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Estonia's Big Boys' Club

The names on the wall read like a Who's who of Estonian politics. There's former Prime Minister Mart Laar, current Minister of Education Tõnis Lukas, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Matti Maasikas, and current Riigikogu members Peeter Tulviste and Hannes Rumm.   Also on this plaque, which commemorates donations to Eesti Ãœliõpilaste Selts -- the Estonian Students' Society -- inside its house on Veski Street in Tartu are names like Jaan Kross, the famous Estonian writer, and Andres Tarand, another former Prime Minister and current representative of Estonia to the European Parliament. One noticeable name is missing from the wall, but not from the collective attention of EÃœS members: Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the current Estonian President, and a member of EÃœS. While Ilves' days since being elected President last year have been spent mingling with US President George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, and Swedish King Carl Gustaf, at EÃœS Ilves is still one of the boys: a member who will drink according to EÃœS rules, sing according to the EÃœS songbook, and perhaps wear his blue, black, and white cap, or tekkel, on special occasions.

Having so many high-profile Estonian leaders concentrated in just one students' society, begs the question of the manner in which membership in EÃœS, or any one of Tartu's many student societies and corporations, influences current Estonian political relationships. But politicians and students alike are quick to dispel the idea that Tartu's student organizations, many of which were founded at the end of the 19th century, serve any overt political interest.

"Selts calls itself apolitical," said EÃœS member Vahur, who declined to give his full name for the purposes of this article. "It seems strange for an organization with a sitting president and number of previous Prime Ministers as members, [but] I would say, as an organization, we do not mess with daily politics," he said. "Members, obviously, do, and Selts plays a role as yet another informal meeting place, nothing more."

Former Prime Minister and current parliamentarian Mart Laar, takes it a step further. According to Laar the idea that EÃœS or any other student korporatsioon or society influences politics is not true. "They are apolitical. Looking to the members of the academic organizations there are representatives from very different parties," he pointed out in an e-mail to The City Paper.
Vello Pettai, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Tartu, agreed that Estonia's student organizations are officially apolitical, but offered that the social values of certain organizations tends to gather students with a certain viewpoint in one place, creating a social network that resurfaces later in life, perhaps in politics.

"These are people that continued to be linked within the same sphere [and] needless to say it becomes a strong network and very narrow niche and one can wonder what decisions or actions those relationships can lead to," Pettai said in an interview. "I bet there are relatively few EÃœS members in the Center Party, maybe even in the People's Union [both parties are currently in the opposition in the Riigikogu - author]. "The majority tend to coalesce around Isamaa-Respublica Liit, the Reform Party, and there are maybe a few Social Democrats kicking around. "There is a link between the social values and orientations of many of the people who join these things. All of these male fraternities try to espouse an ethos of patriotism and commitment to building the State and this honorable outlook," said Pettai.


An Ethos of Patriotism

One of the Social Democrats kicking around the EÃœS house on occasion at Veski Street is Hannes Rumm, a former Tallinn City Council member and holder of one of SDE's 10 seats in the current Riigikogu. Rumm's relationship with EÃœS goes back to the late 1980s, when the society, like the Republic of Estonia itself, was being restored after 40+ years of prohibition by Estonia's Soviet leadership.
"I joined the oldest one and the most prestigious because all of my older friends did so and it was a very normal thing to do," Rumm said. "It was very elementary; it would have been strange if I hadn't joined," he said. According to Rumm, the members that restored EÃœS, including Laar and Luukas, already were leaders of Tartu University students even before the decision to re-start the society was made. "They were political leaders in political activities; they were very active in cultural activities," he said.

In some ways it made sense that EÃœS was the first society to be restored in the wake of Gorbachev's reforms in the mid-1980s. The society was founded in Tartu in 1870, making it the granddaddy of most other societies and corporations that followed. For those familiar with American fraternity life, it is important to point out that Tartu's academic organizations are not Greek in anyway. Instead they are divided between seltsid (societies) and korpid (corporations). Both were influenced by the Baltic German student societies that functioned at what was then the University of Dorpat in the 19th century.

EÃœS, the Estonian Students' Society was so-named in 1870 because it was the only society for Estonian students at the University of Tartu. Other societies, formed by Estonian students at nearby universities in the Russian Empire in places like Riga and St. Petersburg also emerged in the ensuing decades, gradually spreading to Tartu and growing the role that Estonian students organizations played in university - and eventually national - social life.

For example, Korp! Rotalia was founded in 1913 in St. Petersburg. Two of its members at the time of founding were men who changed the fate of the Estonian Republic at one of the most dire moments in its history: Jüri Uluots and Otto Tief. As Nazi German troops retreated from Estonia in September 1944 it was Uluots, acting on behalf of President Konstantin Päts who had been deported, who appointed a new Estonian government headed by Tief. The government lasted several days before the Soviet troops arrived, but the flight of Uluots and members of Tief's government to Sweden allowed the formation of an exile government and ensured the legal continuity of the Estonian republic.

According to Tartu University History Professor Andres Kasekamp, pre-war political relationships, like those between Uluots and Tief, were far more influential in Estonian life in the 1920s and 1930s than they are today, mainly because today's generation of political leaders, like Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, aged 50, were too mature to meaningfully join the organizations when they were reestablished in the 1980s.

"The main [organizations] were established before Estonian independence in 1918," Kasekamp said in an interview this week. "So lots of the members were already mature enough to be involved in public life in the 1920s. "But the korpid were reestablished in the late 80s from scratch, so it would take a while before they would build up their own networks," he said.

Like Rumm, Kasekamp joined an Estonian students organization in the 1980s, but under very different conditions - as a member of the Estonian diaspora that had settled in Toronto. Because many of Estonian war refugees that fled Soviet terror were from the educated echelon of society, many were also members of seltsid and korpid, and set up new organizations wherever they went, from Stockholm to Sydney. In Kasekamp's case he joined Rotalia, which as a korp, is considered to be more Baltic German in origin and more disciplined in ritual than a society, like EÃœS or other seltsid.

"This is not Animal House," he said. "Here it is terribly old fashioned. It is about teaching manners and politeness and honor and old patriotic values. People have to wear suits to the meetings. They are very pedantic about their manners. Even about how they drink," he said.

It is those old-fashioned, patriotic values that might lead to inclusion in certain political parties, like the right-wing Isamaa-Res Publica Liit, he concedes. "Officially they are apolitical, they don't discuss politics inside," Kasekamp said. "Naturally they are more likely to be nationalist and right wing than not. You will probably not find as many in the ranks of Edgar Savisaar's Center Party," he said.


Different Sets of Rivalries

While Tartu's societies and corporations are officially apolitical, many will tell you that different 'attitudes' exist at different organizations, and that certain groups are for certain people. For example, Kasekamp said that Rotalia has been known as a haven for agronomists, while EÃœS has been said to have a pipeline into the Estonian Foreign Ministry, and Korp! Sakala is known as the 'military' arm of student corporations. There are also inter-society rivalries, such as between EÃœS and Sakala.

"Theres different sets of rivalries," he said. "In Tartu, of course, there can be silly pranks between fraternities - maybe like stealing someone else flag or colors, but these are schoolboyish pranks that happen every once in awhile," said Kasekamp.
"The mentality of different frats is different," said EÃœS' Rumm. "EÃœS has always enjoyed a good relationship with Korp! Ugala, but not as good with Sakala," he said. According to Vahur, who joined EÃœS in the early 90s, the rivarly between EÃœS and Sakala has more to do with the reality that they are the two largest student organizations who are constantly in competition with one another. "Well, they are two biggest organizations and a pissing contest is going on all the time," he said. "It's somewhat similar to [politics] in Estonia - on organizational level it is sometimes cool, sometimes very hot. On a personal level many people have very good relationships," he said.
According to Sakala corporation's esimees, literally 'first man', Tarvi Olbrei, the rivalries between the organizations are not all they are cracked up to be. "Some news articles say that Sakala is military, or EÃœS is political, but it isn't so," he said in an interview. "Sometimes some frats are big friends and then they are like big enemies, but usually I would say that the nagging is just for fun," he said.

Still, on occasion it pays to be in Sakala, especially when the person hiring you is Sakala too. "It works that if someone needs some one to work in a position, they'll do interviews and if people are equal then he would probably choose a Sakala member," said Olbrei.
"Having worked as an executive manager, I have hired number of fellow members, too," admits Vahur. "It is convenient - you get good background references from other members that tend to be worth a lot more than pile of diplomas and refined resumes," he said. "I have also chosen not to hire a fellow member, based on those references," he added.

Essential to the networking that goes on within korpid and seltsid is the mailing list of the organizations where all forms on inquires are welcome. "Simply, you have access to information like nowhere else," said Ott Toomet, a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Tartu. "Say you need to find a tractor in Tallinn. You send an e-mail to the list, and there is someone that knows someone that knows someone that has a tractor in Tallinn," he said.

"It's like a local Wikipedia," said Rumm. "Recently I wanted to know about a book that was written by a Swiss author 20 years ago I sent an email and within one day I had an answer," he said. "That's because so many people have different competencies that are on that list."

A Role to Play

While EÃœS members like Toomet and Rumm still use the organizations channels, the reality is that their school days are far behind them. Both are in their late 30s and playing more influential roles in public life than they did when they first donned their EÃœS caps.
Indeed, because many of the members who joined societies and corporations at the end of the 1980s are pushing 40 today, it is likely that membership in these networks could play a more pivotal role in years to come as they move into higher political office, according to Kasekamp.

"That was the biggest problem for the korpid in the beginning," said Kasekamp. "They were missing the middle generation of alumni. They had young students and pre-war alumni. Now the organizations have been around long enough that they do have members that are in their late 30s and early 40s that are influential positions all over the place. But that sort of took awhile," he said.
"I think all of these organizations typically serve to make links between individuals," said Pettai. "These webs of relationships constantly come across at some point because the community is so small. In terms of finding each other and having the same kind of political values, the student organizations have a greater advantage to influence politics," said Pettai

According to Indrek Tarand, a EÃœS member who helped to restore the society in the late 1980s, the students societies have always played a role in Estonian political life, but more as whole than individually. Tarand, who works as a historian at the Estonian War Museum in Tallinn, pointed out the important role student organizations have had in creating, and sustaining, Estonian independence, as an example of their position in society.

"In 1918 a very concrete decision was made that all [student societies] would go together to fight in the Estonian War of Independence," Tarand gave as an example. "This was an important moral decision, as well as military decision," he said. He added that even before independence, the patriotic-minded society members played an important rule in university life, church life, and agricultural issues.

"They played a crucial role," Laar said of the student societies in the Estonian Independence War. As Laar noted, the tricolor flag of the Estonian republic and the EÃœS flag are one in the same. "Working for Estonia is the obligation of these organizations today as well," he said.

Footnote :President Ilves is also an honorary member of the Latvian Academic Student Organization Austrums. So the "network" extends past the borders of Estonia as well.


By Justin Petrone