On self-driving cars: the biggest challenge is not technological

Posted: October 24th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

For self-driving cars (or any new technology) to be a success you basically need three things: technological feasibility, social acceptability and economic profitability. So even if something is technologically possible, it might not get adapted because of the two other factors. Self-driving cars offer huge, transformational benefits for individuals and the society so it makes sense to look into how this could happen.

Technological feasibility seems to be the easiest to solve. The technology that makes self-driving cars safer than human-driven cars is mostly there already or getting there very soon. All of the big car manufacturers, Tesla, Google/Alphabet and Uber seem to be dedicating a lot of resources into advancing self-driving capabilities so the engineering is there.

Social acceptability (which depends on culture, history, values) for self-driving cars is also being slowly worked on. Uber and other ride-sharing services are changing perceptions of personal transport, but more needs to be done. Expect heavy incentives in the beginning and a global marketing campaign, which makes it cool not to own a car (or to have it drive others while you do not need it), highlighting for example the cost of owning a car to the environment. It could also focus on the convenience not owning a car brings (i.e. no need for finding a parking spot or worry about maintenance). The mindset shift is already happening, for example I am already looking at buying and owning a car as something quaint and old-fashioned (but I am an early adopter for tech anyway).

Those who do drive are slowly conditioned into giving up control. Tesla is getting drivers used to the coming new reality with the autopilot feature, others are also using advanced cruise control technologies. In some cities like Paris you also have car-sharing services, which also serve to detach you from the need of owning a car.

For economic profitability the state has a role on the development by subsidising costs, by regulations, by taxes, by limiting access to the crowded city space. For example, city centres could be made accessible only to self-driving cars. Owning a personal car could be made an expensive luxury by hiking taxes on cars. Liability and insurance needs a proper legal framework.

It also depends on whether there is finance to create the system, and how is it going to be organised. These are going to be the trickiest things to manage, I think. It will come with an overall shift from owning to renting/sharing (from buying goods to buying everything as a service), which is more efficient and environmentally friendly. There needs also to be strong protection on privacy so that you do not feel that your comings and goings can be tracked by the government or by corporations.

The mass-market car was the key product of the cheap oil, mass-production, waste of resources era, which is getting replaced by the information age. I can imagine that there will be perhaps three or four major self-driving car service providers that compete against each other (like mobile phone companies do) on quality, coverage, availability, but also on the strength of privacy protection.

The self-driving car system might be integrated within the business models of car manufacturers, which could be crowdfunded. I am not sure what the Tesla network is going to be like, but it could be that as a self-driving Tesla owner you could allow your car to be used for transporting others and in return you can use other people’s cars. So in a sense you will not buy a car, but a membership of a self-driving car sharing service. Alternatively, it could be that a car manufacturer operates a bunch of self-driving cars centrally.

The organisational models need to be made sensible, and easy and seamless to use so that they could be also operated by people who do not use smartphones or who use cash. Customer service is key so there needs to be support staff available for any issues as well as in order to make sure the system works for everyone.

Initially, people will not give up their personal cars, but will use them less and less for everyday travel, because self-driving cars are cheaper, more convenient and can get to places where other cars cannot. Eventually, the average person will do the math and consider that they might rent a car for that luxury experience of driving your own car somewhere. There might be specialised services for this, so you could for example book a car that you never got to drive before just for fun which will be delivered at your doorstep and which you will return after the ride. After a while this will be an entertainment activity for a minority (like riding a horse, a boat or an airplane) so the majority of people will never learn how to drive a car.

P.S. My first, and so far only, ride in a self-driving car took place nearly four years ago in early 2013 at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Even though it was a short ride, it was quite an amazing feeling to sit into a car, press a button an be driven without any guides or drivers. Here is a photo:


Estonia has a female president

Posted: October 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: diversity, human rights, thoughts | No Comments »

3 October 2016 was a historic day for Estonia, because after lengthy, incredibly convoluted political campaign the Parliament voted to install Kersti Kaljulaid as the country’s first president who is not a man. It is important and significant step for the development of the country.

The prospect of a female president is not so new. Already in 2006 Ene Ergma was almost elected as president, she was just three votes short in the parliament.

So in itself it does not seem such a big deal that the political elite considers women acceptable as leaders until one thinks about the poor situation in Estonia in terms of gender equality. Estonia’s parliament has had the number of women parliamentarians constantly hovering around 20%; in the government it is usual that one or two women make an appearance in an otherwise boys club. The gender pay gap is the largest in the European Union and the rate of gender based violence is remarkably high. The voice of women is constantly underrepresented in the media and even mainstream feminists considered radicals.

Already there have been voices that the gender of the president actually makes no difference. But it does. As a man I cannot really imagine what it must be like living in a society where almost everyone in government, and the vast majority of past political leaders not in your country but everywhere in the world are not the same gender as you are. Kersti Kaljulaid will be a role model and an inspiration to many of those who have been previously left out.

Of course, a female president alone does not automatically make men and women and others in Estonia more equal. But it is a step in the direction of a more representative, inclusive state which can heal the divide between the political elite and people.

The final frontier for a woman in Estonian politics is obviously the position of the Prime Minister, who actually is the Head of Government in Estonia.

In terms of my take on who Kersti Kaljulaid is, I will reserve this for a later date. It is not a good idea to build up one’s expectations too high regarding politicians, because these will be inevitably crushed at some point (see Obama). From the first look she seems a middle-of-the-road classical conservative, a rational and thoughtful person, not too far from my own views in terms of classical Kantian constitutional republicanism. In terms of values of Estonian people, she seems to click better than the previous president did, which makes her a good candidate for reaching out to, listening to and communicating with the Estonian people.

Read also:

Estonia’s new president

Posted: August 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics | No Comments »

It is likely that on 24 September Estonia will get a new president. Although the position is not especially powerful, the media frenzy is going ahead full steam. There have been numerous presidential debates with wannabe candidates as the convoluted process means that it is not really clear who is or becomes a candidate until very late in the process (and there is a possibility for a dark horse candidate to come days before the elections). The president is elected either by a supermajority of the Parliament or, failing that, a special electoral body consisting of parliament members and local council members, after which the elections revert to the parliament.

As expected, none of the candidates were able to surpass the high threshold in the Parliament earlier this week, so all eyes turn now to the electoral body, which convenes on 24 September and where a simple majority of eligible voters is required. The electoral body consists of all 101 members of parliament plus 234 representatives from the local governments, which means that the winning candidates needs 168 votes, provided that all turn up to vote. There is a first round where anyone who has support of 21 members can be voted for and a second round between the two more successful candidates (provided that none of the candidates got the majority already in the first round).

Current president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, an aspiring hipster/tech evangelist/Columbia-educated journalist ends his 10 year term of office with more successes than failures. Ilves was popular among the political elites for not rocking the boat too much and providing stability during difficult times (both during the financial crisis and political financing scandal surrounding the government party). He also enjoyed the support of the creative and startup circles (and likewise supported them enthusiastically) and was overall an excellent promoter of Estonia in the West, and especially the United States (but there were no significant efforts to engage with Russia or develop opportunities in Asia or other up-and-coming areas of the world).

Within the country, he unfortunately did not have the perceived intellectual gravitas of Lennart Meri or the folksiness of Arnold Rüütel, which meant he struggled to connect with the population of the country where he had not grown up in or, indeed, lived in for much of his life. This meant that his positive interventions during hotly discussed moral debates surrounding same-sex civil unions and the refugee crisis did not resonate or get much traction. It is curious how absent the discussion of Ilves’ presidency has been in the presidential debates. Perhaps Ilves was ahead of his time, a postmaterial president in a country where the majority of people hold survival values.

The field of candidates to succeed Ilves as president is large and none of them are seen as his direct successors. Political parties seem to view presidential elections more as a possibility to shore up and win supporters, rather than genuinely care about who gets to be president. There is intense intrigue and politicking to the delight of journalists who have been able to use the presidential election to get attention during otherwise boring summer months.

Among the current or former more serious candidates currently are (in alphabetic order):

  1. Mart Helme: a former ambassador to Russia who has found new prominence as the head of a small anti-immigration conservative-populist party EKRE. He has been measured during the campaign, because his support is rather small. The elections have helped him to gain supporters to his party and ideology.
    Chances: It is unlikely that he becomes one of the main contenders, although EKRE enjoys more support in the rural areas, which have disproportionate representation in the electoral body, than in cities. He might need further support from other parties to even run in the electoral body.
  2. Allar Jõks: former populist Chancellor of Justice (ombudsman + constitutional rights body) is a lawyer that has engaged in some controversial court cases (including Estonia’s first SLAPP case). He has been historically close to the ailing conservative IRL party, which has presented him as a candidate in the parliament together with the new Free Party, which is mostly made up of former IRL members. Billed as an anti-establishment figure, his views to some issues such as same-sex civil union bill contrast with those parties that support his candidature.
    Chances: At least some establishment parties have seen him as enough of a threat to prevent him from becoming one of the two candidates that get to the electoral body automatically. This means that his future depends on whether he can get enough supporters to be successful beyond the two parties that proposed him, and to hold on to those two.
  3. Marina Kaljurand: a former diplomat (including ambassador to Russia during the Bronze soldier crisis) who became Minister for Foreign Affairs a little over a year ago. Although not a member of the Reform party, she fills the position that belongs to the Reform Party under current coalition government. Some see her as not a political candidate that could unite all Estonians (including the sizeable Estonian Russian minority). She lacks experience in politics and can be tough to swallow for Estonian nationalists because of her Latvian-Russian descent. She is strongly pro-European and pro-human rights, but is seen as being able to also deal with the Eastern neighbour. She would be the first female president of Estonia and is supported mainly by the new generation of politicians.
    Chances: The Reform party did not present or support her during the parliament rounds and decided to not support her as it did not want to split its vote between two candidates. It is not clear if she will be running in the electoral body, as she is in a kind of Bernie Sanders-like situation. Her success depends on the outcome of the internal struggle within the Reform party, which so far has not been favourable to her.
  4. Siim Kallas: a prominent member of the 90s political elite, the founder and honorary chairman of the Reform Party, former Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance. After spending a decade as the Estonian member of the European Commission, he has very good credentials in foreign affairs and huge experience in politics. The time spent in Brussels has influenced the values he holds. In Estonian politics, he has been tainted with a financing scandal, which also follows him now, decades later, as well as being absent for a long time. Although offered to become a Prime Minister two and a half years ago, he suddenly dropped out. Kallas is the candidate of the business elite and the older politicians, but connecting to a wider, younger audience might prove difficult.
    Chances: He has been quite transparently pushing for the presidency for a long time and is currently the favourite of the political elite. As he was one of the two more successful candidates in the parliament, he is automatically running on 24 September. However, he needs more support than just the Reform party and it is unclear if all of Marina Kaljurand’s supporters will get behind him. He is kind of like the Estonian Hillary Clinton, but has less popular support.
  5. Eiki Nestor: the current speaker of the Parliament and former Minister of Social Affairs is a veteran social democrat politican and one of the most long-standing members of the Parliament in Estonia. Credited as the founder of Estonian pension system, he is known as a hard-working politician that gets things done. However, he has never been too popular among the public and refuses to communicate as a politician. He could have been the Estonian Bernie Sanders, but lacks populist charisma and is too much entangled with the establishment.
    Chances: Nobody really sees big chances for him to win or even become a candidate during the electoral body. It is more likely that the social democrats will throw their support behind another candidate. He has already provided visibility to the Social Democrats during the process.
  6. Mailis Reps: a former Minister of Education and a long-time Member of Parliament is the candidate of the centre-left/populist Centre Party, which is undergoing severe internal power struggle to depose Edgar Savisaar, another Estonian political icon. Reps can connect easily with regular voters and can be folksy and populist, if needed. Her foreign policy experience is related mostly to her long-term work at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meaning she is well aware of human rights struggles and issues.
    Chances: She is the second candidate that was automatically included on 24 September. Nobody really expects her to become president, but she has used the elections in a remarkable way to grow her support and show her as the successor to Edgar Savisaar in the Centre Party. If she became president, it would be a loss for her party. This means it is likely she will throw her support behind someone else if there is enough political gain or is quite happy to lose out to the eventual winner in the second place.

Other, less-significant past and current candidates include Reform party MEP Urmas Paet, the descending chairman of the Centre Party Edgar Savisaar, National Auditor Alar Karis and controversial author Kaur Kender. None of them have a realistic chance of being running in the electoral body. There is also a possibility that someone completely different will rise as a compromise candidate, but it is unlikely that this happens because of the preceding media campaign.

The outcome of the process so far seems to be growing support for direct elections for the president, which would only create more tension and instability. In terms of outcome, as it stands now it seems that Siim Kallas has the highest chances to win in the electoral body, where a simple majority of voters is necessary. However, the situation remains unpredictable.


Posted: July 20th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: thoughts, travel, vacation | No Comments »

I have been going to vacation in France every year since 2010 (I skipped last year because I was temporarily living in Malaysia). Every year the annual summer vacation has consisted in going for a two-week holiday, a part of which is spent in Paris and the other part somewhere in Côte d’Azur. It is usually my only holiday outside of Estonia and only non-professional related travel that I undertake. South of France is a cliché and bourgeois thing to do, but I love it nevertheless. The hot sun is usually tempered by the Mistral wind and the Mediterranean create a special kind of atmosphere. I find the food wonderful and people relaxed.

In Côte d’Azur, I usually avoid the big tourist destinations like Nice, Cannes or Saint Tropez, preferring to stay in places frequented mostly by the French themselves, such as Toulon or Saint Raphaël. It is a different, slow and carefree life.

It has also happened that I have timed my stays so that they have included the the events taking place in France, including the Bastille Day celebration. This is always a big celebration, because it goes to the heart of the French Republican and enlightenment values. The storming of the Bastille was the symbol of the French Revolution, which eventually changed the world profoundly, by replacing hereditary absolute monarchy with parliamentary democracy. The main principles of the French Revolution were written into the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, which was, together with the US Bill of Rights, the main inspiration for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the following acceptance of universal global human rights.

The evening of last Thursday when the Bastille day fireworks (feu d’artifice) at the Promenade des Anglais was going to take place was not an unusual one. Even though I had not seen the fireworks in Nice before, it is always a spectacular thing (especially in Paris, involving the Tour Eiffel). It happened so that Nice was the endpoint of the vacation, so I stayed there for a few days and went to see the fireworks and found a place to see it near the La Negresco hotel on the promenade. The fireworks lasted for about 20 minutes and started a few minutes after 10pm. It was a long and a bit nervous wait, as the wind was gathering speed and one could see the thunder and rain some distance away near the Nice airport (a spectacle of its own). Even though the fireworks were to be followed by a number of concerts on the promenade, I retreated to the hotel, fearing to get wet as the wind became stronger.

In the end what happened was that there was no rain, but instead terrible news about a white van hitting people. At first I thought this was a terrible accident of some sorts, but as the death toll rose, it became clear that it had not been. Many people who were among the happy crowd on the promenade had by now died and many were fighting for their life.

The next morning Nice was very quiet. When passing a fire station I saw a man approaching a fireman and starting to cry. Flags were tied with black bows and TV showed a line formed at the blood donation bank. On Saturday, the Promenade des Anglais was filled with dozens of TV camera crew trucks with satellite dishes and some memorials full of flowers, surrounded by mourners. But there were also sunbathers and people going about their daily life.

I had not been so close to terrorist acts before, but this shows how lucky I am. It is something that has been and will be with us sadly.

Fortunately we are not helpless against terrorism and can do things minimise its occurrence. It is a combination of four main factors:

  1. fight radicalisation and provide counter-narratives, fight exclusion and discrimination, engage communities and in this way to reduce the risk that an individual takes violent action;
  2. find out about possible attacks by intelligence analysis, gathering and sharing (without targeting whole populations as this works against the above point);
  3. work to block financing and support channels for terrorism, control access to guns and harmful materials, find ways to protect infrastructure;
  4. plan for what happens when a terrorist act takes place: rapid response, communication, etc.

Point 1 is the most challenging one as terrorist acts also cause radicalisation of the general public. This means that there is more support for extreme and populist voices and knee-jerk, over-the-top reactions to placate public mood for revenge will create more, rather than less radicalisation. McCauley and Moskalenko call this Jujitsu Politics.

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Brexit and the cosmopolitan world order

Posted: June 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: european union, governance, human rights, philosophy, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There are those who see the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union as a prelude to turning back to the times when the main sovereign actor in the world is the (nation) state. However, resorting to the intergovernmental model is not the only option to analyse Brexit, the other views (cosmopolitan pluralist, minimal world state and cosmopolitan democracy) should be analysed as well.

Intergovernmentalists probably see Brexit as a natural consequence of a political union that has stretched too far. There can be no (democratic) legitimate government above the nation state level and thus any attempts at political unions such as the EU are futile if not harmful, this thinking goes.

The negotiation of national parliamentary sovereignty and binding supranational rules have been unsuccessful in the EU-UK case and thus it is only normal that the state that has delegated powers to the EU can now take those back and leave. In this traditionalist thinking, the citizens of the UK had all the rights to vote for Brexit, because it is they who are ultimately in charge of the fate of their country and whatever they do (even if it harms themselves or others) is right.

The cosmopolitan pluralists believe that (nation) state is over or in decline and no longer the centre of sovereign power. Therefore power has been shifting to multiple other levels of government, global, regional, subnational, corporate multinational etc. The state is just one of the levels of a pluralist, complex, interdependent, networked world which does not have a centre of power.

From this perspective, Brexit as a decision by referendum of the UK citizens was unfair: in a cosmopolitan plural world order everyone who is affected should get a say and stakeholders consulted. In an interdependent world why are the citizens of one entity allowed to screw things up for everyone else? Scottish independence is a neat example of the subnational levels of governance exerting influence beyond the nation state. Even if the UK left, this does not mean that we should not continue to democratise the supranational levels of governance (i.e. the EU) and continue building a strong European polity.

The proponents of the minimal world state model are of the view that there are certain universal core principles that apply to all states and all people, which cannot be derogated from and the breach of which will limit state sovereignty. Universal human rights at their core are as such limiting state sovereignty: humanitarian interventions can be used to prevent mass grave human rights violations, such as genocide, in a sovereign state. Other violations might bring sanctions and trade restrictions. This minimal world state is institutionalised through the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly (and other UN bodies) and includes international NGOs as powerful actors. The deliberations at the global level in other matters than human rights as well (millennium development goals) exerts soft pressure to states to comply.

Brexit does not really have a consequence in terms of the minimal world state model, because both the EU and the UK remain a part of it and will need to comply with the core requirements. The influence of the EU and the UK in the world state level might be decreased because of the weakening of the position of the EU.

Cosmopolitan democracy model requires democratic decision-making in all levels, including global. This model sees the future creation of a world parliament and limits state sovereignty only to those issues that are internal to that state. In this case states are subordinated to a global democratic entity and transnational solidarity is the norm, because most problems are not confined to the borders of any one state.

Brexit is a setback to cosmopolitan democracy if one counts the EU as a precursor to eventual global democracy. In a fully developed cosmopolitan democracy Brexit would not matter because nation states would not matter either. The UK leaving the EU would be similar to a redrafting of the administrative borders of a county or district, which does not have global impact.

In conclusion: none of the models of international political theory offer a complete solution. The world is slowly turning away from the intergovernmental model, but neither the minimal world state and cosmopolitan pluralism models are fully existing yet. And even though cosmopolitan democracy is as an ideal an interesting one, it seems to be a long way to go before it can be realised. Brexit can be read as a countertrend towards intergovernmentalism, but it (and the reactions to it) also reflect the unsuitability of the current international political frameworks to deliver. The confusion and reactions in different countries (and the fact that we in Estonia also care deeply about Brexit) can be seen as supporting the emergence of cosmopolitan pluralism as the main framework, but as it also is vague and confusing it does not offer much help. Minimal world state does not seem to be affected much (even though prevalence of nativism might mean even less interest in responsiblity to protect doctrine and thus weakening of the applicability of the model).

Read more:

Zürn, Michael. “Survey Article: Four Models of a Global Order with Cosmopolitan Intent: An Empirical Assessment.” Journal of Political Philosophy 24.1 (2016): 88-119.

UK and EU: a horrible end

Posted: June 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: european union, governance, politics, things that suck, thoughts | No Comments »

With the UK referendum result, it makes sense to look at the troubled relationship that the UK and the EU have had, which might put yesterday’s vote into a perspective.

The UK did not join the EEC in 1958 with the original six because it thought that the much looser European Free Trade Area worked better for them and because it wanted to preserve its existing US and Commonwealth (colonial) trade links and relationships. This was a mistake because that meant that they did not have any say on the initial design of the EU institutions, thus voluntarily sidelining themselves and never being able to call themselves a founding member (which apparently still is relevant) and thus paved the way for the Franco-German engine of European integration.

However, they realised their mistake quickly and already in 1961 applied to join the EEC for the first time. This could have still given them a lot of leverage, because the EEC just did not appear in 1958, but over a gradual 10-year transition period. The French president Charles de Gaulle (in agreement with West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer) vetoed UK’s accession. The UK tried again in 1967, but were again vetoed by France. So for the crucial formation period of the EU, the UK did not have any say on its development.

The UK accession negotiations only became possible after 1969 when Charles De Gaulle had been forced out. So it finally joined in 1973 with Denmark and Ireland (and almost Norway). In 1975 they got worried about the loss of sovereignty and organised a referendum whether to stay or not. They decided to stay with a large, 2 to 1 margin.

Then came Margaret Thatcher, who essentially created the reluctant, half-hearted and antagonistic membership status that the UK has had so far. She fought with the most influential Commission president Jacques Delors and in 1990 her opposition to Europe caused her government to fall and ended her rule of the UK.

For the revolutionary 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU as a political union, the next PM John Major fought to have the opt-out from the euro and EU’s social rights, continuing the strategy of being a reluctant partner.

Tony Blair came into power in 1997 and was initially much more pro-EU, preparing not for a Brexit, but instead a referendum on the UK’s membership of the eurozone, which, of course, never happened. He also signed up to the social rights aquis. As a reaction, the Conservatives turned more eurosceptic and UKIP started to make gains, winning seats in 1999 European Parliament elections.

Then came the Iraq invasion, which the UK supported, but France and Germany opposed. This caused a lot of mistrust and probably also re-awakened concern in France and Germany regarding where the true loyalties of the UK are. Blair never recovered after that in the eyes of many EU leaders and Gordon Brown did not do much to repair the relationship.

In 2010 David Cameron became the PM and made a series of disastrous decisions on the EU (in order to hold support of the growing eurosceptic faction within the Tory party).

Already in 2009 he had engineered the change of alliances for the Conservative Party in the European Parliament, from the dominant European People’s Party (currently 215 MEPs) to the European Conservatives and Reformists faction (currently 74 MEPs). This meant that the Tory party MEPs were no longer in the same EPP group as Merkel’s CDU or French UMP (now Republicans) and other mainstream right-wing parties, but instead now were in the same fringe group with right-populist parties like the True Finns of Finland and Law and Justice (PiS) of Poland.

In 2011 Cameron angered other EU leaders by vetoing the amendments to the EU treaties on fiscal responsibility forcing the other EU countries to create the European Fiscal Compact outside of EU law. In 2013 he pledged to hold a Brexit referendum, after sustaining long pressure from within his party.

After the 2014 European Parliament elections, he fought against the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker to the president of European Commission, calling him “the wrong man, from yesterday”. In the end he was only joined by Hungary’s Viktor Orban in voting against Juncker who was appointed to lead the EC.

In the run-up to the UK referendum and now following the result, he not only destroyed the UK’s membership in the EU totally and weakened the EU’s prospects at the worst possible time, he has also diverted the focus of the EU from issues like the migration crisis and other urgent reforms.

Taking the above into account, perhaps a horrible end is better than endless horror, when it comes to the UK-EU relationship.


Posted: June 23rd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, european union, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

The UK referendum on withdrawing from the European Union is a significant matter. The UK, which itself almost split less than two year ago in the Scottish independence referendum is going through processes, which almost all states in the world are going through: the movement towards multilevel interdependent governance, a sort of cosmopolitan federalism.

In a way we already have a very loose state for the world, in the form of the UN, G7, IMF, WTO and other institutional frameworks that manage the governance of an increasingly interdependent world. These institutions are opaque, bureaucratic, in many ways unfairly composed, Western-centric and deeply undemocratic, but we cannot organise peaceful living together without them. In a world facing climate change, religious and national conflicts, a global economy that also creates inequality, and rapid technological changes, no country can be an island, and decide by themselves. Without fora to discuss and decide how to tackle and manage these things, life would be much worse for everyone.

The same processes happen in the different regions of the world. The EU is perhaps the most successful example so far, but there are other economic and political unions and blocs have been formed. In trade, in addition to the EU there are EFTA, NAFTA, MERCOSUR, ASEAN, COMESA and many others; 419 different regional trade agreements, according to WTO. These have not just appeared, but serve an important need to coordinate and discuss issues that matter regionally. Here are the main different frameworks in Europe.


Source: wikimedia

The trend is clearly in the direction of more states becoming members of more of these frameworks, because it makes sense to do so. This kind of soft-federalism is also called subsidiarity, which means that decisions are made at the level where it makes the most sense to do so, which in itself is a functional/rational approach to decision-making.

Now the (nation) state level seems to be under the most pressure. On the one hand there are forces of subsidiarity that come with globalisation and pull more and more things to the supranational level. At the same time, there is also a drive for more autonomy for sub-state government levels. In some federal states such as Germany, the US and Switzerland, this is managed pretty well. In others, there is considerable conflicts because there are people who do not think they need or want the state they are in (Catalan independence in Spain, Belgium, Scottish referendum, etc).

In parallel to this development, we also see the development of megacities, which are becoming more important than the countries that host them and where there is a huge rift between the cosmopolitan/urban/digital nomads living in those cities and nativists who live in the surronding countryside.

The proof that we already live in this cosmopolitan federalist world is apparent in the huge amount of interest that possible Brexit generates outside of the UK. This interest is there because what the British people decide will have consequences to other people in the world. And in this complex arrangement which has to consider many competing interests, national referendums are not the tools to decide such matters.

But there unfortunately is referendum today in the United Kingdom so I hope that the people of UK vote responsibly and take into account that they make a choice not only concerning the UK, but they make a decision that will also impact all other people in the EU as well. Distractions such as Brexit are not only going to create a lot of unhappy people whichever way the decision goes, but it also stops us from discussing issues that need to be solved together. Imagine having meeting at work about a new product, when one of the participants cannot decide whether he wants to work there or not and makes that the main discussion topic.

Homonegativity and religion

Posted: June 16th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: diversity, Estonia, thoughts | No Comments »

The horrible massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, perpetrated by who seems to be a non-devout Muslim man of Afghan descent, who was dealing with his own repressed homosexuality and at the same time believed in the hateful ideology espoused by ISIL online, is shocking and deeply painful. There are already those who use the event to incite hatred against Muslims, and others they perceive as dangerous in general. Perhaps then it is useful to look at a more nuanced picture of what connects homonegativity and religion, and see how is this applicable in Estonia.

While it is true that all religions promote homonegativity, the approaches and intensity vary. It is, of course, also not possible to take into account the diversity within the religions, when talking about broad groups. Sebastian Jäckle and Georg Wenzelburger have analysed the attitudes towards homosexuals in 79 countries and ranked religions according to their homonegativity, compared with atheism:

  1. Islam
  2. Catholicism/Protestant Free Churches/Orthodox Christianity
  3. Traditional (European) Protestantism
  4. Hinduism
  5. Buddhism/Taoism/Confucianism
  6. Atheism

Of course, the level of religiosity is also a factor, when it comes to individual attitudes. A devout Christian that associates with others and is exposed to regular anti-gay messages can be more homonegative than someone who has only limited contact with the church, even though both consider themselves believers.

At the same time, religion is not the only, or even the most important thing that impacts attitudes towards homosexuals. We know, globally, from different studies that older people are more homonegative than younger, men more than women. We know that people with low education, lower income and social status are more also more homonegative than others.

The results of the Sebastian Jäckle and Georg Wenzelburger study presented important findings:

  1. The more post-material a person is, the lower their homonegativity. Socio-economic statuses thus matter regardless of religion.
  2. Religiosity of a person matters as well: the more religious an individual is, the more homonegative. However, the impact is different among different religions. The religiosity of a Muslim affects the attitudes towards homosexuals more than the religiosity of a Buddhist.
  3. In terms of countries, the level of development is an important factor. The more highly developed a country is, the less homonegative it is. Other relevant factors include the duration of legalisation of homosexual relations: the longer it has been legal, the less homonegative people are. It also matters whether the country is communist/post-communist or not, with the former being more homonegative than the latter.

In terms of communist legacy, the authors state the following, which is relevant for Estonia: “In communist or post-communist countries, an increase in religiosity leads to a less strong rise in homonegativity than in non-communist countries. This can be explained by the suppression of religion in these countries during the communist rule.”

How are things in Estonia?

In Estonia, the connection between homonegativity and religion has not been researched. When we asked Turu-uuringute AS to conduct a survey in 2014 on the attitudes to homosexuality among Estonians, we also asked about the religious beliefs of respondents. When asked how acceptable homosexuality is, a picture emerged, in which Orthodox Christians were the most homonegative, while atheists were least.


Acceptability of homosexuality by religious beliefs in Estonia in 2014

At the same time it was interesting to note that even religious people did not associate their homonegativity with religion.

When looking at other results as well, there is a remarkable difference between Russian Orthodox Christians and Lutherans. When looking at a support for same-sex civil unions, 68% of Orthodox were against, with 49% firmly against. Among atheists, more people supported same-sex civil unions than were against.

When discussing homonegativity and religion in Estonia, it seems that religion plays a role, but it is unclear how large of a role. It seems that Russian Orthodox religion is the most homonegative in Estonia, while in other religions the impact is less important. There are a number of further issues this raises, including how to support those LGBTI+ people who grow up in or belong to a religion that is so homonegative.

Further reading:

We need to talk about lawyers

Posted: May 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, human rights, law, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

I am a lawyer by training, I teach law and am also a member of the council of Estonian Association of Lawyers. I am proud of my profession and have contributed my small part in advancing the legal education in Estonia at Tallinn University of Technology (where I also was for a while in charge of curriculum development). I think law can play an important role in preventing harmful developments (like mass-surveillance), but sometimes law and lawyers can also fail the society they should be serving.

The on-going criminal trial of the writer Kaur Kender continues to bring out important issues related to the criminal justice system in Estonia. It appears that the prosecutor and the judge have asked during the trial (which is closed from the public) from at least one witness: “why do people waste their lives crossing boundaries?”. If true, that question is an important revelation about some parts of the law and justice system in Estonia.

In Estonia, the overwhelming majority of practising lawyers have graduated from the University of Tartu. Indeed, there was no other place to study law before Estonia re-gained its independence in 1991 and even after that government higher education policies did not (and do not) support diversification of legal education. This means that prosecutors, judges, and defence attorneys share common thinking that has been shaped by their alma mater. The same professor of criminal law has influenced nearly all lawyers in Estonian (criminal) justice system. This thinking is influenced both by the authoritarian Soviet legacy and by the legalistic and formalistic German legal tradition, which carries the thoughts of legal positivism and which became the bedrock during the transition to democratic government.

The lack of diversity of opinion and the conformist education has meant that many lawyers tend to think very much inside the box. They thus innately refuse to challenge authority: until some years ago it used to be an extremely radical proposition among lawyers to criticise the judgments of the Supreme Court. It seems that many lawyers consider themselves strict followers of the grammatical interpretation of specific rules, rather than seeing the social context and the larger goals of specific legal acts.

This is partly reinforced by the rigid legal system itself, which treats prosecutors not as people capable of independent thinking. Article 6 of the current Code of Criminal Procedure obliges the authorities to “conduct criminal proceedings upon the appearance of facts referring to a criminal offence”, even if they think that this does not make a lot of sense. Prosecutor Merika Nimmo has concluded in her analysis in an article published last year in Juridica, that “forgoing the strict application of the principle of compulsory criminal proceedings would, according to the author, undoubtedly help to design a faster, more effective and human-centred criminal procedure”.

In history, we have seen horrible results when lawyers stop thinking about the larger picture and construe their roles strictly legalistically. In the introduction of a booklet published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on “Law, Justice and the Holocaust”, historians wrote about the role of lawyers in Germany leading to Hitler’s rise to power:

Coming from a longstanding authoritarian, conservative, and nationalist tradition, judges believed deeply in reinforcing government authority, ensuring public respect for the law, and guaranteeing that state actions had a legal basis (Rechtsstaat). At the same time, they valued judicial independence in the form of protection from arbitrary or punitive removal from the bench and freedom from dictates regarding decision making. Above all, they rendered judgment based on such fundamental Western legal principles as the equality of all citizens, the right of an accused person to a fair trial, and the concept that there could be no crime or penalty without prior law.

In spite of these values, political democracy presented serious challenges to the judiciary. Many judges rejected the legitimacy of the democratic Weimar Republic, since it had come about through revolution, which they considered, by definition, a violation of the law. This attitude had long-term consequences for the republic. Judges routinely imposed harsh verdicts on left-wing defendants, whom they regarded with suspicion as revolutionary agents of various foreign powers, while acting leniently toward right-wing defendants, whose nationalist sentiments typically echoed their own. As a result, in the mid-1920s, supporters of the republic proclaimed a “crisis of trust,” demanding the temporary suspension of judicial independence and the removal of reactionary and antidemocratic judges from the bench. Judges regarded these developments with alarm, rejecting proposals for reform as a perversion of justice. Many were convinced that the criticism leveled upon them, which had come from the political left and from parliament, undermined the authority of the state.

When Hitler came to power, he promised to restore judges’ authority and shield them from criticism even as he curtailed their independence and instituted reeducation programs designed to indoctrinate jurists in the ideological goals of the party. The Nazi leadership used a series of legal mechanisms—which, in contrast to the revolutionary overthrow of power in 1918, judges tended to consider legitimate— to gradually assume and consolidate Hitler’s power. Then, step by step, and always under the guise of safeguarding the state, the Nazi leadership imposed legislation that fulfilled its ideological goals of rearmament, military expansion, and racial purification.

In reality, judges were among those inside Germany who might have effectively challenged Hitler’s authority, the legitimacy of the Nazi regime, and the hundreds of laws that restricted political freedoms, civil rights, and guarantees of property and security. And yet the overwhelming majority did not. Instead, over the 12 years of Nazi rule, during which time judges heard countless cases, most not only upheld the law but interpreted it in broad and far-reaching ways that facilitated, rather than hindered, the Nazis’ ability to carry out their agenda.

Nazi Germany is, of course, a thing of the past. But there are lessons to be learned from here. Judges, prosecutors and lawyers do not operate in a vacuum. They are human beings with beliefs, biases and opinions, which do play a role in the work of the judiciary at any country. The US judge and legal scholar Richard Posner argued after the 9/11 attacks that judges should go with the times and prioritise security over liberty:

If it is true, therefore, as it appears to be at this writing, that the events of September 11 have revealed the United States to be in much greater jeopardy from international terrorism than had previously been believed—have revealed it to be threatened by a diffuse, shadowy enemy that must be fought with police measures as well as military force—it stands to reason that our civil liberties will be curtailed. They should be curtailed, to the extent that the benefits in greater security outweigh the costs in reduced liberty. All that can reasonably be asked of the responsible legislative and judicial officials is that they weigh the costs as carefully as the benefits.

Even though I strongly disagree with the position stated above, at least these issues are discussed in the United States. In Estonia, we do have a mostly impartial judiciary according to international standards, but there has not been much discussion about the influence of the authoritarian Soviet legacy among the legal community and the impact of the prevailing conservative legal thinking due to the prevalence of legal positivism as well as the conformism and groupthink which stems from common educational background and the domination of a single law school. Such debates might turn out to be useful.

However, I also think it is equally important that the critics of the criminal justice system learn from the past and do not antagonise lawyers, as a part of the Centre party and some supporters of Kaur Kender or more lenient approach to prosecution of drug-related crimes seem to want to do, but instead work together to change the system to be more fair. It is important to learn from the past and, most of all, encourage independent, out-of-the-box thinking among lawyers as well as cultivate pluralism among legal education in Estonia. This is not only in the interests of better protection of the right to fair trial, but also for the safeguarding of the constitutional order, democracy and all other human rights.

Further reading:

Why A Chairman’s Tale matters

Posted: April 14th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: cool, diversity, Estonia, human rights | No Comments »

Today, an exhibition entitled “Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman’s Tale” opens in Tallinn. It is a remarkable and important work which details the life story of a gay man living in Soviet Estonia. Added significance is that the exhibition is displayed at the Estonian Museum of Occupations, which is a museum dedicated not to careers or professions, but the military occupations of Estonia during and subsequent to World War II.

The oppression of totalitarian regimes against minorities is a well-known fact, but repression against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people and other such minorities has not received similar attention as against other groups. This is due to the fact that discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people has occurred and continues to exist in even the most democratic and progressive countries. It was only in 2009, 55 years after his death that the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised for the prosecution and chemical castration of Alan Turing, the father of computers, for being gay. Many people who were prosecuted like this all over the world have yet to receive an apology or any compensation. A memorial to homosexuals persecuted during Nazism was only opened in Berlin in 2008, although it was known before that Jews were not the only group that suffered at the hands of the Third Reich. The first groups of people sent to die in the concentration camps were actually people with disabilities.

It is essential for the fight against intolerance based on sexual orientation and gender equality that past injustices do not stay covered up. Remembering violence and discrimination helps to prevent it from happening again. It is also important to recognise that such minorities have always existed even though history books do not tell about them. When discussing the Soviet period in Estonia, too little focus has been placed on the situation of minorities such as LGBTIQ+ people.

Therefore the Estonian society has to be grateful to Jaanus Samma and his team for shedding light to this aspect of Soviet era and help us to understand this period better. Hopefully there will be more people like him who will expand the so far very incomplete knowledge about the history of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender Estonia and Estonians, which will be useful not only to us, but also for generations to come.