reede, november 28, 2008

for sweden ... in time

SAS wants to buy the Estonian government's remaining 34-percent stake in Estonian Air, the national air carrier. And the Estonians are considering the sale. According to Prime Minister Ansip, the airline "lacks vision" and is not worth another round of state financing.

It is not unbelievable that the deal will be done. I had once suspected that when the Estonian well ran dry for Scandinavian companies, they would hand the firms over to someone bigger -- the Germans or the Russians -- and head for warmer climes.

The truth , though, is that in the current global financial situation, there are no hotter places to invest. And the Scandinavian firms have pumped so much money into the Estonian economy that they are more likely to wait out the current recession for a time when their investment is returned.

If Estonian Air turns into SAS Estland, then it will follow the trend of Scandinavian owners taking more direct and visual control over their Baltic subsidiaries. When I first moved to Estonia in 2003, I could have strolled down to central Tallinn and enlisted to services of Estonia's two largest banks, Hansapank and Eesti Ühispank, to hold my money.

At that time, those banks were owned by Nordic companies -- Swedbank and SEB, respectively, but as of this autumn both companies have been remade in the images of their parent. Hansapank became Swedbank in autumn -- a sign of the bank's commitment to the market, said outgoing CEO Jan Liden, and I am personally unsure of just when Ühispank morphed into "Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken."

The other day we were dispatched to Ühispank in downtown Tartu only to find no trace of of the company. In its place was SEB instead. Even inside of SEB I had a hard time finding anything on it that said "Ühispank." And I have made the switch to speaking of "Swedbank," rather than "Hansapank," with little effort. Those around me speak of "SEB," pronounced "se-beh" in Estonian, as if it had always existed.

I am interested to see how this latest round of Swedification develops. Some reports say the government is inclined to sell, others say that it is inclined to buy SAS out. Either way, 2008 has seen a significant change in the domestic marketplace. The old brands are no longer there, and the presence of the "new boss" in the Estonian economy is evermore apparent.

teisipäev, november 25, 2008

puhkusel pärnus

And so it came to pass, that I was given time off from work. Weary of another flight, I pleaded with my mercurial spouse to spend it within the borders of the Republic of Estonia. All I wanted was to get away to the west coast of Eesti, where I could indulge in saunas and swimming pools and maybe get a massage.

While the spa Eden of Saaremaa seemed like the immediate target, like true mainlanders we decided that the ferry ride to Muhu was just asking too much and settled on Pärnu instead. Pärnu, pop. 44,000, is the fifth largest city in Estonia, located on the country's southwest coast. It's also the "summer capital" of Estonia, which made our choice of visiting during the first major blizzard of the year somewhat unique.

The road from Karksi to Pärnu was tiring. I was already beat from driving from Tartu to Karksi and the roast pork, sauerkraut, and kohupiimakook didn't help. There are few signs of humanity in between the two places, other than the occasional rullnok driver speeding past you. You hit the town of Abja-Paluoja then stretch through the woods past the lights of Kilingi-Nõmme. This is my wife's family's neck of the woods. Every family story is decorated with strings of vowels that denote a place where one or the other of them have lived or worked or taken a dip in a lake.

According to travel guidebooks, south Estonia is just another band in the layer cake of "the Baltic countries," but in my mental geography, we were at the bottom of Estonia, and maybe something bigger. With south Estonia also begins the zone of Baltic-Finnic languages that stretches north past the Arctic Circle. Sami, Karelian, Vespian, Finnish -- it all started a bit south of Häädemeeste.

We pulled into Pärnu at night in the snow, and headed to Terviseparadiis -- "Health paradise" -- a modern-looking spa right on the beach. In the cold wind, five flags flapped from atop flag poles in front of the spa -- the flag of Terviseparadiis, the EU flag, and the flags of Estonia, Finland, and Sweden. The interior design of Terviseparadiis seemed to adhere to the aesthetics of the nordic tourist: futuristic metallic furniture, wood-laminate hotel-room flooring, and bossa nova elevator music. They didn't even have an Estonian Bible in our hotel room, though there was a copy of the Uusi Testament in Finnish.

The next day I finally got my long-awaited massaaž, which, as the signs indicated, is also called hieronta in Finnish. In fact, this spa-in-Pärnu experience was taking on visit-to-foreign-country-like undertones. Did you know that the Finnish word for keefir is "piimä"? I learned that at breakfast, where I found comfort in the muesli and toast while Finns and Estonians around me indulged in marinated fish, because that's what these people eat to start the päev/päivä.

The massage did the trick; it hurt a bit too. Writing for a living kills your back. You pray for the day when you get to lay flat in a room with Eastern meditation music on and a silent masseuse by your side kneading her elbows into your spine. I'm told that Pärnu is famous for its mud baths. Though I'd love to try it, it wasn't on our agenda for this trip.

After breakfast we moved from our Scandinavian cocoon at Terviseparadiis to the aptly named "Estonia" spa down the street. From the window in our new spa we could look out on the snow-covered roofs of downtown Pärnu. Architecturally, Pärnu is a treat, with the same eye candy as Haapsalu. The streets offer up curiosity after curiosity. There are at least two really nice churches, the Lutheran Eliisabet and the Orthodox Katariina. This being agnostic Estonia, I suspect the churches more fan the passions of touring choirs, than they do the beliefs of local people.

The Estonia spa had an extensive swimming area with a variety of saunas, including a "salt sauna," where one takes handfuls of salt from a wooden bucket and smears it all over their body to facilitate the discharge of toxins from the skin. While Terviseparadiis catered to the Estonian, Finnish, Swedish, and English tourist, Estonia was clearly for the Finns. The flags of Estonia and Finland were on display in the reception area, as was a poster for a dance where one Juhani Markola was set to perform.

Middle-aged Finnish women tend to look a lot like President Tarja Halonen, which may explain some of her every woman appeal in Estonia's northern neighbor. Middle-aged Finnish men? Well one old guy kept staring at me in the hotel lobby, perhaps suspecting that I was not of Baltic-Finnic origin. I reached for one of those handy expressions I learned on YouTube. What were those phrases they were always saying to one another? Mitä vittuu sää mulkoilet siinä? Perkele? Ugh. Why was it that the only phrases I knew in Finnish were inappropriate? I decided to leave Old Man Suomi to his Ilta Sanomat instead.

In the changing room for the bathing area though I was greeted by an older gentleman who was the spitting image of the Estonian entertainer Tarmo Leinatamm. He began speaking to me in a language that sounded like someone had loaded Estonian sentences into an open blender. From the various bits and pieces that spurted forth, a mosaic containing meaning could be constructed. He had gone somewhere. A sauna. Something about women.

He then tried communicating with another guy in the room who told him directly ma ei saa aru -- I don't understand. But Finns are a stubborn sort, and they insist in speaking their own language in their little brother country, much like the Russians next door. He just kept at it, and sooner or later the Estonian guy figured out what he was talking about and told him something I didn't understand and Tarmo Leinatamm's lookalike disappeared into the showers.

"What language was he speaking?" I asked the Estonian guy for confirmation. "Soome keel," he shook his head in response. "Yeah, I couldn't understand him. I though he was speaking some really weird Estonian." The Estonian guy gave me a look that said, "no shit." Then the unbelievable happened. Another Estonian guy came in and they had a conversation. Two Estonian guys having a conversation in Pärnu spa. Imagine that.

It then dawned on me that a minority need not actually be resident to influence the psychology of a city. The steady flow of tourists from Finland meant that any given time of the year Finns were a de facto minority in Pärnu. This explained why not only the spas made sure to create a linguistic environment in reaction to this reality, but even some signs in downtown Pärnu were in Finnish. "Tervetuloa Pärnussa," I thought to myself. See, even I was picking it up.

The main walking streets in downtown Pärnu revolve around an artery called Rüütli. Estonian street names follow a familiar pattern. Every former Hanseatic city in this country -- Tallinn, Tartu, Viljandi, and Pärnu -- has an ensemble of medieval street monikers: Rüütli [knight], Munga [monk], Lai [wide], and Pikk [long]. Estonia seems unique in that political figures are rarely honored with street names: there are no Päts streets or Tõnisson boulevards. What I like are the names that distinguish a city. In Sillamäe, for example, one could stroll up Gagarini street to where it meets Geoloogia. In Pärnu, you could walk from Malmö street to Nikolai street in a few minutes.

Walking around downtown Pärnu reminded me of two other places I have visited -- the French Quarter in New Orleans and Turku in Finland. Like the French Quarter, there was a dizzying array of 18th and 19th century homes painted in candyland colorschemes, many of which were for sale. Unlike the French Quarter, there were no mounted police or dealers purveying ganja. And also, no city-destroying hurricanes, though flooding in January 2005 caused 23 million euros worth of damage here.

Some of Pärnu's architecture reminded me of Turku, but it was also its placement away from the center of national social life that evoked memories of Turku's quiet streets and maritime ambience. While Tartu is a powerhouse of elite building in Estonia -- the prime minister, minister of justice, minister of culture, minister of education, and minister of defense all call it home -- Pärnu seems refreshingly apolitical, as if all the drama of Estonian life was far away. It is very much a west coast city. Still, this is the birthplace of the country. The state was declared from the steps of the Endla Theater on Feb. 23, 1918. The theater, sadly, has not survived.

We left Pärnu in a lull in the second wave of a snow storm that caused up to 35,000 homes in Estonia to lose power. The road back from Pärnu to Kilingi-Nõmme resembled a confectioner's best work; the naked white birches guarding the sides of the roads; the ground covered in shifting snows driven by strong winds that, interestingly, made the journey possible. The wind cleared the roads of the loose powder, allowing our vehicle to coast along at around 70-80 km for most of the journey.

We passed by many small villages where there were no lights in sight; presumably, they had no power. One had to really respect the value of wood heating in these occasions. No matter what happened, there was always a stack of puu next to the house that could be used for heating and cooking purposes. The roads were clear of most traffic. I was lucky to get stuck behind a few vans that left deep tracks for me to surf all the way up into Viljandi.

Coming into Viljandi was a mess. The reliance on roundabouts killed commercial traffic. These large, 18-wheelers were the main victim of the snow storm. They were unable to make the bends and were here and there abandoned at the side of the road. At no point did I really think that we weren't going to make it. Fortunately, Estonia is mostly flat. This helped a great deal in allowing us to coast home in the wake of other travelers.

While there was a shortage of road traffic, there was also a preponderance of pedestrians. Viljandi seemed alive with people, even more alive then during the summer months. And this was a Monday night! Even out in rural communities we saw the reflectors of people braving the harsh winds to walk from one point to another. The chaos of an early winter had reinvigorated people. The desire to cuddle up with a fresh batch of piparkoogid and some hot glögg was overwhelming.

We finally pulled into Tartu several hours after we had left Pärnu. On the way in, we passed our friend Pille who was coming back from Veeriku Selver, a supermarket, with her kids on a sleigh. Epp rolled down the window and yelled out "väike Tartu linn!" and when Pille, a woman deep into her 30s, looked back, she wore the same jubilant expression as her three-year-old daughter Roos.

neljapäev, november 20, 2008

eclipse of a foreign ministry

The Social and Humanitarian Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a document on Nov. 18 voicing "deep concern" over the "glorification of the Nazism movement and members of the former Waffen SS organization”, as well as “opening the monuments, memorials, and holding public demonstration glorifying the Nazi past, Nazi movement and neo-Nazism.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry sees the adoption of such a resolution as a great achievement, but the probable passing of this document next month by the General Assembly will have no impact on my life in Estonia and will go unnoticed by my colleagues, friends, relatives, and others with whom I have day-to-day contact.

Why? Because, contrary to the line from Sergei Lavrov's Russian Foreign Ministry, there is no mainstream revival of Nazism in Estonia. There are extremists, yes, but there are also extremists who think Russians should control all the land from Paldiski to Narva, even if Russians don't dwell in most of that territory. I believe such extremists exist, and are paid too much attention, in all countries.

I have found that in Estonia, there is actually very little interpersonal discussion of the Second World War, as most of Estonia's political and media elite are of a post, post-war generation and they are tired of it. These are people born after the Khrushchev era for whom World War II and its aftermath are as distant and foreign as Vietnam will be for my children. It makes for good pub discussion, but little else. The current economic crisis is relevant. WWII? Not so much.

Now, there are political forces within Estonia that wish to honor the personal sacrifice of Estonians, most of whom were drafted, who served in the Estonian Waffen SS. As far as I can tell from reading books, such as Eesti Leegion, authored by former Prime Minister Mart Laar, there is no open, official embrace of the German Third Reich or its values, other than its value of anti-Bolshevism, which is a value embraced also by the Russian Federation today.

Also, because Estonia is a pluralist society with a parliamentary democracy, that means that there are also political forces that do not seek to pass such sense resolutions, or who share the same interpretation of history as others. The controversial vote to remove the Bronze Soldier statue, for instance, passed by 2 votes in Estonia's 101-seat parliament, the Riigikogu. Resolutions to proclaim the Estonian SS as freedom fighters in Estonia failed. The monument to those who fought against Bolshevism in Estonia, erected by the local authorities in the West Coast town of Lihula was removed.

I have Estonian friends and colleagues who think the portrayal of the Estonian SS as freedom fighters is BS. They too are entitled to their opinion. It's nice to portray ever Estonian citizen who ever lived as acting in the state's interest. Some have even tried to rehabilitate the June 1940 puppet government that first told the people upon coming to power that Estonia would remain independent, and yet voted to join the country to the USSR the next month, with hundreds of Red Army and Navy personnel in the Riigikogu chamber to make sure the vote went the right way. They were naive, idealistic Estonian communists, the argument goes, not cut from the same cloth as their comrades next door, for whom human life was incredibly cheap.

These arguments go back and forth from time to time in the editorial pages of Estonian newspapers. Estonians are voracious consumers of historical works and their media caters to this interest with article after article about anything that ever happened here, from the diet of the peasantry in medieval Danish Estland to 1930s agricultural trends. Perhaps there is a new book out, or a domestic "thought leader" has something to share about his interpretation of the past. Were the people under consideration heroes, villains, or in the wrong place and the wrong time? You be the judge.

That's how I think we should deal with history. The Russian foreign ministry has other ideas. They don't think you should evaluate your own history by yourself. They think that they should tell you what the correct version of history is, and they will use all avenues, such as the UN, to do so.

This is what Sergei Lavrov's foreign ministry spends its time doing: telling the Estonians they don't know their heroes from their villains; telling the Latvians that they are confused about their past -- your state wasn't founded 90 years ago, those extremely rapid 22 years from 1918 to 1940 were "short-lived" -- just a blip, a two-decade-long lost weekend not worthy even thinking about. Ukraine, there was no Soviet effort to specifically wipe your nationality off the face of the Earth. Besides, you are "not even a state." If you only ascribed to the official, Lavrovian view of history, then everything would be in order.

What sad is that most of this is such a waste of time, for Russians, Estonians, and all others touched by political campaigns to rebrand history. The modern Estonian historical narrative is the same narrative that existed, in exile, during the years of Soviet rule. The reason that it emerged in Estonia proper the late 1980s, is because Gorbachev's policies allowed people for the first time since 1940 to openly discuss their national history.

And because 22 years are not really just a blip, but a whole generation's worth of time, there are plenty of people alive today, such as my wife's grandparents, both of whom saw one or both parents deported, who can explain what they witnessed and what happened to them. You cannot shut history up Lavrov; it has a way of talking whether you like it or not.

US former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes that Russia's main dilemma in foreign policy has been that it has yet to produce one truly gifted diplomat. Despite all of Kissinger's associated baggage, I think he may be right.

teisipäev, november 18, 2008


It's getting cold again, which means we renewed our subscriptions to Postimees and Eesti Ekspress -- both for the pleasure of staying up to date on Estonia's goings on and for our many fireplaces -- this Tartu city house is heated by ahjud, let's not forget.

Sometimes when I pore over the pages of Ekspress or Postimees, I recall the anecdote of the great Brazilian Caetano Veloso, who used to visit supermarkets not to stock up on groceries, but for the sheer aesthetic pleasures of being surrounded by mountains of glistening fruit and vegetables.

In Estonia I similarly cannot let go easily of banking advertisements, such as the one above, for a new card from Nordea. Must alati sobib, the seductive card holder whispers to you from across the pages, "black is always fashionable."

I contemplate her black plastic bank card along with the reklaamid for various real estate deals and buckets of Rakvere saslõkk on sale at the local Selver with the voracious eye of a stranger. It is beginning to dawn on me that Estonianness is defined just as much by consumption of local and regional products as it is by song festivals or Kalevipoeg.

In fact, the way that the characters of Kreutzwald's epic Kalevipoeg -- which many Estonians cynically dismiss as a fraudulent imitation of the Kalevala -- have again become relevant is as the motifs of various chocolates sold by AS Kalev. I may have not read one verse about Kalev and his wife Linda in Estonian, but I have devoured Kalev and Linda chocolates on many occassions.

For the uninitiated, there is whole universe of advertising containing Estonianness for you to become acquainted with over time. The cute ladybugs of EMT; the wholesome expression of the childhood character Lotte, who will sell you anything from cookies to bed sheets; the savory pop of anyone of Eesti's young singers: Ines, Lenna, Liisi, Birgit; and the real life images of the living Estonian legends who come wrapped inside the advertisements in the guts of the media.

And now to the news. The Estonian media at this point seems to be asking a lot of questions, yet finding few answers. There are several ongoing debates:

Topic One: concerns the fact that Estonia's entire financial sector is essentially owned by Sweden and Finland [see above reklaam]. Is it a cause for concern? Some, say jah, others say ei. Is Estonia's banking sector still owned by Pekka Põder and Svensson as of me writing this? Jah.

Topic Two: concerns can Estonia improve relations with Russia? God knows, they keep turning this one over and over again, hoping to unpick the lock that will open the door to both respect and Russian ruble-fueled bling. Tiit Vähi, former peaminister and suurettevõtja, thinks Estonia should just remove its preamble to the stalled border treaty to make nice with Putin-Medvedev.

Vähi is also suggesting Swedbank's Indrek Neivelt for prime minister. You know things are weird when the business community is conspiring to take over Stenbock House. Talk about a fifth column! These guys are assigning portfolios to one another in the sauna. Seriously. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Urmas Paet doesn't think that Russia is ready to repair its relations with a bunch of chudes from across the lake.

As I crumple up these articles to feed them to the fire, I privately guess that maybe Russia doesn't care that much about repairing relations with Eesti. And why is Estonia so eager to win the affection of a country that, as Pete Townshend would say, likes to fiddle about? Riddle me that, Härra Vähi.

Topic Three: There is a financial crisis going on -- what has Estonia done wrong and what can this plucky nation of 1.3 million people do to fix it? The mustachioed EU Commissioner Siim Kallas has the answers here and here. Kallas seems to be fond of the word "reform." Hmm.

Topic Four: Eesti SDE, led by Population Affairs Minister Urve Palo and Europarliamentarian Katrin Saks, thinks that Eesti Rahvusringhääling [Estonian Public Broadcasting] should put serious effort into bring Estonia's wayward Slavic community into the Estonian inforuum* by creating more programming in vene keel. Perhaps a Russian version of the soap opera Õnne 13 is in order? Tolstoi 13? The Economist's Edward Lucas agrees. Isamaa-Res Publica Liit disagrees.

Topic Five: Olympic gold medalist Kristina Šmigun-Vähi is taking the season off to spend time with her baby. This will mean less skiing glory for Estonia but more mental peace and stability for "Suusa Kiku" and her offspring. In the long run, however, this extra motherly care could turn out to benefit Estonia, as skiing runs in the family.

As you know, it's always hard for me to feed a photo of a young Estonian woman holding a baby into an ahi, but living in Estonia plus the successful integration programs spearheaded by IRL have made me more stoic and conservative with my feelings.

So, it's only a matter of time before I will be able to watch the Nordea girl go up in smoke. And besides, it's getting friggin' cold outside and there's a new batch of Estonian media delivered to our mailbox everyday, ripe for the picking, along with deals on sausages and fixer-uppers in Setomaa.

neljapäev, november 13, 2008


The last time I checked, Estonia only has a handful of neighbors. It shares land and maritime borders with Russia to the east and a land border with Latvia to the south. It also has maritime borders with Finland to the north and Sweden to the west.

According to an interview with Foreign Minister Urmas Paet in this week's Eesti Ekspress, though, Estonia, has at least virtual borders with other countries, including Iceland and Georgia.

The question at hand was, why hasn't Estonia directly supported Iceland during its financial crisis, while it has been willing to shell out humanitarian aid to the tune of 17 million EEK [$1.3 million, €1.1 million] to help rebuild Georgia, especially when the Faroe Islands, home to 48,500 [slightly larger than the city of Pärnu], gave their Icelandic brethren a 620 million EEK loan?

Paet's response: a) a "loan is not a present; it has it's own price"; and b) "it's improper to compare Georgia and Iceland: When you have two neighbors and one has had their family killed and house burned down and the other has had one of their two Lexuses stolen, then you can't compare the two."

Except, Iceland and Georgia are not in any physical sense neighbors to Estonia. The Icelanders have an excuse for seeking out neighbors in the Baltic; other than Greenland, they actually have no neighbors. This is why Iceland is on the Council of Baltic Sea States, even though its rocky shores are not lapped by the blue waters of the Läänemeri. They're lonely. They need friends.

Georgia, though, has more neighbors than it knows what to do with. Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, plus the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- that's more genuine neighbors than Estonia has. Some other addresses in the neighborhood include Iran and Ukraine. So, the Georgians are not without neighbors, though they may not like the neighborhood in which they live.

But here's the question: do the Estonians consider the Greenlanders to be neighbors? Do they consider the Azerbaijanis or Turks to be neighbors to their country? "Just drive south to Luhamaa, take a left turn, and you'll be in Istanbul in about ... a week or two." No, I don't think they do.

Now, I understand Paet was just using a metaphor to make a point, that the Georgians were in more immediate need of assistance than the Icelanders. But his metaphor, coupled with Estonian policy, seems to confirm an odd trend in our young century.

It used to be that in the past one could not choose their neighbors. Today, though, countries can live in selective neighborhoods, where states that are thousands of kilometers away can seem like they are right next door, and states that are right next door can seem like they are thousands of kilometers away.

laupäev, november 08, 2008

maria ivanova

If Americans could elect a black man president, ponders Rein Sikk in the Nov. 7 issue of Eesti Päevaleht, it can't be long before "Maria Ivanova," a fictional embodiment of an Estonian Russian, makes it to Kadriorg.

With her boisterous Slavic style and perfect Estonian language, the talented Maria Ivanova could claim to speak for all Estonians, just as the gifted Mr. Obama speaks for his gay friends in the red states and little league coaching pals in the blue states, Sikk writes.

I stood on line thinking about Maria Ivanova at Selver yesterday night, when I noticed that two "Estonians" on the front pages of different newspapers could be Maria Ivanova, too. One was Robert Antropov, the CEO of Paldiski Northern Port, and the other was Luule Komissarov, an actress. Then I glanced down at my receipt and noticed that the clerk also had an pithy Estonian first name [Triin] and a longer Russian last name [Aleksejev]. "Where did all these Estonians get Russian surnames?" I wondered.

Next to me in line were three Estonian Russian teenagers. It was Friday night and Selver was busy with young people buying up booze. These kids were no different. There were two young women and one guy, and all of them looked just old enough to legally purchase alcohol. The young man was in especially good mood (two dates for the evening?) and he was speaking loudly. He then got into a conversation with a guy on line, and switched into Estonian, even hitting the dreaded letter Õ in stride. Then back to Russian, with his friends, and back into Estonian again with the cashier. I was really impressed.

When I walk into a store and I am not feeling up to it, I can get in a lot of trouble with the troublesome letter "õ." Today I went to buy a basket -- korv -- and may have asked the clerk at the mööblimaja for an ear -- kõrv. The nature with which the young man at Selver was able to slip between languages is something that will always remain foreign to me. He's from here and has heard korv and kõrv side by side for his entire life. Even if his mother spoke another language to him, he is still, in some way, a native speaker of Estonian.

Sikk's article prompted 535 comments, some of them insightful [did you know that Konstantin Päts was half Russian?] and the others your typical outburst of "tibla välja" [tibla, get out!] The Estonian word "tibla" is a derogatory, yet not wholly malevolent term for Russians. It comes from the Russian "ti bliad," which means "you whore." Occasionally, the Russian Federation is referred to as "Tibladistan." I suppose some Estonian soldiers heard "ti bliad" on the front lines during the War of Independence and made it their own -- the term allegedly dates back to the First World War.

That being said, I have never actually heard an Estonian person use this term to curse any single person or group of people. However, it always manages to surface in the online comments of article's like Sikk's. There are some real armchair rullnokad in Estonia who spend their time giving all Estonians a bad name by writing offensive things about eestivenelased in the comments of Postimees or Eesti Päevaleht.

To me, though, Sikk's proposition wasn't so outlandish. Estonians are quite comfortable with the Maria Ivanovas of their country -- indeed many "aboriginal" Estonians have names like hers. And because of the cultural fluency of Estonia's youth, I don't think it will be too long before Sikk's hypothetical scenario comes to pass.

kolmapäev, november 05, 2008


I am unsure of how most Estonians view the results of the American presidential race. In some Estonian polls, the charismatic Democratic candidate Barack Obama was seen as a favorite, yet support for Republican John McCain was strong, especially compared with the rest of Europe.

John McCain certainly appeared to be the safe, trans-Atlantic candidate -- the one Estonians could pin their hopes on to bring the "straight talk express" to Moscow, should the need present itself.

At the same time, Obama's popularity made him a strong candidate too. It would be much harder for Western Europeans to reject the initiatives of a President Obama, who is so popular among their own residents, than it was for them to reject George W. Bush's doctrine of preemptive war and "cowboy capitalism." They probably will wind up rejecting Obama anyway, but the honeymoon has yet to even begin, so let's not predict its end just yet.

Also, Obama was the candidate who represented what still makes America attractive to the Brazilians and the Kenyans and the Japanese. That's why they still flock in droves to Bay Area start-ups and East Coast universities. And a strong mandate from the American people, plus a warm reception in many countries will make American power competitive again, not only in Europe, but in Africa and South America and Asia. We should not forget that our president-elect still speaks some Indonesian.

This election had strong ideological undertones, but, ultimately, I believe it was decided on the perception of competence. Most Americans are not ideologues. They just want the president to do his job. We forget that George W. Bush's poll numbers tanked in September 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't his ideology that hurt him, though the seizure of the Republican Party by its right flank didn't help. It was the perception that he was asleep at the wheel. That he was incompetent.

John McCain was dragged down by this legacy and so underperformed in most polls. But up until September, he still had a chance of winning the election on the residual strength of the Reagan Republican brand: lower taxes, strong national security, ownership society. Then he picked Sarah Palin, who came on strong but was not prepared for national politics and eventually embarrassed the Republican ticket.

McCain also reacted to the financial crisis in a very convoluted way, suspending, then unsuspending, his campaign to go to Washington, only to arrive too late to make an impact on the bailout deal. Suddenly, McCain looked dazed. It appeared that he did not know what he was doing. He supposedly picked his VP after meeting her only two times, and, it was rumored, to spite those in his party who told him to pick Mitt Romney. He seemed to have a predisposition for impulsive decision making.

And so Obama's lead strengthened, and McCain was unable to make up the difference to the end, even with the help of Morning Joe, Joe Sixpack, and Joe the Plumber. Obama, despite his slim resume, was seen as a better communicator and more competent by most people, and that is what, I think, made the difference in the end.

In terms of policy towards security issues in northeastern Europe, Estonians and others probably know that the president-elect believes that Finland should join NATO "as soon as possible." That is, American policy will not really change. They should also understand that Obama is a post-Cold War candidate. As Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb has said, Europe, whole and free, is the default in the minds of most working age Europeans and Americans. Russian revisionism and German sauna diplomacy looks pathetic compared to these stronger appeals to pan-European and global prosperity.

Furthermore, ideology and personal preferences aside, Obama/Biden seemed like the stronger ticket. They already had a transition team in place and had made advances to possible secretaries of treasury, defense, and state. So, they were ready to take over. The McCain/Palin ticket seemed to be imploding in recent weeks and had they somehow won, they would have still been stuck with a Democratic majority in Congress. Exhausted by eight years of rule with most of their major players sidelined (remember Bill Frist? Tom DeLay? Rick Santorum?), Republicans are in no position to lead the country at this moment. So Americans chose the more apparently confident and competent ticket.

Having a strong, empowered American leadership, with a hefty mandate (52 percent of the vote, 349 electoral votes and counting) is good for the United States and its allies. Despite two wars and economic recession, the country has, for the moment, been reenergized by this election and will soon be ready to reengage the world under a new administration.

pühapäev, november 02, 2008

kodakondsus redux

For the first time since I became acquainted with Estonia, there is a renewed public interest in the criteria for obtaining Estonian citizenship.

You may find that humorous, in that myself and others have written about this contentious issue to the point of exhaustion over the years.

However, these were external debates. The visit of a PACE chairman here or a UN high representative there could spur heated conversations about Estonian citizenship laws by outsiders, yet within the country they mostly provoked defensive reactions. I encountered few passionate arguments within Estonia about citizenship. The Estonian mindset seemed to be, "the law is the law, and I have more important things to think about."

Last week though, several government ministers met to discuss the current policies. Minister of Education Tõnis Lukas did not divulge the agreements, if any, that were reached during the talks to the media. He said an official statement on the internal discussion was unlikely. But what has changed to bring about such a debate?

One major factor is undeniably the war in Georgia. The Kremlin's logic of protecting its citizens on the territory of another state did not go unnoticed in Tallinn. 8 percent of Estonian residents hold foreign citizenship, mostly Russian, Ukrainian, and Finnish. And then there's that other 8 percent, the roughly 100,000 people who still have undetermined citizenship.

Ideally, most long-term residents of Estonia would adopt Estonian citizenship. That is what the government is trying to encourage. Learn the Constitution. Take some language courses. Here's your passport. But many stateless persons enjoy the best of both worlds. They have visa free travel to both the European Union and the Russian Federation. And what do they get with their eesti pass? The freedom to join the Center Party and vote for Edgar Savisaar in European Parliamentary elections? How grand.

That solid bloc of ~100,000 residents with undetermined citizenship is indeed a challenge. As one recent op-ed pointed out, that's more people than live in the city of Tartu, Estonia's second largest. In the 1990s, Estonians might have been quick to passionately defend such a policy. They were still sorting through the broken garbage of the Soviet legacy and probably believed, next to the legal and moral arguments, that the *temporary* exclusion of part of the population from the democratic process was the best way to consolidate the state within Western institutions.

Today, though, with the average Torumees Joosep anxious about the global financial crisis and the implosion of Estonia's consumer-driven market, this is just another headache that I believe most would simply like to go away. With Estonian reestablished as the primary language of public life and the fear of being subverted by Homo Sovieticus retreating into memory, Estonians now feel comfortable again within their own skin and within their own land. To be Estonian is uhke ja hää? When was it ever not?

In this environment, one would hope that the law would work and the situation would naturally resolve itself. The news that the Russian embassy handed out more Russian passports to stateless persons than the Estonian government did last year, however, is symbolic of the challenge that faces either this Estonian government or a future one.

What is the solution? There are various incremental actions being discussed by the current government to encourage more to take Estonian citizenship. But I think that ultimately a larger renewal of policy may be underway. This is probably no longer an issue that the Estonian government wishes to expend vast resources to resolve. In my experience, Estonians are ultimately stubborn yet practical people. I have confidence that a solution will eventually be found.