Taking it slow: How to the deal with a successful and obnoxious little-brother

Pranešk apie klaidą

Fredrik Rydström | the Lithuania Tribune

-What is the richest nation in the world?

-Estonia.

-Why?

-Because Estonians are not fast enough to spend their salaries.

This is just one out of several hundred humorous Lithuanian constructs which targets their minuscule northern neighbor and depicts Estonians as blatantly slow and lethargic. These kinds of jokes, most commonly told by Lithuanians, Latvians and Russians, have its origins in the Soviet soil but has remained popular in the Baltic States even after the fall of communism.

One might ask, then, how Estonians react to these humorous attacks against their alleged slowness; do Estonians themselves construct jokes and anecdotes about their Baltic neighbors? There are, to be sure, ample examples of Estonian anecdotes that portray Latvians and Lithuanians as six-toed horse-heads, but this kind of inter-Baltic “jokelore” has lost out in popularity during the last decade. Nowadays Estonians are looking northward, towards neighboring Finland to be more precise, and Finns are regularly endowed the same non-flattering attributes as Russians in traditional Baltic (and Scandinavian) “jokelore”: drunk, introvert and blatantly narrow-minded.

What, then, can this fairly shallow scrutiny on the changes and development of Estonian “jokelore” tell us about the country and the Baltic region at large? The answer, of course, being that changes in stereotypical and anecdotal ethnic constructs in many ways mirrors broader social, political and cultural transformations in any given society. Consequently, as far as economic culture and institutional structure is concerned, Estonians are getting increasingly more likely to compare their society to those of the relatively prosperous Nordic equivalents rather than those of the neighboring Baltic States.

This, too, tells us something about the Estonian mind-set. While Estonians, as well as Latvians and Lithuanians, in general are not too fond of their political establishments, Estonians paints a much brighter picture of the future than their neighbors. Regardless of their age and occupation, Estonian journalists, students and cab-drivers alike seems to be engrossed by the same magic numbers: In independent Estonia of the early 1930s GNP was slightly higher than that of Finland. However, enduring years of Soviet occupation and predation ensued in that independent Estonia of the early 1990s had a GNP approximately one-third of that of Finland´s. Now, people tell me, we are simply trying to catch up with Finland and restore the economic equilibrium.

This kind of sheer economic optimism is largely absent in Latvia and Lithuania where defeatism and national self-flagellation are, by some, identified as national traits or characteristics. Accordingly, the reaction of Lithuanians to the “success story” of the Estonian economy has also been ambiguous at best, and outright begrudging at worst. Because, as some Lithuanian journalists has argued, is not Estonia sacrificing its “Balticness” on the altar of integration with the Nordic States for the sake of a few pennies?

Be it as it may, more sober analysts has, time and again, pointed out that Lithuania has a lot to gain from studying the Estonian example, and that it would be wise to look at the little-brother rather than across the Baltic Sea or to stare oneself blind towards Brussels. I would, therefore, like to target and briefly discuss three areas of policymaking below in which Lithuania would do wisely to emulate or at least learn from the Estonian experience:

Emigration: When the result of the 2011 population census was revealed, Lithuanian journalists and politicians alike were quick to lament that the nation was bleeding dry. Never minding the over-dramatic and dystopian picture these actors invoked of a decaying motherland, the numbers does, nonetheless, not lie.

The sad fact is that more than 400 000 Lithuanians have chosen to emigrate since the country accomplished its long-term goal of EU-accession in 2004. Repatriating or, at the very least, impeding this virtual brain-drain constitutes one of independent Lithuania’s gravest socio-economic challenges.

In Estonia, however, a mere 1 % of the population has chosen to leave the country in the aftermath of EU-accession. Why is that? I believe that the main reason for this asymmetrical relationship, in terms of emigration, between two comparatively similar neighbors has to do with the attitude of the labor-force and the (in)ability of public institutions and business to provide appropriate jobs for an increasingly well-educated youth. According to a Eurostat survey, approximately 23 % of Lithuanian university graduates do not see a future for themselves in the country, mainly because of low salaries and poor working conditions. In Estonia, on the other hand, less than 15 % of university graduates could see themselves leaving the country for a longer period of time, and a striking 70 % declared that they viewed the future of the country and their employment situation favorably.

Foreign investments: Over his more than three years in office, Lithuanian PM Andrius Kubilius has, time and again, returned to his vision of a budding national economy based on “science and technology intensive” business. True to his vision, PM Kubilius has not wasted a second hammering in the message of Lithuania – described as country ripe for foreign investment because of its generous corporate flat-taxes and its exuberant young labor-force – when visiting Northern European neighbor states.

In this, PM Kubilius is basically right. The young, comparatively well-educated and multi-lingual labor-force Lithuania has to offer does in itself constitute a major incentive for potential foreign investors. However, although PM Kubilius economic road-map is more than megalomaniac wishful thinking, foreign “scientific-technological” capital is already well-established elsewhere in the region.

Indeed, Estonia has enjoyed the label “E-stonia” for several years now; a name paying homage to the country’s astonishing computer-based scientific-economic progress. There is, to be sure, a lot to this name. Notwithstanding Soviet economic mismanagement and predation, occupied Soviet Estonia nurtured some of the most impressive technological masterminds of the century within its womb. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, Nordic capital swiftly made use of the computerized Estonian brain thrust.

Consequently, the wedding of Estonian know-how and Nordic capital has spawned such soft-ware innovations as Kazaa, Skype and Spotify, to name a few. These achievements has not only solidified Estonia´s role as the nexus of tech-industry in Eastern Europe, nowadays even Estonia’s former protégées – a.k.a. the Nordic States – are looking to Tallinn for technological-economic solutions to their own problems. In effect, then, PM Kubilius do not have to look over the Baltic Sea for viable economic models for Lithuania to emulate in order to facilitate the institutional formation of “scientific-technological” economy, neighboring Estonia constitutes an equally impressive example, and one that Lithuania should be adroit enough to effectively adopt and implement.

Institutional reformation and rejuvenation: The observant foreigner walking through any major political, cultural or educational facility in Lithuania cannot help to get struck by the same thing: why are seemingly docile pensioners –appearing to occupy a corner in every room available within the institution in mind – conscientiously watching each step the visitor dares to take?

Their ubiquity within public institutions is indeed a sensible issue in Lithuanian politics. However, you do not have to be a misanthropic neo-liberalist to conclude that their role is largely redundant and that upholding the system is far from cost-effective. But, argues some Lithuanian politicians, the salaries these fairly impoverished pensioners receives are minimal, to say the very least, and their employment, thus, is simply a way to make ends meet. Although there is a great deal of truth, not to mention sympathy, to this argument, it nevertheless attempts to brush one of the gravest socio-economic and generational conflicts in Lithuanian society under the rug.

Notwithstanding the philanthropy underlining this policy, having age-old pensioners employed in public institutions impedes the rejuvenation of the very same institutions; thus effectively closing the door for young professionals. According to a national survey, just above 10 % of Lithuanian graduates are satisfied with the opportunities offered to them as public servants.

If to, once again, compare the Lithuanian situation to that of Estonia, one cannot turn a blind eye to how much more effectively the Estonian government has tackled the problem. In somewhat simplified terms, Estonia has, since the mid-1990s, periodically been slimming down and rationalizing public institutions; ensuing in that superfluous incumbents has been forcefully retired and replaced by younger professionals. In so doing, Estonia has been able to rechanneling funds saved from downsizing the bureaucracy in public institutions to increase pensions; that is basically a way to reallocate money while at the same time tremendously improving the quality of public institutions. A Lithuanian government, regardless of political coloring, would do wise to follow this example, the sooner the better.

Catching up with an obnoxious little-brother is indeed a burdensome and time-consuming process which, in effect, has to start with solemnly acknowledging the achievements of the nemesis and end with overtaking its role as the regional “belle of the boat”. It was, for example, one thing for Swedish people when Norwegian cross-country skiers ascended to the top in the 1990s, but when the very same country – for long considered as a rurally impoverished and misfortunate little-brother – overtook Sweden in terms of GNP per capita, consternation and outright envy proliferated. Sweden, therefore, as should be the case of Lithuania, has, ever since, been hell-bent on restoring “normalization” and thus, once again, overtaking Norway.

On the positive side, then, Lithuania, in contrast to Sweden, do not have to combat a nemesis/little-brother which is virtually bathing in ample oil and gas supplies. Giving Estonia a run for its money should, in comparison, be a piece of cake.

Read more texts written by Fredrik Rydström

Fredrik Rydström is a distinguished academic from Sweden who graduated Vilnius University in Spring 2010. He lived for almost two years in Lithuania where he ound true love: the kibinas. Fredrik has held several lectures about and specialized in Baltic-Nordic relations.

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