A small learned state goes to vote
The country that boasts state-of-the-art technology has to come to terms with its past.
- Thursday, 26 February 2015
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.