A small learned state goes to vote

The country that boasts state-of-the-art technology has to come to terms with its past.

Would you like to become an e-resident of Estonia? Be able to flank your regular passport with an ID card issued by the Estonian government bearing your personal and biometric information? Gain a virtual identity – a bona fide (digital) double – that allows you to move freely as citizen of the web?

To request your very own, first-ever state-certified e-identity card, all you need to do right now is visit one of the country’s border guard offices and drop €50.

Estonia’s e-residency is just the latest project in this tiny country’s (population: 1.3 million) quest to lead the world in avant-garde high-technology. Estonia may be the size of an emirate but it has the ambitions of a Baltic Singapore and a mission to be the model for a streamlined, e-governed state. 

Estonian Embassies worldwide plan to start  accepting e-residency applications this spring.  These e-citizens will be able to communicate with  EU institutions, start companies, and pay for bus  tickets, e-commerce and banking services. Simply,  conduct everyday business online as any Estonian  does today.  E-residency will not give cardholders the right  to vote or access social benefits in Estonia. These will remain the prerogatives of Estonian nationals,  who have been exercising both of these rights  electronically since 2007. 

In recent years, Estonia has been generating  increasing interest. In his 2015 predictions for The  Wall Street Journal, historian Niall Ferguson – borrowing  his categories from Veronica Roth’s  dystopian novel Divergent – called Estonia, along  with Singapore, “the Erudite little countries…that  have the rare distinction of intelligent governance”. 

Estonians will head for the polls on 1 March.  Not only is confirmation of the government at  stake but also its approach to public administration  and its ties with its cumbersome neighbour  Russia. An upset looks unlikely. The country’s  proportional representation system, with its 5%  entry threshold, has cut out the extreme factions,  leaving just four parties. 

Uniquely in Europe, the two main majority  and opposition groups – respectively, the Reform  and Centre parties – both belong to the Alliance  of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, though the  differences between them are not insignificant. 

The pro-market Estonian Reform Party of 35-  year-old Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas is similar to  Germany’s Liberals and has historically been the  backbone of the national ruling class, while  Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar’s Centre Party is positioned  further left. Dominated by its founderleader,  the latter party has often been accused of  populism and, even more significantly, counts  among its supporters 75% of the non-ethnic Estonians,  most of whom are ethnic Russians. 

The Reform Party is ahead in the polls and will  likely be able to choose between continuing with  the Social Democrats, with whom they have governed  since 2014, or returning to the old coalition,  with the popular Pro Patria and Res Publica  Union (IRL).

The Reform Party leads the TNS  Emor polls with 32% of the vote, followed by the  Centre Party (23%), the Social Democrats (19%)  and the IRL (15%).

However, in December a poll conducted by  Turu-uuringute predicted that Savisaar’s Centrists  would beat out the incumbents 27% to 26%. It’s  easy to imagine the impact the victory of a party  elected by ethnic Russians could have, within Europe  as well. Ethnic tensions are latent and transversal  in Estonia. In October, Finance Minister  Juergen Ligi had to resign after insulting (via Facebook)  the Russian-minority education minister,  calling him “an immigrant’s son” and “rootless”. 

Tensions with Moscow are high. Estonian  skies have been subject to numerous incursions  by Russian jets, particularly in October when on  more than one occasion Russian MiGs were escorted  from Estonian airspace by NATO fighter  planes. That same month, in one of the most disturbing  incidents since the Cold War, Estonian Security  Service agent Eston Kohver was picked up  by Russian agents near Pskov and accused of illegal  border-crossing and spying. To the Estonians,  this was a clear case of abduction and is yet to be  resolved. 

And there’s more. In spite of NATO protection,  since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Estonia  has been on the front line. Moscow still considers  the Baltic states ‘captive nations’. They have little  infrastructure, the railway takes you to Moscow  or St. Petersburg and the EU’s Rail Baltica project  is only in the nascent phase. The countries’ electrical  grids are synchronized with Moscow’s, and  all natural gas comes from Russia. 

Certainly, the sanctions and lower oil prices  seem to have rendered economically unfeasible  any destabilisation operations by Russia, even  though they did seem possible just this autumn.  Meanwhile, there have been notable economic  developments in Estonia: it has the world’s second-  highest number of start-ups per capita; Skype  software was developed there; and while  teenagers in the 1990s dreamed of being  Leningrad Cowboys, today they aspire to become  high-tech entrepreneurs. Ninety-five percent of  Estonians pay taxes online and the state sends out  tax rebates within 48 hours. 

However, this illuminated democracy on the  Baltic risks being held back and forced to deal  with a past which it had – only seemingly – left  behind.  

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