pühapäev, aprill 30, 2006

Will it be Savisaar vs. Ilves?

According to an article in The Baltic Times it just might play out that way. It's all up to how well Arnold Rüütel feels in late August. If he's up to the task, then Savisaar may stand down. But if not, it's becoming clear that Mr. Clay Island could have other plans.

God, why does this look like a classic Estonian competition between the narcissist in the bowtie (Jaan Tõnisson) and the burly bloke with the shady connections (Konstatiin Päts)? Does it scare you too? Good.

The strength of a democracy is tested in each election. Because Estonia does not directly elect its presidents, that means that the strength of Estonia's democracy is placed on the backs of 101 politicians. That leaves a citizen feeling unsure. The fear that Ilves creates is that he may prefer white blazers to classic black. The fear Savisaar generates is that he may decide to proclaim himself the first Estonian "king" since Lembitu.

What's a disenfranchised voter to do? Nothing. It will all be settled behind closed doors. Great. Not!

Personally, I think Ilves has a better track record. He did a suitable job as foreign minister, and he is an oft-referenced and respected MEP. Savisaar's ride, though, has been a bit more bumpy. Would he even make it through the next five years without having to "resign forever from politics" again? How many times can one "resign forever from politics"? That is the question.

But it's still unclear where things stand. And who knows what Savisaar's final agenda will look like. But it may wind up that both get rejected and the next Prez is Laine Jänes. And her last name means bunny. I think having a President Bunny would be cool.

kolmapäev, aprill 26, 2006

The Ice Museum

Today I finally got a chance to flip through The Ice Museum, a new book by Joanna Kavenna that traces her journeys across the Nordic lands in search of the myth of Thule. During her journey she visits Norway, Greenland, Shetland, Svalbard, and Estonia, where she meets with former president Lennart Meri to discuss his theory on the origin of the myth of the Scandinavian frontier of Thule.

Meri posits that Thule was actually an event - not a place - and that the event was a meteor crashing into Saaremaa about 700 years before the birth of Christ. "Thule" he believes, comes from the Estonian word for fire, "tuli."

While the quest for Thule is interesting, it is Kavenna's description of Estonia - its juniper trees, bogs, marshes, and recovering infrastructure, that reminded me of my own connections to the place. Kavenna continually points out that Estonians are a simple people who are connected to nature and rocks and lakes. How true.

I call my in-laws päkapikud - elves - because their idea of a good time is to rummage through the forests finding wild mushrooms or berries. The Russians called them Chuds - which I have read in Old Slavic translates to "weird." The Latvians joke of Estonians who are slow, rural people. Maybe. But there is something very different in the way my wife picks berries and how I did when I was a child.

It reminds me of how I met an old Indian man on Long Island who told me about the food of his ancestors - squash, beans, maize, fish. They had such profound meaning for him. And I have to say that the often greasy and heavy foods of Italy mean a lot to me. Sometimes I feel that mozzerella is one of the crutches upon which my existence rests. I also am turned off my fancy Italian restaurants. I feel that this food is meant to be consumed in the home, not dished out in expensive platters.

But it must be cool to have belonged to one stretch of Earth for 5,000 years. To know songs that have meaning. To speak a language that uses archaic constructions like "Läheme Antsu juurde" - let's go to Ants' root. It's a powerful eternal feeling, and you can understand why Estonians care so much about their lakes, rivers, coasts, and forests. Their country is not just a place where they can walk around feeling good that they are in the EU and NATO all day. It's not just a place where they work and play and sleep and drink Saku Originaal. It's actually sacred to them.

I've never really known a feeling like that myself. But it's all there in the well-crafted lines of Kavenna's new book.

reede, aprill 21, 2006

New Estonian Stats

The Estonian Statistical Office has posted some new population stats for 2005 that are interesting.

For starters, the population of Estonia is now 1,347,510. There are 620,600 men and 726,910 women, - or men make up 46 percent of the population, while women are 54 percent. That ratio has held steady since 2000.

When it comes to the ethnicity pie, the percentage of ethnic Estonians has slightly increased over the past five years, from 67.9 in the 2000 census to 68.5 percent of the population according to the results posted last month. The percentage of ethnic Russians has fallen slightly - down to 25.70 from 25.84 in 2000. Other minority ethnic groups, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Finns also declined in their share of the population.

Another interesting thing to see is which counties grew in population at the expense of other counties and cities. For example, despite an overall decrease in the population of about 1.7 percent, some places have actually increased in population over the past five years.

The population of Tartu has risen from 101,241 to 101,483, which is interesting considering that the numbers should have declined anyway due to the overall population decrease. Most other counties and cities experienced losses that are in agreement with the overall decrease of 1.7 percent. However, Ida-Viru County's population dropped 4 percent over the past five years.

esmaspäev, aprill 17, 2006


When Estonia's own Eurovision groups - Ruffus, Neiokõsõ, Suntribe - fail, there's always one other place an Estonian can look for aspiring blonde pop stars, Sweden.

Swedish pop stars seem a bit different from Estonian pop stars. While Estonian pop stars suffer from borrowing perhaps a bit too much from the burlesque shows of Tallinn in their attire, Swedish pop stars seem like they are bent on serving not only the Swedish market, but the Japanese market as well, with their kitschy mutated 1980s haircuts and tanning-salon gold skin.

But what Eurovision is really about is bringing old Eurotrash chic and new Eurotrash chic closer together. And this year's ambassador of Baltic Sea State pop, the Swedish Sandra Oxenryd, looks like she could pass as an Estonian pop singer - or Swedish, it's so hard to tell! - on any casino-turned-cruise-ship plying the Swedish archipelago on route to Tallinna sadam.

To Sandra, we (me) at Itching for Eestimaa wish you only the best of luck.

The Political Market Settles...

According to TNS Emor, politics in Estonia are, for the moment, normaalne.

KESK has returned from its early March zenith of 25 percent support to 22 percent support in the latest poll conducted by TNS, while significant dips in support for Reform and Isamaaliit have been erased as Reform inches up to 15 percent support and Isamaaliit regains its foothold at 11 percent support.

SDE declined from 7 percent back to 5 percent, movement that mirrored Res Publica support - which rose to 6 then declined to 3. I wonder if all of Res Publica's (and Isamaaliit's) supporters will stick with Eesti Eest - the new party formed earlier this month - or will they find new homes in the Reform Party.

The only loser really is The Estonian People's Union (Eeesti Rahvaliit). They have lost support month over month for each of the last three polls conducted by TNS Emor. Will they be the next to be gobbled up by another party? Is Reform looking to absorb a little ERL?

kolmapäev, aprill 12, 2006

The Newest Weapon in the Monument Wars? 'Sitt'

Well, it looks like the monument wars are far from over. According to Russia-based Regnum - which keeps us up to date with all the news we need to know - somebody dumped some ca-ca on a Holocaust memorial (pictured) in Estonia recently.

Monument to Nazism victims in Kalevi Liyva, erected in place of mass executions of Soviet prisoners of war and Jews during WWII, is desecrated in Estonia, on April 12, a REGNUM correspondent was informed at Estonian Anti-Fascist Committee. Unknown persons left big amount of faeces on foundation of monument with David star. Committee’s activists recorded the desecration and put the monument into appropriate order.

Ugh. I can literally hear the author's bad English perferating my sensitive ear drums.

There's more...

It should be reminded, on April 11, International Day of Victims of Nazi Concentration Camps was commemorated. More than 20 concentration camps existed during German occupation in Estonia in 1941-1945, where more than 15,000 Soviet servicemen, more than 5,000 Jews, several thousands of Estonians, Gypsies, and representatives of other nations died. No republican newspaper in Estonian devoted its materials to the Day. The Museum of Estonian occupation did not react to the Memorial Day of Victims of Nazi Concentration Camps too.

Wow. They managed to work feces, Nazis, concentration camps, fascists, and Estonians into the same story. Pretty slick propaganda, if you ask me.

One has to wonder though. Are these feces-peddling, neo-neo-Nazis for real, and how little effort does it take to provoke an 'international' incident in Estonia? If I wanted to make Estonia look bad, and I was a member of the "Estonian Anti-Fascist Committee" - all I would need to do is shit in a bucket for a week and take it to Kalevi Liiv on April 11. Then I could justify the existence of my anachronistic group and condemn the actions at the same time!

One thing that's amazing about Estonia is, for all its monuments, so few of its people ever fought in any major war. Instead they've mostly been outside picking berries and peeling potatoes or cooking up some nice herring dish.

It's a pity that such a small country should find itself a graveyard of monuments for lost causes.

teisipäev, aprill 11, 2006

The American Dream

Recently my wife had a story published in Postimees about the demise of the "American Dream."
Like many of her American stories, it drew mostly on conversations with myself, family members, friends, and acquaintances about this international concept.

Unfortunately, her Estonian audience, particularly foreign Estonians living in America, didn't like hearing how many of my friends are over-educated, under-employed, and deeply in debt. I have heard that many of the individuals that frequent the Estonian House on 34th street, the local hub of Estonian-American culture, are actually fairly conservative, and are loyal Republicans. And we all know how Republicans feel about anyone who lobs a critique at America. It has been my experience that they are quite often upfront about their political convictions.

I understand why Estonians in the US, especially in second- and third-generation families, would be loyal to the Republican Party. Starting in the late 1940s, the Republican Party, which had lost four presidential elections to the Democrats in a row, began to run to the right of the Democrats on dealing with Communism, which was a reversal from their earlier, isolationist stance.

For foreign Estonians, the Republican Party was probably a more open vehicle for voicing their concerns, which was less likely in the Democratic Party, especially into the 1960s when issues like civil rights, the Vietnam war, and LBJ's great society tore that party into pieces. In the 1980s, their loyalty paid off with Ronald Reagan's uncompromising posturing towards the USSR. Reagan has gone down as the good guy, even though it was Democrats that refused to recognize the occupation of the Baltics in 1940, and it was Bill Clinton who told Boris Yeltsin that the Baltics would be joining NATO in the late 90s, and it was Dennis Kucinich, perhaps the most leftwing congressman, who introduced the resolution last year calling on Russia to acknowledge and apologize for the Soviet occupation. That's the way it is, and I understand that.

But for Republicans, loyal Americans, and anybody that still thinks everything is fine and dandy in the US and that the "American Dream" that is still nurtured in some quarters is still very much alive, I am confused about this vague ideal.

To me, the United States has always just been a country. And like all countries, it has its own very special problems. Today we do worry about health coverage. We do worry about the environment and immigration reform. We do worry about a great many things. Even President Bush likes to get his photo taken next to hybrid cars. These are not lefty pet issues. They are mainstream concerns. And people in my generation have been specifically affected in our peak earning years by a stubborn, individualistic economy where it is much easier to fail in life than succeed. My peers really are college graduates. Some have professional jobs, but others wait tables, answer phones, treat sewage, and still others went back to school, where they aspire to stay permanently. Opportunity has not exactly been knocking on their doors.

I am led to believe that things may have once been different. I can only assume that my grandfather and grandmother, who raised five kids on one salary, may have done so in a more advantageous economic environment. They lived that stereotypical 1950s dream, that supposedly is dead. Yet there are plenty of immigrant gas station owners and restauranteurs who find themselves amazingly wealthy and respected here in America. But for them there are also the migratory workers who sleep on concrete bunks in Southern California, or the Asian sweat shop workers who work in sub-human conditions in this very city.

Does that mean that everybody should have the same thing? No. But it does mean that if you are a foreigner thinking about coming to America to live out some sort of materialist fantasy, you should be prepared to handle the fact that you may not wind up being fabulously rich, and you may wind up living in a dump with cockroaches unable to see a dentist over your toothache because you are uninsured. This is the Americas after all, and yes, the US does share some similarities with its neighbors in Central and South America when it comes to living standards.

In my wife's story she referred to America as being in "crisis." Terrorists crashed planes into buildings a few blocks from here and I still am unsure if we are in "crisis." Things seem pretty much the same. But I can tell you that people consistently in opinion polls say that America is "headed in the wrong direction" and they cite things like health care and outsourcing as being among the top issues they worry about. People clearly are looking for something a little better than what they are getting in America.

The other night I met a man on the train. He was about 45. He appeared to have no college education, and worked for 20 years in a supermarket, working his way up to manager, until they downsized staff and he was let go. He then moved down south to take a job in a manufacturing plant making refridgerators, until he lost his job again - this time they moved the plant to Mexico. Now he lives at home with his mom and works at a drug store for $6 an hour.

For every wealthy investment banker on Wall Street there are dozens of guys like him. Just remember that any time you ponder the American Dream.

reede, aprill 07, 2006

Varek goes over like a lead balloon...

According to an unscientific poll on Postimees' website, Ilves in the clear popular pick.

He's got 47 percent of all votes, followed by Jaan Manitski, who has 20 percent. Peeter Tulviste is a distant third with 8 percent, followed by Ene Ergma with 6 percent, Laine Jänes with 5 percent, and Varek - KESK's first pick - with 3 percent.

But does popular opinion matter in a country where the president is selected by whomever won the parliamentary elections three years ago? Again, we'll see.

neljapäev, aprill 06, 2006

Presidential Match-Up

As of today, the field of presidential candidates have broadened. Keskerakond has named Toomas Varek (see photo), a former mayor of Rakvere, as its lead candidate but also nominated fellow parliamentarian Enn Eesmaa, and Aadu Must, your classic academic/politician from Tartu whose daughter is head secretary of Kesk. Of the all, Aadu Must sounds the best, just because his punchy name reminds me of African dictators like Idi Amin.

Interestingly, Kesk, which has 25 seats in the Riigikogu, hasn't picked anybody that's on any other party's list. For example, Isamaalit named psychologist turned parliamentarian Peeter Tulviste, businessman Jaak Manitski and Toomas-Hendrik Ilves, the latter being the most interesting because he's not even a member of Isamaaliit.

Res Publica, who also has 25 votes in the Riigikogu, named Riigikogu speaker Ene Ergma, Tartu University rector Jaak Aaviksoo and Eesti Telekom CEO Jaan Männik as its candidates.

It will be interesting to see if Eesti Eest - the newly formed party merged from Isamaaliit and Res Publica will agree on a new set of candidates.

Similar names also popped up on the Reform party's list - Toomas-Hendrik Ilves, population affairs minister and poet Paul-Eerik Rummo, and Tartu mayor Laine Jänes.

Finally, the Social Democrats named Toomas-Hendrik Ilves, Jaak Aaviksoo, and parliamentarian Liina Tõnisson.

My wife thinks that the real candidates right now are Ilves and whomever Kesk names - Varek I guess, and that the rest are just done to promote politicians - she could be right. But right now I see a few "stealth" candidates, most prominently Jaak Aaviksoo. Because he is an academic and isn't in parliament, he may come out of the fray as a "compromise" candidate that everyone can agree on if strict party discipline forces Ilves - obviously the most nominated - off the table. Ergma doesn't strike me as the most ideological of the Res Publica faction, so she may also be a stealth nominee. I'll be interested in who Villu Reiljan decides to nominate for the Estonian People's Party, Rahvaliit.

We'll see.

kolmapäev, aprill 05, 2006

IMF Says Estonia is Ready for Euro

Well, it looks like Eesti's Euro hopes aren't over just yet. A staff visit from the International Monetary Fund this week pointed out some items of concern, but overall gave Estonia the thumbs up for joining the European Monetary Union and adopting the Euro as a currency.

However, the IMF did highlight three key risks.

· The possibility of overheating. While productivity improvements could support high rates of growth for many more years, growth is now well above current estimates of potential growth (around 7 percent) and is thus not sustainable. Unchecked, this could lead to labor market pressures and, possibly, higher inflation.

· External imbalance. The large external current account deficit-the counterpart of private capital inflows-is a side effect of catch-up growth, but is not sustainable in the long run. In time, the deficit will shrink as households and firms need to stabilize or reduce their foreign liabilities. This could require sizeable resource reallocations. The key to a smooth adjustment will be to sustain Estonia's liberal economic institutions and flexible labor market, which are the basis for a nimble, fast-growing economy.

· Rapid credit growth. Low interest rates and strong investment demand have sparked exceptionally rapid credit growth, which raises prudential concerns, particularly since most borrowing is in foreign currency, albeit in euros. The authorities' concern is appropriately focused on the credit-financed real estate boom, possibly a bubble, which could end with financial stress for households if growth stumbles or interest rates rise sharply.

Still, the IMF sees the adoption of the common currency as benefiting Estonia's economy in the long run, rather than being just another obstacle.

Overall, Estonia is well placed to join the EMU and would benefit from membership. Early euro adoption is an appropriate target since this would reduce, if not eliminate, the risks faced by the economy as it continues on the path to real convergence. Nevertheless a delay would not create significant risks so long as the CBA continued to be underpinned by strong financial and structural policies.

Still, there is always the chance that Estonia could go the way of the other northern EU members, Sweden and Denmark. Of all the Nordics, I think that Estonia is politically most similar to Denmark - and the Danes have remained Euroskeptics through and through.

So don't be surprised by opinion polls like this one that show limited enthusiasm for Euro adoption.

According to a survey by TNS Emor, 40% of people aged 15–74 are in favour of the introduction of the euro in Estonia. 50% of the population is opposed to the European single currency.

The survey conducted in March showed that the introduction of the euro in Estonia is supported more by men, Estonians, people less than 51 years old and those with higher incomes.

People see benefits of the euro mainly in the fact that travelling to the euro zone countries will become simpler.

According to this survey, only one-third of the population is aware that upon the introduction of the euro, Eesti Pank will exchange kroons to euros for an indefinite term.

According to the survey, the support of citizens for Estonia’s membership in the European Union remains stable: it was 68% in March.

esmaspäev, aprill 03, 2006

The Estonia Ferry Disaster: Eestimaa's JFK Assassination?

The official word on the M/S Estonia - which sank off Finland en route from Tallinn to Stockholm in 1994, taking 852 lives, was that the visor bow door had failed in rough seas, opening the ship to the waters that eventually sank it.

Despite the pronouncement from Stockholm, conspiracy theories have abounded - some speculating that the ship was being used to transport Russian military intelligence via Estonia through Sweden and onwards to the United States or UK. According to the most popular theory, as espoused in German journalist Jutta Rabe's 2003 film Baltic Storm (which sucked, by the way), an explosion onboard caused the ship to sink.

Adding more fuel to the fire, a Swedish customs officer in 2004 announced that yes, the ship had been used to smuggle Russian military secrets out of Estonia. This prompted Tallinn to set up its own investigation which confirmed the officer's account and accuses the Swedes of stonewalling their investigation in a report disclosed last week.

Now, as Sweden's The Local reported this week, some of Estonia's cabinet ministers didn't want to disclose the report because they felt it was so controversial.

Somehow, I wonder if this story will be a controversy that never dies, like the assasination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 in the US. We too had a questionable official report, conflicting testimony from eyewitnesses, suspicious actions from involved governments, and high-profile films made about conspiracy theories. But that mystery has never been solved - and it's likely that this one won't be either.

Growing Up

This past weekend the naine, the laps, and myself went down to Washington, DC to take in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Well, that was the official excuse to go down to my old hometown, but it was probably chosen because, when you live in New York, your only other options are Philadelphia, Boston, and...Hartford? No, just Philadelphia and Boston.

Going to DC at this date was exciting for me. I left DC much as I have left every other place - fed-up, with a lot of ex-friends, some bad habits, and a desire to "get the hell out of town." But going down south I started thinking about how I wound up in our nation's capital anyway? How did I wind up spending three and a half years in Washington, DC. What exactly happened there and what did I learn from that experience?

The whole DC-life is really worth a memoir. But what surprused me as I walked past the sets of that TV show called "My College Life" was that few aroused any feeling in me. The bench where the homeless celebrity (we had lots of homeless celebrities on campus) Sean used to sit, before he was recognized in a "Most Wanted" poster and subsequently arrested for a 1986 kidnapping rape was still there. The blinding white lights and plastic smell of Tower Records were still in full blossom - where I used to spend hours not doing homework and touching CDs wishing I was making them. The window to my ex-girlfriend's room was still there, where I used to leave flowers I had broken off from the garden outside the police station down the street.

I mean I spent a lot of time in that town - but for some reason it was if those days were long gone and perhaps had never really happened at all. I even saw my old journalism professor Steve Roberts - and I imagined that, yes, I had been in his class. But was I? That was so many moons ago.

I wondered if the rest of my life would proceed the same way . If every memory of today would be paved over by fuzzy familiarity. I am slowly growing - but even when I look down the tree of life - even four branches down - it still seems like I am perched atop an intimidating summit.

When I was in DC I did a lot of things I wouldn't do today. I joined radical student organizations and fully bought into the emotions of the "revolutionary" that is, I read books by people that had died sad, lonely deaths. I filled my lungs with anger - and in DC - my anger was directed towards overachievers and khaki pants. I wonder where did I go wrong in my pursuit of life? Why did it take me so long to figure out the very simple things?

If I were any wiser I would never have gotten into ideologies that encourage emotional self-immolation. And I would have dumped troubled friends faster and more mercilessly. I also would have tried even less to please people who never can be pleased. I should have also realized that college is just one stop on a bus and that I should just do what I was there to do and get out when I could. I shouldn't have wasted so much time on fruitless activities.

As my graduation time approached I was relieved and tense. I couldn't wait to "get out" of school and "graduate" to real life. I was right about that. "Real life" is much more rewarding and productive. And I get paid. Which is nice. I made a lot of good friends in school and learned many lessons - mostly outside the classroom. But I am sure it was worth it in its own way. I am just glad that I am not there any longer.