Friday, April 18, 2008

Oh Snap

Talking to Justin the other day, we got onto the topic of Andrus Ansip as the longest-serving (continuously) PM in the history of postsoviet Estonia. In fact, only one Estonian leader has ever served longer than him.

The Päts syndrome is a constant issue in Estonian internal politics. Personally I find it reassuring that since '91, Estonia has never had a government make it from one election to another. But Ansip is a prime candidate for a latter-day Päts, as he does have that central quality: an absolute conviction that he is right, and everyone around him is a moron. (If you think I'm overstating the issue, go and watch a Steinbock House press conference, especially one where the reporters ask him about something less than utterly practical.) He also has a core team that seems loyal to him.

What he does lack is vision. Reform is supposed to be the party of economic competence, but Ansip wants more than that - he wants to be a statesman. Unfortunately, that's pure ambition; he doesn't have an overarching idea of what needs changing, like Laar and his mates did back in the early 90s. He wants to be in power for the sake of power.

In this, he is destroying Reform's credibility. In the context of Estonian politics, it seems ludicrous that the bankers' party is firmly in charge of a country, but cannot stop an economic recession. We've missed the Euro accession (nevermind that a lot of people were unconvinced by the idea, it's annoying that we weren't allowed into the Eurozone rather than choosing not to enter), inflation is high, unemployment is growing for the first time in recent memory, and now it turns out that even our balanced budget, one of the cornerstones of Estonia's economic miracle, might not be that balanced after all. This is where Ansip's cult of personality is coming back to bite him, because nobody cares about the coalition - this is Ansip's fault.

The disingenuous bit here is claiming that the Bronze Soldier debacle caused the crisis, by cutting off Russian transit. It certainly contributed, but let's not exercise selective memory: for most of 2006 at least, everybody was saying that 12% annual growth was unsustainable and that the shit was only a few millimeters away from the fan. Russia accounts for 8% of exports and 13% of imports; losing Russia's business hurts, but it's not going to bring the economy crashing down all on its own. (It didn't before, when the double tariffs were introduced, and we're in much better shape now.)

But Russian trade aside, Ansip was still supposed to mitigate the effects of the upcoming crisis. This is what the Reform Party is for. The most public effort so far was the new labour bill, which significantly curtailed employees' rights and benefits in favour of the employers. I can see the idea behind it - make the market more attractive to foreign investment - and at the time I didn't much care, as I've never drawn unemployment or any other welfare benefits from the state, but then I have the advantage of apparently marketable skills. The labour bill was designed to achieve a similar effect as the flat tax system, but whereas Laar's great coup was a feat of engineering - making corporations happy while the people shrugged and were mildly grateful for simpler tax returns - Ansip's plan was going to make life demonstrably more difficult for the actual voters. Since the favourite food of an Estonian is another Estonian, even the other coalition parties took advantage of the public outcry, and delivered the thermonuclear boot to the labour bill.

Now, there are things that Ansip's cabinet gets to be quietly proud of - they seem to have managed to stave off the Eurocrats and keep the zero corporate tax provision alive. But as far as the public is concerned, that is overshadowed by practical embuggerances like the higher fuel excise, which - correct me if I'm wrong - the goverment did not strictly need to implement quite yet. (As far as I understand it, we are obliged by EU policy to eventually both get the fuel excise up to Central European levels, and to bring the tax system in line with the rest of the confederation, but not quite yet.) Ansip is determined to take credit personally for everything happening in Estonia, but the upshot is that he gets blamed personally as well. Reform approval ratings are still decent, though falling, but opinion polls do not actually tell you who people would vote for if the ballots were handed out tomorrow. A lot of people are angry at Ansip, and some of them, like former Prime Minister and transit mogul Tiit Vähi, have stopped being subtle about it:
The most serious problem [in the Estonian economy] is that our Prime Minister is incapable of discussion or listening. As long as that is the case, I do not foresee any positive changes for the Estonian economy. We'd all rather take monuments down and put monuments up, and damn the economy. The politicians' infighting is more important.

New policies come with new people, but right now, nobody wants a change of government. They'd rather let the Reform Party roast for as long as they can.

The solution would be a government of specialists or technocrats, like we had in 1992. [...] Andrus Ansip does not solve problems, he sees myths and thinks that the economic slowdown is the fault of international imperialism and the four seasons.

Of course Vähi's words should be taken with the appropriate amount of salt, and the economy will bounce back up once the current crisis has shaken people up a bit. But I have a sneaking suspicion that when we come out on the other side of this mess, PM Ansip will be conspicuous by his absence.


AndresS said...

Good post as usual. Wonder if you could elaborate on one issue though.

Personally I find it reassuring that since '91, Estonia has never had a government make it from one election to another.

Why do you find this reassuring? Would it not be in the best interests of the country to have a stable government for more then 1.5-2yrs?

antyx said...

Conceptually yes, but in Estonia's case there is effectively no differences in platform between the major parties (except for Edgar's obsession with progressive income tax). Certainly any candidate from the same party will have broadly the same agenda as the last one.

Under these conditions, I'd very much like the cabinet to live under the constant threat of being replaced.

Giustino said...

Laar held office for three years, Ansip has now surpassed his tenure. Ansip has *survived* an election, which is a first in its own way.

But I do like the game of "spot the Päts". Is it Laar, who, like Päts, belongs to Isamaa? Is it Savisaar, who, like Päts, is comfy with the Russians? Or is it Ansip, who, like Päts, is one stubborn mutha?

Padar doesn't seem to have any Päts in him. And Ilves? He's pure Tõnisson. Ilves' bowtie is the equivalent of Tõnisson's top hat.

AndresS said...

But doesn't that constant threat of replacement lead to short-term/populous decisions which generally aren't good for the country? I'm not advocating 10yr rule by any one party (like Canada had!) but imo a gov't with a clear mandate for 4-5yrs would be better able to carry out reforms as opposed to a party that is simply positioning itself for the next round of musical chairs.

antyx said...

Padar doesn't have any popularity, either. [g, d, r]

Andres - again, you're right in general, but somehow in this country the majority response to populism is "pull the other one". I've come to the conclusion recently that Savisaar is, after all, necessary - as a balance, always just out of real power, the compleat populist checking the others through fear of association. Don't forget, one of the enduring scare tactics in several of the last elections has been "vote Reform, get Kera".

Anonymous said...

I spotted the Päts in Savisaar. As in, most likely to take power undemocratically in the face of an internal threat.

The perfect opportunity arose last winter with the tensions around the Bronze Man.

I told Savisaar so at one of our late night meetings. "Piggo." I says -- for this is what the lawyers and advisers call Savisaar if they're not in the doghouse with him -- "this is your chance. You're going to have to paint these guys (Ansip et al) as Vapsid. This is your 1934 and the nation needs to be saved from right-wing plotters who could inflame tensions with Russia." Of course I didn't believe a word of it, but you've got to admit it had potential.

Can you believe what Savisaar said? He said that he didn't want to go negative and stoop to the level of the graffiti. He said if it were Kallas, he might take the gloves off (and I couldn't say I blamed him, given all that has happened), but that he had nothing against Ansip. Said he was a little arrogant, that's all.

We laughed and said it took an arrogant bastard to know one. He said nothing but took a big bite of a sausage and struck a pose as if it were a cigar.

There won't be another Päts, because Savisaar missed his chance, and Estonians know enough history.

Giustino said...

But doesn't that constant threat of replacement lead to short-term/populous decisions which generally aren't good for the country?

The party system is still maturing. I think the right wing is sort of sorted out between Isamaa and Reform. But the left side of the spectrum is a mess. If a legitimate Russian party emerges -- considering the recent defections by Stalnuhhin and others -- then who is exactly Center's base? And what will happen to Rahvaliit?

Ain Kendra said...

On other hand, i think that the party system in general has been by now seriously discredited.
Decisionmaking system where people have no real way to participate.

Not friendly to Unzip, however, I feel that he lost a lot of credibility through promises of punishing really the bunters year ago. Nothing happened. Everything is so soft that not a participant of the Bronze stuff has paid back the losses or got longer jail sentence. Even more - Madisson with only words is much more dangerous to state than guys who did real damage.

Estonia in World Media (Rus) said...

Nice overview, and a correct one I think.

On the question of the lenght of a government's term. Short term govs are only viable while there's professional public service.

Thus a government leaving, including its pack of political advisers, does not inflict damage to the functioning of the state as next one's political advisers don't need a lot of time to learn the trade, the officialdom is waiting to help the next gov draft their wishes into policies as well as limit them within the frames of possible.

If, however, politicians start meddling with the public service, shaping it according to own liking as it may be happening today (there are not so obvious reasons for that), too frequent a change of governments may cause harm.

But it is also a bit on the surface to think that in the 90s all governments were pursuing the same policies, if that was the idea. There were still differences large enough to turn us into Latvia if a wrong sort of government stayed too long.

The difference in platforms is not enough to define political force. Edgar became devil not because the taxes in the platform, but because he was perceived as an autocrat, especially after 95 wire crisis, as well as for example kicking open the doors of food storages in 1990 and voting "no" to the EU accession in 2003. Yes, his party stepped into the same wagon with 5 anti-Europe parties, except the other 5 had below 5% of the votes. Was it in the platform? No.

So the political system has lots of nüansid, which aren't written on walls.

Kristopher said...

Poor taste probably to make a subbing remark about a no doubt innocent typo, but it is Stenbock. Steinbock makes me think the government just drinks a lot of beer up there.

Critics of Ansip should note that part of the campaign promises were made relative to other countries. Estonia's "recession" of only one to two per cent growth comes at the same time as a general recession, so Estonia shouldn't lose any ground on the top five countries in the EU.

Given that Iraq may take 100 years to win, "15 years" to become rich is actually a pretty gpod deal for Estonians.

Kristopher said...

Of course the 15 years should be divided equally among three or four similar ruling parties. PM is a very tiring job and Ansip has been at it far too long.

Anonymous said...

Estonian labor law remains one of the most restrictive in Europe. Just check it out at the world bank "doing business around the World", or at fraser institute, or at heritage, or the Adam Smith institute.

It is sharply contrasted with the rest of generally libertarian policies of the republic. The result is wage and labor allocation rigidity, that will cause big problems down the road, when the price level reaches close to euro-zone levels.

Ansip could have negotiated a reform that expressed a multi-party consensus, but I guess he didn't or couldn't. Unemployed russes in Narva wouldn't vote for him anyway, and the business community didn't make the sale either.

Wouldn't it have been better to have 3 years of 15 percent budget growth, than to have 20, 24, and now, maybe nothing?

antyx said...

In what way is it restrictive? Genuine interest here. What I remember from the labour bill is that our current legislation a)makes it a bit difficult to fire someone, in that the employer has to pay some sort of compensation - which personally I didn't care about because I've never drawn any sort of unemployment benefit from the state, and b)does not hold the employee liable for indirect damages and loss of profit, which is a good fucking idea and I don't care how restrictive our law is compared to the rest of Europe.

It comes down to the fundamental idea in Estonia - as long as you contribute, you're protected.


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