Discontent is mounting in Estonia. Yesterday's demonstration in Tallinn was largest of its kind since the country regained its independence
Helsingin Sanomat 8.3.2012
On Tuesday, teachers walked out of one of Tallinn’s elite schools, the French Lyceum, with banners in their hands.
Above the main door, a sign in large letters said it all: "Strike".
Social sciences and history teacher Karin Lippus carried a placard that said: “I want my government to listen to me. We have a problem and it is not the colour red.”
The message of headmaster Lauri Leesi’s placard was directed to Minister of Education Jaak Aaviksoo and the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Kalle Kütis: “Jaak, get lost, and take Kalle with you.”
This week’s demonstrations and strikes are the broadest expression of protest sentiments that Estonia has witnessed since regaining its independence.
On Wednesday, teachers demonstrated in several towns and cities. According to police estimates, around 3,500 demonstrators gathered in the capital Tallinn’s Freedom Square.
This was the largest single demonstration that the Estonians have organised since independence was restored in 1991.
The atmosphere in the sunny and calm square was like in a well-disciplined school auditorium. The teachers listened to the speeches, holding onto their signs in silence.
Nevertheless, the demonstration was exceptionally extensive and gathered together both Estonian- and Russian-speaking teachers.
“In Estonia, teachers’ average monthly salary is EUR 640. In Greece they make EUR 1,900. Conclusion: We support Greece”, was one of the slogans heard.
On Wednesday all the schools and kindergartens in Estonia were closed. Some of them will remain closed for the rest of the week. Each school can opt to strike between one and three days.
The country’s doctors and nurses held a one-hour stoppage on Wednesday in support of the teachers’ cause.
The transportation sector workers plan to bring the capital's public transport system and partly the country’s rail traffic to a halt for the duration of Thursday.
The workforce in the Narva electric power plants are threatening to reduce the generation of electricity on Friday.
The general discontent has been manifested this winter in the opinion polls, according to which for the first time the leftist opposition parties’ support is higher than that of the right-wing government parties.
The Estonian government has drawn a clear distinction between the teachers’ walkout and the strikes by other trade unions, such as the transportation workers and the personnel at the Narva power plants.
In the latter case the strikers are also putting pressure on the government to amend the labour legislation.
During the 2009 recession, Estonia gained a reputation as a country where it is possible to cut salaries quickly without protests. What has happened since then?
“The society has matured. The civil society is raising its head”, say history and social sciences teachers Liis Reier and Karin Lippus from the Tallinn French Lyceum.
Before the strike, Minister of Education Jaak Aaviksoo promised that the minimum wage of teachers will be increased by 15 per cent to around 700 euros per month from the beginning of next year.
At its highest, a teacher’s monthly salary can be EUR 888. According to the government, there simply isn’t enough money to raise all teachers’ salaries by 20 per cent.
“It does not look like there is no money. For example funding was found immediately for the Political Party Democracy Promotion Foundation”, Reier argues.
The teachers say that the government has not given the people any thanks for their patience during the cuts. “Instead, we have been criticised for not understanding how important it is to keep the government budget in balance”, Reier continues.
The historic large demonstration, which lasted for just over an hour, ended suddenly as if by magic.
When a school bell rang in the Freedom Square all the teachers dispersed in various directions and the square emptied in a flash.
Protests have risen to the surface in Estonia over the current winter, three years on from the deepest cuts in salaries, and just a year from the re-election of the government that wielded the axe.
The economy is growing again, and real wages actually turned upwards again towards the end of last year, so the decline in living standards alone cannot be seen as the reason for the discontent this winter, when demonstrations have been much larger and more frequent than during the recession years.
One reason for the general temper of discontent may be the style of speech of the country's leading politicians, which is to avoid mentioning problems.
When Estonia turned its deep depression around and adopted the euro at the beginning of last year, the leaders' speeches reinforced a habit of seeing Estonia as a highly successful exercise, moving rapidly in the direction of the propserous living standards of the nordic region. And yet the general decline in living standards had only just come to an end.
In the words of the state leadership, emigration among Estonians is seen as an essential component of freedom, but the facts are that the migration trend is almost all one-way traffic and out of the country, and for many the reason to leave is a need to secure a reasonable livelihood.
Estonia’s teachers take to the streets