All good things …

Posted: January 10th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: personal, thoughts | No Comments »

Close to 20 years ago I started my Bachelor studies at Concordia International University Estonia Law School. Frank Emmert was the dean and I was 18 and fresh out of school. This is a very short story of the two decades at what is now TalTech Law School and where my employment ends, for now, on Tuesday, 14 January.

I had chosen CIUE mainly because I was interested in law as general education that gives a wide view of the world, and I did not want to get the same education as 99% of Estonia’s lawyers have (i.e. University of Tartu). I wanted something different, something more modern and cosmopolitan. At the same time, going abroad to study in a Bachelor program was going to be difficult and expensive (though I tried, but failed to get into SSE Riga).

Concordia was special. The faculty and the spirit of the school was something more substantial than the slightly worn Viimsi campus led to think. It tried to aim higher and made you try harder, and I am still relying on the argumentation, critical thinking and writing skills I learned there, alongside with a good understanding of law, especially international and European Union law (and the stark contrast in style between the local and international faculty!). I studied international and European Union law in English with brilliant international faculty and Estonian law by leading local faculty members and practitioners.

Concordia was sadly too good to last: it ended in bitter bankruptcy; probably making such an ambitious thing work in Estonia was impossible. And at some point, the academic limitations of a small private university become too much to bear. Weirdly, I missed the bankruptcy itself, because I went on an exchange traineeship in Hamburg during Winter 2003, so it really happened that when I returned from Germany after three months, there was no longer a university to return to.

The intellectual contents of the Law School were saved by another private university, which was almost an opposite of CIUE. It was Audentes University, where academic quality was not the main aim. It was a great and difficult struggle to try to uphold academic standards we were used to, while at the same time trying to sustain the Law School financially. At the lowest point, the whole Law School was located in a single classroom at the old school building of Audentes.

I finished my Bachelor studies at Audentes University in 2005 and also became involved in the administration of the Law School as the assistant of the Dean and current Director of TalTech Law School Tanel Kerikmäe, who had played a great part in saving what was left of the faculty and intellectual property of the university. Tanel has done so much good to legal education and research in Estonia, but as we were always an underdog challenging the dominant university, these efforts were rarely, if ever, recognised.

So, in my 20s, I was helping to write curricula for the law programmes at the law school, which received almost nothing but praise from international accreditation teams. I also did other things to help the Law School to develop and started slowly teaching, first alongside Tanel, then alone. We were getting better, and hired new people. Of course, I had received no training in lecturing, but after years of practice, including going out in the middle of harsh Winter to teach at the Jõhvi branch that we eventually closed down, I think I became quite good at it.

Audentes University, after a few turbulent years and rebranding as International University Audentes, eventually merged with Tallinn University of Technology (the Concordia media school had previously been overtaken by Tallinn University, where it became the Baltic Film and Media School). TalTech gave the Law School the financial and institutional stability that we needed and had never had, and from 2010 onwards I started to dedicate some extra time to Estonian Human Rights Centre, which we had founded earlier and then spun off from the Law School with my good friend Marianne Meiorg.

In 2012 I finally defended my Master degree at TalTech, which had been delayed by the failure to complete the thesis (my previous four year Bachelor was equivalent to Master). In the end I took an extra few weeks after a conference in Boston, shut myself in the Law Library of Harvard University nearby and completed the bulk of the thesis.

After a while, around 2014, I stopped the administrative and project work at the Law School and became just a lecturer, a rewarding thing because of the students and because of how much one learns oneself, when teaching. But not quite that.

Besides the law department, TalTech School of Business and Governance also includes a world-class department on public administration, called the Nurkse school. They reminded me of the academic vigour I encountered at Concordia and the people there were and are also great; people who really want to make the world a better place. After a bit of a rough start, I found a friend and PhD thesis supervisor in professor Wolfgang Drechsler, a great scholar who had founded the Nurkse school and now also has posts at Harvard and UCL.

As a Nurkse PhD student, I was able to get a new understanding of the world and learn so much new about innovation, the state and public administration. Even though I have yet to complete the PhD articles (and will be taking a hiatus for now), it has been a brilliant experience.

It is impossible to put in words things that have happened in a span of 20 years. TalTech Law School and, later also Nurkse, and the people I have encountered there, have given me so much in terms of who I am. Personally it has given me opportunities that I never thought I might have had. It is something that will always will be with me and on which I build my future life. More importantly, it has given me an opportunity to educate myself and others and make an impact in this way.

My take on the von der Leyen Commission

Posted: September 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: european union, human rights, politics | No Comments »

I have followed EU law and politics for two decades. First, as a participant in the European Youth Parliament, then as a student of EU law and for the past decade as a lecturer of EU law.

During this time I have seen (from a closer or farther distance) the Prodi, two Barroso and the Juncker Commissions. Even though the 2009 Lisbon Treaty did not change much in the functioning of the Commission, the role and composition of the Commission has been fundamentally transformed. The Prodi Commission was the most representative of the traditional civil service oriented body that followed the letter of the law, somewhat hampered by the relative weakness of the Commission President. Barroso, although becoming more presidential, followed with a more or less traditional approach as well, even though his second Commission took office with the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty.

The greatest shift in the work of the Commission happened with Juncker Commission in 2014. The Commission President had become quasi(or faux)-elected as a result of the Spitzenkanditaten process promoted by the two dominant political party groups EPP and S&D. This meant that the work of the Commission became more political, and also more strategic. It can be argued that this is a slight departure from the role of the “guardian of the treaties.” However, it can also be seen as taking a larger role in the future of the EU, by strategically leveraging its role. In any case, the Commission work became much more political, with decisions to start or not start infringement proceedings more and more politically motivated.

Perhaps this was inevitable, because during the financial crisis the Commission had been sidelined somewhat and it needed to regain its relevance. Juncker not only reasserted himself and the Commission during the migration “crisis” with the quota system, but also with using EU funds for large investments bearing his name and many other ways.

The Juncker Commission also started to shift the work of the College of Commissioners (which had grown to 28) into teams that work under a specific Vice President. Under the original Lisbon Treaty, the Commission was never meant to be so large (a rotating system was foreseen), but to placate the Irish and so enable a second referendum there over the Lisbon Treaty, it was decided to keep to the “one Commissioner per Member State” principle. The incoming von der Leyen Commission takes the shift to a more team based College to an another level.

It could be argued that this is not fully compatible with the original meaning of the treaties, which foresee Commissioners being equals, with the President “primus inter pares”. Now we have not only the President, but three Executive Vice-Presidents, five Vice-Presidents and other Commissioners. With the exception of the Commission President and the High Representative (who has a dual role, also chairing the Foreign Affairs Council in the Council of Ministers), none of these roles are foreseen in the treaties. However, given that the Commission President has under the treaties a broad power to organise the work of the Commission, and the actual voting in the College remains the same as in the treaties, it is probably not so problematic. This flexibility is also necessary practically to coordinate the work of 27.

There is much to like about the new set-up of the Commission. Each of the Executive Vice-Presidents also retain a control over a key policy area and also are supported by a DG. Frans Timmermans has the Climate Action Directorate-General, Margrethe Vestager DG Competition (probably the most powerful DG in terms of competence and impact) and Valdis Dobrovskis DG FISMA. This solves the issue in the Juncker Commission that the supposedly powerful Vice-Presidents always had to rely on other Commissioners (with actual DGs supporting them) to get any work done. The problem of not having a DG still remains for the four non-Executive Vice-Presidents (the HR has the EEAS).

I also like the Missions-oriented titles of the teams, although these have been called confusing. “European Green Deal,” “Europe Fit for the Digital Age,” “an Economy that Works for People,” “A Stronger Europe in the World” are easy to understand both in terms of purpose and the goal. The “Values and Transparency” and “Democracy and Demography” missions are somewhat vaguely worded, and could have used also a more activity-oriented approach. “Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight” is related to administration and as such fine. However, the tone-deaf and xenophobic “Protecting our European Way of Life” title for Margaritis Schinas will probably need to be changed. Whether intentional or not, the adoption of the far-right narrative (coming from the influence the far right has had within the EPP) is a serious misstep.

In terms of working on human rights, there are a number of portfolios that are important. Already mentioned and not so well named “Values and Transparency” VP includes work on rule of law issues, accession to the European Convention on Human Rights and monitoring the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (in addition to improving democratic functioning of the EU). The post is going to Vĕra Jourová, the current Justice Commissioner.

The other Commissioners that have signficant portfolios relating to human rights are the Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders who will work under Jourová and is also in charge of DG Justice and Consumers. Equality gets its own Commissioner (something that I have argued should also be the case in governments, because of its cross-cutting nature), with Malta’s Helena Dalli taking the post. She has achieved remarkable progress in equality and human rights in Malta, so even if tasks given to her are not very many and more gender equality oriented (and notably exclude any reference to specific LGBTI related action), I am quite confident she will fill the new role well and get things done. There will not be a separate DG for her work, but she will be supported by “a task force of experts” and DG JUST.

Aging and children’s rights are also handled by the VP “Democracy and Demography”, which might create some overlap. The “Democracy and Demography” VP will be supported by DG COMM, which means its main role is related to democratic developments and communication.

The migration and asylum issues will be handled by the renamed VP Schinas and Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson from Sweden who is in charge of DG HOME, which is actually not so bad news at all and creates hope for a more human rights compliant asylum and migration policy in the EU.

The image von der Leyen wants to project is an agile, modern Commission. The first female Commission President is a historically hugely significant. The gender balance she has achieved should be celebrated by all Europeans, this was not an easy task at all and already makes the Commission most representative ever (even though it remains an all White group).

It remains to be seen whether the reforms are superficial and only related to the projected image. The missions-oriented teams are a step forward from Juncker Commission. Going paperless and cutting red tape are less substantive reforms, but also aim to project the modern image. The gender balance itself will not improve much unless they also bring into the College and advocate for feminist policies.

Overall the von der Leyen Commission looks very positive, but it is not going to be easy because of the European Parliament being more fragmented and only narrowly supporting her nomination, and more Member State governments becoming corrupted with anti-democratic far right politicians. Juncker failed to stop Orban and allowed his influence to contaminate the EPP, which created many problems for the EU as a whole. Let’s hope von der Leyen does better, because these are critical times for the European Union.

The trouble with Internet voting in Estonia

Posted: February 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, human rights, politics, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

Voting in the national elections online sounds like a fantastic idea. No more wasting time at polling stations, it is quick and easy and makes voting accessible. In Estonia it has become so popular, that more than 30% of voting population (so likely more than half of all voters) have already voted before the actual polling day on Sunday, 3 March. Out of ca 900 000 eligible voters, ca 200 000 will have done this electronically using Internet voting. Internet voting ends this evening, i.e. 4 days before polling day. During the seven day internet voting period one can change one’s vote electronically numerous times, but you cannot change it or vote on the polling day.

Estonia is the only country in the world that uses Internet voting for parliamentary elections. Estonian government and tech elites promote it as a success story for making voting easier and more convenient. Nevertheless there are some new issues that can be highlighted due to the popularity of Internet voting.

As a sidenote, prisoners are not allowed to vote at all in Estonia and so are not tens of thousands of stateless persons mostly belonging to the Russian minority who have lived in Estonia long term, but have been deprived of citizenship.


First of all, there is no software without bugs or vulnerabilities. The more popular internet voting becomes, the more of a target it will be for hackers that want to undermine democracy in Estonia, either by modifying the outcome or creating distrust regarding the outcomes of the election. For the latter no actual security breach is needed, just effective ‘fake news’.

Internet voting is also inherently insecure because of its centralised nature — in order to tamper with paper ballots in a way that significantly influences the outcome, a massive effort is needed that is difficult to conceal, because there are so many polling stations. Internet voting is much less transparent and understandable for a regular citizen, and there is only one single attack point.

Lack of secrecy

The secrecy of the vote could be undermined, because internet voting does not take place in a more or less controlled environment of a polling station. This means that there are no guarantees that voters are not unduly pressured by their friends or family while voting, nor is there a guarantee that the actual voter themselves is voting (if you have the ID-card and the PIN-codes, you can vote for someone else, although this would be a crime).

Voter influence by online ads

During the Internet voting period, there is no ban on campaigning, unlike on the polling day. This means that voters are influenced by online advertisements to click and vote online by various parties. An offline analogy would be political parties busing voters to polling stations, which is not a good thing. More than half of the voters will probably vote during the active campaigning period, which makes banning ads during polling day pointless and quiant.

Politization of online vote

Voting methods should be neutral. However, Internet voting is in Estonia closely connected to (neoliberal) nation-building and state image, proving once again that innovation is political. This means that those parties that oppose the establishment (Centre Party when it was in opposition, the populist radical right EKRE now) question the validity of Internet voting. Other parties use Internet voting to promote their achievements and the image of a technologically progressive nation. In an ideal world all participants in an election would equally accept all means of voting.

Making an informed decision

While the majority of voters have likely voted online or during prevoting, what is the point of having election debates on the eve of the elections or during those last few days? The voters who have cast their vote online are not able to change their vote on the election day. Those who voted before will not be able to make as an informed decision as those who did during the polling day.


Internet voting is an additional expense. Although not as costly per vote as a paper ballot, it requires to have an parallel system to exist and be constantly kept up to date. Having two voting systems means that both systems are less cost-effective than having just one system. Online vote will be a cost-effective solution only when the paper ballot is lost entirely or mostly, which would allow to close down the majority of polling stations.

Long term impact

Technology can have transformative effects. Internet voting has the potential to transform (or has already transformed) representative democracy in ways that can be both good and bad. There are also questions what this means long term (provided there is no catastrofic event that stops this). What is the point of having a specific polling day with the quaint rules? What is the point of election districts, when online voting is not connected to a specific location? Are national and lingustic minorities somehow more or less disenfranchised?

Furthermore, what is the impact to democracy when it becomes such an instant experience? Will it transform the relationship between the citizen and the state? If yes, then how?

Malaysia — saviour of democracy?

Posted: May 17th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: elections, kuala lumpur, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

We have seen it many times: a weak democracy is headed by an corrupt authoritarian ruler who manipulates with electoral rules, staffs state institutions with cronies, restricts the autonomy of the courts, brings the press under his control by intimidation or takeovers, attacks civil society and jails political opponents. When an election comes, it is quite certain that the ruler is voted back to office with a substantial majority. We have seen this happening with variations in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and other countries. This is also what the scenario was going to be for Malaysia’s elections that took place on 9 May 2018.

The ruler in question, Prime Minister Najib had done all the above. There are multiple corruption allegations and investigations against him in various countries. 700 million US dollars were discovered in his personal bank account, his friends and acquaintances had spent lavishly on real estate and yachts in the West, and funded several Hollywood movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

His party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) spearheading the political coalition Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) had been in power continuously for 60 years, since the independence of Malaysia. During this time, the institutions and the party were in many ways one. The power was highly concentrated to the Prime Minister, that also fulfilled the role of the Finance Minister. No surprises, that the corruption investigations against him led nowhere.

The majority of the press were pro-government, although a number of independent publications remained. The business newspaper The Edge was forced to suspend publication for three months following its coverage of the Prime Minister’s corruption scandal under Malaysia’s tough anti-sedition laws. The popular head of the largest opposition party Anwar Ibrahim had been jailed for years for sodomy charges, which rarely get applied otherwise.

Before last week’s election, electoral gerrymandering had taken place to ensure more support for BN, the electoral commission had put in place many restrictions on campaigning that made it much more difficult for the opposition to reach people. 

Nevertheless, the election result was an unexpected win for the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance for Hope). How did it that happen? I try to flesh out some ideas for reasons.

  1. Malaysia’s opposition was united and consistent. The opposition parties had been gaining power already in the previous elections and were the ruling party in a few of the states (Malaysia is a federal state), such as Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur and the capital Putrajaya. The opposition had a strong moral leader figure in the jailed Anwar Ibrahim and, more importantly, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who founded the People’s Justice Party (PKR) that is one of the four constituent parties of PH and the one with the most seats in the new Dewan Rakyat.
  2. The civil society kept up the pressure. The Bersih movement advocating clean and fair elections and other civil society groups had played an important role in voicing the concerns of the people and challenging the government. The yellowshirt Bersih rallies attracted enormous crowds not only everywhere in Malaysia, but also other countries (I went to one of the big rallies in Kuala Lumpur in 2015).
  3. Women took a leading role in the opposition. The opposition had key roles for women, Wan Azizah now takes the important Deputy Prime Minister role, a first for Muslim-majority Malaysia. The Bersih movement was also lead by a woman, Maria Chin Abdullah, who ran as an independent in elections and won the parliamentary seat for the Petaling Jaya constituency. In addition to them, prominent women in Malaysia include feminist activist Marina Mahathir and human rights activist Ambiga Sreenevasan, opposition politicians Teresa Kok and Nurul Izzah Anwar (Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter).
  4. The fight was not pitting one ethnicity against others. Malaysia is a multiracial country, and even the key was the fact that the opposition had been able to get significant votes from the Malay majority in addition to the minorities.
  5. The opposition was willing to compromise to achieve its goals. It brought back the 92-year old former Prime Minister Mahathir to lead the opposition and be the candidate for PM. Mahathir was responsible for the economic success of Malaysia during the 80s and 90s, but also became increasingly autocratic, creating the system he now helped to topple. A popular figure, Mahathir provided key support among the ethnic Malays and brought credibility for the opposition. He has promised to rule for a few years and then hand the power over to Anwar Ibrahim, whom he had jailed in the past while PM.
  6. The corruption of the toppled PM Najib was too ostentatious for even many of his supporters to bear. In addition to the huge amounts of money, the shopping habits of PM’s wife Rosmah Mansor were extraordinary, comparable to Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines.

It is too early to tell whether the election result will bring about real change. However, those elected have indicated their strong support for rule of law, democratic institutions and human rights. Although this is just the beginning, perhaps one day Malaysia will be the example of democracy and human rights delivering. As Nurul Izzah Anwar wrote:

“A new politics of hope has been awakened, not just for Malaysians reclaiming their nation, but for people the world over. Truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law can be restored in place of darkness, and it can be done through peaceful democratic means.”

On the failure of human rights movement

Posted: April 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: human rights | No Comments »

Yale professor and historian Samuel Moyn writes in the New York Times about what he sees as the failures of the human rights movement. In many ways his criticism is valid, but also somewhat misguided. As someone who has worked in the human rights field in a national level for a number of years, here is my view.

It is true that social and economic rights have not received nearly enough attention and that the human rights movement has in many ways been a failure because of its inability to address those issues. The interdependence of human rights means that weak protection of social and economic rights also weakens human rights as a whole. We also see this in our work at the Estonian Human Rights Centre: while we focus on the most vulnerable, such as gays and lesbians or asylum seekers, many people rightly ask why we do nothing for the reduction of poverty or combat economic inequalities. In our human rights report, there is very little on economic and social rights.

However, I am not sure that a focus on tackling inequality alone is going to save the human rights movement. Already accused of being left-leaning, this would mean that human rights groups would take a very strong political position that is commonly associated with the political left. It should not be the role of human rights groups to play such a partisan role. 
Also, when considering that those belonging to a minority and identifying as women are in greater risk of economic and social problems, I think that by fighting for them we also fight for a more just world in economic terms.
In addition, social and economic rights are simply not as well protected in international law, which makes it extra difficult to define the standards. The European Social Charter is not nearly as powerful as a tool as the ECHR. There are not as many monitoring mechanisms or reporting requirements that involve economic and social rights, which means that states get away with things with impunity.
The solutions are multi-sided. Of course more emphasis needs to be placed on economic and social rights, and explaining how these are human rights issues. One opportunity to do so is availed with the Sustainable Development Goals, which can be easily linked with human rights issues, especially economic and social rights ones.

Republic of Estonia 100

Posted: February 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, thoughts | No Comments »

Today it will be 100 years since the Republic of Estonia was officially proclaimed, which is a cause for celebration. Here is a newsblurb from the NYT:

This is an important event for several reasons. While it was an important expression of self-determination for the Estonian nation, it was as important also because it established a modern democratic state in the territory of Estonia for the first time. This meant a focus on individual freedom and equality, which did not exist during the previous rule over Estonia. It was the replacement of autocratic monarchy with democratic rule.

Later on, this republic was lost, first partially in 1934 with the soft-authoritarian coup by the then president Päts and afterwards the republic was fully destroyed by the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes that installed their respective puppet governments that lead to long-term Soviet authoritarian rule. The return to democracy only took place in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 1918 proclamation of independence and the later first Constitution were among the closest in the world to the Enlightenment ideals. The manifesto was entitled “to all the peoples of Estonia” and it proclaimed Estonia to be an “independent democratic republic”. Here are the seven principles stated in the manifesto:

“1. All citizens of the Republic of Estonia, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, and political views, are going to enjoy equal protection under the law and courts of justice of the Republic.

2. All ethnic minorities, the Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews, and others residing within the borders of the republic, are going to be guaranteed the right to their cultural autonomy.

3. All civic freedoms, the freedom of expression, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of association, and the freedom to strike as well as the inviolability of the individual and the home, shall be irrefutably effective within the territory of the Estonian Republic and based on laws, which the Government must immediately work out.

4. The Provisional Government is given the task of immediately organizing courts of justice to protect the security of the citizens. All political prisoners shall be released immediately.

5. The city, county, and township local governments are called upon to immediately continue their work, which has been violently interrupted.

6. For maintenance of public order, people’s militia, subordinated to local governments, shall be immediately organized and citizens’ self-defence organizations established in the cities and rural areas.

7. The Provisional Government is instructed to work out, without delay, on a broad democratic basis, bills for the solution of the agrarian problem, and the problems of labor, of food supply, and of finances.”

It should be obvious today that equality and freedom for all, the rights of national minorities and guarantees for political and civil rights were something that the founders of the Republic of Estonia valued highly. The centenary is thus also a celebration of democratic rule, equal human rights for all and Rechtstaat.

Read more:

1918 Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia 

Looking back at 2017

Posted: January 1st, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: personal | No Comments »

This change of the year I was at home, ill. So here is a short recap of my 2017. I had a few memorable trips, such as going to Viet Nam with my family and Los Angeles / Las Vegas (and surroundings). In Las Vegas I finally saw the MJ One show, which I had wanted to see for a while. There was also a shorter trip to Paris and Italy as well as Christmas in Lombardy and Venice, Italy.

At the human rights centre, we had great progress in terms of litigation with both asylum area as well as diversity and inclusion. I am especially proud of the European diversity conference we were able to host in Tallinn, another long-term dream of mine that came true. It seems our work is having an impact: we started to become targets of misinformation campaigns by the far right.

At the university I managed to help a lot of great students to learn, I also delivered a number of courses on EU law to public officials that start their service in Estonia. In 2017, I failed to manage any tangible progress on my PhD, which I need to fix this year.

Here are my bests of 2017 (nothing about politics, since not much has happened except for the election of Emmanuel Macron and the ridiculousness that is the Trump presidency):


Best movie: Call Me By Your Name
Runners-up: Dunkirk, The Death of Stalin


Best TV series: Star Trek: Discovery
Runners-up: Black Mirror, A Handmaid’s Tale, American Vandal, 13 Reasons Why, The Crown, DuckTales


Game of the year: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Runners-up: Super Mario Odyssey, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5

2017 local government elections in Estonia

Posted: September 23rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There will be local government elections in Estonia on 15 October 2017 (with advance and internet-voting taking place already from 5 to 11 October). Local government elections are more democratic than parliamentary elections in Estonia, because the large Russian-speaking population (most of whom is either stateless or Russian citizens) can only vote during these elections. It is also the first time that 16 and 17-year olds can vote after voting age in local elections was decreased from 18 to 16. The local government elections are also a political precursor to the parliamentary elections which will take place in March 2019, so in about a year and a half.

As more than a third of Estonia’s population lives in the wealthy capital city of Tallinn, the outcome of the election there is going to have the most impact politically, which means that national media coverage and the focus of politicians is on that city. Tallinn is currently governed solely by the left-leaning centre-populist Centre Party, which has been subject to an internal divide. Thus the main strategies of all the other parties aim to break their dominance.

The incumbent Centre Party has suffered and internal divide after Edgar Savisaar, its founder and longtime head was deposed by Jüri Ratas, a less divisive figure, in a step which opened the door for them to form the new national government last year. Ratas became the Prime Minister, whereas Savisaar is currently being tried for corruption charges, which resulted also in his removal from the position of the Mayor of Tallinn. The replacement, de facto mayor Taavi Aas is now running as the candidate of the Centre Party for the mayor.

Even though tainted by various corruption charges and convictions, the Centre Party has overseen a quickly developing city, which has recently upgraded many of the trams and tram lines, including extending one of the tram line to Tallinn Airport. It has also introduced free public transport for registered inhabitants, a first in the world for a city of this size. Traffic has been tackled somewhat by decreasing space for cars and increasing bus-lanes, although Tallinn still remains a city dominated by cars, with not many cycle lanes in the city centre. It has also build social housing and opened renovated markets and a city-run convenience store, which aims to provide groceries at a cheaper cost to low-income persons.

However, it also increased spending on media channels for the city, including a local television channel, news portal and city and district newspapers. Those outlets and other city resources have been used for Centre Party propaganda purposes during not only local government elections but also other elections.

All in all, the Centre Party rule has been not the disaster that some people claim, but also not successful in developing the city. The focus on low income persons has been welcome, because of the increasing rift between very well to do and less well to do inhabitants. However, this has not been driven by a coherent strategy to reduce inequality and ethnic and social segregation, but rather as a vote-buying effort. The pervasive corruption and at times opaque decision-making have hampered the development of the city, as well.

Overall, everyone expects Centre Party to win elections in Tallinn, as they rely on the Russian-speaking voters, who tend to be loyal voters and with whom other parties have not been willing or able to engage. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to dominate the results similarly to last elections, in which they took more than 50% of all votes, in order to rule the city alone.

The conservative IRL won the distant second place in 2013, mostly thanks to the guerilla-style campaign run by their former mayoral candidate Eerik-Niiles Kross, who departed IRL already several years ago to the Reform Party. The moribund IRL has been losing voters and prominent politicians throughout the past years, getting squeezed by the far-right EKRE and the centre-right Reform Party. They have run an uninspiring, dull campaign this time in Tallinn, with a similarly dull and uninspiring mayoral candidate Raivo Aeg, who is a former head of the internal security police (which might be slightly weird in some countries, but apparently not in Estonia). However, IRL cannot be discounted, because even though their actual support among voters is minuscule, they still enjoy support among the Estonian-speaking economic and political elite as well as the mainstream media.

The centre-right, market-liberal Reform Party has been attempting to use the ethnic divisions as a campaign tool in Tallinn in order to win the votes of Estonian-speakers. They want to close Russian-language schools and kindergartens, at the same time promoting a vision of building a tunnel to Helsinki, which would lead to Tallinn and Helsinki forming a twin-city of sorts. Sadly for the Reform Party, their and the Finnish approaches to minorities, including the space and opportunities given for minority languages is a much wider gap to overcome than the 80 kms of sea that divides the two capitals. This, together with their flirtations with the extreme-right and a mayoral candidate who was himself implicated in a scandal involving illegal party financing, makes their messages somewhat confusing to more moderate Estonian-speaking voters. The Reform Party has never been too successful in local government elections, but now they need to be seen winning elections again after losing power nationally.

The left-liberal Social Democratic Party has seen a revival under young leader Jevgeni Ossinovski, which has lead them to play a larger than usual role in Estonian politics. From the three “new generation” leaders of former coalition partners IRL, Reform and Social Democrats, he is the only one still leading his party. They have been vocal about social issues, including same-sex partnerships, and opposing the far-right. In Tallinn and other places they offer a comprehensive programme, which aims to appease the hipster crowd as well as offer low income persons support. Building a funicular-railway to Toompea hill is for example among their promises in the city centre where I live, something that seems to be needed by no-one. The Social Democrats seem to aim with the local elections to get enough support to share power with the Centre Party in Tallinn, but also get a good enough result to give them a boost nationally ahead of the parliamentary elections.

The rising force of Estonian political scene is the far-right EKRE. They have adopted a nativist, populist and totalitarian platform, with which they have been able to get a lot of media coverage. Failing to denounce nazi-sympathisers among their midst, opposing vocally immigration of not only refugees and openly inciting homo- and transphobia makes them among the most extreme of Europe’s far right parties. For local government elections, they released the Ten Commandments which include islamophobic pledges such as not allowing Mosques to be built (even though no such plans exist), oppose “homosexual, gender-neutral and tolerance propaganda and other extreme ideologies” in schools and kindergartens (even though no such propaganda exists). Like the Reform Party, they want to end Russian language pre-school and primary education in Tallinn, but also offer a number of pledges to low-income persons. They did received less than 3% of the vote in Tallinn in 2013, but will probably win more votes this time.

The elections also include a number of newcomers, in the form of lists formed by electoral unions and smaller, fringe parties. The main contenders are:

  • Electoral unions Savisaar’s Union and Active Tallinn: a combination list of two electoral unions, one lead by the deposed mayor of Tallinn and former head of Centre Party and a number of his supporters from the Centre Party (whom the Centre Party has now expelled), the other organised by a powerful Estonian businessman seemingly to protect his business-interests that include another businessman and a number of their dependents and hangers-on;
  • Electoral union Free Citizen of Tallinn: a smallish list of mostly Estonian-speaking conservatives, related to the parliamentary right-centre Free Party.
  • Estonian Green Party: after recent leadership change, which saw them adopt similar positions as their western counterparts, they might attract a part of the youth vote.
  • There are also five more smaller lists as well as a number of single candidates.

The outcome of the elections are quite unpredictable. Things to watch in Tallinn:

  • whether Centre Party retains their majority even without Savisaar;
  • whether Savisaar attracts significant votes even without the Centre Party;
  • whether Reform Party’s divisive strategy helps or hurts them;
  • whether IRL ends up below or above the threshold.

Overall it will also be interesting to see what the youth vote share will be, including the 16 and 17-year-olds. As Estonia is the only country in the world that still uses internet voting, it will also be interesting what impact the recently discovered vulnerability in Estonian ID-cards will have on the use of internet voting and whether any further hacking attempts will be made. The latter might not have a real impact on local government elections themselves, but to trust in (digital) democracy in general.

Regulating technologies for the future

Posted: June 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: education, governance, human rights, politics, privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »
There is going to be some sort of regulation of the new technologies, sooner or later. Governments are getting involved and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Libertarian-minded people might not agree with this, but in the deployment phase of any techno-economic paradigm (as illustrated by Carlota Perez) governments are going to have to step in to guarantee the success of the deployment for all.
In the previous TEP, this was “The New Deal”, Marshall Plan and the development of global institutions. This resulted in the post-War Golden Age in the US and Western Europe, with the social safety net and a strong middle class. The one before (The Belle Epoque) was more of a Gilded Age, which benefited only a few.
The ICT TEP, which we are in the middle of, is going to be the greatest of those so far, because for the first time to paradigm shift is more or less global, impacting billions of people at once.
  • We need regulation to ensure that new technologies reach all people of the world and not benefit just the few (enacting strong net neutrality rules for example).
  • We need smart regulation to prevent tech monopolies from abusing their position.
  • We need rules that provide public oversight and participation.
  • We need to make sure that new technologies are not going to be used for unethical and immoral ends.
  • We need to make sure that there are strong privacy rules protect the individual, their freedom and autonomy.
  • We need to make sure that technology does not allow totalitarian and extremist propaganda to isolate individuals and destroy solidarity, trust and social cohesion that is more necessary that ever in an interconnected and interdependent world.
  • We also need to change our existing regulations to fit with the new world, in all levels of governance. Otherwise we are sailing the oceans with outdated maps (as Seyla Benhabib so well compared the lack of guidance that international law gives us in a new era of cosmopolitanism). This requires creativity and imagination, an open mind.
However, there are also those that want to step in and regulate in ways that work against those goals. There are those who want regulation to go the other way: expanding and legalising mass-surveillance, ban strong encryption, protect monopolistic technologies, prevent or limit access to technologies by poorer countries or help to deny the voice and participation for minorities and women.
The fight is not for or against regulation: not having rules is not a sustainable option. The fight is about what kind of rules we will have; whether there will be those that protect human dignity, freedom and rights, advance solidarity and mutual respect and understanding; or those that divide and threaten, limit freedoms and rights.

On human rights and Turkey

Posted: April 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: governance, human rights, thoughts | No Comments »
It is very easy to succumb in light of the Turkish referendum in public discussions to the idea that with the distancing from Western-style democracy, Turkey is going to follow the path to a similar autocratic quasi-totalitarianism as Russia with its ignorance of human rights. However, when considering the historical experience of the Ottoman Empire, Islam as a distinguishing factor might help not hurt to protect human rights.
It should be noted that the Ottoman Empire did protect human rights quite extensively within its long existence (comparatively to the same time period in Europe). Although the rights were less individualistic, it was based on the Sunni application Sharia law, which gave both Muslims and non-Muslims extensive rights. These included rights for women and non-discrimination or at least non-persecution of followers of other religions (the segregation-based millet system). Indeed, it was the Ottoman Empire where the Sephardic Jews escaped to from Catholic persecution in the Iberian peninsula.
The Ottoman Empire existed for more than half of the millennium partly because of tolerance and rights. The treatment of non-Muslims only began to change in the decline period with the transition to a more European style nation state. Here is description of the situation for minorities under Ottoman rule:
“The fact that under Ottoman rule human rights were not perceived with the individual in mind should not lead us to the conclusion that minorities were generally oppressed by the state. Such an allegation could easily be refuted by evidence that, right from the beginning, a significant proportion of the Balkan Christians freely chose to live under the sovereignty of the Ottomans. Until the arrival of “the wind of nationalism” in the early nineteenth century, the Balkan subjects of the empire were generally content with Ottoman rule. This is the most reasonable explanation for the speedy expansion and consolidation of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans from the fourteenth century onwards. To give an example, in Hungary, which the Ottomans called Budin, the Ottoman Empire did not interfere with religious freedom, but instead protected the Christian subjects against local fiefs. Therefore, the claim that non-Muslims began to enjoy human rights and liberties only after the Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century is patently false. Except for the limitations imposed by the Shariah law and the deliberate policy of keeping the religious communities apart, Christians, Jews, and Muslims were treated equally under Ottoman rule. Among the rights they enjoyed were: civil rights; freedom of travel; freedom of religion and conscience; the right to education; and the right to privacy. It can be asserted with confidence that the Ottomans generally implemented the rights and liberties which the Quran grants the People of the Book (ehl-il kitab). The registers of the court of records of Islamic canonical law amply prove that the Ottoman courts generally observed and respected the rights of non-Muslim subjects.”
Read more: Aral, Berdal. “The idea of human rights as perceived in the Ottoman Empire.” Human Rights Quarterly 26.2 (2004): 454-482.