reede, veebruar 29, 2008

pucker up, it's the nordic way

Relations with Russia are bad. Is it possible for them to get better? And, even more importantly, who to look to for guidance?

During the Winter War, the Soviet Union seized one-tenth of Finland. The very port that Russia plans to start exporting gas to Germany through via Nord Stream is Vyborg -- Viipuri -- at one time an important Finnish city. One half of Karelia, the cradle of Finnish national identity, has been repopulated by Russians. And yet, when the Russian and Finnish foreign ministers get together it's all smiles, vodka, and kippis.

Not to mention, Finland has nearly five times the amount of people Estonia has; Finland has a GDP of $163 billion compared to Estonia's $27 billion; and as inspiring as Markko Märtin and Kristina Šmigun are, Finland has Kimi Raikkonen and Virpi Kuitunen. That is to say that in every way, Estonia's northern neighbor is stronger, richer, and more well known. It also has some serious historical baggage with its eastern neighbor. And yet, when it comes time to pucker up to Vladimir or Sergei, the Finns are ready with moistened lips.

Perhaps this is the secret that Edgar Savisaar knows and has kept his dacha, er, suvila busy with guests from Russia who have stakes in the transport business. That only by kissing Russia's ass can a nordic country -- once it has secured its independence -- ever truly be free. I hope it isn't really true, but those photos of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja make me wonder.

teisipäev, veebruar 26, 2008


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.

esmaspäev, veebruar 25, 2008

the speech

I was a bit worried that President Ilves' speech last night would drown the celebratory mood of the Republic of Estonia's 90th anniversary in paranoia about the 'neighbor to the East' -- the source of all that is unhealthy in the world, Bolshevism, despotism, pelmeenid.

Thankfully, the only foreign country explicitly mentioned in Härra Ilves' speech was Ancient Greece. And that is how it should be, for despite the wishes of some, this country is not defined by its problems or its fears, but by its hopes and faith in progress.

Ilves touched on some relevant political themes -- energy, demographics, traffic problems, labor shortage, the switch to an intelligence-based economy. He also drew strength from appealing to Estonian national motifs -- the "blueberry forests of summer," the "stony book" on a "slab of stone" where is written the story of Estonia.

By the end of the speech, I felt so good, I was even happy to sit through the 'pingviini paraad' of notables and celebrities. Go read the speech for yourself here and let me know what you think.

pühapäev, veebruar 24, 2008


There is an excellent piece about Estonia by Jüri Estam at La Russophobe. I highly suggest you read it today, February 24, the independence day of Estonia.

In the pantheon of nationalities, Estonians are still mostly an unknown quantity. The post-war era allowed crafty tourist-oriented campaigns to "brand" the nations of Western Europe for North American travelers.

Scotland was the land of whiskey, bagpipes, and the Highland Games. France was the land of chateaus, fashion, wine, and cheese. Switzerland was chocolate and watches. Germany was beer, bratwurst, and high-end automobiles. Italy was the grandeur of Rome and pasta. Finland is the home of Santa Claus, his sauna, and his reindeer.

But what of Estonia? What is Estonian nationality? Ask an Estonian and you'll get an answer like "the land" or "the language". But, to me, after having been in touch with this windswept peninsula at the roof of Europe, Estonian nationality is something like a classic Ingmar Bergman film from the 1950s or 60s. It's not the sparse dialog, it's not the medieval costumes, it's not the haunting northern landscape -- it's the sum of the whole, it's all the parts working together that 'make' Estonian nationality.

To me, the Estonians are a quantity unchanged. Even with all their technology and love of e-fficiency, it is not hard to imagine them eking out an existence in the Swedish or Russian imperial times, married to farms owned by Baltic German nobility, cast against a manic-depressive landscape of soul trying winters and liberating summers of endless daylight.

I once asked someone at the beginning of my adventures in this country, what Estonians were like. Were they like Germans, Swedes, Finns, or, God forbid, Russians? She answered my question by making me answer it by myself. "We are not like the Finns," she said. "My girlfriend has lived for decades in Finland and she still feels like an outsider. We are not anything else; we are simply Estonians."

And this is the paradox of Estonian national identity. It is defined by concepts that seem base -- paganism, serfdom, a self-sufficient agricultural mentality. And yet, it is still a high-brow concept that may only start to coalesce after one looks past the glowing articles about Tallinn's wild nightlife or Skype's Silicon -Valley-on-Gulf-of-Finland corporate culture, and spends some time out in the countryside with guys named Eino and ladies named Aino.

The Estonian national concept, like the Estonians themselves, takes a while to get warmed up. But once it gets started, you'll find yourself being passed one day by a stubborn, individualistic driver somewhere outside of Rio de Janeiro, and think to yourself, "That guy drives like a maniac. He must be an Estonian."

laupäev, veebruar 23, 2008

mu õnn ja rõõm

I just spent 24 hours in Tallinn and, boy, is every part of me exhausted. I was dragged kicking and screaming to see a hip hop concert at Club Hollywood, a place of ill repute in this nation's capital -- and I mean 'ill' in the sense of 'license to ill' and 'ill communication'.

It was as described by most roving journalists dispatched to this part of the world. There were young attractive women clothed in various fashion statements dancing on table tops. There were embarrassing attempts by fellows from the countryside to recreate ghetto fashion and posturing in this city of the Hanseatic League.

One highlight of my evening took place in the men's restroom. While resting there I began whistling the tune of 'Mu Isamaa' -- the Estonian national anthem. Before I knew it, four or five gentlemen in the toilet began to loudly sing the words -- mis mul nii armas oleks ka, kui sa, mu isamaa!

I also befriended some Nigerians who were more than happy to discuss the career of the innovative Nigerian afrobeat musician, Fela Kuti. Finally, without even trying, during the concert by Los Angeles' own Delinquent Habits, one of the emcees came over to my side of the stage with two shots of vodka which he persuaded me to drink.

The evening's climax came while waiting in line at a kiosk to buy a burger and fries at 3 am or so. There were some Swedish guys in line ahead who, for some reason, annoyed me. I decided that they needed a lecture about Imperial Sweden and Gustavus Adolphus, the "Swedish Rambo". They needed to hear how Sweden, in general, needs to pull its head further out of the Scandinavian social welfare sand and be more active in the Baltic Sea Region. I believe I finally told them that they should "spend less time listening to The Cardigans, and spend more time reading the works of August Strindberg."

They were unresponsive to my arguments, preferring to stuff their faces with hamburgers and wallow in Swedish self-absorption instead. I went home, pessimistic about the future of Baltic cooperation.

neljapäev, veebruar 21, 2008

abraham obama fitzgerald roosevelt

I have been watching the Democratic presidential primaries from afar. Though I earlier said I would support the institutional candidates, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, if pressed, I ultimately decided that whoever won the Democratic primaries deserved to win, and whoever eventually lost deserved to lose.

At the moment, the loser is Hillary Clinton. And it's not just because of Obama's pretty words -- it's because her campaign looks like John Kerry's in 2004. Bill Clinton is Tereza Heinz Kerry, the tempestuous spouse. Campaign Manager Mark Penn is a combination of Mary Beth Cahill and Bob Shrum, the clueless Beltway insiders. And when challenged, Hillary the candidate is either too silent or too wonky -- Kerry in a nutshell. There's a great list of reasons for Hillary's losses here.

But what of Obama? As I wrote earlier, Americans believe in recurring motifs in their history. Or rather, American politicians believe in using myths about their predecessors to create the 'rendezvous with history' meme that is essential to any campaign. This does not happen in Estonia, though on occasion President Ilves' continental bowtie reminds me of Jaan Tõnisson's gentlemanly top hat.

But in America, the 'torch is passed' concept is central. Clinton resurrected Franklin Delano Roosevelt; George W. Bush preferred his cousin Teddy. Reagan, in a truly old school move, had Calvin Coolidge's portrait hung in his office. You see, as a person born in 1911, Reagan could actually remember Coolidge.

For Republicans, Reagan himself has become the new motif. Every Republican candidate must appear 'Reaganesque' to win the nomination. John McCain is 'Reaganesque' because he is old and he was endorsed by Sylvestor Stallone, whose series of Rambo and Rocky films in the 1980s pit the rugged American protagonist against commies and terrorists, the arch enemies of freedom.

For Democrats though, it's more difficult. Clinton brings to mind a stained dress, Carter the Iran hostage crisis, and Johnson the Vietnam body count. Democrats have to go all the way back to John Fitzegerald Kennedy to resurrect their 'rendezvous with [partisan] history.' Even DNC Chairman Howard Dean has been parading Harry Truman around in an effort to reconnect the Democratic Party to its elected forebears.

And so, for Obama, it is Kennedy, the youthful, exuberant, and short-lived American president who has been summoned for the purposes of presidential myth making. It was, after all, the powerful endorsement of both Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, which finally gave Obama the veneer of establishment credibility.

But is Obama really a sunny and optimistic Kennedy? Or is he more a fire and brimstone Lincoln? Either way, there's some powerful myth making in the works as we speak and it could result in the eventual naming of new international airports and highways. Goodbye Honolulu International Airport, hello Barack H. Obama International Airport? An Obama victory might even result in the issuance some new currency, just so Americans can pay for goods with the audacity of hope. The wheels of American history are turning again. Stay tuned.

teisipäev, veebruar 19, 2008

pressure drop

What? Did you actually think I was going to stick my nose in the gigantic diplomatic mess that is the Republic of Kosovo? Let's just recall that it took slightly less than two years and a war for Russia to let go of Estonia in 1920. And let's also recall that Russia lost that war, just because it still feels good. Maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel?

But here's something even more interesting -- the latest poll on support for Estonian political parties. Well, what do you know, the post-Bronze Soldier boost for Andrus Ansip's Reform Party has started to decline amidst a slow down in the real estate market and concerns about inflation and less tourists.

Despite this, Reform's ability to work with its sometimes fractious coalition partners, Isamaa-Res Publica Liit and Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond, has kept the party afloat with 35 percent of respondents saying they support the party of wealth plus patriotism.

The real news to me is that it looks like Sotsid and the Rohelised are eating into the top three parties' support. IRL has 13 percent support compared to SDE and the Greens, who have 12 percent support. Can you believe that Marek Strandberg's Greens are polling as well as Mart Laar's IRL? What happened?

The final piece of the puzzle is Eestimaa Rahva Liit, the agrarian party who, with a consistent 5 percent of support, are ripe for acquisition. My only question is who will swallow ERL first?

esmaspäev, veebruar 18, 2008

palju õnne, narva

If you are ever in the mood for a good chuckle and have a reasonable grasp of the Estonian language, open up a history book of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Inside you will find scant mention of the 'fascist dictatorship' that ruled Estonia for 22 very brief years from 1918 to 1940, but instead will discover the intricate details of meetings between the Estonian communist intelligentsia in 1917. Jaan Anvelt brought his well-worn edition of Das Kapital. Viktor Kingissepp served tea and biscuits.

This was not the history of a people or a place, but of a political movement for whom people and places were mere props in their master plan for humanity. Monuments in the ESSR commemorated events that to people today would be utterly meaningless.

One such monument was to Eestimaa Töörahva Kommuun, a puppet people's government set up in Narva on 29 November 1918. It didn't last long. Kingissepp died at the hands of Estonian authorities in 1922. Anvelt, who fled to Russia after the war, died at the hands of Stalin during the purges in 1937.

Because of the chaos that ensued during World War I, the Russian Revolution, and finally the October Revolution in the Russian Empire, the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party called for smaller local councils to be established that would be later reintegrated into a post-tsarist Bolshevik super state. The undemocratic Eestimaa Töörahva Kommuun, led by Estonian communists Kingisepp and Anvelt, was such an organization.

As a city, Narva is isolated in Estonia by both language and geography. Almost every other major Estonian city speaks Estonian as its majority language, while Narva is Russophone. Narva is also nearly 200 kilometers from Tallinn, making the trip to Estonia's border city a long bus ride. It is for these reasons, perhaps, that the Narva City Government today finally got around to moving a monument to the Eestimaa Töörahva Kommuun that was displayed on a wall next to Narva's City Hall.

The monument may find a new home at the Estonian Historical Museum in Tallinn, which would be a fitting place for the likenesses of Anvelt and Kingissepp. The communists have once again found themselves in the Estonian history books, just in a less prominent way.

reede, veebruar 15, 2008

ethnicity and nationality

I have recently been keeping my eye on the race to succeed Eero Heinäluoma as chairman of the Social Democratic Party in Finland, with the excellent blog, A Lamb with No Guiding Light as a daily source of fresh English-language info.

Some people, particularly those on the Internet, really don't like SDP, but having come face to face with Erkki Tuomioja and known some party members, I must say that even if their policies irritate, their bleeding hearts are often in the right place.

Tuomioja, the former foreign minister, is now a candidate to be party chair, while fresh-faced former MTV VJ Maria Guzenina-Richardson (photo) is running for vice chair. Tuomioja is famous in Estonia because his grandmother, Hella Wuolijoki, was born in Valgamaa in southern Estonia. Guzenina, who is not famous in Estonia, owes her name to her Russian family roots. And yet, nobody considers Guzenina to be Russian, nor does anyone consider Tuomioja to be Estonian.

Finnish, it appears, is a nationality, as opposed to an ethnicity. Finns are defined more by their relationship to the omnipresent, omni-taxing state than their shared ancestry, even if they all happen to look the same.

Somehow, here in Estonia this concept of ethnicity and nationality is mixed up. People talk about "Estonians" as if being Estonian meant being devoid of foreign roots, but those who do so forget that President Ilves had a Russian grandmother while Estonian Europarliamentarian Katrin Saks had a Russian grandfather. Minister of Culture Laine Jänes and Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar both have Russian mothers, for instance. Yet the public sees them as indisputably Estonian.

How can one speak of one ethnicity then, when even those who are deemed most representative of that ethnicity actually have a diverse background? The answer, it seems, is that Estonianness is more of a national identity than an ethnic one. Estonians, therefore, are defined more by their relationship to the sinine must valge and "Leto Svet" than the fact that they all happen to look the same.

This, I think, is a concept that those hoping to understand Estonia should embrace.

This post has been updated to reflect that Guzenina is running for vice chair of SDP, not chair.

esmaspäev, veebruar 11, 2008

the nordic model

Estonians are frequently asked by their nordic compatriots something along the lines of, "Why didn't your country adopt the Nordic model when it was reconstituting the state in 1991-1992?" The line of questioning today also leads us to, "Will Estonia adopt the Nordic model in the future?"

President Ilves was recently asked this in an interview with the City Paper, the question and reply:
Estonia, it is commonly claimed, wants to be regarded a Nordic country. Still there are obvious and profound differences between Estonian and e.g. Norwegian welfare policies. To what extent does the President consider the Scandinavian/Nordic welfare state a good model for Estonia?

I am sorry to see that such outdated clichés are still spreading. I recommend a little homework in the future, or an examination of what is happening in Estonia – Estonian and Nordic welfare policies are not so different, actually they are increasingly similar. The primary question is money.
Money, yes, but also history and, very importantly, contemporary history. You get the sense reading nordic impressions of Estonia that they a) do not know Estonia, and b) do not know themselves.

Estonia in the past has been criticized as being sort of an imaginary West. Anatol Lieven warns us in the updated version of The Baltic Revolution to not be fooled by the Scandinavian-looking airports. You may feel that you are in the West, but you are not really in the West.

It's the "imitation" West, fake like those "Scandinavian sweaters" old Russophone ladies sell in Tallinn's Old Town. It may look and feel like a real Scandinavian sweater, but since it was knitted by Eva Ivanova and not Bo Svensson, it's not the real thing, even if Bo Svensson pays the Chinese to make them while he tans himself aboard his yacht in the Adriatic.

I would argue that if Estonia had copied the "Nordic model" in the 1990s it would have arrived at even more of a precarious position as a "fake West." The first reality is that the modern Nordic welfare state was formed by primarily social democratic parties over the past century. The model was designed by consensus over time. It was not something that could be translated into Estonian by talented researchers at the Ministry of Social Affairs and then force-fed to the Riigikogu.

Estonia organically chose other models. It chose a flat tax, partially because it was easy to implement and partially to attract investment in what was then a very poor country. Estonia since has chosen policies though that do copy the Nordic model.

A classic example is the Mother's Salary, implemented in 2004, that provides state financial assistance to mothers of newborns so that they can support their growing families -- and the fattening of the citizenship rolls -- while retaining their jobs. That's a policy that all the flat tax advocates in the world should ignore when they talk of the "Estonian model". President Bush admires Estonian taxation policy. I have a feeling he wouldn't admire the mother's salary.

So, organically, Estonia is embracing policies that mirror its neighbors. Partially because Finland and Sweden have positive birth rates, and Estonia has a negative one, some geniuses came to the conclusion that this kind of social support policy might help to raise the birth rate in Estonia. and, wouldn't you know, the birth rate has risen in Estonia since that policy was introduced. So, organically, Estonia came to adopt part of the Nordic Model, not because it was told to, but because it found out the hard way that it works.

This is what the other Nordic countries do not understand about Estonia. Estonia is still a country in transition. It is likely that in the future, as Estonia accrues more wealth, it may adopt more of these classic Nordic welfare policies, not because they want to buy the whole model, but because the policies are shown to work in countries similar to Estonia. So the idea that Estonia would copy the "Nordic Model" because it likes the way "Nordic" sounds is silly. Estonia will arrive at those policies organically if they are indeed as good as the Norwegians make them out to be.

But, amidst this backdrop, we have to admit that the era of the Nordic Passport Union is behind us. The social democratic parties that built social democracy in the nordic countries in the 1950s and 1960s have given way to the government of Fredrik Reinfeldt in Sweden, who supported Bush in both the 2000 and 2004 elections; the government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Denmark, who advocates limiting immigration and lowering taxes; and even across the Gulf of Finland, it is the National Coalition Party of Sauli Niinistö that has the popular momentum.

Is this the 'Nordic Model' they were talking about? It is certainly the "Nordic environment" that Estonia is surrounded by, an environment of tax-freezing, immigration-limiting governments run by economists and bankers, rather than career civil servants. In this way, Estonia fits in quite nicely.

And what of Nordic cooperation with supranational organizations? Denmark, Norway, and Iceland are in NATO, while Finland and Sweden are not. Finland, Sweden, and Denmark are in the European Union, while Norway and Iceland are not. Finland has adopted the euro as a currency, while Sweden and Denmark remain skeptical of the European Monetary Union. This diversity begs the question, is there a model here to follow?

And, of course, linguistic policies. Estonia has been urged by some to adopt the "Nordic Model" when it comes to languages, but proponents of such are usually referring to the Finnish model. The model of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark is actually to grant municipalities extensive rights in determining their working languages. Hence, Danish is the official language of Denmark, and is co-official in the Faroe Islands, but Faroese is not an official language in Copenhagen. So again, which model to follow?

My only prediction is that if there is a Nordic policy that works well and makes sense for Estonia to adopt it, then it will be adopted. To merely adopt a model at the bequest of a traveling bureaucrat would be more in tune with the model of "imitation West" than the real thing. Estonia, like the Nordic countries, will continue to develop and create policies where it sees fit. It may also happen that the traditional Nordic countries might borrow a policy from Estonia in the future, if they find it to be in their best interests.

neljapäev, veebruar 07, 2008

johannes walker

As I was loading old newspapers and advertisements into the ahi the other day, I caught a glance of a reklaam (advert) for a peculiarly named brand of whiskey, "Johannes Walker."

"That can't be," I said to myself, shaking my head. I took another look and realized that I was looking at an advertisement for the Scottish whiskey "Johnnie Walker."

My eyes, having scanned through many issues of Postimees, were just accustomed to seeing the j, o, h, and n, and assembling "Johannes" from them instead of what was actually written, you see.

As I have written previously, Estonia is the kind of country where, if you have a foreign name, it makes your life a bit more complicated. It's not that they are unfamiliar with English names, it's just that they are not used to guys ordering taxis using those names.

I recently asked a friend in Tartu named Stew what name he uses when he orders taxis. He confessed that his wife usually does the ordering, but when pressed he uses "Sten" just to make his life easier. Then there's the editor of Baltlantis, who I am pretty sure is not named Vello Vikerkaar. Surnames too get "estonianized" without one asking. If your family name is "Johnson" it is likely that you will be rendered "Johansson" at the Post Office.

When I order a taxi, I have settled on using the name "Juhani." I like this name. I have been informed that mostly Finns are named "Juhani", but that will help explain my subtle yet definitely foreign accent. I have also noticed that the people at the taxi call centers are nicer when you say your name is "Juhani" rather than "dzha-steen" or "joo-stin". If I used my English name they might switch immediately to English and charge me double. As Juhani, I can pass as an a põder (reindeer) of the Markku Peltola variety and pay the actual rate.

What I would like to know is what names you foreigners in Eesti have used to order a takso at midnight? This should be interesting. I am also interested in knowing what names Estonians use when they are abroad. Epp's name is so unique that there is no English-language variant to adopt. Her uncle Tiit, though, goes by "Tim" in England with good reason. And when we met with a friend named "Ahto" in New York recently, he proudly passed off his name as "Otto", you know, like that bus driver on The Simpsons.

teisipäev, veebruar 05, 2008

serbians perplexed by 'leto svet'

It's not even been a week, and Estonia's Eurovision entry "Leto Svet" is already raising eyebrows in Belgrade:

"There will be at least one song in the Serbian language at this year's Eurovision Song Contest, even if you don't count the hosts, joked Saša on the OGAE Serbia website.

One gets the impression that the lyricist has looked in the 'At the Restaurant' chapter of a Serbian phrase book, as the words for peas, green beans and lobster are mentioned!

Serbs are asking themselves if this is a desperate step by the Estonians to get a place in the final, which they haven't achieved since the introduction of semi-finals in 2004. Unfortunately for Estonia, Serbia cannot vote in the semi-final they take part in.

Is it just me, or does Peeter Oja bear a striking resemblance to last year's winner? Anyway, here's more:
Beta news agency reports from Tallinn that the Estonian contest winners, Kreisiraadio, will brave singing in Serbian as they battle for the Eurovision title in May in Belgrade.

But from the song's title, to its lyrics, it seems that the many intricate grammatical inflections of the Serbian language were lost upon the band.

Beside the puzzling Serbian lyrics, which seem to consist of a list of food items, the song also features words in Estonian and German.

This is it Eesti! This could be the year that Eurovision comes back to Tallinn!

mälu instituut

President Ilves this week announced the establishment of the Mälu Instituut, or Institute of Memory, which despite its interesting name, serves an honorable purpose -- to look into the human rights violations committed in Estonia in the period from 1944-1991.

I would take it a step further and argue that the Institute of Memory should study the entirety of the Soviet period, not just the human rights violations, because from living here, at least, it sometimes seems that the 1960s and 1970s have fallen down some collective mental black hole.

It seems especially pertinent to address this condition of national memory loss as we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Estonia. What everyone knows, but won't say, is that out of those 90 years, 50 were spent under foreign occupation. That's not to diminish the symbolism of the event. I mean in three years, from 1917 to 1920, Estonia went from being part of two tsarist provinces to an independent country subject to international law.

But what of those 50 years? Perhaps the reason that we hear so little of them, except the dramatic beginning and end of Soviet rule, is because the older generation -- who experienced the Soviet period as adults -- are not used to telling their stories. There are a number of reasons for this, but I would peg one down as simple childhood trauma.

The elders of today experienced the beginning of the Soviet occupation as children. They were separated from their families, dispossessed of their land. Some families were not reunited until after the death of Stalin in 1953. A full decade or more had elapsed. So in a way, their personal memories were destroyed. What they did remember, they did not wish to discuss in public.

A second factor is that the current middle-aged generation in Estonia went through a deep revolution in identity in the 1980s. They disowned their Soviet heritage, they divorced themselves from their pasts as party members. Estonia in 1991 was something real, but a childhood singing songs about Lenin was now "fake". So for them too, the Laars, Ansips, and Savisaars of Estonia, the Soviet period is nothing to gather around and reminisce about.

This blotting out of the 1960s and 70s as a sort of a wasteland of useless memories, is interesting when you consider that in the United States, there are stacks and stacks of books that cover this period in great detail. Indeed a major campaign issue of this year's contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has been their interpretation of who was most responsible for the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

There are actually many books to be written about in this period, especially with regards to the emergence of a new national intelligentsia in the 1960s that replaced the one forced underground or into exile in the 1940s. But for some reason it lacks the relevance in today's Estonia that it has elsewhere. It would be a worthy task to record memories of this time before they are lost forever.

esmaspäev, veebruar 04, 2008

jänese aasta

Last week arrived this month's issue of Eesti Naine -- a popular woman's magazine, which discussed the past year in the life of the Minister of Culture, Laine Jänes.

Jänes, 43, is the former mayor of Tartu, like current Prime Minister Andrus Ansip was before her. She is also a member of Reformierakond -- the most popular party in Estonia -- which has its base in Tartu City Administration.

For several reasons, I suspect that when a successor is chosen for Härra Ansip, who in a few weeks will become Estonia's longest serving prime minister ever, and I mean since 1918 -- Jänes might be the candidate at the top of the ticket.

One factor is that Reformierakond has managed to build itself into a generic, mainstream political party. What people need to understand about Estonian politics is that many local officials are not ideologues, they are career public servants. They don't choose to run on the IRL slate because they have read all of Mart Laar's books, they do so because IRL is the feel-good, patriotic party, and most Estonians like to feel good and be patriotic and say, "Elagu Eesti" (long live Estonia) every Feb. 24. It also helps if their party helps get them elected.

But Estonians like money, and Reformierakond is the "money" party. Whereas IRL's platform could be described as "patriotism plus wealth", Reform's platform is more like "wealth plus patriotism."

It's a winning combination that draws in huge swaths of the electorate. Compare that to the more narrow focus of other parties like the Greens, who are basically for the environmentalists, or the Social Democrats, who are for the unions. There's a reason why Reform has so many seats in the Riigikogu -- people who value the environment and teachers' unions want to be wealthy as well.

But that's not the only factor that would help Laine Jänes. Let's not forget that she is also an eesti naine (Estonian woman). Estonian women make up a disproportionate amount (54 percent) of Estonian voters. Interviews with the women's press helps to build her image. They might like her politics, but they also will appreciate that she is a mother of two and that she is attractive.

Femininity could make a difference for a voter forced to choose between Jänes and Edgar Savisaar or Mart Laar. And even if you don't get to vote for Jänes in your district, some Estonians vote for the prime ministerial candidate anyway. I am sure most voters who cast their votes for the Green Party last March felt they were voting for Marek Strandberg, rather than that other guy on the list.

Another factor is this. Jänes may have the quintessential Estonian surname, but her mother is Russian, and she was born in Moscow. Integration is an important social issue, and having a prime minister who is personally part of both communities could give her some extra authority in resolving these issues, or at least discussing them domestically.

Your average Estonian's personal life does not revolve around Russia -- Russia doesn't pass the hapukapsad at Christmas time, Russia isn't in your car when you are driving through Põlvamaa listening to Radio Elmer, Russia isn't in your sauna, whipping you with birch branches, et cetera. Still, Russia is important to Estonian voters, and they would like to have a prime minister that can keep Russia at arms distance but in a non-threatening way.

Finally, Jänes' name means 'rabbit' and President Ilves' name means 'lynx'. This could lend itself to all kinds of terrifying headlines. It's just a hypothesis that Jänes could be in the running for the prime minister's seat in the next election. It's also possible that, like any person in Estonia, there are dozens of people that passionately hate her and will stick out their leg for her to trip over it given the right opportunity.

[Update] I screwed up Reformierakond's slogan from the last election and so this post has been amended. But the concept, that they are a party that represents liberalism and thus wealth in Estonian politics stands. It was Ansip who called Steve Forbes a genius, not I.

pühapäev, veebruar 03, 2008

leto svet

This is the Estonian Eurovision entry this year. I decided not to vote, but "Leto Svet" by Kreisiraadio still got 20,000 more votes than "Ice Cold Story" by Iiris Vesik. The song is in Serbo-Croatian, German, and Finnish, and is a mockery of Eurovision multilingualism, choreography, et cetera. Estonia did quite well in Eurovision in the past and won in 2001, bringing the contest to Tallinn in 2002, which was a big deal locally.

But since then they've moved to a two-round contest to accommodate all of the countries that wish to partake in the festival, including non-European countries like Israel, and Estonia has usually not made it to the second round because it has sent, in my opinion, generic pop songs that do not distinguish it from other countries.

That's why, in a way, this song is refreshing. I have a feeling though that some Eurovision viewers might not get the joke.

reede, veebruar 01, 2008

ergo dialoog

While filling out my insurance contract at Ergo Kindlustus in Tartu today I had a pretty funny conversation. The Estonian-speakers will get it. For those of you who have yet to master this rewarding tongue, bear with me.

On the policy contract you are asked questions such as, Kas Teil on diagnoositud HIV-viirust? -- "Have you been diagnosed with the HIV virus?" That question I understood well enough to answer. Others were more complicated. One question I was asked by the agent was:

Kas olete teinud enesetapukatse?

This question bothered me because what I understood couldn't possible be on an insurance form. That's because instead of what she asked, I heard:

Kas olete söönud enne hapukapsaid?

Literally, "Have you eaten sauerkraut before?" I thought about answering "jah" because we had hapukapsad for dinner last night, but I decided that no matter how much Estonians like their hapukapsad, there's no way they'd ask you that in order to get an insurance policy. As far as I know, hapukapsad has no medicinal properties.

The agent then explained to me that enesetapukatse is when an inimene (person) katsetab (attempts) tappa (to kill) enast (themself). Ah, enesetapkatse -- suicide. Kas olete teinud enesetapukatse? -- "Have you ever made a suicide attempt."

I informed her proudly that I had never attempted suicide, and, to be safe, let her know that I had eaten hapukapsad on many occasions.