The Shadow of Thatcherism Over Estonian Politics

Estonia’s general elections were held last month. The victory of the neoliberal Reform Party exacerbated a certain longlasting socio-political discrepancy of the country. While Estonia is perceived as a Nordic state by our politicians, Estonian society is distinctly Eastern European. The 2008 economic crises saw Estonia turn to one of the harshest austerity regimes in the EU – which resulted in insecurity and increasing social darwinism.(1) With more public sector reforms to come and the end to austerity nowhere in sight, a Nordic future marked by welfare and cohesion remains as deceptive as ever. One can’t escape the feeling that the possibility for even a modest change has been squandered.

A key election outcome is the continuing presence of Thatcherism in Estonian politics. Thatcherism is a political doctrine advocated by Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the ’80s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it became the dominant paradigm in the newly established Eastern European countries. Estonia was particularly keen to implement radical market economy reforms known as “shock therapy” for their rapidit and scale. Our Prime Minister in the early ninties, Mart Laar,declared himself a disciple of Thatcher, and he was later given the Milton Friedman Prize. Thus, Thatcher’s famous claim that there is no society, there are only individuals and families, became the guiding principle of Estonianbpolitics. The downside of all this was that concerns for social security were hardly on the political agenda. Instead, pressure to conform to anonymous market forces became the new fate of Estonian people.

A meaningful political change would end the low social spending and taxation model.Estonian austerity has been often presented as a success. But in reality, together with Greece, Latvia and Ireland, we are among the countries worst hit by austerity. What separates Estonia from Greece and other Southern European countries is the stubborn Thatcherist conviction that there is no alternative (“TINA”) to the current social order. Regardless of the consequences, more of the same is the default solution.

Structural “Reforms”

The structural “reforms” in the Tallinn and Tartu university, the two main Estonianuniversities, apply the private sector logic of efficiency and competitiveness to the public sector. The reforms do not stem from universities; they are undertaken on the basis of an external directive. There has been very little critical discussion concerning the reforms which is especially disappointing given their scope. They reduce the number of faculty by more than two. Here, the attitude of Estonian state towards higher education is evidently hypocritical. There are no practical measures to back the rhetoric about the esteem of higher education which suffers from a lack of funding.

In addition, what we find are euphemistic expressions about the prospects of universities such as a “new synergy between the private sector and higher education.” This comes down to higher education providing service to private enterprise. Entrepreneurs are increasingly involved in managing universities in Estonia, although the goals of higher education are widely different from that of business. The democratic nature of the public sector is the reason why university independence is being undermined. Depoliticising the public sector comes with the news that 15% of its workers will be made redundant. The private sector in Estonia is thoroughly unregulated with economic forces appearing as if they were natural forces. Is this what the public sector needs?

The Legitimacy Crisis

British social critic David Harvey and American political philosopher Nancy Fraser claim that the post global economic crises Western states are plagued by the crisis of legitimacy.(2) Some of its aspects are the imbrication of political and economic power and the tendency to privatize profits and socialize risks. The crisis exemplified how financial institutions have their own rules and special privileges. The politics that provides these privileges speaks the language of numbers and shields itself from democratic majorities, perceived as incompetent.

On the other hand, crisis can be a source of transformation and pave the way for the better. The reforms we are witnessing in Estonia are about integrating the public sector into the austerity regime. In terms of the legitimacy crisis, it can be argued that they are not a solution. They hold fast to its important features such as market fundamentialism and a lack of alternatives. The different sides involved in the reforms are not equally visible. The state and higher education should be agents involved in giving social processes a direction.

In conclusion, four more years of the Reform Party and its politics of private enterprise are a bleak prospect for Estonia. Technical-administrative reforms and squeezing higher education are surely not going to make Estonia more like Scandinavia. They will only reinforce the familiar state of affairs, where the society is no more than the sum of individuals.


Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books.

Woolfson, P., Sommers, J. (2014) The contradictions of austerity: the socio-economic costs of the neoliberal Baltic model. New York and London: Routledge.

1. See Woolfson and Sommers (2010) for a critique of the austerity model that the three Baltic countries embarked on after the financial crisis.

2. See Harvey´s The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism (2010) and Fraser.