Imagine the challenges our founding fathers would have faced if the thirteen colonies shared a border with Britain. That was the daunting prospect that loomed over Estonia’s first democratically elected prime minister, after the Baltic nation declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Mart Laar made some very controversial decisions, but in many cases, they were necessary for the reborn republic to survive. Laar’s eventful first administration is even-handedly chronicled in Kiur Aarma & Raimo Jöerand’s Rodeo (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 European Union Film Festival in Ottawa, Ontario.
When Laar formed his first government in 1992, he was the youngest prime minister ever elected in Europe. He had three critically important goals: formalize Estonian independence, replace the Soviet Ruble with Estonian currency, and force the Soviets to withdraw their troops. The fact that all three were accomplished makes it hard to judge Laar to harshly. In fact, many would argue (ourselves included) that his administration was a smashing success. However, he had to tell a few tactical lies along the way that would ultimately lead to a no confidence vote.
Estonian was and still is one of the best performing post-Soviet economies. Laar’s market-based reforms worked astonishingly quickly, but there was still short-term pain. During the lowest point of the post-independence crunch, Laar made the decision to sell the considerable Ruble holdings stashed for safe-keeping in Estonia’s national bank. However, this transaction had to be kept secret during the testy troop withdrawal negotiations with the Soviets (especially since the buyer was the Chechens).
Depending on your historical perspective, the events chronicled in Rodeo either happened just yesterday or ever so very long ago. In either case, this is some fascinating 20th Century history that was not well-reported on at the time. What Laar and his coalition did was nothing short of remarkable, including the establishment of Estonian military, almost entirely from scratch, and replacing a moribund socialist economy with a dynamic capitalist system. Those are some big projects—and the Estonian experience offers lessons—even for politically and economically mature nations. Capitalism: it works every time.
You can learn a lot from Rodeo, but do not think of it as bitter medicine to swallow. Aarma & Jöerand’s execution is surprisingly lively, incorporating a funky soundtrack and sly wild west analogies to introduce each major political development. It is worth noting Aarma co-directed The Gold Spinners and produced Disco and Atomic Warfare, two similarly entertaining documentaries with which Rodeo shares a kinship. In fact, the film flies by at warp speed, thanks to the punchy editing of Henri Kuus and Matti Näränen.
Regardless, the history and analysis of Rodeo is rock-solid. Major figures like Laar himself and the unusually rational Swedish PM Carl Bildt discuss the events in question at-length and on-camera. Economically and historically-challenged politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (whose trade policies are not that very different) should be required to watch it. Very highly recommended, Rodeo screens this Saturday (12/1) at the Canadian Film Institute, as part of the EUFF ’18.