Lessons from the crisis
Estonia’s team was unfit, badly trained, and badly captained. Its tactics were poor and it showed little skill. The opponents were much stronger—but made even more mistakes. That cost it so many penalties that in the end Estonia won.
Celebrating a lucky escape is one thing. An orgy of mutual congratulation is another. What Estonia should be doing is drawing lessons from the crisis, and making sure that it never makes the same mistake again.
It is already high time to prepare for the next “match” (ie crisis created by Russia). It may involve political prisoners (Russian provocateurs who have got themselves arrested). Or it may be Estonian “extremists” (wittingly or unwittingly doing the Kremlin’s bidding).
In any case, the first defence is good government. Every internal procedure must squeaky-clean, transparent and efficient, to the highest European standards (or better). The executive branch of government should stay scrupulously away from decisions that must be made by the judiciary. Any information from the security services should be treated with great care, and not used for narrow party advantage.
The contrast between the bullying, abusive, crooked habits across the border must be as sharp as possible, not only to highlight Estonia’s case in world eyes, but also to bring as many local Russians as possible on side. Any attempt to portray a row with the Kremlin as being ipso facto a row with “Non-Estonians” is lethal to Estonia’s national security. A troubling aspect of the recent crisis has been comments, in the media and elsewhere, that “this is what Russians are really like: looters and hooligans, just like in 1945”. Just as Estonians are infuriated when the Kremlin propaganda machine generalises that “Estonians” are “fascists”, they should remember how alienating it is for local Russians to be told that “they” are “looters”. Nothing could suit the Kremlin more than divisions in Estonian society. Nothing will frustrate their plans more than a united front, based on common values rather than ethnicity.
How far the government has followed these principles in the recent events it is hard for an outsider to judge. But what is clear is that Estonia’s friends and allies were not properly briefed in the run up to the crisis, or during it. As a (supposed) authority on Estonia, I faced dozens of phone calls from diplomats, other journalists and politicians wanting to know “Why is Estonia doing this now? Why is it so urgent?” Those from countries that fought against Hitler all through the war are instantly troubled by anything that can be interpreted as hostility to the allied cause, or sympathy for the Axis. Estonia has gone a long way in persuading the outside world that there is more than one way of looking at the Second World War. But that success is not complete, and it should never be taken for granted. Like the brass on a ship, Estonia’s stance needs constant polishing, otherwise it corrodes.
It is clear that the once-excellent Foreign Ministry has neither been doing much polishing recently, nor was it up to the task of countering the Russian propaganda offensive. Ten years ago, things were very different. Estonian diplomats, both at home and abroad, were formidably effective, persuasive and hard-working. Many of them have gone to work elsewhere. The competent ones who remain are outnumbered by political hacks and nonentities. The politicians who have played such deplorable personal games with the foreign ministry in recent years may not have realised at the time what damage they were doing to Estonia’s ability to defend itself.
So for the next crisis it is necessary to start training. Every Estonian ambassador needs to be ready to offer op-ed pieces to the important newspapers, to phone up radio and televisions stations and correct mistakes and offer commentary. These can be centrally produced, and tailored to each country’s needs. But do the embassies and the ministry have the people with the linguistic and journalistic skills required? Estonia’s PR effort has become fatally reactive. It needs to be active.
It is also necessary to have much more detailed and lively material available. The traditional model of a website with links to neatly produced press releases looks out-of-date. The “new new media” means using blogs, using sites such as Youtube and Flickr, and Myspace, taking part in chatrooms. These techniques are not hard—and Estonia’s enemies have used them to great effect: just look on Youtube for videos tagged “eSStonia”.
Estonia also needs a high-powered unit to counter disinformation within minutes. Russia got away far too easily with the lie that the Bronze Soldier had been cut into pieces.
Estonia has assets: the diaspora in some countries is younger and more vigorous than it was during the independence struggle. But it is usually not in contact with Estonian government structures. These are the footsoldiers of the information war: able to write letters to newspapers, call up radio phone-ins, put posts on blogs, and even turn up to demonstrations.
Next, Estonia must not sound arrogant. One of the least pleasant aspects of the last crisis was the tone of voice that some Estonian politicians, editors and officials adopted. “This is our problem: support us, but don’t interfere”. That is the approach taken so disastrously by Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. They have endlessly demanded European “solidarity” with Poland on each and every issue. But they have shown no willingness to understand the point of view of their friends and allies. It would be dreadful if that Polish virus were to infect public life in Estonia.
Clearly, on some issues no compromise is possible. But we are not talking about zero-options on citizenship, or keeping the Paldiski submarine base. Estonia has to show that it respects and trusts its allies, that it asks for advice and is willing to accept it. Estonia’s geeks, who so splendidly defended the country against cyber-attack, proved much better at international diplomacy than the government did. They have won new friends and admiration at the highest levels for their relaxed, competent and open approach to their foreign counterparts.
Estonia also needs to revive its eastern policy. One of the saddest aspects of the recent crisis was watching Estonia’s friends in Russia being shredded on talk shows on radio and television. Valerya Novodvorskaya on NTV, for example, was passionate and persuasive. But she lacked the facts needed to counter the lies of the other side. It isn’t possible to win on the Russian media front: the odds are too great. But at least it is possible to signal to those who observe the Russian-language media space that Estonia is putting up a good fight.
Nobody knows when the next match will be. But Russia will most likely have learned from its mistakes in the last one. Will Estonia have done the same?
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Lessons from the crisis