Cultural elite wants its influence back

Raivo Vare.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

Logistics and economic analyst Raivo Vare says that opposition to Rail Baltic largely comes from the cultural and creative elite that wants to feel important again and regain their social influence.

More than 400 Estonian public figures demanded a repeal of the Rail Baltic act in an open letter published yesterday. They turned to members of parliament to say that Estonia has adopted an obligation to realize a railroad project based on the mistaken conclusion of an EY feasibility study that the new railroad will be of socioeconomic benefit to Estonia. That is not the case, the undersigned find.

Raivo Vare, more than 400 well-known people demand the repeal of the Rail Baltic act. What do you make of it?

I do not know a single major project Estonians are not in opposition to. Whether it’s the Tartu pulp mill or the Saaremaa bridge – the first reaction is that we don’t need it! We don’t even need surveys! We want nothing to do with it! We can jokingly say that Rail Baltic is a very progressive project in this light.

I believe that such opposition is a sign of social well-being. People do not have better things to do. There are no major problems, and people have time to sweat the small stuff. It is a sign of arriving on the doorstep of welfare society. It is the case everywhere in the developed West. We do not stand out in any way.

Do you believe the opponents’ arguments can be taken seriously? What is your opinion?

I’ve kept an eye on the reasons why people oppose Rail Baltic. At first, it was said the railroad would split Estonia down the middle. Next, there was talk of it endangering the Nabala karstic area and the Tuhala Witch’s Well. These kinds of slightly mystified topics.

Now, emotional “not in my backyard” considerations have been replaced with more rational arguments. Opponents produce Excel spreadsheets and claim that the feasibility study is wrong, the railroad will not be as profitable as we were told etc. In that sense, there has been progress.

Most of the railroad’s opponents, including humanities scholars, cannot make heads or tails of Excel anyway. But because the project’s leaders are trustworthy and rather enterprising people, it is easier for representatives of the humanities to vent their emotional frustration when they see a spreadsheet on the table.

You are right in that better-known opponents are members of the cultural elite.

I’ll be frank in claiming that the reason for this is that the cultural intelligentsia needs a great unifier. It has been a long time since they’ve had one. The older generation yearns for the return of their creative unions plenum that was a powerful political statement.

Open letters clearly suggest that the cultural elite wants to have more say. We can trace it back to one politician’s famous sentence that cultural people should stick to their trade. What we are seeing now is a forceful reaction.

We also have a new generation of younger creative people who do not have their own topic in society. We will see more of it in the struggle against RB as time goes on. The desire to feel needed.

You said that opponents’ arguments have become more businesslike. Were you referring to the railroad’s cost-benefit analyses? Are the critics’ arguments valid?

I would give another example. Estonia recently hosted Finnish Transport Minister Anne Berner. She talked about the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel but also gave other advice. The Finns look at all major infrastructure and logistics projects as part of the big picture. They see how they create new connections and synergy in the future.

The minister also said that it is probable no infrastructure project can be profitable by itself in our region. That is why we need to look at the broader socioeconomic effects of RB. The latter are associated with certain assumptions to be taken into consideration in feasibility studies…

Is it possible these assumptions, based on which it was forecast that we will save billions on air pollution and noise for example, might be off?

The analysis might include questionable elements. For example, how the feasibility study looked at indirect benefit from reduced air pollution.

If the study looked at trucks with an emissions standard of Euro 2 and we already have fleets of much cleaner Euro 5 trucks on our roads, the guess that switching to the railroad will provide massive gains in terms of air quality might be off. That is why we need to take another look at it and introduce corrections where necessary.

Doubting the professionality of EY would be an emotional argument I would not subscribe to.

However, these are all minor details. I’m sad that we cannot see the bigger picture. We need to see Rail Baltic as part of a major transport and logistics system that could include a lot of other things in the future: Muuga terminal, Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel. The fact Germans recently bought Transiidikeskus has a lot to do with it. We need more long-term grasp and vision.

Can you see looming elections reflecting in anti-RB protests?

Definitely. It is a very political topic. Everyone against the project will shift to overdrive now. It’s open seasons, let’s put it like that. However, the project should be locked down in May of next year, so construction could start in 2020.

What is your recommendation to Rail Baltic project leaders, governments?

If opponents have clear arguments concerning mistakes that have been made in cost-benefit studies, they should be revised and addressed. More efforts need to be made at clarification. Rail Baltic needs to be rendered more approachable and familiar to the people. Right now, the entire project is communicated in the form of PR blitzes. But the opponents are working night and day, campaigning.

What bothers me is that the state has adopted the opponents’ rhetoric and started talking about faith. Having one faith address another will not result in conversions.

We must also not kid ourselves in believing Europe’s patience has no limits. Brussels’ good faith will dissipate if we drag this out too long. That would be unfortunate.

How likely to do you hold the possibility RB will not happen at all?

We have missed two major projects in the Baltics: the Visaginas nuclear power plant and the regional LNG-terminal. Those were in Lithuania, but Estonia still had a role to play. Now, it could be our turn.

It is entirely realistic that Rail Baltic might not happen at all. There is fierce competition for infrastructure projects in Europe. It is possible Rail Baltic will be moved down on the list of priorities. We have confirmation today, but we do not know what might happen should we get bogged down in debates.