In Spring 2010 a populist movement entered the Estonian political scene. It was called United Estonia and it promised change, justice and land for everyone. The members of the movement were mostly actors from the theatre NO99 known for its rather modern forms of expression and social criticism. For six weeks the movement fueled the media circus and kept analysts and politicians speculating whether the new force will win the next elections due in 10 months.
United Estonia started exposing some widespread methods of spin of Estonian parties in series of critical Youtube videos called “Voting schools”. The videos were based on real life anonymous interviews with party members and advisers and have been later referred to as “realistic” (see below).
While being critical of the methods, the movement also used these same methods. For example it used a specific populist tactic by avoiding any specific framing. When addressed as a political force, the movement denied being that and called themselves “just actors” and when referred to as actors, they called themselves “political movement”.
United Estonia also held a series of campaigns in order to get media coverage for themselves. For example they secretly ruined their own posters that were exhibited in the center of Tallinn. This ensured ongoing media coverage and growing tensions.
On 7th of May United Estonia arranged a “party conference” where 7500 ticket buying people gathered for one-time megashow. Many of them expected the birth of a new party. The show peaked with a fascist style entance of the “party leader” followed by obviously rigged elections of the new party functionaries.
At the same time the crowds were explained, how and what was done and how they were manipulated. In what some called an anticlimax, United Estonia gave away its symbolic power in the final speech where the “party leader” asked everyone to stop being silent participants in politics.
After the show, United Estonia held its last press conference ever where it exposed all the methods it had used. I as one of the authors of the show published a complete account of all the activites and methods in the blog called Memokraat. After that United Estonia has not given any comments on any issues in Estonian politics.
There has been a lot of discussion in Estonia about the impact and legacy of the United Estonia and in a way the authors of the show have also been in doubt about what really happened. There are still some measurable outcomes, including hundreds of articles in media, references in popular culture and politics itself.
A year later general elections were held in Estonia and after that United Estonia was not the center of public discussions any more. Quite unexpectedly the topic resurrected in the beginning of 2012 when hundreds of people came to streets to protest against ACTA and as Elver Loho, one of the leaders of Estonian Internet Community, said that the creation of the Estonian Internet Community was inspired by United Estonia.
Even later that year a young Reform Party politician Silver Meikar wrote an article where he exposed some illegal money laundering schemes in the Reform Party. He got into an angry confrontation with his fellow party members and was expelled from the party. At the same time about 6 people from his party and altogether 20 people backed his statements. This created a long lasting stand-off and ended with thousands of people coming to streets protesting against “dishonest politics”.
After about 6 months of denial and resistance, the minister of justice who was accused to be the mastermind of the money laundering scheme, was finally forced to step down.
Meikar later told media that he had been motivated by United Estonia, especially its “Voting school project”. “I watched it and it was exactly as I knew it was,” he said.
A public harta was created by 17 public figures that called for alternative institution for discussing the status of Estonian democracy. In few days the harta got 17 000 signatures. The president of Estonia agreed to lead the process and so a People’s Assembly project was called into action. People’s Assembly is a crowdsourced project where people can make amendments for 5 different laws, the proposals will be analyzed by experts and when discussed by 500 randomly selected citizens during a discussion day. The resulting proposals will then be sent to the parliament for further discussion.
As a conclusion, one can say that United Estonia has had some impact over three years. At the same time many people have expressed their regret that United Estonia did not go to the politics. For the authors of the project going to politics would have been a rather impossible idea, because the main philosophy of the project was to remain citizens outside the party politics and demand to be heard at the same time. Besides that, it would not have been possible to enter the political scene as a new and pure force by starting with propaganda and lies.
What lessons can be learned from the experience of United Estonia?
First of all, it is clear that in the age of Wikileaks, information flows more freely, much less information remains secret and this leads to more failed promises. The image of a responsible Statesman is more difficult to keep up. As the public realises that politicians and many other institutions in general do not live up to promises, the disappointment will keep growing for a while and in their search for alternatives, voters may turn towards whatever forces seem to be outsiders or just more authentic.
It is ironic that this authenticity is seeked in performers like Clown Grillo of Italy or populists like Timo Soini of Finland and it can well be that authenticity will never be found in them either, because even in the age of information technology and open data, the publics remain as manipulative as ever. New political forces face the same temptations as the old ones and this applies to Clown Grillo as well.
For example, the members of United Estonia have confessed that by participating in the process they became more demagogical in their own lives, some said that they needed a serious “detoxification” and staying away from civilization in order to regain their peace of mind. In short, they became the same thing that they were opposed to.
A ready made road to the future of democracy does not exist. There will be no miracles, there is no architect with a master plan, but there is still way to build that road piece by piece and using the cooperative models and networks. A lot of attention has to be paid to the protocol of new networks, because technology itself does not carry democratic values, it has to be deployed in moderation.
In 2010 United Estonia ended its existence with a sentence: “The world does not change in a day, it changes every day”. The view that resembles Karl Popper’s idea of piecemeal social innovation stressed that everyday participation are needed from citizens and there is no one who can do it for them. The ideas of democracy need to be translated to our moder technological reality, one day at a time.