Monday, May 09, 2016

Meeting Estonia's Ambassador to Discuss a Bastion of Democracy and Innovation

If you have been following my blog, you know that I have become an e-citizen of Estonia, have been celebrating Estonia and digital transformation and am organizing a trip Estonia this summer.

Thanks to my friend, Shai Franklin, I was introduced to Estonia's Ambassador to the US, the Honorable Eerik Marmei (@eerikmarmei).

While we talked a great deal about Estonia's remarkable achievements as a digital innovator (more on that in a moment), what struck me was the story of Estonia as a democracy.

Before 1940 (and the invasion of the Soviets), Estonia had been a democracy. In fact, on the wall in the room where we sat, was a framed document where a previous Estonian ambassador had presented his credentials to President Calvin Coolidge.

The reason why this is important is that, as the Ambassador's generation grew up, it was their grandparents who essentially said to them: "once upon a time, we were a free people...we will be free again." (Having just finished Passover, this resonated for me).

So, by the time the Soviet Union fell in 1991, it was his generation (those under 30) that were the ones who carried the torch of the hope of a free Estonia.

His parents generation (those born during Stalinist era) grew up in a culture of fear and repression.

That had a fascinating consequence...when the time for elections came, it was the senior citizen generation that essentially said "You can't trust anyone over 30."

They knew they were too old and their children didn't have the courage to get it done. It was only their grandchildren who should lead, which is why (if my memory serves me correct), 4 of the first ministers (defense, foreign, economy, and one other) were all under the age of 30 when first elected.

This group (which had protested by singing in the streets in the late 80s and early 90s) literally threw out the Soviet law book, rebuilt the legal system and, as the Ambassador said, "brought in Milton Friedman" to guide the economy.

They passed a Constitution that forbade the government from ever running a deficit or borrowing money.

(Interestingly enough, this had a unique implication in 2007 during the global recession. The gov't had to reduce spending by 15% including laying off a number of people....and they were re-elected! You can't see that happening in Greece).

By 1995, the government ensured that every school in the entire country was wired for Internet and computer access.

They began building out the digital infrastructure that eventually allowed them to cut 2% of GDP worth of bureaucratic waste and invest in start-ups, defense, and things that really add value.

So, by now, as Estonia has become a hotbed of entrepreneurship, one of the reasons is that an entire generation has grown up with technology (they teach programming in the classroom).

Libraries went digital in the 90s and senior citizens got classes on using the Web.

Today, over 99% of votes and taxes are cast online (among many, many other things).

As the Ambassador says, "in Estonia, no one waits in line, because everything is online."

And the privacy angle is Estonia, everyone knows when any government agency requests any piece of uniquely identifiable information and is entitled to inquire as to why.

By the way, if the answer isn't satisfactory to the citizen (or the review board), people are fired.

In the US, we have NO idea which gov't agency looks at our records. In Estonia, you know exactly who is looking at what and when.'s fair to ask if all of this is only possible because it's a small (1.1 million), relatively homogenous, Protestant-work ethic culture.

But there may be something deeper. Something that sent chills down my spine.

Something that I wish every American had.

What he has is a profound, deep, and total appreciation for Freedom.

They have seen socialism and totalitarianism. They have seen demagoguery. They want nothing to do with that ever again.

"We'd rather have 1 million dead Estonians than live that way."

That appreciation for freedom fuels a desire to make life better and easier; to facilitate trade and commerce; to empower people to pursue their passions.

Given their location (on the border between Europe and Russia and the Nordics) and their history, I think Estonia could be a player that punches well above their weight-class when it comes to shaping the next wave of geo-politics and globalization.

In an era where some in America would put up walls or roll things back and others either want to give up on or take freedoms for granted, Estonia serve as a reminder and, in some cases, an inspiration.

It's both an outpost of Democracy and an Epcot of the e-future on a national scale.

That's what I am going to investigate.

For more on the history of Estonia (wikipedia)

I've been asked about Estonia's role in the Holocaust.  My initial answer was "better than Lithuania, but not quite Denmark."

Wikipedia has a summary.

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