Researchers on controversial political ads by Eesti 200

Ads at Tallinn's Hobujaama tram stop on 7 January 2019.
Ads that appeared at Tallinn’s busy central Hobujaama tram stop early on Monday morning. 7 January 2019. Image credit: ERR

On Monday, 7 January

Early on Monday morning last week, commuters in central Tallinn faced bilingual advertisements dividing each side of the Hobujaama tram stop in half. The ads on the left, in blue, stated, “Here only Estonians” and the ads on the right, in red, stated, “Here only Russians”.

The ads also listed phone numbers to call with any questions – with a different number listed on each side.

When calling the number listed on the Estonian side, a prerecorded message said that Riigikogu elections were taking place on 3 March, where “they” would be running, and stressed that, “We, Estonians, definitely have to stick together; make sure you are standing on the right side”.

When calling the number listed on the Russian side, the same prerecorded message was played in Russian, stressing instead that Russians have to stick together.

While the tram ads spread like fire on social media, it remained unclear who was behind them. All attempts by media on Monday to determine the authors of the ads brought no results.

On Tuesday, 8 January

Ads at Tallinn's Hobujaama tram stop on 8 January 2019.
By Tuesday morning, the controversial ads at Tallinn’s busy central Hobujaama tram stop had been replaced by ads for a new political party, Estonia 200. 8 January 2019. Image credit: Urmet Kook/ERR

By Tuesday morning, the controversial ads had been replaced by ads for Estonia 200. The new ads, in Estonian and Russian, read, “Estonians and Russians: Attend the same school” and “Estonians and Russians: Attend the same party”.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Estonia 200 chairwoman Kristina Kallas explained that the goal of the controversial ads was to draw attention to segregation in Estonian society.

“We promised you that we would talk honestly about things and talk about the real issues that Estonian society is facing”, Kallas explained. “Yesterday we highlighted a very important and sore issue that has gone unresolved for 28 years. Division is a very serious problem facing Estonian society”.

“Our children go to separate schools and kindergartens, we work at separate places, live in separate city districts, watch separate TV channels; we have separate heroes, and we even ring in the new year at two different times. If that isn’t division, then what is it?”, continued Kallas.

Controversial reactions to ads

A number of advertising gurus acknowledged that with this small effort, the party has achieved the most attention possible over those two days. Critics said that the ad campaign was unethical and jeopardized Estonia’s national security in the name of playing to the gallery. Minister of the Interior and Social Democrat Katri Raik commented that the campaign reminded her of Nazi Germany.

In an interview on ETV’s “Ringvaade” on Tuesday evening, Kristina Kallas admitted that some people were seriously offended by the ads, and she apologized to them. But she had also received a lot of positive feedback for bringing up the issue and the honesty. “My sincere wish and hope – and I am actually confident in this – is that in the upcoming Riigikogu election debates, not a single debate will go by without this issue being discussed”, said Kallas.

Research on segregation

In November, Kadi Mägi defended her doctoral thesis on ethnic residential segregation in Estonia. The thesis confirmed that Estonians and Russians are growing apart. They do not come into contact with each other because they live in different and increasingly contrasting areas.

Compared to Estonians, Russian speakers have been relatively immobile within the last decades. When they do move, their new place of residence is even more Russian than the previous one.

At the end of the Soviet times, Estonians and Russians were also living separately, but their income level and social status remained similar. Now residential differences have increasingly started to overlap with differences in income and social status.

Kadi Mägi agrees that schools where Estonian and Russian children would study together might break the trend:

Researchers on controversial ads

University of Tartu Professor of Comparative Politics Vello Andres Pettai:

Vello Andres Pettai
Image credit: Andres Tennus

The Estonia 200 party is new and clearly needs to attract attention with less than two months to go before the parliamentary election. But instead of what parties often do – make empty policy promises to double pensions or to end queues for healthcare – Estonia 200 seems intent on offering voters “blood, sweat and tears” in terms of talking about Estonia’s most sensitive problems and long-term challenges. So this approach leads quite logically to the kind of ad campaign they experimented with.

Their aim is precisely to project an image as a serious, policy-oriented party to get voters to really think about what’s at stake. Whether that message will resonate with all voters is unclear. Bread-and-butter issues will always be more important for some.

But from a broader, political science perspective, we can also see in Estonia 200 a new party that in contrast to many predecessors attempts to burst onto the scene not with emotional slogans (Down with corruption!) or particular promises (Increase subsidies!), but rather problem areas that call upon the reflective citizen in all of us. It might just liven up the debate over the next eight weeks!

University of Tartu Professor of Sociology Veronika Kalmus:

Veronika Kalmus
Image credit: Andres Tennus

“Estonia 200” made an unprecedented opening in the history of political communication in this country. They opted for a complicated two-move strategy and a deliberately shocking approach to grasp public attention and differentiate themselves clearly in the political landscape. Such a strategy is, beyond any doubt, risky. Firstly, inter-ethnic relations are one of the most sensitive topics for both of the main language communities in Estonia; thus, hurting the innermost feelings of considerable parts of the electorate is highly probable. Secondly, “Estonia 200” used a sophisticated metatextual rhetoric that can be interpreted in different ways, including undesirable decoding.
Nevertheless, the campaign attained two of its main aims – attracting attention and re-raising the problem of ethnic segregation on the public agenda. The long-term effects of this strategic manoeuvre are yet to be seen.

University of Tartu Professor of Semiotics of Culture Peeter Torop:

Peeter Torop
Image credit: Andres Tennus

On their own, the posters mark both verbally and visually the division between communities. This campaign should spark thinking about societal cohesion: a) why language study alone is not enough for integration; b) how important cultural integration is, bringing Russians into Estonian cultural space by interpreting Estonian culture to Russian people; c) how important it is to learn from the previous experience of conflict in cultural space, particularly in connection to the notions of ghettoisation and colonisation from the cultural shock theory (the phenomena of Lasnamäe and North-east Estonia, Lihula monument and Bronze Soldier as “victims” of spacial conflicts).

From the point of view of cultural semiotics, the richness of culture as a collective intellect depends on the number of its various expressions. From this point of view, every activity that stimulates self-awareness is welcome. Different attitudes towards these posters demonstrate society and its media’s strengths and weaknesses in understanding oneself.
It is important for cultural semiotics that the balance of culture as a complicated system depends greatly on the feedback. Every new self-expression seeks certain feedback. Anticipation of the feedback is based on knowing the target group or the society as a whole. If the feedback is unexpected, explanations are added for help. This campaign either aimed for conscious provocation or miscalculated the feedback. During the election period, the number of borders between the own and alien is in correlation with the number of parties, and expert opinions aren’t particularly heard. This is due to devaluation of the notion of expert in Estonia. It would have been possible to create a positive aura for the campaign with immediate explanations in mass media.
Better planning on how to unite the visual and the verbal message, as well as how to bring the campaign to the city space, would have been ideal, of course. Still, the campaign has a positive effect, although it is nothing new. It is acknowledgement of the fact that the Estonian and Russian communities live in their own worlds; however, the nature of this division requires a much more serious analysis than focusing on language study.

This story is based on the campaign coverage by ERR News.

Inga Külmoja is an author and the editor of the UT Blog.

This entry was posted in Estonia, Events and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.