Cult of Youth
By Abdul Turay
First published by Postimees 21 November 2008
Businessman Rein Kilk thinks Estonia’s leaders are getting old and should be packed off to the European parliament. In an interview with Kuku radio on 15 November he singled out Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip and Tallinn City Mayor, Edgar Savisaar for a midnight train to Brussels.
Of course Kilk is motivated by his own support for Finance Minister, Ivari Padar. As he said to Kuku radio in English:
“Ma ütlen, Ivari, do it ja ma annan oma hääle sulle!” (I said to Ivari, do it, and I will back you).
To most visitors coming to Estonia this is an amazing thing to say. They often comment on how young the leadership of the country is.
Is Kilk right, are the leading figures in Estonian politics getting too old and is it time for a new generation?
It’s true some in Estonian politics have been around a long time; Savisaar and Mart Laar have been around for years.
However let’s look at the make up of the government. Urmas Paet, foreign minister is 34, Urve Palo, population minister is 36, Maret Maripuu, minister of social affairs also 34, Ivari Padar finance minister 43, Juhan Parts already a former prime minister 42 and so on.
In fact apart from the Ansip, there are only two members of the cabinet, Juri Pihl and Jaak Aaviksoo, over the age of 50.
Compare that to Britain, most of the member of the cabinet are in their 50’s and there are only two junior cabinet ministers under the age of 40. The only “young” senior office holder in the British government is boy-wonder Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, 43.
Mart Laar at 48 is already a twice former prime minister and world-renown elder statesman, Yet he is just a year older than Barack Obama who is just getting started and is one of the youngest person ever to be elected to the office of president of the United States in 230 years
It is clear to any non-Estonian observer that far from being too old the entire political establishment in Estonia is eye-poppingly young.
As for Ansip and Savisaar, let’s get real, they are not old. Savisaar at 58 is almost the same age as the British prime minister. He has been prime minister, a minister, vice speaker of parliament and city mayor. Ansip at 52 is actually young for a politician. He is definitely in his prime. He is the same generation as Obama but he has arguably more executive experience. He was a former mayor and a former minister.
Youth can be bad. Young leaders can be driven be passion, temperament and ambition. They might be brilliant but they sometimes they show lack of judgement. Too often young leaders are conviction politician. They have a project they believe in and are determined to follow it even if it means chaos.
Nero, Caligula, Commodus were the Roman Empire’s worst and most infamous Emperors. They all had in common; vice, caprice and youth. The Roman Empire worked best when an Emperor selected an established elder statesman and general as his heir and successor rather than passing on the title of Emperor to his young son.
There are plenty of other examples of young people running things into the ground. The Middle Ages were unstable and cruel because of the ambition of young barons who inherited their positions from their fathers.
In modern times the Nazi leaders were in their 30’s or 40’s. After the war Germany had to jump upwards a generation since their younger leaders, like Albert Speer, had discredited themselves by following the Nazis. Konrad Adenauer was 72 when he became chancellor. He had a relatively undistinguished civic career prior to that. Today Germans think of him as their best statesman ever.
Of course in the early 90’s Estonia there was a practical reason for youthful leadership.. The country needed conviction politicians with energy and dynamism. The young republic also needed people with technical skills, some understanding of how capitalism works and an ability to speak English.
Putting young men and women in charge of things worked because of the way the Estonian constitution is structured. An elder statesman, the president, acted as guide, adviser and counsellor to the youngsters.
But things have moved on since then. Presidents are getting younger too. Ilves at 54 is still quite a young man. John McCain the losing U.S. Presidential hopeful was 72, a generation older, Joe Biden the vice–president elect is 66. Biden was chosen for his wealth of senatorial committee and foreign office experience. However he has never held a cabinet office position.
Compared to the rest of the world, Estonia is doing pretty well then. It has young leaders who also have executive experience. It has checks and balances in place to ensure that young hot heads don’t run amuck.
Of course no system is perfect. The less said about Ken-Marti Vaher, former Justice Minister, the better
But if Kilk doesn’t like certain politicians and wants to get rid of them, he is going to have to do better than just calling them old.