teisipäev, august 30, 2011

¡Ilves! ¡tarand! ¡Ilves!

"I don't think that guy is going to be reelected," a university professor confided in me one autumn day in the last years of the '00s. "He's just too arrogant. Estonians want their president to be a man of the people."

It's true that when people criticize Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, they immediately seize upon the 'a' word: arrogant. But what they forget is that arrogance is one of the defining traits of the Estonian people. No matter which one of them you get in Kadriorg, he (or she) is likely to be arrogant. And so I didn't take my professor's prediction too seriously. If anything, most Estonians relish their leaders' arrogance. They like a leader who acts like he knows what he's doing.

And then there was the matter of Ilves' trademark bow tie, which some took as comedy and others as treachery. I recall a blog post criticizing Ilves for wearing a blue and yellow tie during a meeting with Swedish counterparts. Heresy! Treason! Vanity! There it is, the 'v' word. And it's also very Estonian. Just as they are an arrogant people, the Estonians are utterly vain. They buy tabloids in vast quantities just to read up on the personal lives of people who are famous only because they have been featured in said tabloids. They change their Facebook profile photos every fortnight. The vain president, the vain first lady, the vain businessman, the vain athlete, the vain model, the vain author, the vain chocolatier. Read all about it! What do all these Estonians have in common? The 'v' word.

So, like all other Estonians, Ilves is perceived as arrogant and vain. But he is also a smarty pants. When they say "US educated," they don't mean that he sold crack outside of PS 21 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This gentleman was valedictorian of his high school class, got a bachelor's at Columbia, and then his master's at the University of Pennsylvania. And his son went to Stanford! Jeesus, the Ilveses are smart people. They are of brainy stock. While being a nerd might get you humiliated in junior high school, it tends to work to your advantage when consulting with other world leaders. Drop in a forgotten quote from a Greek philosopher here, construct meaning out of a random historical fact that no one remembers there. Watch the jaws drop. Suddenly, you're the person humiliating the others. And it feels great.

Lyndon Johnson used body language to get his way. The long, tall Texan would lean in, enveloping the individual he wished to persuade with his presence, his face a millimeter away from his target, suffocating his victim with "supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat," his eyebrows moving up and down, until the errant senator or congressman caved in and agreed to vote Johnson's way. They called it the "Johnson Treatment." The "Ilves Treatment" is to be made to feel as if you never attended a day of school in your life.

Indrek Tarand, Ilves' opponent in the presidential election embodied many of these characteristics. Tarand is known as the man who ran an advertisement in Eesti Ekspress upon his university graduation in 1991, "Indrek Tarand lõpetab ülikooli, kõik pakkumised oodatud"/ "Indrek Tarand is finishing university, awaits all offers." Even the arrogant and vain Estonians were bowled over by that move. And that's really all you need to know about Indrek Tarand. His successful campaign for European Parliament was taken right out of The Candidate, with Tarand cast as Robert Redford's Bill McKay, a gum chewing, bluntly honest novice who isn't afraid to lose and yet somehow manages to beat the establishment. Ilves' has his bow tie, Tarand has his cool shades. Therein lies the difference.

I was on the same flight with Tarand, a plane ride to Copenhagen in June. When I saw him, I stared at him a bit, as if he were an old friend. Then I recalled that I only knew him from the tabloids. When he caught me looking at him, Tarand winked at me. I wondered if he recognized me from the tabloids. We sat across from each other but didn't say a word. But all the time up in the air over the blue Baltic Sea I felt that we had something in common. We had both sold our souls to Estonia. I wonder sometimes if President Ilves feels that way too when he's jetting around the world.

In the end Ilves defeated Tarand, receiving 73 votes to his 25 in parliament. It was the first time since 1991 that an Estonian president had been selected in the first round, a sign of "political maturity," Ilves said approvingly. It was probably best that both men kept their day jobs, Ilves in Kadriorg, Tarand in Brussels. These Estonians know how to promote themselves and how to promote their country. They stand out, they look good, they find wise or witty things to say. And, most importantly, they act like they know what they are doing.

laupäev, august 20, 2011

iceland square

Sometimes when I look at photos of rural Afghanistan, down into the verdant valleys where the farmers are growing poppies and the zealots are shouldering rifles, I wonder how that place could exist on the same planet as the suburbs of New York, where some kid in a Yankee hat is stuffing his face with pepperoni pizza and playing games on his Wii, or even some remote jungle village in the Amazon, where an uncontacted tribe is looking up for the first time at a helicopter and smiling photojournalists.

It's August 2011 in all of these places, except it's a very different August 2011. August is the eighth month of our calendar. Two thousand and eleven is how many years have more or less passed since the birth of Christ. But the concepts of time and place here are relative. What is more important is our societies' relationships to time and place, and where we place ourselves on the belt of time.

This is what crosses my mind when I look at the old photographs of Lenin's statue coming down in what is now Iceland Square in Tallinn in August 1991, surrounded by mustachioed Estonians dressed like they stepped out of some 1970s fashion vortex. That door to another dimension has a name: it's called the "Fall of the Soviet Union." We know the looks, the sounds, the characters, the drama. Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Mitterand, Kohl. It's been replayed so many times in our minds and on our TV screens that we have to remind ourselves where we were on those days 20 years ago. And most of us weren't on Iceland Square.

To me it all seemed rather normal. The late 1980s. The early 1990s. The Intifada. Palestinian kids throwing rocks. German reunification. Teens wielding hammers. Tiannanman Square. Men standing in front of tanks. Armenian earthquakes. Gulf wars. Shuttle explosions. Nuclear meltdowns. Ozone holes. Ruined oil tankers. This was the evening news at the dawn of the era of the 24-hour cable news network. We watched it every night. Suffice to say that in my August 1991, a universe of skater kids, stonewashed jeans, fluorescent t-shirts, I wasn't really surprised by the Fall of the Soviet Union. It was just one of those things that happened.

I can't even conceptualize how short-sighted I was. But when your school has to order new maps every few years to keep up with the emergence of countries that haven't existed since 1940, or 1914, or, in many cases, never at all, you develop a thick skin to geopolitical change. The very idea that the Soviet Union could return though seemed out of the question. All the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn't put Comrade Dumpty together again. Ding, dong, the socialist witch was dead. The whole idea of the Soviet Union by that point was like some stale, moss-covered cracker you found wedged in the backseat of your car. It had passed its expiration date sometime in the late 1980s, if not before. Taking down a statue of Lenin seemed like the most natural thing to do. It was old metal junk. And what do you do with old junk? That's right, you throw it away.

Twenty years later and I am sitting in the former Soviet Union, except I rarely think of it as such. Sometimes in an antique store, a classic Soviet clock or radio will be pointed out to me as a curiosity. I recently enjoyed an exhibition in Tallinn about life in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Old bookshelves, ancient cars, silly clothes, squeezable meals in metal tubes. So that's how it was back then, before the fabric of Soviet time was torn open, and people crawled out of the vortex, blinded by the neon lights of the West. That's how it was. And now Estonia is part of the West. The "former Soviet republic" era is long over.

Tomorrow is Islandi päev -- Iceland Day. It was proclaimed to coincide with the Republic of Iceland's recognition of Estonian independence two decades ago. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson will be on hand to celebrate one of the few occasions where his country played a significant geopolitical role in recent decades. But he will also be discussing Iceland's EU accession negotiations with his Estonian counterpart. Talk about a wrinkle in time. Could people have even imagined this future 20 years ago? And can we even conjure up what life could be like in 20 years time? That's what I would like to know.

esmaspäev, august 15, 2011


Nothing like a good shooting to make one nervous. Sometimes it feels like you aren't safe anywere. Norwegian islands, Finnish shopping malls, the Estonian Ministry of Defense. And this was supposed to be the quiet, boring part of the world.

Read all about it. Karen Drambjan has his own English-language Wikipedia entry, one he probably didn't even write himself. Fifty seven years old. Divorced. Failed politician. In a dire financial situation. And a writer of manifestos, like all those who fancy themselves as important from the vantage point of history.

According to news report, Drambjan, an Armenian by birth who acquired Estonian citizenship in 1993, called Estonia a "morally bankrupt, neo-fascist country." He was also convinced that the current government was about to initiate a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the local non-Estonian population, which by some definitions would include him.

But why listen to Drambjan, when taxi driver Travis Bickle does such a better job? "All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Keep going, keep going, "I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin' toilet." Go on, go on, "The idea had been growing in my brain for some time: true force. All the king's men cannot put it back together again." Perfect.

Drambjan entered the Estonian Ministry of Defense in Tallinn on August 11, armed with a pistol and explosives, believing that he would be the spark that would set off the inevitable Estonian civil war, where the "slavish" Slavic community would rise up and throw off its chains. To do this, he took, for some time, two people captive. He was later killed in shootout with Estonian K-Komando, who are just not the kind of people you want to mess with. And that was it, really. No civil war. Just some ink in the newspapers and one middle-aged body in a bag. From one man's belief in the profundity of his violence, many were made uncomfortable for a few hours, then baffled by his political statements, then went shopping and forgot about it altogether.

Was Drambjan like Norway's Anders Behring Breivik? He was in that he let his radical beliefs get the best of his sanity, and that he thought that an individual act of public violence would set off a period of bloodletting that would end in a desired political solution. Breivik attempted to accomplish this by murdering teenage members of a left-leaning political party. Drambjan did it by setting off smoke bombs and explosions in the entrance of a government ministry and taking a two people hostage.

But neither were successful. In the end, people were puzzled by how the actors' political gripe translated into the actors' violent actions. Immigration sure is a hot issue in Europe, but how does that justify the murder of teenagers? Estonian minorities probably do feel alienated from the political process -- there isn't one minister in the current government from a minority group (and there is only one woman, period) -- but how does taking a security guard hostage change anything?

One flaw of mankind is our inability to simply stop trying to understand things. We continue to search for that "Aha" moment where everything clicks and where Behring Breivik or Drambjan sort of, kind of make sense, but it eludes us. We are forced instead to conclude that both of them, despite those powerful manifestos, were actually just crazy, which seems terribly simplistic, but was probably true.

It does not surprise me though that Drambjan was involved in the effort to keep Estonia's Bronze Soldier on Tõnismägi or that he was a member of the United Left party. What fascinated me about that controversy was that the most compelling argument for keeping it in place -- respect for the dead -- was overwhelmed by neo-Stalinist rhetoric about fascism and liberation, the kind of rhetoric that is fanned by Russian state-controlled media and probably swallowed whole by individuals like the late Drambjan.

Anti-Estonian rhetoric is based on recycled Stalinist propaganda. Go read what Pravda wrote about Estonia in the 1920s and the 1930s. It's virtually unchanged. And this was Stalinist media, overseen by one of the greatest mass murderers in history. The entire political system that he designed was built on murder -- the murder of the tsar and his family, of the Whites, the counterrevolutionary social democrats, the kulaks, and the original Bolsheviks -- Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev; the list goes on and on and on. His propaganda was designed to justify that murder. Conflict with the immoral fascist West, and counterrevolutionaries, was not only inevitable, it was necessary. Violence was justified against these others, who were out to sabotage a brilliant future and therefore were undeserving of life.

It is an extremely paranoid worldview, shaped by extremely paranoid men, men deep in Taxi Driver territory, fellows who fancied themselves as important players in the history of mankind. Guys sort of like Behring Breivik and Drambjan.