«We will recruit retired Defense Forces members for a new country»

Sander Punamäe
, reporter
Tanel Gabtšenko (right) – a 32-year-old man with basic education who believes he knows how the world really works.
Tanel Gabtšenko (right) – a 32-year-old man with basic education who believes he knows how the world really works. Photo: Sander Ilvest

Looking for the organizer of the Toompea Hill protests that have lasted for nearly two weeks now, conspiracy theorist William Koval points us to Center Party reject Tanel Gabtšenko – a 32-year-old man with basic education who believes he knows how the world really works.

He does not drink coffee in the morning, just tea. “Diseases are the result of not having enough water in one’s system.” Gabtšenko eats a single sandwich – it makes little sense to eat a heartier breakfast as there is food on Toompea. “No one knows where these meals are coming from,” he says.

While Gabtšenko only finished from basic school, he styles himself a cum laude graduate of the school of hard knocks. He has worked in shops, as a bartender, in warehouses and done other odd jobs.

He was deathly afraid of the coronavirus a year ago. But things have changed. Gabtšenko read it on the internet that the coronavirus is the evil plan of billionaires “Bill Gates, George Soros and a few Chinese.” And says they have now bought the Estonian government, scientists and the press.

“Pharmacists also told me there is no Covid. It makes sense for us to have to suffer as a society,” he explains. Gabtšenko considers himself so enlightened he wishes to replace lifelong virologist Irja Lutsar at the head of the COVID-19 scientific advisory council. What is more, the ringleader of the Toompea protesters wants to become the new prime minister of Estonia. “We will recruit retired Defense Forces members for a new country,” he exclaims on Toompea and grabs a megaphone. Upon seeing [Conservative People’s Party MP] Monika Helme, Gabtšenko urges the roughly one thousand people gathered around him to give her a big hug. “Monika Helme is here. Let us all hug!”

He has been riling up the crowds in front of Toompea Castle in this manner for 12 straight days.

And even though Gabtšenko says that the protesters are there to fight a particular piece of draft legislation, psychologist Andero Uusberg and former adviser of strategic communication to the Government Office Ilmar Raag define mistrust as the group’s common denominator.

Studies commissioned by the Government Office have found that around 10 percent of the population consistently believes that there has never been a critical COVID-19 situation and that the state has overreacted. In other words, they believe – despite three million global deaths, statements by scientists and heads of state – that the coronavirus is not dangerous.

“Such protests are often organized by people who feel powerless, that they are not in control of their fate. It is irrationally transferring a particular anxiety onto a different topic. The coronavirus in this case,” Ilmar Raag says.

Need to be in control

Why do people latch onto conspiracy theories? Uusberg says that social exclusion or failure to take charge of one’s own life play a role. Conspiracy theories provide a measure of self-control. “Some studies suggest that people who lack levers of control because of their socioeconomic situation are looking for means of taking it back,” the psychologist adds.

Various political forces all over the world are riding the wave of this psychological need to retake control and often include populist parties. “People who feel they have missed the train of progress and lack control over their life and fate have often given their vote and support to populist forces,” Raag says.

“One thing conspiracy theories offer is control over what I believe. Of course, it is an illusion and ends up misleading the person but the act of skepticism includes a measure of control. That one is the master of one’s decisions, does not trust others and questions more than the average person. And that provides a sense of control,” Uusberg reasons.

This might be the reason why conspiracy theorists are fond of sayings such as, “think for yourself”, “open your eyes,” “look at the big picture” or “do not believe everything you’re told.”

Need to understand

Uusberg adds that conspiracy theories also feed the basic psychological need to understand the world that has been shaken by the pandemic. “Conspiracy theories offer a more satisfying and coherent explanation because they often include characters and locations (someone somewhere, perhaps in China) and either accidental or premediated actions… Such a narrative feeds our apparatus for making sense of the world better than the scientific story, which is far more complicated.”

Still. Whence this completely unfounded confidence in a man living in a two-room apartment in Mustamäe to declare that he knows what’s what when it comes to the global pandemic? Uusberg describes it as nothing special as an ordinary person who is not captivated by conspiracy theories also feels they know the truth. “The reason they give is that their conviction is based on expert opinion. “I know because that scientist said so. But the confidence rooted in our psyche is the same,” Uusberg explains.

Need to belong

Navigating information noise is made more difficult by the fact that conspiratorial thinking is often based on sources that often use the same markers of credibility. For example, there is a declaration denying the existence of the coronavirus making the rounds on social media that has the signatures of a lot of people who style themselves scientists. “The same type of authority – scientists – is used, while people fail to realize that this negligible number of scientists has been handpicked from a much larger whole sporting much greater authority,” Uusberg says. Protester Gabtšenko also references “other scientists.” “I am very grateful to Russian scientists who say that it is nonsense,” he tries to convince me.

If one did not know the business of protesters on Toompea, it could be mistaken for an entirely benevolent gathering. People are singing patriotic songs, serving cake and having conversations. This provides us with the third and perhaps most important part of the cocktail that feeds conspiracy theories: the need to belong.

“Doing something together for a common goal and against a common adversary is a force that can unite a community. So what there are clearly questionable aspects involved. The joy from doing something as a group is entirely sincere,” Uusberg says. Looking at it from another angle, the reason why a person believes knowledge-based information is not so much because of their ability to adequately analyze it as inhabiting a society where such convictions are the social norm.

Moving through the crowd, I hear worried voices suggesting that even though one of the organizers sincerely believes the Earth is flat, others do not want to be associated with such claims. When I inquire about their view of the world, I am bombarded with accusations. Uusberg says it reflects a certain kind of polarization. “One milestone for polarization is when a question starts tying into one’s identity and what team the person is on. This is where I stop believing anything you have to say because I expect you are trying to manipulate me,” he explains.

Possible scenarios

One of the leaders of the protesters Tanel Gabtšenko has already said he wants a new country. Could this protest become as sharp as what we saw in the U.S. toward the start of the year? “Something else would need to happen for this movement to gather that much momentum. Incidents that would discredit the authorities and fuel dissent. The police need to remain careful. To avoid creating additional pockets of conflict,” Raag said, adding that protesters in Estonia are not as radical and rather carry a hippie mentality.

Even though the crowd includes a few vocal persons, there is no leader with strong political capital. Raag sees two possible scenarios. “Leaderless movements fade away. Should leaders emerge, it will depend on their program. How they plan to use the energy that has been generated.”

Uusberg rather believes there is no broad-based social support for the movement in Estonia. “I do not think we are seeing the tip of the iceberg. Rather it’s that processes unfolding inside the group have gotten to a point where people feel they need to take to the streets,” he says.