By Abdul Turay
"Estonia is too Republican. Young people should be caring and socially orientated, but not here in Estonia."
This blunt comment comes from Kadri Simson. I met up with the Riigikogu member and deputy chairman of Keskerakond a little while ago. She seemed very sincere in her beliefs.
"Even when George W Bush was highly unpopular all round Europe he was still popular in Estonia," she continued.
She was keen to meet me but she seemed to feel that foreign writers in Estonia were all right-wingers who were deceiving the Estonian people.
"There is some kind of attitude lower taxes for richer people or bigger benefits for wealthier people is justified are prevalent," she said.
"I am also surprised when some foreigners or people from Western Europe, where these attitude are not so strong, are coming here and starting to give additional arguments towards this.
"Those people who I know from Old Europe they are even more socially orientated than me.
"May be true Republican believers find a heaven here in Estonia, write their beliefs and give the average Estonian the impression that everybody admires what is going on here?" she said.
I pointed out that I am right-wing on some issues and left-wing on others
"I haven't seen it, maybe I have missed exactly those articles," she joked.
Kadri Simson has a point. In Britain young people are usually not conservative. To be a Conservative is usually associated with nastiness and meanness. The Conservate party is even nick-named "the nasty party".
Is Estonia an economic right-wing paradise, a Mecca for economic neo-liberals from all over Europe?
With elections coming up now would be a good time to examine what it actually means to be right-wing in modern Estonia, the picture is far more complex than it was even a couple of years ago.
In some respects it seem quite obvious that Estonia is right wing. Tõnis Saarts Professor of Political Science at Tallinn University thinks Estonia is unique in Europe.
“Neo-liberalism has a very domination position. Even if you take some other transition societies the Czech Republic and Slovenia which are considered to be quite liberal society, Reaganism and Thatcherism wasn't so popular like it was in Estonia.
“Other post communist societies they are somehow much more balanced, there are rightist and there are leftist. In Estonian all other ideologies are marginal,” he said.
Professor Georg Sootla has written that Estonians are characteristically right wing. That creates conflict as Estonians have to co-operate with the rest of Europe which leans towards the left.
"Estonia is a paradise for right wing people," said Margus Tsahkna, IRL, Riigikogu member apparently echoing Simson.
Tsahkna defines what he means.
"Taxation is flat, I am talking about personal tax not labour tax," he said.
Tsahkna thinks that Estonia isn't right-wing enough, though he does point out his party would ring fence education and pensions.
"After this crisis we had in the last two years we have turned back more to the right wing ... make cuts," Tsahkna said.
The guru of the right was American economist Milton Friedman. In Estonia his ideas, also called neo-liberalism, are so prevalent that even young people who may not have heard of him are familiar with what he wrote.
Milton Friedman thought governments shouldn't take people's hard earned money and giving it to someone else. Friedman not only wanted low taxation he wanted to dismantle the welfare state, entirely.
In his perfect society, there would be; no public housing, no unemployment benefit, no minimum wage, no Departments of Education, Agriculture, Social Security or Health, no central bank, no state health care, no free education even at primary school level, no compulsory military service, no child benefit and no pensions.
Here in Estonia, we have all of the above and some things not yet conceived of in countries with supposedly advanced welfare states. Explain the benefits available for mothers to British mothers and they blanche with envy.
Moreover the right-wing parties are offering yet more spending on health and education.
"My own party is promising some centre things. Free education, pensions, what ever.
"In Estonia it is quite hard to separate right wing politics and left wing politics," Tsahkna said.
Indeed the IRL is proposing; social spending on mother pensions, debt relief for home loan owners and free higher education in it's latest policy reviews.
Not to be outdone the Reform party is promising to significantly increase Estonia's spending on health and -whilst not commiting itself to free higher education- is promising to provide a "Nordic" higher education system.
For contrast, in my own country the UK, the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition government just voted to increase tuition fees to students by an eye watering 300 per cent to 10,700 Euro per year.
In a neo-liberal society like Estonia you would expect to see spending of social programme significant lower than other OECD countries, but according to figures from the ministry of Social Affairs, this is not the case.
For example social insurance – comprised mostly of pension payments- made up about 9.22 per cent of GDP in 2008, prior to economy crisis or 25.33 percentage of the state's budget. Significantly though the amount spent on social insurance went up during this period from 8,632.2 million in 2001 to 23,184.4 million in 2008, the percentage has gone up only slightly from 7.91 per cent.
To put that in context the equivalent figure for the United States of America is 5.7 per cent.
In other words the state has spent at least as much money on pensioners as a percentage of GDP as the USA for at least a decade. Obviously pensioners don't get a lot of money, but that's because the country is poorer.
“Estonia is only rhetorically right-wing. You usually get more votes by professing to be right wing,” Leif Kalev, Director of Tallinn University's Institute of Political Science and Governance, said.
Kalev argues the government is still spouting neo-liberal rhetoric whilst at the same time actually doing the precise opposite.
“The reforms of current government creating larger expenditure and just trying to utilise EU money without efficiency control...it reminds me of situation that new right authors(like Friedman) are criticising ,” he said.
Kalev argues Estonia is actually creeping towards socialism, or at least social liberalism, but in a distinctively Estonian way.
It is clear that for these elections social liberal and co-operative policies will be dressed up in right-wing language
Free tertiary education is to stop young people from studying abroad.
Benefits for mothers are to increase the population.
Decent pensions are because the old fought for the nation,
Military conscription is to defend the nation, and so on.
But for the social scientists the danger is having social liberal policies introduced by people who are not social liberals could lead to damaging side effects.
Saarts is worried that no-one in the administration has given any thought to the long term implications of these policies.
“Social benefit are targeted to certain groups to potential supporters of the Reform party. They don't have any more wider or general view how social policy in Estonia should develop and what is the ideal situation and what are the political aims.
“They are moving on step by step but this general vision is missing,” he said.
He argues the Reform Party is just as populist as Keskerakond.
“In Estonia this rightist ideology is somehow linked with national identity. If you are Estonian you should be more or less rightist,” he said.
Both the IRL and Reform Party are still committed to the principle of a low taxation to encourage investment and job creation. But once again social scientists aren't convinced that enough thought has been put into how this plays out in practice.
“Estonia abandoned Enterprise taxation in 2001. The argument was that companies will come to Estonia because they get more profit here,” Kalev said.
Kalev explains the result has been a huge flow of money out of the country.
“Swedish and Danish banks get billions of kroons they just move it away from here without taxation.
“I am not convinced it is a wise strategy. There should be huge increase in our economy after 10 years, but I could say we are quite similar to the rest of central and Eastern Europe our different strategy has not differentiated us,” Kalev said.
“This debate is lurking in the corner,” he added.
How do the parties of the right stack up. Could the real right-wing stand party stand forward?
The IRL talk about Christian values, fiscal conservatism and patriotism. Whilst the Reform party talk about, entrepreneurism, stability and - at least since the bronze soldier incident -patriotism also. On the face at this it would seem there is really no difference between the parties of the right, they are both pushing the same agenda, just using slightly different language.
But it's illusion created by the fact that they have worked together in government for so long. It's immediately apparent once you do a little digging that they are quite different.
The IRL, the so -called Conservative party is not conservative, not in the proper sense of the word, they still have this radical crusading zeal. And the Reform party is not reforming. It has this idea that all major reforms have been done and policy changes should be gradual.
Were the IRL to come to power they would privatise state owned asset and shrink the size of the state throwing a lot of civil servants out of work. They believe very strongly that the administrative system itself has become bloated, it is too expensive for a small country like Estonia and should be savagely cut.
The Reform party would not change anything.
According to the politicians and political analysts I spoke to, you can push through just about any policy no matter how “socialist” so long as you sell it to the people are really being right-wing.
The danger lies in not looking at the long term implications of that policy.
So though Estonia is hardly left of centre, is Simson right? Is Estonia a right-wing paradise? On the evidence, frankly, No!