A recent conference on pathways to a sustainable future for East Baltic states, held in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, led me to reflect on the meaning of “sustainable” and what visionary leadership for a sustainable future can be.
One of my roles at the conference was to speak on the integrated nature of sustainability (Triple Bottom Line Plus One – Governance), the honey bee (not locust) forms of leadership suitable for this, and the integral approach to the development of values based leadership.
The talk went quite well and few hard questions were asked afterwards. However, talking informally with participants at the breaks and over meals led me to see that my talk had missed a vital aspect of the local perspective on sustainability.
This was national independence and freedom.
Estonia only became an independent country in 1918 following World War I and the Russian Revolution. The first republic lasted but 22 years until 1940, when Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Eight thousand political, military, police and business leaders were detained and 2,200 executed. Another ten thousand extra were deported to Siberia and more than thirty thousand men (of whom over 40 per cent had perished within one year) forcibly recruited into the Soviet Army. Estonia was occupied by Germany in 1941, and then reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. The UK and USSR recognized the annexation as part of the Yalta Conference agreement in 1945.
Over 80,000 Estonians fled to avoid a second Soviet terror. Some of these refugee families reached Australia where they were welcomed. Forced deportations began again – 21,000 in 1949 alone. Over 1,500 “forest brothers” and nearly 2,000 Soviet troops perished in the partisan conflicts that lasted until the last one was detained and killed by KGB agents in 1978. Estonia remained part of the USSR until its collapse. A new independent country was declared in 1991 and European Union membership granted in 2004.
The USSR resettled many Russians in Estonia after 1945 and today ethnic Russians constitute a quarter of the population. The number of Russian mother-tongue speakers is much higher – just under 47 per cent in Tallin and upwards of 80 per cent in the north-east, closer to Russia. More than 60 per cent of ethnic Russians in Estonia are said to feel disenfranchised. The independence leaders in 1991 chose not to grant Estonian citizenship to non-ethnic Estonians.
The Estonian government claims to have taken many steps to facilitate the social integration of its Russian community. For example, over 50 newspapers and magazines are published in the Russian language, five radio stations broadcast in Russian and two national TV stations offer regular Russian-language programming. Russian language education is available in public and private schools at all levels and 10 per cent of higher education students study in Russian. However, assessments of Estonian compliance with the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe indicate very high levels of unemployment and an absence of national minorities from higher levels of the public sector, in both cases especially ethnic Russians.
As a result, Estonia–Russia relations are tense. Media destabilization campaigns and cyber attacks from Russia have been widespread and it is said that Russian influence in Estonia involves a complex system of financial, political, economic and espionage.
As a leader of Estonia, how would you act?
Events over the past decade have seen Russia reassert its influence over Former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea, shooting down of a civilian aircraft and the sponsorship of civil war in Ukraine, if not outright use of Russian troops in Ukraine, are enough to make any East Baltic nation nervous. Together with the potential instability of a large Russophone population, the leaders of countries such as Estonia have a classic wicked problem on their hands. They are operating from a disproportionately weak military position and cannot afford to antagonize their Russia and its President Putin, who seems increasingly uncompromising with the West.
One reaction would be to pump up nationalism, embark upon rapid militarization, and talk tough with Russia. This would certainly be a “reaction” – as opposed to a response – and reflect what is termed a “Command and Control” approach to a problem. Estonia’s leaders have certainly responded strongly in international fora to overt provocations, such as a wave of proven-Soviet cyber attacks in 2007 and the arrest of an Estonian official in 2014.
By and large, however, they have chosen not to follow this path. Without yet admitting ethic Russians to Estonian citizenship, they seem to have chosen a path based upon a long-term approach to building national resilience. This has been based upon creating a vision of Estonia as a creative, progressive, culturally rich and economically strong country.
The aim is to build the confidence of the Estonian people so that ethnic Estonians and Russophones have valuable social and economic roles. They are encouraged to value their respective heritage but also be integrated through a web of connections. Industry and government centres and services have been decentralized even into the remoter north-eastern, closer-to-Russia counties and cities.
The maritime and forest heritage of Estonia are celebrated. The Environmental Board has numerous live and recorded webcam feeds of various birds and animals that are widely celebrated as species “of the year”. Outdoor recreation is encouraged not just for personal health reasons but also as part of national identity and community building.
Estonia’s maritime history of vessels and exploration is celebrated through a major national museum and a wide range of interactive themes and programs. This year is the 80th anniversary of the museum and the jubilee programme is entitled The Sea is Mine, Yours, Ours!. The jubilee year will start with a campaign for collecting people’s stories on the topic ‘My Day at Sea’. Subtle, but important, messaging!
Significantly, the outward-looking nature of a maritime history is being leveraged as part of the vision for the nation’s future. The message is that Estonia looked outwards to the sea in times past but today it is looking to space for its future.
Thus, significant investment is being made not just in astronomy but in the space value-chain from education and research through infrastructure for the space sector (e.g. the manufacture of antennas for satellites) to space exploration programs and the development of Earth observation methods and specific technology usable in space – instruments, nano-satellites and services.
There are at least three lessons for leaders in this – the importance of targeting a priority industry or activity, developing and resourcing a comprehensive rather than piecemeal program, and establishing the program as part of a national narrative in which all are encouraged to share.
Finally, the Estonian government has grounded the future of the country in a record of financial stability. Estonia is among the very few countries in the Eurozone to regularly have a budget surplus; indeed, the only one in 2011. Government debt to GDP ratio is almost as good as Australia’s. The two pillars of balanced budgets and low government debt are supported by a 21-per-cent flat-rate tax system (down from 26 per cent in 2004) that is said to have reduced bureaucracy and increased incentives for work. And all the while developing a social wage and system of social support characteristic of the most progressive of north European nations.
The issue of citizenship and political rights remains unresolved. However, the social, cultural and economic measures taken thus far might be seen to approximate slow leadership, leadership that seeks to build a resilient culture based upon collaboration, social harmony and capacity building.
It seems to be working thus far with the very “wicked” security side of sustainability – the one I had not thought about before going to Estonia. How well might similar strategies for slow leadership for wicked problems work for the other dimensions of sustainability?