The year 2000 has been fairly calm and successful for Estonia, aside from a few rather rough spots here and there that produced scores of ulcers and migraines. The political fights continued in the mass media, touching down in the Riigikogu and local councils at times, whipping up a storm in the process.
President Lennart Meri single-handedly created the bulk of the year's political chaos with his meddling in the military leadership, while opposition leader MP Edgar Savisaar continued his campaign to destabilise the three-party national ruling coalition. Looking at January and December, lots of chaotic and strange events unfolded, but nothing really changed. Perhaps Tallinn does not believe that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
Much of the idiocy played out in 2000 did not affect the population much; if anything, the abundance of political disputes in the mass media probably turned many people off from what happens on the political scene. After all, the economy is growing steadily and faster than analysts expected, exceeding seven per cent in the second quarter.
Half a million people now use mobile phones, and the Internet is a part of everyday life for a large number of people both in the biggest cities and the smallest villages. Even subscriptions to a programme to bring farmers online exceeded expectations. People pay for parking with their mobile phones, Tallinners surf the Web at 56.6k on new digital lines and most people do their banking online. Things are certainly not rosy, but progress is being made. So who cares about politics?
Estonians are fiercely independent people, and that includes their attitude towards the state. There are always calls to increase funding for pensions and the health fund, but the tax burden on the individual Estonian is modest compared to Finland or Sweden. The government prudently does little borrowing, so revenue increases from year to year are limited due to continual cuts in taxes promoted by the Reform Party and others.
However, "under the table" wages and smuggling are also national pastimes, depriving the state of the funds it needs to support its already bare-boned programmes. So when politicians want to get the attention of the public during one of their media fights, the best way is to aim at their pocketbooks.
The opposition played a smart but dangerous card in their fight against the sale of a minority stake in the country's main power plants by suggesting it would drive electricity tariffs up so high as to make Estonia uncompetitive. People just want to be left alone and enjoy their growing prosperity.
Prime Minister Mart Laar has tried to project the image that reforms are at an end, that the normal development of the nation is in sight. This is true, in some ways.
Privatisation is at an end, with the year 2000 being an active year for both national and local asset sales. The government sold off regional passenger railways Edelaraudtee (South-Eastern Railways) to Britain's GB Railways and will make a decision on who gets the national freight Eesti Raudtee (Estonian Railways) in December.
The Swedes backed off on the sale of the Tallinn Broadcasting Centre, but the ever-active French came into play, and Télédiffusion de France is now in charge of digitising Tallinn's airwaves. Various municipalities also sold off some of their assets, ranging from real estate to heating utilities.
Tallinn moved to sell off a large bulk of its assets, in light of high spending and overburdening loans, most notably in the recently announced EEK (Estonian kroon) billion sale of Tallinna Vesi (Tallinn Water) to Britain's International Water United Utilities. The otherwise smooth privatisation this year was clouded only by the failure to sell the TOP Olympic Yachting Centre, the site of the yachting events of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But the biggest and most controversial deal was the sale of a minority stake in the country's main power plants to US-based NRG Energy. Four years in the making, the deal was finally sealed (albeit preliminarily) this past summer, despite widespread protest from the public, the parliamentary opposition and the management of over-ambitious power utility Eesti Energia.
The investments due to the two power plants are vital for Estonia to remain self-sufficient in generating power, both in cost and in environmental concerns—the latter being most appropriate with EU membership looming. The entire episode showed Estonian politicians two things: populism can still bring Estonians to activism; and successful local entrepreneurs are asserting themselves in the face of foreign competition. In a way, the NRG sale and the two revelations are all healthy for a developing Estonia.
The Scandinavians made a tremendous impact on the Estonian economy as well, with some definitive and permanent moves. Sweden's Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) gobbled up over 95 per cent of number-two bank Ühispank, and Finnish insurance companies Sampo and Leonia acquired nearly all of number-three bank Optiva Pank.
Nordic money took control of companies in nearly all sectors in 2000, announcing to the world that the Balts are their backyard. Despite that, French and Italian investors made some nice pick-ups along the way, sometimes in direct competition with their Nordic counterparts.
Joining the world
The year 2000 also showed Estonians how much they are integrated into the world. The bombing at the Stockmann department store showed Estonians that, like the rest of the world, they are not immune to terrorism. The damage caused by the "I Love You" computer virus convinced people how small the e-world really is.
The gold medal for the decathlon at the Sydney Olympics, won controversially by Erki Nool, shows both the glory and grime heaped internationally on such an occasion. Few noticed, however, the two bronze medals in judo won by Estonia. Estonians and everyone watching ESPN saw Jane Salumäe win the Los Angeles Marathon in a horrific downpour, while Estonians and everyone watching Eurosport gasped when cross-country skier Kristina Šmigun fell on her last race of the season, losing the coveted World Cup.
And, of course, there's Eda-Ines Etti, who made her big-stage debut with a fourth-place finish at the Eurovision Song Contest. Estonians still marvel at these things, but the fact that they are an active part of the world is starting to sink in—slowly.
The year 2000 also highlighted many problems in society; the most worrisome is that of drugs and HIV. Alcohol abuse among teens is also increasing, though with Estonia being a drinking society, it has not caught the national attention in the same way.
One side story related to the drug problems is the explosion of HIV cases in Narva. Suddenly, over a span of two months, the number of HIV cases in the country doubled. Health care workers fear an epidemic of HIV among intravenous drug users, and politicians worry about it spreading west towards Tallinn.
Perhaps these statistics will quiet those who at one time or another (including Tallinn mayor Jüri Mõis) claimed Estonia has no drug problem. Another sign that Estonia is becoming a part of the world.
Many Estonians seemed not to care about the intrigues going on in the Riigikogu or their local councils. The national opposition, led by Edgar Savisaar, used every conceivable tactic against the ruling coalition and its policies: delay and stall tactics in the Riigikogu, tampering with ruling coalitions in local councils, inciting public anger by using charged (and even anti-American) rhetoric and, of course, statements in the media.
Savisaar managed to topple a few local governments, though one of his own—Narva—also fell. But he had no luck in overturning the Tallinn city government or the national government, and attempts to railroad parliamentary work eventually failed.
In the end, the biggest scandal was one that involved Savisaar and his former government, when a secret deal with the KGB was revealed in a court case. A poll from late in the year showed that the public had cooled in their support for those politicians active in any of the recent political battles.
The year 2000 is also the last full year in office for President Meri, and he sure made it one to remember. Meri orchestrated a damaging game of "musical chairs" with the military leadership, continuing his trend in alienating the best leaders of the military.
His sacking of Lieutenant General Johannes Kert from the post of Defence Forces commander, just after a year of study at the US War College, was an unexplained and reprehensible move. Angry members of Parliament called Meri's behaviour "unconstitutional" and even "dictatorial," since Meri does not have the right to appoint and dismiss the military commander at leisure.
Only an allegedly botched vote to confirm the Kert dismissal saved Meri from answering further criticism, and the President's office hid behind the statement that it was the Riigikogu that dismissed Kert, thus there was nothing to explain.
Swimming in shame
The filming and later sale of the footage of the dive is beyond reprehensible. Estonia learned that sensationalism in the media is more important than respect for the dead, a truly sad aspect of the modern global society.
Estonia also lost one of its most creative voices, with the death of composer Lepo Sumera. But life goes on, and 2001 promises to be another surprising year.
Lugupeetud sõbrad, kolleegid ja lugejad. Ma tänan Teid oma artiklide lugemise eest läbi seda aastat. Kes teab, mida järgmine aasta toob, kes teab. Ma soovin Teile häid jõule ja head uut aastat!
Mel Huang, 11 December 2000
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