Estonia's future
Arvamus 11 Dec 2009  EWR
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Edward Lucas

A crisis is an expensive lesson, and wasting anything expensive is bad. So Estonians should use these hard times to take a hard look at themselves, their society and their state, and work out how to dump bad habits and adopt good ones. Learning from your own mistakes is good and learning from other people’s is even better. So Estonians should also look south to Latvia to see what may happen if current bad tendencies persist.

There are no quick fixes, only important changes. Independence was not a panacea. Nor was introducing the kroon, or joining NATO and the EU. Adopting the euro will be no panacea either: it is a necessary condition for solid prosperity in future, but not a sufficient one.

Estonia should not respond to the crisis by running to Russia’s arms in the hope of big money and a happy life. I travel a lot to Moldova, Bulgaria and Latvia. They all tried making friends with Russia in the hope of good results. The price is high and the benefits scanty.

It would also be wrong for Estonia to abandon the liberal, open, westward-oriented economic policy of the past 17 years. It was not and is not the government’s job to sort out the economy by intervention, subsidy and other meddling.

But it is also not the government’s job just to sit back and let people make money. A degree of smugness and complacency in government is one reason why we had such an over-heated lending boom in lending and property speculation. That made the Estonian economy vulnerable to the world downturn. It raised costs, stoked debts, and now hurts competitiveness.

Inattentive and careless government at the municipal level has ruined the Tallinn cityscape by a jumble of ugly skyscrapers. The city survived Soviet occupation with only two nasty skyscrapers. If Estonians in 1992 could have looked into the future to see the bad planning that has now uglified their beautiful capital, I think they would have been shocked and disappointed... How much these bad town-planning decisions result from incompetence, and how much from corruption is for the voters to decide.

Estonia after the Euro needs to concentrate much more on the quality of life, not the quantity of money. Estonian competitiveness in the long run cannot rest just on low costs. Nor will Estonia be able to compete to attract the brightest brains by offering the biggest money. But it can be a clean, safe, enjoyable, interesting friendly place to live. That will keep Estonians from emigrating, encourage Estonians abroad to come back, and make it easier for foreign employers to send their best workers here.

Making Estonia more foreigner-friendly will come at a price. For the first 20 years of regained independence the effort has been on consolidating national identity, restoring the primacy of the Estonian language and rebuilding the country’s elite. Now it is time to think a bit differently, and to give more emphasis to Estonia as a country open to talents and ideas from outside. It is shocking that Estonians who have graduated from the world’s top universities are not coming back home to teach and study. They say they are treated as outsiders. A small country such as Estonia cannot afford any cartels and protectionism-it needs the best ideas and the best people, everywhere and always.

Another bad habit that needs dumping is the politicisation of the civil service. Estonia’s public servants used to be remarkably good: professional and apolitical. That has begun to change at a national level and is already deplorable in some bits of local government. The idea that a public servant’s career depends on joining a particular party is corrosive of the principles of freedom and justice on which the Estonian Republic’s future rests. It means that the quality of public services and administration worsens. It rewards creeps and bullies, and penalises the honest and fair-minded. It helps clans, groups and other interests to bend the state to their will, which in turns makes it easier for hostile foreign powers to manipulate the country. Strong public institutions, widely respected and ably run, are the cornerstone of national security.

Estonia is still a success story. As a foreign correspondent who has spent nearly 20 years living in Estonia, visiting, and writing about it, I have been delighted to report so much good news. But I worry that the pipeline of good stories is looking a bit empty. E-government, Skype and cyber-defence-to take three stories which got Estonia lots of good publicity-in each case had an element of hype. But they reflected real-life successes. Now I find my editors are interested in different stories: the combination of economic crisis, western weakness and Russian revanchism is a particularly scary one. It is the main story now in Latvia. I hope it will not be for Estonia too.

(This is the English original of Uus Eesti lugu: heade uudisteta? published online in Eesti Päevaleht, December 10, 2009. Here is the link to the translation:
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