
Paradoxically, anti-liberals despise the core values of Western liberal democracy – freedom and tolerance, accepting diversity and the principle not to discriminate, while being mortally afraid of a cultural invasion of the "different ones" that could somehow rob us of these values.
Anti-liberal political forces in democratic countries sow fear of newcomers sporting alien values but want to restrict freedoms in their own societies to render us more similar to those they supposedly want to defend against.
Talking about what we really need to defend in the democratic world, we must not forget the extent of the role these values and freedoms the anti-liberals are so ferociously attacking played in shaping the prosperity and competitive ability of the Western world.
After WWII, Western European and North American democracies came together to protect their common system of values from the onslaught of the totalitarian Soviet empire.
The economic and political alliances formed at the time proved incredibly strong and long-lived. Their main advantage over the enemy was their natural attractiveness: countries joined the European Union and NATO voluntarily, while the Soviet Union had to "recruit" allies using and threatening to use force.
Liberal values – free society, political and personal freedoms; freedoms of speech, religion and conscience; respect for differences and not discriminating against those who are "different" – have served as the main reason for the Western world's natural attractiveness and economic success. Only a free society gives everyone the chance to put their talents, abilities, knowledge and skills to the best possible use, ensuring the full realization of society's potential.
"Winners" and "losers"
Thirty years ago, Eastern Europeans who were throwing off their shackles, Estonians included, wanted to go West not only because it was wealthy but because of the freedoms it offered.
However, perceived freedom is always a combination of rights and opportunities, and leveling of socioeconomic well-being between "old" and "new" Europe has progressed more slowly and painfully than was hoped decades ago.
This has resulted in disappointment in parties and political leaders who were expected to introduce faster and more effective but also more socially responsible solutions.
We must admit that transitional leaders did not always try to garner broad-based support for radical reforms. Several Estonian politicians believed in the necessity of "shock therapy", even though a few have later admitted that reforms and their goals should have been explained better and their consequences for the weakest parts of society mitigated.
The upheaval of the "early capitalist" period following the singing revolution and the regaining of independence really did a number on social cohesion in Estonia. While everyone had fought for freedom together, some people suddenly became "winners," while others became "losers." The myth of the "generation of winners" and the figurative splitting of society into the "first" and "second" Estonia reflect this perceived injustice and lack of equal opportunities.
Irrespective of whether we find such policy to be justified in an era of great socioeconomic change or not, we are too late compensating.
Feeling proud of our society growing more prosperous as a whole, we are not left with much with which to justify our inability to offer our people proper social welfare services or help lone pensioners in risk of poverty.
Even though causes might differ to some extent, alienation and disappointment with traditional politics and politicians is in no way uniquely characteristic of Estonia or Eastern Europe.
Perceived growth of prosperity that seemed to be racing for decades has slowed down also in the West. At the same time, social and labor relations but also the technological and information environment we inhabit have changed beyond recognition in only a short time. This creates fertile soil for fundamentalism; the desire to go back to a time when the world was simpler and easier to grasp.
President Donald Trump's election slogan was "Make America Great Again", not "Let's Make America Great" (which is the slogan that took Ronald Reagan to the Oval Office).
One way anti-liberalism manifests, shared by radicals and populists in Eastern and Western Europe, is identity politics. Even though populists are more generous than their mainstream counterparts when it comes to promises, they usually lack better recipes for giving people benefits they feel they have been robbed of.
To divert attention from the impracticability of their socioeconomic promises, they offer certain voter groups the chance to feel privileged in society based on external group markers. The latter could be skin color, ethnic background, religious conviction, sexual orientation or even gender.
Such a campaign is cheap and intellectually undemanding, while it is also tempting because it makes it possible to shift responsibility (or even blame) for pain spots in society onto those who do not share the same identity.
Allow us to give a simple example. The sad fate of a peripheral village and its dwindling population could be the result of a set of complicated reasons. Factors usually include global trends, like consolidation and automation of production, urbanization, but also the naive conviction of rulers that growth from deregulation and liberalization of the economy will automatically reach all corners of the land without government intervention.
Things are much simpler for radical identity politicians: the community is decaying because immigrants have taken away "our" jobs, while low birthrate is the fault of homosexuals! Despite the obvious fallibility of such statements, they can, in their simplicity, resonate with a considerable part of people disappointed in recent politicians and their promises.
Right-radical identity politics is dangerous on many levels. Even though demonizing minorities and newcomers might create feelings of unity and a chance to vent frustration for a part of society, it is destructive in terms of cohesion and development of the whole of society.
Not to mention the injustice and injury inflicted upon those who are left out because of their ethnicity, skin color or other characteristics.
To some extent, the success of radical populist messages in our societies can be explained through rapid social changes and global trends caused by technological development.
The actions and failure to act of previous rulers definitely plays a role. However, even if past governments are responsible for their actions and decisions, the responsibility for messages splitting society lies fully on those who wield such messages in political struggle. Estonian politicians referring to their fellow men as cockroaches, parasites or trash cannot shift the responsibility for those words onto the shoulders of George Soros, Angela Merkel, Andrus Ansip or Mart Laar.
Coming from occupation, we wanted to take our rightful place in the free world. We got there surprisingly quickly as a state, while in our elation, we failed to notice people whom the benefits did not reach.
It is not too late to make amends. However, it cannot be achieved through splitting society, spewing hatred and suffocating freedoms.
There are no serious grounds for claiming liberal democracy has had its day and the future belongs to radicals and populists. While anti-liberal forces have become more popular in several places, by exploiting socioeconomic angst and the increasingly intangible information landscape, it would be deeply misguided to claim they have the support of most members of society in Estonia or Europe.
Free society can be defended
Liberal democracy and a free society need protection, and luckily they can be defended.
First of all, we need to admit that next to rapid and largely successful reforms, we have made serious mistakes in the past 30 years, and that they need fixing.
We do not need to tear down everything we've done like revolutionaries, but periodically reviewing state structures and revenue vs. costs without dogmas or taboos is entirely sensible as is having a fundamental debate over taxes and the state budget.
At the same time, we need to rule out cutting long-term structural reforms into pieces in the interests of populist election promises or sponsors' economic interests. It will be possible if our policies will, in the future, increasingly be based on searching for a broad-based social contract that also considers the interests of minorities, instead of fragile balance in the conditions of slight majority coalitions.
Secondly, we must be ready to create social cohesion not through antagonism but common ground. What this means is that enduring understanding between Estonian and Russian-speaking people and communities cannot be created by cultivating common dislike for immigrants who have different color skin or religious beliefs.
A united and coherent society can only be built by searching for common ground and agreement in issues that have so far separated us.
A good example of this is the question of the future of Russian-language education in Estonia that cannot be solved through an all or nothing approach proposed by the Reform Party, nor by what the Centre Party did when it and its coalition partners agreed that the political solution is going to be a total lack of policy in this matter.
A functional solution can only come from a social contract that would not be perceived as Estonians deciding "what to do with their Russians."
Thirdly, we must agree to respect the rules-based approach both in domestic politics and international relations.
A world where everyone tries to realize their interests through force benefits no one, while it can cost everyone quite a lot. A small country like Estonia can lose its influence, position, at worst even its independence very quickly.
Neither individuals nor companies feel safe in a country where the principles of social coexistence change with every political ripple.
Any society that is ripe with sharp socioeconomic fissures and the members of which do not have access to the same fundamental rights lacks internal stability needed to set and achieve long-term goals. Just like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the state and society can progress only if its weakest members are not left behind.
We are convinced the triumph of right-radical populism is not unavoidable in Estonia or Europe. Nevertheless, we must not sit around waiting for radical populists to discredit themselves as such an experiment would be far too costly for society.
If all responsible political forces but also people and interest groups outside party politics who are interested in the future of society can search for common ground for solving pain sports people feel the most acutely in free and cultured but pluralist debate, the attractiveness of right-radical populism will gradually lessen.
Editor: Marcus Turovski