BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Estonia, NATO and the War on Iraq
HITS: 1992 | 1-05-2003, 16:42 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

Estonia’s entry into NATO and the EU should have been significant issues, but BHHRG’s impression was that NATO entry was not at the forefront of average voters’ minds – perhaps people fail to appreciate the costs of NATO entry which demands that 2% of a country’s GDP be spent annually on defence. All six parties that were predicted to make it into parliament favoured membership in both organizations, although, official opinion polls showed popular support for EU below that for NATO. In fact, Estonia has gained something of a reputation among Eurosceptics as the least enthusiastic of the candidate members. A group of British Eurosceptics recently set up a fund to help the Estonian ‘No’ campaign with its public relations, needless to say, all state funding, as well as assistance from Brussels goes to those in favour of accession to the union. Estonia’s referendum is planned for September, months after most of the other 10 countries have voted a sign, perhaps, that any lingering doubts will be put to rest when it is seen that everyone else has voted ‘Yes’.
The only party of the six to explicitly place conditions on Estonia’s EU membership was the Estonian People’s Union, which opposed entry if the EU was to become a federal entity. The Centre Party, meanwhile, left the issue of EU membership off its party manifesto. On January 22nd, the Estonian newspaper Eesti Paevaleht reported that “[of] Estonians, 48 percent said they would vote in favour of accession at a referendum, 35 percent were against accession and 17 per cent were unable to give an opinion. Compared with April 2002, support for the European Union has grown as much as by 13 percentage points…” The only party to unequivocally oppose membership in the EU is the Independence Party, described in a BBC pre-election guide to Estonia as having “a small voice in the country and a small membership of just over 1,000.” The United Russian People’s Party opposed joining NATO and advocated using state resources required of NATO membership to resolve social problems.
BHHRG spoke with Allar Tankler, media relations chief at the Res Publica campaign, who said his party had no intention of reopening negotiations on EU accession, describing as “very populistic” the decision of the Centre Party not to take a concrete stand on the issue. However, Mr. Tankler also expressed the view that although a referendum (scheduled for September) on EU accession would be “basically binding,” the EU referendum should be repeated as often as possible even if the result is “no.” Referring to the government’s expressed intention that if the referendum produces a negative outcome, then “like in Ireland” there will be another one, Tankler said: “It would be best for everyone if, you know, we just sort of got it over with.”
Mart Viisitamm, executive secretary of the Centre Party, told BHHRG that it would be “difficult to imagine Lithuania and Latvia joining [the EU] without us.” He said that the BBC had recently asked his party why it was not more enthusiastic about the EU, and that the party responded that it was quite satisfied so far with the way the process was going. The problem, he said, was “what the EU will look like in the future,” and added that, “the question of Estonian independence is still open.”
The ethnic Russians interviewed by BHHRG displayed cynicism in their views of both NATO and the EU. Their main ambition was to get out, to go to Germany or Finland, and for this reason some thought NATO membership might actually be a good thing. A couple of female Russian students actually seemed to think that Estonia’s inclusion in NATO would make it easier for them to travel back and forth across the Russian border (!). However, the Russians generally reacted negatively toward the prospect of EU membership, commenting that it would “just make prices higher.” There was “instability everywhere,” they said, and EU membership would make it easier for Estonians to go to the West but “harder for us.” The inhabitants of Estonia had “no interest in NATO,” they said, and believed membership in the alliance was “a completely governmental issue.”
As BHHRG has noted in other places, the problem for ‘no’ campaigners is that many people will vote in favour of EU entry because they want to leave the candidate country in question not because they approve of the EU per se. The sad fact is that the economic preliminaries of joining the EU have already taken their toll across the region and it is almost irrelevant now whether or not Estonia, or anywhere else for that matter, formally joins up or stays out.

Estonia and the War on Iraq

As publicized in the first week of February 2003, Estonia was one of ten countries to have signed the “Letter to Washington” in support of a US-led war on Iraq. The Letter to Washington became a source of brief domestic controversy when it emerged that neither the parliament nor the president had known about it beforehand. The same thing happened in the Czech Republic when former President Havel took it upon himself to unilaterally sign the letter without consulting the Czech parliament. On 10th February 2003, the radio reported that the Estonian People’s Union, one of six parties in parliament, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Siim Kallas voicing shock over the way in which Estonia came to sign the letter and reminding the prime minister that two-thirds of Estonia’s inhabitants did not support the war. Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, commander in chief of the country’s armed forces, had publicly stated his opposition to war a few days earlier, declaring: “Let us keep peace in the world… We were able to restore our state in 1991 following this principle… We consider the same thing important today: we have to try to save every single human life.”
Prime Minister Kallas responded to the criticism from fellow politicians over his clandestine signing of the letter by claiming that Estonia was “forced to choose” between America and ultra-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Kallas, a former editor of the main Soviet Estonian daily newspaper, Rahva Haal, and official of the Soviet Estonian finance ministry, said that naturally Estonia chose to side with the US. The question of why Estonia could not remain neutral on an issue as grave as war received no coverage in media reports. People’s Union candidate Dr. Uno Silberg told BHHRG that, very soon after the parliamentary mini-crisis broke over the Letter to Washington, all the MPs came to an understanding, something he described as a manifestation of the “business plan” in Estonia.
As the controversy over the Letter to Washington at the beginning of February revealed, the democratic will in Estonia is not necessarily fairly reflected in the republic’s electoral politics. An opinion poll conducted at the end of March revealed that 80% of Estonians opposed the war in Iraq. Even support for NATO membership was reported on March 8th in the newspaper Eesti Paevaleht to have decreased by 15% as a result of the Iraq crisis.
The complacency of Baltic politicians was slightly dented on 30th March when an antiwar demonstration which took place in front of the US Embassy in Tallinn turned into a riot as protesters began throwing bottles and other objects at the embassy building. 83 people were arrested. In fact, in yet another example of the democratic dysfuntionality that has accompanied this war the world over, all opinion polls conducted in the Baltic States show their populations overwhelmingly opposed to the attack on Iraq.

Privatization

Another issue that formed a backdrop to the election was the question of privatization of Estonia’s largest energy concern, Eesti Energia. In January 2002, Prime Minister Mart Laar purportedly resigned over the failure of a privatization deal that would have resulted in the state enterprise’s acquisition by the American company NRG Energy. The Soviet-era Eesti Energia is supposedly the world’s largest oil shale-fired plant. Before the deal failed, NRG President Dave Peterson twice warned the Estonian government that backing down on the deal would jeopardize the country’s NATO and EU bids, and Prime Minister Laar repeated the warnings for public consumption. The warnings were apparently to no avail, as politicians from then-President Lennart Meri down joined in condemning the privatization as disastrous for the country.
Allar Tankler expressed the Res Publica party’s position on the privatization to BHHRG: “We have a position on Eesti Energia that the state is not necessarily a bad business option. There are some companies, especially in the energy sector, where the government should retain an interest. But it is reasonable to maybe go and publish some of the shares on the stock exchange to lessen ‘political management.’ A lot of enterprises are being run by politicians for political motives.”
The Centre Party’s Mart Viisitamm expressed the following view of the Eesti Energia buy-out scheme: “The deal was bad from the beginning. The conditions were terrible, and the contract left practically nothing for us.” However, Viisitamm added that the failure of the NRG Energy-Eesti Energia deal was not the real reason for the resignation of Mart Laar as premier. “Laar resigned because the Reform Party in the Tallinn city government entered into coalition with the Centre Party, and the city and national governments are very connected. Laar could not remain the head of the national government when his party had lost control of the city council.”
The EU is also targeting oil shale powered energy on environmental grounds. As this report is written, several Estonian politicians are demanding that the country cooperate with neighbouring Lithuania to build a new nuclear power plant after the facility at Ignalina closes due to EU safety concerns. BHHRG representatives visited Ignalina in December 2002 where residents seemed unconvinced that any new facility would be built in the future. The suspicion must be that all local power generation will cease and the Baltic states will be put onto the European grid. According to The Baltic Times [3-9 April 2003] “Eesti Energia also plans to take part in “Estlink”, a 110 million euro power cable that will link Estonian and Latvian energy suppliers to the Scandinavia and Nordic power grid”. If so, local consumers can look forward to paying a great deal more for their energy supplies.
As the mopping up operation is all that is left on the privatization front, efforts to attract the attention of weary voters now turned to corruption. Res Publica appealed to the electorate as the ‘new brush’ that would fight corruption. In the months leading up to the election several high-profile figures came under attack – they were mostly from the Centre Party, the one party that still has a significant following in the country. Again, according to The Baltic Times [13-19 March 2003] “centrist leaders were linked to shady business groups and Soviet era repression”. Over and over again BHHRG has found that corruption is about all that remains on the post-communist election menu, now that projects bearing the name ‘reform’ have fallen into disrepute with voters. Although envy and retribution remain human constants, they offer little in the way of practical solutions to peoples’ problems, other than the opportunity to let off steam.

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