Andres Tennus

Professor Piret Ehin: democracy is not self-evident in today's world

Honourable rector, mayor, honorary doctors and newly conferred doctors, dear guests and university members, 

I am very grateful for the opportunity to share with you today, on this important day, some thoughts on the state of democracy and the role of the national university in supporting democracy. 

Democracy is one of our core values. It is the principle of the organisation of political life, enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. In view of our history, democracy is not separable from the idea and ideal of freedom and self-determination – we can only be free if the supreme political authority is vested in the people, if the people assume the duties and responsibilities that come with the supreme authority. Democracy is the mechanism by which we shape our present and our future as a state and as a people, but democracy also defines us. It says something very important about who we are, who our friends and allies are in the world, and which community of values and cultures we belong to. 

It is important to think about democracy and to talk about democracy, as democracy is not self-evident in today's world. In fact, it is less self-evident today than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Democracy is facing serious internal and external threats: democracy as a form of government is increasingly contested, various authoritarian and non-liberal alternatives to democracy are being offered, attempts are being made to empty the concept of democracy of meaning, and all sorts of sham is offered under the name of democracy. Democracy is under attack. On 24 February this year, an authoritarian aggressor state launched a new and full attack on its neighbour to overthrow a democratically elected government. In this biggest war in Europe in the last three quarters of a century, Ukraine and its allies are defending not only Ukrainian independence but also the rule-based world order and democracy. 

According to the US think tank Freedom House, only 20% of the world's population now lives in free countries. 38% live in not free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Globally, democracy has been declining for 16 years in a row. Signs of the erosion and fatigue of democracy and the rise of the new authoritarianism can be seen in Europe as well as in the Americas, Asia and Africa, both in countries that have democratised relatively recently and in countries with a long and distinguished democratic tradition. Even the global and regional flagships of democracy have been shaken by the storm: observers are gravely concerned about the future of democracy in the US, including whether the 2024 presidential election will be legitimate and peaceful. India, considered the world's largest democracy with a population of more than a billion, is rated as a partly free country for the first time in this year's Freedom House's classification. 

The impact and scope of the idea of democracy are closely linked to international politics. The three great waves of democratisation in the 19th and 20th centuries were triggered by a rapid transformation of the balance of power between the major powers. In a context in which the West is losing world leadership and new centres of power are emerging, it is increasingly asked whether the liberal world order, which was established in the aftermath of the Second World War and strengthened and expanded after the end of the Cold War, will endure. The liberal world order is based on three pillars: an open economy, multilateral institutions and rules, and, thirdly, liberal democracy. Several influential non-Western countries would take the first two of the equation and leave the third aside. Whether the two-legged stool of the liberal world order can stand and how well such a construct can secure and sustain peace is unknown today. 

More than thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have to admit that the end of history proclaimed in 1989 by the American social scientist Francis Fukuyama has not arrived, or at least its arrival has been postponed for an unknown period. Western liberal democracy did not become universal, it did not become the final point of the ideological development of humanity. There are only six countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that are designated as consolidated democracies: Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Several countries in the region have fallen into the ranks of hybrid regimes, or semi-democracies, and many former Soviet republics have become entrenched autocracies. 

As said, democracy is showing signs of fatigue and confusion even in Western societies with a long democratic tradition. Already in the second half of the 1990s, researchers of political participation and attitudes noted that in many advanced democracies, trust in political institutions had begun to decline and voter turnout to fall. Citizens were becoming alienated from political parties, discontent was growing, and protest behaviour was becoming more frequent and widespread. Initially, it was thought that more educated and informed voters were simply more critical and expected more from their rulers and political parties. Over time, it has become clear that it is not simply a question of voters being 'critical and demanding democrats'. In many places, citizens' belief that democracy is the best form of government has started to falter. Support for various authoritarian alternatives has grown. In Estonian society, too, we cannot speak of a complete entrenchment of democracy: according to the latest Global Values Survey, 17% of respondents in Estonia thought it would be a good or even a very good idea to have a strong leader who did not have to bother with parliament and elections. By comparison, in Latvia, with its fragmented party system, as many as 48% of respondents feel the same way; in Finland, the figure is 15%, and 21% in Hungary. 

Much has been said in the last decade about the rise of populists and extremists, and the causes and consequences of this phenomenon. Populism can be associated with a wide range of ideologies, left-wing, right-wing and centre. Populism is defined by the notion that society is divided into two opposing camps: an internally united, good and righteous people on the one side and a corrupt elite on the other. Populists argue that politics must be an expression of the general will of the people, and offer themselves to speak for the people and carry out the 'will of the people'. The worrying trend in Europe is the mainstreaming of right-wing populism. The rise to power of the right-wing populists is associated with the curtailment of civil liberties and political rights, the weakening of the third sector, the rise of corruption and the decline of media freedom. 

Another trend that has been much talked about recently is political polarisation, the splitting of society into fiercely opposing camps. Polarisation is dangerous as it undermines democratic institutions and weakens the norms and bonds that hold societies together and make coexistence possible. The risk of polarisation is especially high in countries with two-party systems, as well as in societies where the socio-cultural and political dividing lines – such as language, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status and ideology – coincide. The divides tend to reproduce themselves, which is why deeply divided societies are difficult to heal.   

The crisis of liberal democracy has many different causes at various levels. I will mention just a few keywords: rapid societal change, increasing complexity of society, multiple crises and their combined effects, globalisation and regional integration, the digital age and the new communication and information channels, the spread of misinformation and propaganda, geopolitical confrontations and the successful strategies and narratives of antidemocratic forces.   

Let us return to the most important question: what to do? What to do to keep democracy alive and thriving here and elsewhere? Clearly, there is no magic wand or miracle cure, nor is there a recipe to fit all. The causes of the ailments of democracy vary from country to country and from region to region. Accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment are needed. In any case, it is essential to protect and safeguard free and fair elections, to ensure that elections are conducted in a timely manner and in compliance with the rules – also in the context of a pandemic or crisis – and to alleviate the risk that someone would interfere in the elections or spread misinformation and thus undermine trust in the legitimacy of elections. However, this is just one of the many tasks. Reinforcing the rule of law and free media and empowering civil society is equally important. We must stand up against misinformation, populism, the division of society, and autocratic aggression. International cooperation is needed to develop and consolidate democracy.   

It is important to remember that under the guise of healing the democracy, something quite different may be going on. In the recent number of Sirp, my good colleague, historian Liisi Veski, writes how the rhetoric of healing and protecting democracy and emphasising people’s unity and general interest in the 1920s and 1930s paved the way for authoritarian coups in Estonia and Poland. Just like then, we have to ask now: if someone is talking about a new type of true democracy, what does it actually mean? The proposed cure may turn out to be more dangerous than the disease itself.   

The national university’s task is to keep and support the core values of Estonian society. How can Estonia’s national university help consolidate democracy in these difficult times? 103 years ago, the first minister of education of the Republic of Estonia, Peeter Põld, said in a speech at the opening of the University of Tartu of the Republic of Estonia that by establishing a national university, “we are securing for ourselves as a nation, in the interests of our independent statehood and spiritual life, pure sources of truth” that “must, in the first place, refresh and nourish us.” “As a nation, we also want to be free to choose our own ideas, to think our own thoughts without being dictated to by others, to find answers to our own searches.”   

I think that being a refreshing source of truth is a beautiful and valid idea, and it is appropriate to emphasise it in today’s context. To survive and gain citizens’ support, democratic regimes must be able to govern successfully against all crises, threats and challenges. In the complex modern world, it is impossible to govern effectively without relying on science and evidence-based knowledge. The mission of the national university is to provide the best knowledge-based answers to the questions that matter to our country and society.   

Indeed, the national university is also a shaper of values and, as Peeter Põld said in the speech mentioned above, “the plantation of national culture”. In its strategic plan, the University of Tartu has pledged to preserve and develop the Estonian language and culture and to promote the sciences that influence Estonians’ self-determination and shape their identity. By fulfilling these functions, the university helps to strengthen democracy: there can be no democracy without demos, without a political community bound together by the we-feeling, a common identity. A clear and shared understanding of who we are as a country, nation and society and where we come from helps us make smart choices and maintain a sense of unity even in difficult situations and hard times.   

I wish the university will continue to be the source of refreshing truth, nourishing those who want to use their rights, freedoms and power for the benefit of the Estonian people, the state and all humanity.   

Thank you! 


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