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Meikar and the Poster Boy
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 12 June 2012

"All domestic politics are now European politics," so said Quentin Peel of The Financial Times at last month's Lennart Meri conference.

It's has been creeping up on us for some time now.
I've noticed it personally. I was at a conference about year ago. I got talking to a senior British journalist, a former head of an international agency. He wanted a detailed breakdown of what was happening with Estonian politics. We discussed Savisaar's problems with KAPO and Russian secret service, which were still current at the time. We scanned a newspaper together, I translated for him. He was sceptical.

Now even journalists and investors who have no direct interest in Estonia are fishing for information about what exactly is going on. I spoke to a journalist working in Brussels recently. He was keen to know every detail. He wasn't going to report on it. Nobody died, nobody lost billions of Euros, but he was very interested, and here is the key thing, though he had never been to Estonia before, he was already well informed about Estonian politics.

Which brings us to the Silver Meikar affair. This country relies heavily European opinion to make its bread. If foreign opinion makers begin to see Estonian politics the way most Estonians see it, dirty and corrupt, could it ultimately not only effect the country's reputation but also ordinary people's livelihood?

I don't believe this to be the case, I am going to put the opposite case. The whole Meikar affair and indeed all the other scandals actually show the country in a good light and will enhance the country's reputation abroad. How so? Well let's look at the evidence.

What Quentin Peel had to say wasn't always true. Four years ago local politics were exactly that. Local. I remember meeting colleagues visiting from London or New York. I would talk about local politics and I would watch them switch off. Some would pretend to be interested, but honestly they didn't care. It was like talking to a tone-deaf person about Beethoven. They would listen politely, then turn to another topic. I learned to avoid the subject.

The Silver Meikar financial corruption scandal is precisely the sort of thing that would get this kind of reaction. It is extraordinary in its ordinariness. These scandals keep coming, one after the other from all sides, from every party. How many are there now? In the last twelve months alone, we have had the IRL residence permit scandal, the Hannes Rumm e-mail scandal, the Scantrans graft scandals, and the Esther Tuiksoo and Priit Toobal affair which Meikar claims was the catalyst for him to speak up about dodgy party donations.

As we are all aware all parties have been tarnish, the President has been obliged to speak out against the moral vacuum.

Yet a foreign correspondent from Brussels, who has worked for a major American Press agency for many years said this.

Estonia is viewed as squeaky clean.

Generally people are looking at Estonia, as a poster child, that made the changes that were needed,” said the correspondent, who didn't wish to be named.

And this is the nub of the matter. What Greece has shown us, is that every country in Europe and certainly every country in the Eurozone is interlinked, if one falls so do they all. We saw this in October last year when Slovakia almost derailed the whole bailout process largely because of a domestic row.

And the international press, the policy makers in Brussels and the rating agencies have it appears a sliding scale for Eurozone countries, the good and the bad, the honest and liar, the courageous and the afraid, Greece is at one end of the scale and Estonia at the other.

If it turns on that Europe's poster child on closer inspection has graffiti all over it, that's bad; surely?

If it (corruption) developed in publicity it would have an effect. Lithuania went through problems,” the Brussels correspondent said.

Once you are tainted with a brush it is hard to get rid of this reputation.”

The correspondent said that there are stakeholders who actually want Estonia to be seen as shady.  The French resent accession countries who don't speak French and are pro-American.

Certainly nationalities have a blinkered attitude,”
France may be on the look out, they want to be able to say...look we told you so, these countries are backwards and corrupt,” the correspondent said.

So how on Earth could all these corruption scandals a good thing?

Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist, put it to me this way.

(It's) good that they (the scandals) are coming out. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

What he means is there is corruption everywhere. And it's better that it comes into the light.

Honestly Estonia isn't that bad. As some of you may have read already, in the albeit somewhat criticised corruption perception index published by Transparency International, Estonia is at 29th place not as good as Sweden and Finland at 4th and 2nd place but far better than Lithuania joint 50th and Latvia 61st and Russia an appalling 143rd as bad as Nigeria.

What gets policy makers, the international press and rating agencies nervous is not so much a lack of corruption but a lack of reporting of corruption, or worse, one-sided reporting of corruption. The international media would be alarmed if it became clear that only scandals about the Centre party, the opposition, were coming to light. This actually does happen in some other European countries. The former chief of an international agency whom I referred to in the beginning of the story was in Estonia to warn about exactly this issue. That's why he was sceptical.

So from the point of view of the international press, policy makers in Brussels and the rating agencies the fact that in the last year or so, as we have seen, the main players in corruption scandals are coming from the government is a good thing.

The corruption scandals show Estonia has a free, unfettered, press and that the press is doing it
s job, to hold the people in power to account.

And make no mistake, Meikar’s move is making the Government very angry.

Politicians never swear, so calling someone "a liar" as Ansip did last week is about the strongest language a Prime Minister can use on a member of his own party.

Privately he probably said something even stronger.

The abuse and expletives that are being hurled around are so strong and we can be sure even stronger in private, that President Ilves had to step in and say in effect “cut it out.”

But as far as the international community is concerned, J├╝rgen Ligi could not be more wrong, Meikar's move is not a security threat. It may not be good for the Reform party, but it is good for the country.

As for the affair itself. Is Silver Meikar a good man? Is he telling the truth? Is he acting in good conscience or does he have some ulterior motive? I will leave that for others who are more expert than me to decide. I just don't know, but I will be watching this space for further developments. As will everybody else in Europe.

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