Monday, 17 June 2013

"Europeland!" Separating fact from fiction in Estonia

 On 1st January 2011 Estonia became the proud recipient of that much-coveted reward for fiscal prudence and limited government: the euro. It had for some time already been the west's darling bud of the Baltic, a kind of mini-Nordic warrior sans that region's troubling attachment to high welfare spending. The Economist celebrates what it terms 'Estonian exceptionalism', heralding 2011's return to 8.5% growth as a result of good old fashioned creative destruction (driven of course by the vital space created for innovation by draconian austerity). A plucky, tech-savvy attitude - a kind of Apple of the EU - and business-friendly politics has allowed a burst of start-ups to take advantage of the chaotic displacements of capital from Europe's new southern 'periphery'. Estonia's success apparently proves that a low-tax Europe has a (northern) future. Unemployment has 'plunged' from nearly 19% to just under 14% (proving perhaps that the gap between 'natural' and 'unnatural' levels of employment is narrower than some of us had thought!)1

There is something convincingly modern about Estonia's snappy, e-democratic stature, at once miniature and minimalist. On the matter of his own, in some cases traumatic, post-Soviet economic reforms, the former Estonian PM Mart Laar quotes "the well-known slogan: 'Jut do it'. In other words, be decisive about adopting reforms, and stick with them despite the short-term pain they may bring."2 One might quibble with his use of Nike's commercial branding as a metaphor for massive economic restructuring, but that aside, Laar's position is cannily expressed: a mix of excruciating, permanent austerity and openness to incoming foreign capital. The ebullient, bookish Laar presided for two years over the kind of radical shock therapy that usually wound up landing state assets in the hands of gangsters. Estonia, however, suffered no such repercussions. Laar, who claimed to have only read one book on economics before taking office (unsurprisingly by Milton Friedman), plunged giddily into that brave new world. He took over from Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland's finance minister and implementer of shock therapy there, the concept of an "extraordinary politics" - the idea that during a post-revolutionary lull a still under-represented, overwhelmed populace can be stunned into tolerating terrible hardships in the name of national liberation. The implementation of shock therapy depended on the absence of that very thing which was its supposed "historical mission" to create - an organised, democratic "civil society".

As part of the Soviet Union, and a relatively well-integrated part with a 40% Russian population (one that still troubles Estonian nationalists), Estonia had weathered the economic fall-out from the hard, final years of anti-communist struggle better than much of the former Socialist bloc. A simple referendum was enough to make Estonia independent in 1992. Crucially Estonia managed to dodge the poisoned chalice of massive borrowing from the IMF and indulged instead in the kind of austerity programme that European governments today would almost universally admire. The country became a laboratory for a new, distinctly European free-market utopia: "Estonia reduced trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers and abolished all trade restrictions, making the nation a free-trade zone."3 Europe's combination of welfare states and social markets has been celebrated by commentators from Jurgen Habermas to Tony Judt, not merely as a practical variant of capitalist accumulation but as constituting a qualitatively different 'civlisational' project to, say, the ruggedly individualist United States. Estonia is evidence that the real differences between European social welfarism and more cut-throat, liberal capitalism are being eroded, not only as a consequence of the long downturn, but also as part of a general structural adaptation of European capital to a much more competitive world market. The accession of so many apparently 'unsuitable' national economies to the EU - so-called 'basket cases' such as Greece, Cyprus and Hungary, but also 'under-developed' countries like Romania and Bulgaria - has by no means been carried through out of benevolence on the part of member states (in fact they have been punishingly tight-fisted throughout the unnecessarily protracted process, often boasting of how little aid they've given), but in fact because easy access to cheap labour is essential for Europe's competitiveness. In the case of Estonia, European capital is only interested so long as wages and taxes are kept low.

Following the 2008 crash Estonia clawed its way back to growth in the only way it knows how: by slashing public sector wages, raising the pension age, and restricting access to health benefits.4 The resulting conditions combine extensive liberalisation of capital with repression and atomisation of the working class. Just 17% of the workforce is unionised in a country ravaged by 15% unemployment. Such precariousness obviously results in isolation and vulnerability for large numbers of working people. A familiar enough story, of course, but what's surprising is the general chorus of celebration of these very conditions. While the EU bears down on the likes of Italy for its fiscal imprudence, Estonia is duly celebrated, despite having similar levels of unemployment. Indeed, signs suggest the situation of Estonian workers is not only to be thought of as permanent but is increasingly viewed as a model to be emulated. Estonia could even be a sign of Europe's future, where long-term unemployment is structurally normalized. The Estonian political class's avowed modernity and wonkish obsession with tech-wizardry closely resemble the young, ardent right-wingers gathered around the present British Chancellor (their potent euro-scepticism aside, of course). Here then is a free market liberalism-on-steroids that presents itself as the progressive radical alternative to welfare state stagflation. Estonia in 2013 is a microcosm of what a future entrepreneurial Europe might look like.

Though it is tempting, and very often morally necessary, to analyse the 'failures' (Azerbaijan; Belarus) or 'near-misses' (Ukraine) of postsocialist liberalisation within the former USSR (leaving aside the Warsaw pact states), the sheer weirdness of the success stories merits a decent look. Tallinn's medieval Old Town, consisting of the hill-perched administrative district of Toompea and the surrounding lower town, is a thing of intricate beauty. Contemporary Tallinn is an amalgam of constant efforts at restoration, dating as far back as its incorporation into the Swedish Empire in the 16th century, right up to the work done following a particularly brutal bombing campaign by the Soviets in 1944. Unlike many of Europe's plushly restored capitals, Tallinn's history of reconstruction and restoration is an integral part of the place itself. Despite this very history of reconstruction, it today exudes a certain commodified medievalism, stemming less from the architecture than those flogging their wares among its alleys. Whole streets are congested with 'traditional' German beer-halls. Bored undergrads in mock-up peasant dress hang around in gaggles awaiting their next victim. You are invariably served by a 'busty wench' with perfect English. The older female employees are made to dress-up as fisher-wives and washer-women. Swarms of American and Japanese tourists deal with such affronts to local dignity with a professional brusqueness. It is with a sinking sense of inevitability that you squeeze yourself into an alcove to allow a legion of British men to march past, each member bearing the legend "Sami's Stag-do". Strip-bars, that decidedly non-medieval east European tradition, are noticeably prevalent. Beer is served in clay flagons or mock chalices.

Of course, Prague also has medieval theme restaurants. Warsaw's Old Town is entirely reconstructed (having been completely torn down by the Nazis in 1944). Budapest is far too much of a tumultuous, living beast to be reduced to tourist fodder, but even its famous Fisherman's Bastion was constructed entirely for ornamental purposes. There is in every capital city a certain contest between modes of historical representation, one a display of culture, the other of power. Neither can be absolutely distinguished from the other, and the result is various forms of compromise: at some point the function of fortification is adapted to that of decorative triumphalism (the archetype being Berlin's Brandenburg Gate). What makes contemporary-medieval Tallinn different is its historical modesty: lacking the imperial history of Berlin, Vienna or even Budapest, Tallinn's claim to fame rests solely on its encapsulation of the medieval. You might be tempted to describe Tallinn's old town as a sort of "Estonia Land", a picturesque image of the country as it would like to be seen, were it not so lacking in historical specificity. Better might be to call it simply "Europe Land", condensing as it does something of the merry German consumption of pork and beer with the sun-dappled cobbles of France; the spires and cottagey intimacy of the Netherlands with the Baltic ports of Poland. Some restaurants offer freshly-minted medieval coinage with which you can claim a free cocktail. Novelty foot-stompers ring everywhere from loudspeakers, exhorting all to drink and eat heartily. It is this pan-medievalism that foists an unfair perception on Tallin: that of a generic non-place, a soothing, deracinated soup of comfortingly familiar Euro-tropes. While it is all very pleasant it lacks the coarseness, the rough edges of Europe's (and Estonia's) real history: a history, in the case of Tallinn as much as anywhere else, of domination by foreign powers.

In Helsinki, an hour by boat over the gulf, we had, in one of those peculiar European coincidences, bumped into someone I knew from university. He told us that, with the long summer days (properly dark only at two), a sense of hysteria descended over residents of the Finnish capital. Tallinn was much the same, though with cheaper booze. The flood of increasingly inebriated wanderers never seemed to abate. The light seems to last forever in the lanes of Tallinn, a feat that entirely eludes Prague. At times in the Czech capital the very existence of light seems apocryphal, a fog-mirage decomposing in the late, wet morning. What light there is - grey and frumpy - appears to emanate not from the heavy sky, but from the dull stone of the buildings themselves. Tallinn in summer, on the other hand, is a cacophonous light-stage, its fresh sea skies beckoning the clouds north. The sun continues to creep between walls until well into the night, its angles of shadow growing vertiginously sharper, as dizzy drinkers stumble from one bar to the next. By two it betrays a hint of Kavos or some other Greek island, where an interminable, cheap party grinds on and on forever.

At a sprawling outdoor museum just outside the centre, where we went for some authentically cultural respite, dozens of lovingly preserved examples of Estonian domestic architecture sit like herds of sheep in rolling fields. Estonia has a long tradition of wooden housing and the museum does its best to fit in every example. They are brought in from the real world and nursed like wounded birds in this peculiar sanctuary. In reconstructed, ranch-like homesteads (garrulous fowl and the occasional pig trotting past) they put on surreal medieval folk rituals for baffled tourists. Audience participation is obligatory. For most of the older Americans, arriving by the coach-load and hurriedly ferried into the pens by tour guides, this entailed sitting and clapping with whatever jollity they could muster. For me, like an awkward teen roped into a final cruise holiday with his parents, this meant line-dancing and high-kicking to a tune from an old cassette-recorder. This routine, surely exhausting for the blonde, traditionally-clad dancers, repeats itself maniacally every fifteen minutes. As you wander round the exhibits you realize the entire place is a performance. Peaking into one reassembled 19th-century town house I was confronted with a costumed couple engaged in an argument over lunch, a performance that would continue even after I left.

Our tour of Estonia eventually took us, on the only bus of the day, to the tiny village of Altja (permanent population: 21). There on the shores of the Baltic we climbed big erratic boulders, hopping over the lapping tide, and went on a hunt for beavers (final tally: 1). Altja is tucked away in the heart of Lahemaa, a national park in the north of the country. Here, surely, we would discover a more authentically Estonian Estonia, away from all the peasant costumes, crap beer and tourists. Upon finding the local inn - which looked more like a dishevelled barn - I was intrigued. We went inside to get a drink. Upon entering we found ourselves in a surprisingly well-turned out beer hall. It was then we caught sight of the bar staff: two blondes faithfully kitted out in mediaeval costumes. Upon seeing us they promptly kicked off a medieval fanfare. "Welcome," they chorused, and proceeded to take our orders in perfect English. We could only assume that, even in the depths of the forest, Estonia has managed to do something very peculiar to itself: the real Estonia has become, authentically, a medieval parody. Whereas with other tourist faves, a reality was supposed to exist beneath the surface, hidden from the view of tourists, Estonia embodies fully the myth of its plastic, pan-European aspirations. In reaching out to Europe, has Estonia lost its essentially Estonian character? Has it become a place where one is either an entrepreneur or a (mock-)peasant, serving endless beer and pork to German and Japanese tourists?

1'Estonian exceptionalism', The Economist, text available here:
2Laar, 'Estonian Success Story', Journal of Democracy, available on J-Stor
4Moulds, 'Estonia and Latvia: Europe's champions of austerity?', Guardian

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