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Andreas Kaju: State that is and yet is not

This article first appeared in Hea Kodanik 2020 summer edition. 

The corona crisis showed well that the State, with a capital letter, is like a phenomenon of quantum mechanics, which at one moment is there and then is not there. It appears when we want it, when we believe in it, when we give it life and legitimacy – and dissipates like a mirage when we no longer believe in it and act accordingly.  

Undoubtedly, there is a government all the time, an executive, with its inherent coercive mechanisms to enforce the social compact, the constitution and other laws, balanced by a legislature that scrutinises and reflects the will of the people and a judiciary that understands the law.  

At the same time, Estonia is objectively – and also numerically, in terms of the actual functioning of the economy – a country where the vast majority of people living here go about their daily lives completely independently of the existence of the executive branch, with the exception of a few basic public services. Even the functioning of public services has become so self-evident, in a technology-enabled way, that it is easier not to notice them than to make a number of them. They are more background processes that run without user intervention. 

It all serves a society in which the Estonian people are the dominant part. These are the people who feel a sense of belonging to this land and, above all, to other compatriots; between whom there is an inextricable common ground, which the Estonian language and, for a smaller part of the population, culture and narrower meanings help to encode and decode. 

What crisis taught us about the state

It is only in times of trouble, conflict and war that we all become a state. Common hardships consolidate government, legislature, judiciary and the people. It is in these fleeting moments that the otherwise self-interested activity of each of us, committed to our own lives, freezes for a moment, ready to submit to the imperative of preserving the lives of all rather than ourselves.  

So there was something comforting in the first phase of the corona crisis for supporters of the larger state as well as for those whose first instinct is to be sceptical and averse to state intervention. First of all, the people of Estonia showed a willingness to be guided by the common-sense guidelines of the state when it was absolutely necessary. In the same way, people had long ago abandoned them when the government was still discussing possible new orders and restrictions at cabinet meetings (abandoning them, however, as a result of debate among themselves, it must be said). 

It is only in times of trouble, conflict and war that we all become a state.

The problem was most obvious with the so-called 2+2 restriction: the government and the Scientific Council discussed in the second half of June whether and how to change the restriction in circumstances where the vast majority of people in Estonia have been behaving in a way that denies the existence of such a restriction for a month and a half. In this way, we saw the extent of the state’s functioning in an emergency situation, and also its limitations. There were moments when the government and the emergency guidelines acted as if they were holding the people at the end of a rope, but the government’s ability to hold the attention of the people and the desired behaviour in the long term was predictably poor.  

Estonia is a liberal (this does not mean progressive, the right to life of conservatism also rests on the same principles) democracy in its constitution and in its tradition of practical politics – we have chosen a path for the survival of a nation and culture that rests on respect for the individual rights and freedoms of those who wish to belong to that nation. Most of what concerns public policy in Estonia is ensured through people’s own behavioural decisions and choices. An Estonian pedestrian waits to cross the road behind a red light even when there are no cars and no one is looking. All this is complemented by the peculiarity of a small country – we cannot afford a different kind of state than the one based on people’s own common sense.  

The majority of the governing coalition in Estonia felt the same way about the state during the crisis. So that even if we knew that the virus could be stopped if life in Estonia were to be completely halted for 21 days and enforced by the use of the Defence League and the army if necessary, the Estonian public is not prepared to tolerate anything like that. The decision would be reflected in a worse-than-expected result for those involved in the next elections.  

Nonetheless, people are prepared to comply, without question, in the short term, with orders and behavioural guidelines that coincide with their personal sense of safety and security. This situation prevailed for weeks – businesses and citizens reduced their contacts to a minimum, traffic density on Tallinn’s streets rapidly halved, according to measurements by outdoor advertising company JCDecaux, and so on. But the problem of compliance arose as soon as people’s individual perception of safety no longer matched the seriousness that the emergency manager’s orders seemed to imply, and restrictions and actual behaviour began to diverge rapidly and increasingly.  

There is nothing wrong with this – on the contrary, people were thinking for themselves and acting more or less sensibly in the light of the best available information. The government, instead of pushing back, started to look for ways to ease restrictions after a momentary standstill, although there was talk of party disagreements (any politically interested person can work out for themselves which party preferred more restrictions and which preferred to trust citizens). 

By the way, my company commissioned a study from Norstat on its own initiative, the results of which showed that the Prime Minister’s explanations on coronavirus were more reliable than those of leading health officials or the press – at least until Arkadi Popov was appointed as the Emergency Medical Director of the Health Service. Television news was slightly more credible than media portals; somewhat surprisingly, newspapers had the same credibility as media portals – people no longer make a qualitative distinction. 

Government and the civil society

The question of whether anything is different with the state and civil society under the current government has been on the minds of active citizens. Undoubtedly, because elections have consequences, and one can only be pleased about that, since people have forgotten about it in the intervening years. Governments have priorities and the basis for supporting civil society is not an issue that can exist outside the scope of government. On the other hand, nothing has changed apart from some disagreements with NGOs on aspects of the administrative organisation of civil society policy implementation. Yet. 

The most tangible change is the prevailing insecurity among civil servants in some ministries. In general, there are well-established perceptions in the Estonian administrative culture of what one or the other political party in Estonia stands for (worldview and even more nuanced preferences), which are further framed by the coalition agreement and the government’s action plan. Since the agreement that marks the birth of the current government is based on a small common element, what is not written in it is more important than what is. This creates uncertainty and speculation in some ministries, as it is difficult to accurately predict the will of political leaders. If, on the other hand, you have to go to the minister’s office to get that will on every issue, then the issues start to pile up and on many issues progress stops altogether.  

If, on the other hand, you have to go to the minister’s office to get that will on every issue, then the issues start to pile up and on many issues progress stops altogether.  

It is not sustainable in the long term for public administration to have to go to the political leadership for guidance, agreement or feedback on every single issue. In such pyramids of power, unsigned decisions pile up on the minister’s desk within weeks. Even in classically and necessarily hierarchical organisations such as the military, leadership today is doctrinally different: in a war situation, strategic leaders express their Will – what they want to achieve as a result of the operation – and tactical leaders make decisions themselves to achieve it in the rapidly changing conditions on the battlefield. It is no longer possible to lead otherwise.  

Each government has its own culture and mechanisms for resolving political conflicts. In a coalition, where there is little agreed common ground and many of the issues that still need to be resolved have been left out of the agreement, it is this process, often informal, that is crucial. On the other hand, life has shown that, on many issues, they are of no use either if the confrontation is deeply ideological.  

In Estonia, an adult’s ability to cope in times of peace does not depend on the government or on its will. The same should be true of civil society, only more so – the point of civil society should be to increase the capacity of communities to function autonomously, so that we can always manage by relying on each other’s contributions. One way to think about the strength of civil society is to imagine what happens when government (political governance) is turned off. As in the Kingdom of Belgium, where in 2010-11, increasingly protracted coalition negotiations failed to form a functioning government for 589 days.  

So what happened there? Nothing happened. Would we be satisfied with the picture that would open up for us of civil society in Estonia under a government that was switched off? What is more, would you believe me when I say that a great many things that, even in the present government, at least on the surface, are disturbing to civil society associations, will dissipate from the receding mire of mist as soon as they are simply no longer believed? It is also a much healthier way to live.  

Of course, practical life for many not-for-profit civic organisations is very different from the ideal plan. Their functioning depends on the state, its will and goodwill, many times more than that of the ordinary person. The operation of many associations is unambiguously linked to the willingness of the various authorities to place their trust in society; to give back to citizens the right and the opportunity to organise themselves services in one area of life or another, which were hitherto considered to be the exclusive preserve of the state. 

Nevertheless, both civil associations and their advocacy should at all events seek to avoid a situation in which it is no longer relevant whether they are private non-profit organisations or simply cost-effective extensions of the executive branch. Finding the right balance between executive partnership and autonomous action is one of the greatest challenges for civil society. 

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