Amidst an overall successful crisis response, the Estonian government has accelerated pet projects that prop up fossil fuels, hurt immigrants, and undermine civil society.

Estonia’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been remarkably successful. The government declared a state of emergency on 12 March, closing down schools, youth centres, cinemas, museums, banning visits to care homes and prisons, and limiting recreational travel. This was roughly in line with other CEE countries and predating similar orders in France, the UK, Portugal and others.

Today, it seems like the first wave of the epidemic is under control. Even considering one massive outbreak on the island of Saaremaa, following a volleyball match with a team from Milan, the number of hospitalisations and deaths has remained much lower than, for instance, in neighbouring Sweden.

The number of hospitalisations has been in decline since 13 April and the country is preparing to relax some of the lockdown measures.

Not all praise

Yet not all of the measures taken by the government during the state of emergency have received with equal praise. To be sure, the government has decisively not attacked the rule of law or attempted to use the state of emergency to expand executive power, as Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary.

It has offered support for media, over protests by the far-right coalition partner EKRE. It has resisted austerity measures and emphasised the importance of fuelling a quick economic recovery, once the time is right, even as the conservative Pro Patria coalition partner talks of “certain belt-tightening” in the future.

Yet, it has also used the moment of crisis to accelerate controversial projects that, prior to the pandemic, caused much debate and vocal opposition.

Perhaps the most egregious of these was funding a new oil shale processing plant in Eastern Estonia to the tune of 125 million euros. Much discussed in the past year, the plant would jeopardise Estonia’s commitments to climate neutrality by 2050 according to the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

The project has also been criticised on economic grounds because falling oil prices already before the crisis have put into question the predicted profitability of the investment. Competitors have suggested that the investment is essentially a hidden subsidy to prop up the credit rating of the state-owned energy company Eesti Energia that has been struggling for some time.

The oil shale industry has been a long term priority for the ruling Centre Party, whose leaders like to highlight their green credentials in rhetoric, but in practice have continuously propped up fossil fuel producers in Eastern Estonia, where the party relies on the votes of largely Russian-speaking miners and factory workers.

A new law on visas

Equally troubling is a provision packed into a mammoth bill of legislation that allows for foreigners’ visas to be cancelled if their employment contracts expire or are terminated. The new law applies even to foreigners with long term visas, although it excludes agricultural workers and people with long-term or permanent residency status.

The bill also includes provisions for detaining asylum applicants without cause “if the volume of detention requests becomes overwhelming for the courts”.

These laws have been roundly criticised by dozens of advocacy organisations, ranging from the Estonian Human Rights Centre to the Estonian Refugee Council as being essentially xenophobic and fundamentally changing migration policy beyond the confines of the immediate crisis.

Remarkably, the bill was criticised even by a member of the ruling Centre Party, Oudekki Loone – to no avail. These provisions have generally been interpreted as concessions to the far-right EKRE. Their leaders have argued that the measures will protect Estonian workers in a time of crisis, a claim that has been challenged by employers and social scientists alike.

Payments for pensions

Finally, the conservative Pro Patria’s hobby horse, opening up state pension funds, has gotten more use as well. For the past year, Pro Patria leaders have argued that currently mandatory contributions to pension funds (two per cent by employers and four per cent by the state) should be made voluntary and that people should be permitted to access their savings before reaching retirement.

While the current system has been subject to widespread criticism over the years, Pro Patria’s reforms have largely been seen as political opportunism. The bill making contributions to pension funds voluntary was passed in parliament in January but president Kersti Kaljulaid refused to sign the bill, arguing that it was unconstitutional.

Soon after the coronavirus crisis erupted, Helir Valdor-Seeder, chairman of Pro Patria, said that the government would stop payments into pension funds, unless the president withdrew her criticism and signed the bill.

Opposition leaders called this move “political extortion”, and analysts have pointed out that halting payments during the 2008 crisis led to lower long-term returns.

Still, the measure has also received some praise from commentators who argue that the move provides the state with more room to manoeuvre during a time of rapidly declining tax receipts.

Pet projects

Whatever one makes of the merits of these measures, civil society organisations have criticised them for using the cover of a crisis to push for unpopular or controversial reforms, to cut through societal gridlock in order to advance a predetermined agenda. This, in other words, is the shock doctrine in action.

With gatherings of more than two people banned, the news media overwhelmed with crisis coverage and reeling from the loss of ad revenue, such reforms receive less public attention.

With more consequential decisions to come, such as the distribution of over half a billion euros of emergency loans to struggling companies, chances that the crisis will be used to prop up pet projects are only increasing.

Looking at these developments from the United States, the only consolation to offer is that this is by no means an Eastern European problem. It is a universal one.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Editor at the publically funded cultural monthly Vikerkaar, partner journal of the Eurozine network. He holds academic posts at the University of Southern California and the University of Oxford.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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