Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Progress without Protest
Aet Annist

Estonia encounters development [1]

The last century has created several important bipolarities: East and West, South and North, capitalism and Communism. Somehow, we seem to like to consider our many-faceted world in such terms. One of the most persistent and powerful bipolarities has been the division of the world into the developed and the undeveloped.

This reflects a fascination with the idea of unilinear progress and the position of the countries between the two reference points. However, until recently, this two-dimensional view was obscured by an alternative way of development represented by the Socialist block of the world. The changes in the Second World [2] have transformed the divide between the South and the North by adding the East-West bipolarity to the developed-undeveloped bipolarity.

The history of this developmental endeavour is already rather a long one in the Third World, and has been studied and criticised from all possible angles. The Second World, however, might have considerably more power to affect the belief in this ideology of development. It could provide a new challenge to the Western models of world development.

Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that the discourses of development in Eastern Europe often involves reconstructing history by placing the identity of this region in the West. This makes challenging Western models far more difficult and their credulous adoption far easier. In the following reflections, I will consider some aspects characterising how the ideology behind the Western style of development, is challenged or maintained in Estonia.

The Western path to nirvana

Estonia is one of those (East European) countries that is very clearly portrayed by its international spokespersons, and its media, as returning home – to the Western world. It has been widely presented as the most rapidly developing ex-Soviet country. Such traditional economic indicators as GDP and inflation rates have fuelled this enthusiasm.

The desire to return to the path of development towards Western models of market economy has been the bottom line of the international and the mainstream self-image of the country over the last ten years. These features have led Estonia to the forefront of neo-liberal economies, so much so that the country is claimed to be one of the most liberal countries in the world. [3]

This position inevitably means eager adherence to the rules of structural adjustment programs set by the IMF and World Bank, and a subsequent hardening of social conditions for the majority of the population. [4] Peculiarly, it has not created much opposition amongst Estonian-speaking inhabitants.

Public opinion has not been studied on the matters of the current development itself. Therefore, what is considered here is simply the presence of social movements actively questioning these trends, and the opinions in the media. The state of civic society in Estonia is in a rather poor condition compared to several other East European countries. [5]

There are no significant active groups opposing the problems caused by development aid, considering the weaknesses of the current political direction or suggesting alternative ways of achieving the quality of life desired.

Political parties do not differ considerably and they mostly agree on the basic principles and targets of development as set by the Western institutions. Recently, the Estonian government's memorandum to the IMF on the four-year budget strategy of the country came under close scrutiny in the media.

The budget for 2000 provides for no general increase in nominal wages and pensions; agricultural import tariffs have been introduced at, or below, WTO levels; and excise taxes on fuel components will be introduced. At the same time, the corporate income tax on retained profits has been eliminated, defence outlays increased, and a further increase is expected. [6]

Where is the protest?

All of these measures should have brought about protest from the groups that will be hit hard. Yet, even though some critical articles appeared in the main dailies, [7] the hushed protest quickly died out and the coalition that consists of both rightist and leftist parties had no differing opinions.

However, this is not something that characterises the whole of the Eastern Europe. Many years into the post-Communist transition, numerous other East European countries have offered much needed resistance to the conditions and requirements of the aid programmes.[8]

In fact, some authors [9] have considered this criticism as possibly the greatest success of the development aid-cum-ideology that invaded the Second World. Poland and Hungary, for instance, have requested foreign aid to match the needs they define; the Czech Republic has abstained from its relations with the World Bank. [10] In Estonia, there has not been a similar critique of foreign demands.

In his remarkable criticism of the development ideology, Wolfgang Sachs [11] observes: "development is much more than just a socio-economic endeavour, it is a perception which models reality, a myth which comforts societies, a fantasy which unleashes passions." Of course, it is far from just being a dream – it is also a necessity. Choosing not to follow the Western path would be seen as a denial of the roots of the country.

On a more practical level, the feeling of powerlessness and fear of a new annexation by her unpredictable neighbour may help to explain why Estonia chooses to stick to this endeavour. As the process of development continues and some of the East European countries fall behind, one can also sense the fear of sharing their fate.

The smallest failures of the other countries are somewhat readily presented in the media – for instance, the quite unashamed gladness of the other Baltic neighbours' lesser economic and political success in the context of EU enlargement. The fear of losing the feeling of belonging to the developed West creates a willingness to tolerate the alarming negligence of the social and the environmental realm and to deny (developmental) alternatives.

The competitive nature of development is one of the secrets of the success of the development ideology. There is a general resentment of the features associated with the undeveloped state – of backwardness and ignorance, economic desolation and political seclusion.

The last two are represented as deriving from the first two that in turn are seen as proven by the presence of the latter. Only those reasonably successful can allow such an unquestioned acceptance of the status quo.

Since the country has been economically more advanced than other ex-Soviet countries, a status present during the Soviet time as well, [12] the attitude of pride may make development a normal condition, affecting the general public quite strongly and maintaining the trust in the ideology of development.

Indeed, the successes of development ideology depend on how the people can become part of the achievements of the country and feel proud of them. [13]

Presenting the positive economic indicators may on the one hand be the source of encouragement that the chosen way is right. However, on the other hand, this may cause a rift between the local reality and the reality presented by the media and politicians.

The feeling of pride expressed at the public level might not be enough to justify to huge segments of the society the real sense of deterioration experienced, especially in rural communities.

Recent years have revealed that not only is the economic and political realm prioritised over social and environmental considerations, but also over national considerations.

Rural moans

Many still see the identity of the country as strongly related to the countryside rather than to the information technology sector that is being fostered by the elite. However, the rural population has in recent years experienced a severe and rapid decline in their livelihoods. [14]

In many of the dailies (eg Äripäev) farmers are routinely – especially when they show any initiative to organise political protests – presented as whining laggards, hindering the proper development of the country and demanding unacceptable or impossible means to maintain their lifestyle. This is one of the instances of effectively eliminating an alternative voice from the development discourse.

It also indicates what a complicated task it is to explain, justify and apply, while at the same time, maintain and enhance the ways forward chosen by the political elite of the country.

Development issues bring along a most intricate set of power relations between the different groups who claim to have an indisputable right to define the identity of the country and what its future should hold.

Political strings attached

Aid to Eastern Europe is transparently political. For the groups that have experienced severe setbacks, the political nature of aid may have a very direct outcome. It ties together the country's political élite and the development aid from outside – and any misuse of money or any failure to deliver is seen as a failure of not just Western institutions but of the local élite too.

Even worse, it may well be seen as not just a failure but a deliberate robbing of the people. The élite of the non-western societies "stand to benefit considerably from a system that exploits their own people," [15] and it is also apparent to those left outside of the real power. That may renew the local communities as a source of the opposition to the state. [16]

However, it might be that as with reactions in Soviet times, the result of such opposition is simply passive scorn, and the state is experienced as outside the people's realm of life. Also, it is difficult to join against the principles of development towards the West. That would inevitably be seen as a denial of all the principles of freedom, independence, and as a desire to return to the Soviet past.

This missing resistance to the development projects has been partly necessary due to the dual nature of the outcome of development. Some authors [17] have suggested that the former Socialist countries appear to be pushed along the path of dependency and underdevelopment rather than returning to the West.

This is somewhat hard to believe since not having any success stories from this part of the world
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may disturb the development edifice quite seriously. But it is quite clear that the Second World is slowly divided into those who manage to develop and can therefore enter the side of the First World, and those who fall behind into the Third World.

This pre-existence of the two worlds prior to Eastern Europe's entry into the bipolar world of development has worked as a helpful tool of maintaining the effectiveness of the development ideology. That leads me to my final observation – the presence of a remarkable paradox so characteristic to many very unequal power-relations.

One of the reasons for the growing criticism of the development intervention in the Eastern Europe has been a typical feature of development projects: ignoring the historical, social and cultural features and differences of the countries subjected to the development intervention.

Old methods for new problems

In Eastern Europe the developers use their earlier, that is, Third World experiences and assumptions when approaching the new targets. Such treatment of the Second World as Third World has caused great outrage in Eastern Europe; in Estonia, several anecdotes describe the developers' assumptions about the local level of education and knowledge. However, this outrage is very far from (being considered as) standing up to the misconstruction of East European countries.

It does not seem to create an opposition to the patronising manners of the neo-colonial relationship between the West and the East. On the contrary, this outrage is there to support the condemnation of slow development within East European countries. In Estonia, the failures of our politicians and unsuccessful local policies are often referred to as typical of a "banaanivabariik" (banana-republic).

This indicates shamefulness
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of any similarity to the supposed problems of the "undeveloped" Third World, and shows the presence of several myths about the differences between the "developed" and the "undeveloped." It also maintains the patronising nature of development ideology and drives the belief in the development and in our need to follow the path set by Western institutions.

There are several factors that play an important role in Estonia's indifference to or avoidance of the possible criticisms of the development. In this reflection, I pointed out such features as the lack of criticism; [18] the overwhelming nature of the development ideology; the success itself that convinces people to put up with the current problems; the identity that has been effectively placed in Western Europe; [19] the inevitable connection between the denial of the current direction and the totalitarian past; the remnants of the Soviet mentality that supply the populace with the skills to succumb into passivity and, naturally, the geopolitical position.

Whether development itself will be harmed by this lack of assessment is yet to be seen. It is, however, very likely that informed criticism and independence from foreign decisions could be favourable even in terms of the more mainstream ideas about development. For example, the Czech Republic has been accepted by the West as a partner. [20]

Estonia would also benefit from refusing to accept the attempts to construct it as an ignorant minor who cannot define its own needs and solutions properly, and who is praised when obedient and punished when contravening.

Aet Annist, 10 July 2000

Aet Annist lectures at Tartu University on sociology of youth and theories of development. Annist holds an MPhil from the University of Cambridge and is currently completing her PhD on social anthropology of development.

Moving on:


1. These thoughts have arisen from my observation of Estonian life for my doctoral thesis in the anthropology of development. Not having yet undertaken proper fieldwork, I am offering only my speculations as a social scientist and as an Estonian – albeit sometimes in a position of an astonished "other"

2. I am using the terms Third World, Second World, East and West, North and South as catchphrases in the interest of brevity, with all due respect to the extensive critique of those divisions

3. Eg Estonia Candidate for Membership in the European Union International Business Handbook 1998-1999 Tallinn: Euroinformer

4. Reported for instance in Inimarengu Aruanne 1999, Tallinn, UNDP

5. ibid

6. Memorandum of Economic Policies 2000 IMF Click here

7. Eg Savisaar, E 2000 Maksukoormuse ümberjagajad, Äripäev 10.05.

8. However, it has to be noted that certain decrease of social movements characterises the majority of the new democracies – see for instance Pickvance, CG 1999 Democratisation and the Decline of Social Movements: the Effects of Regime Change on Collective Action in Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and Latin America – Sociology Vol 33, No 2, pp 353-372

9. Creed, GW, Wedel, JR 1997 Second Thoughts from the Second World Interpreting Aid in Post-Communist Eastern Europe – Human Organisation, Vol 56, No 3, pp 253-264

10. Creed and Wedel 1997, op cit

11. Sachs, W, ed 1992 The Development Dictionary, London, Zed Books

12. Eg, Shafir, G 1995 Immigrants and Nationalists Ethnic Conflict and Accommodation in Catalonia, the Basque County, Latvia and Estonia, New York, State University of New York Press

13. Abram, S, Waldren, J, eds 1998 Anthropological Perspectives on Local Development: Knowledge and Sentiment in Conflict, London, New York, Routledge

14. For a disillusioned critique, see for instance Unwin, T 2000 Estonian Agriculture in a European Context: Political Agendas and the Common Agricultural Policy. In: Ennuste, Ü, Wilder, L, eds Harmonisation with the Western Economics: Estonian Economic Developments and Related Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks, Collection of Papers, Tallinn, Estonian Institute of Economics at Tallinn Technical University.

15. Sardar, Z 1992 Beyond Development: An Islamic Perspective In: Tucker, V, ed Cultural Perspectives on Development, London, Portland, OR: Frank Cass, EADI

16. Eg Pine, F 1998 Dealing with Fragmentation The Consequences of Privatisation for Rural Women in Central and Southern Poland in: Bridger, S, Pine, F, eds Surviving Post-Socialism: Local Strategies and Regional Responses in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, London, New York: Routledge

17. Eg Pine 1998 op cit; Hobsbawm, E 1994 Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, London, Michael Joseph

18. Or at best, the unarticulated criticism which goes only half way and does not question the very pillars of development ideology

19. For an interesting analysis of this process, see Lagerspetz, M 1999 The Cross of Virgin Mary’s Land: A Study in the Construction of Estonia’s "Return to Europe", Idäntutkimus, The Finnish Review of East European Studies Special Issue: Change and Continuity, pp 17-28

20. Creed and Wedel 1997, op cit



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