Leave it the BBC to ruin a perfectly good February morning. Tim Whewall of the BBC goes to Kadriorg to ask President Ilves important questions like, why doesn't he speak Russian.
Ilves replies that to speak Russian would mean "accepting 50 years of Soviet brutalisation because most Russian-speakers settled in Estonia only after it was occupied by the USSR towards the end of World War II."
Then the Estonian media, which loves nothing more than to put any heated, divisive statement about Russia on the front page, picks it up, as does Russia's federal news agency Regnum, which notes that "Ilves is the first Estonian president who does not speak Russian."
Well, let's see, Estonia has only had four presidents. Konstantin Päts spoke Russian -- he was Orthodox, served in the Russian army, and was the son of one Jakob Päts and one Olga Tumanova. Lennart Meri spoke Russian, a skill he no doubt learned as a potato peeler in a Siberian work camp. And Arnold Rüütel, the former Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR, definitely spoke Russian.
But that's just the thing. In the race between Rüütel and Ilves in 2006, one of Ilves' strengths was that he spoke English -- one of the three main languages of the European Union, not to mention the operating language of NATO -- on the level of a native speaker. People were occasionally embarrassed by the fact that the only foreign dignitaries Rüütel could communicate with without a translator were Vladimir Putin and Aleksis II.
And that's sort of the rub. Russophiles and Russians might think of their language as a "world language" that is easy to acquire. But, considering Ilves has lived in Estonia for nearly two decades and not acquired it, I guess it defeats that premise. It also shows that for Estonians, it was more important to have an English-speaking president than a Russian-speaking one. That's got to hurt from the perspective of a country that still views itself as a counterweight to the United States. Hence the attention from Regnum.
Honestly, from my perspective, despite the angst reflected in the media, I have come to not be personally bothered by the shrinking language gap in Estonia. The majority complains about the ethnic Russians who refuse to speak their language -- meanwhile most of them already learned it and have jobs at Hansapank or Estravel.
You wouldn't even know their native tongue save for a name tag, and even then you might wind up with one of those wicked Estonian combinations like "Eha Petrushkovskaja" or "Olga Saar." You can't really tell the difference between people, and you shouldn't be able to, because this is one country, not two little countries sutured together.
Yes, there are those awkward moments sometimes where you ask a question or are asked a question which comes back in a dizzying array of consonants and vowels that could be Hungarian or Bulgarian or Yoruban. But it doesn't matter, because even the most desperate tourists in the world can make themselves understood by tap dancing and farting.
So, let's please give it a rest. Let Ilves wear a bowtie and learn French. Let Edgar Savisaar and the Russian transportation authorities haggle in Russian. And let me blog in English. It's my native language, and nobody has yet managed to take it from me.