reede, detsember 23, 2005

Turning Japanese

So I bought a CD from a group called Smokey and Miho, which is a side project between Beck's guitarist Smokey Hormel, and Miho Hatori, who used to sing with Cibo Matto. I actually interviewed Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto once, and thus have had peripheral contact with Ms. Hatori. You may know her as one of the Gorillaz as well. The Japanese looking Gorilla in Gorillaz ;) Anyway, I think it's safe to say that I found Miho to be a very attractive lady and got off day dreaming about what it would be like to be involved with a Japanese woman...and then I realized - it probably wouldn't be that different from being married to an Estonian.

There's a bit of a running joke in my family that my wife is part Japanese because she is in love with taking photographs. And I don't think it's her, it's a national trait. Almost every Estonian I know has a very well documented online life - complete with blog, photo galleries etc. And they take pictures of the dumbest things. They take photos of ugly buildings and passing vehicles and the dinner they ate. And somewhere back home in Estonia, they take the photos out and show them to family members. "And this is a photo of the steak I ate in Los Angeles..." says the well-traveled Eestlane. "Oooh" the other Estonians must reply.

I wonder if there is some truth to the 19th century deeply racist theories that placed Finno-Ugric peoples in the same "yellow race" with Japanese across the Eurasian continent. I won't believe the idea that these peoples are related solely based on their love of electronics and trading digital images, but the high cheek bones sure seem to connect Peipsi and Honshu. As the non-photo person I often feel weird about this cultural obsession. I mean I like taking a few photos, but I prefer moderation. A photo here, a little camcorder there - it all comes together into a perfectly lazy mosaic of my life. I feel sort of anxious about taking 40 photos for every outing then putting them all online for the world to see.

Not my Japanese/Estonian wife. She lives to take photos and I have become an expert at downloading them and troubleshooting camera problems at her insistance. Just like her love of smoked fish, blood sausage, and recording every moment via digital camera, I take it all in stride. It's like I am an American exchange student stuck on a trip to Estonia I will never return from. All I can do is continue to learn more.

Today was the perfect example of cultural collision. My wife had an article ready for SL Ohtuleht, and they wanted photos. Being Japanese-like Estonians that meant that, like, I should have a digital camera lodged in my anus and a wireless card in my brain so I could transmit images almost instantaneously. I should be able to blink to take the photo and send it - poof! - like that. I kept that poor Estonian at Ohtuleht waiting and waiting for those photos as I rushed to get them uploaded (after some mechanical problems) in time for his deadline. I called up a girl at a photo store nearby to see if they could put the photos on a CD because my computer wasn't working. But they could only do it by tomorrow. TOMORROW!? 24 hours is like 500 years in Estonian time. So I sweet talked my way into my old office down the street and used their computer. It was a holiday party and nobody seemed to mind. Yet by virtue of my gift of gab I got the job done in time. I guess it pays sometimes to have an Italian-American by your side!


esmaspäev, detsember 19, 2005

Dude, Get Over It...

It's official. Nobody likes to lose to an Estonian.

While Russian intelligence officers are still a little mad about that whole joining NATO thing, today's chief complainer is British fake Santa Claus Rob Horniblew (that's right, "horni-blew"), winner of the 2004 Santa Claus Winter Games, who was mad he was denied another year in the spotlight. This year Horniblew came in third behind Aare Rebban of Estonia and Finland's Olle Strömberg. Incidentally, Strömberg came in first in chimney-climbing, but Rebban won at kick sledding and reindeer racing. According to Horniblew, it was he that should have won the reindeer race.

Horniblew said it all came down to the reindeer sled race.

"You go up two at a time, head-to-head," he told The Mail on Sunday. "I was up against the Estonian and I won the race. He actually fell off his sleigh. But he got awarded extra points for falling in a particularly Santa-like style.

"I was pretty miffed at that, I can tell you."

pühapäev, detsember 11, 2005

State-Subsidized Children

For a lot of libertarians, particularly those that espouse a flat tax on everything - like the 26 percent flat tax Estonia has, our little Eestimaa is a dream land of unfettered market, where no evil government stands in the way between a genius and his fortune or a Finn and his cheap bottle of vodka.

But new stats out of the Estonian Statistical Office show that government subsidies do work to increase productivity, at least in one particular case.

The institution of the Parental Benefit Act on January 1, 2004 showed Estonia adopting a more social democratic population policy, providing parents of new Estonian children with their salary and a year of parental leave, "not less than 2,480 EEK (EUR 159) per month" with a "ceiling set at three times the average 2004 salary - 19,191 EEK (EUR 1230) per month."

The result of state-subsidized unprotected sex? More kids. According to the Estonian Statistical Office, 13,992 births were reported in 2004, a 7 percent climb in reproductive out put compared to 2003, and a 15 percent increase from a recent population low of 12,167 in 1998. Results for 2005 are not reported yet, but the noticeable spike after one year of having that act in place shows that some people thought government subsidized children sounded like a good idea.

So the free market may be great, libertarians, and Estonia may be a wet dream for those who are loath to pay taxes, but social democracy appears to still work sometimes, especially in the bedroom.

reede, detsember 09, 2005

BNS - Number of Non-Citizens Down to 10 Percent

What is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov going to complain about in five years?

According to Baltic News Service, "As of the end of November the country had 136,533 residents of undefined citizenship.". BNS quoted the Estonian Population Minsitry as saying that "since 1992 until this November 30 Estonian citizenship by naturalization had been granted to 137,617 people."

And according to the Estonian Statistical Office there are 1.35 million people in Estonia. Which means non-citizens in 2005 account for 10.1 percent of the population, and declining.

kolmapäev, detsember 07, 2005

Vaindloo: Russia's Favorite Estonian Island

They've done it again. According to Interfax:

The Estonian Armed Forces have accused a Russian An-12 military airplane of violating Estonia's airspace.

The plane, en route to Kaliningrad, briefly entered Estonian airspace without permission near Vaindloo Island, sources in the Armed Forces' staff told Interfax on Wednesday.

The An-12 was spotted by an airspace monitoring center in Amar, outside Tallinn. Its crew contacted Tallinn's air traffic control center.

There is no statement posted at the Estonian Foreign Ministry website, but according to the Baltic Times they plan to protest the violation of their airpsace through diplomatic channels, (NATO).

For those of you who don't know where Vaindloosaar is, as I did not know until 15 minutes ago, it's about 30 km north of Kunda in Lääne-Virumaa. So it's pretty far away from the Estonian mainland, (it may be its second most distant island, after Ruhnu). It is also 200 meters wide by 600 meters long. So, it can be said that it takes talent to find Vaindloosaar in the Gulf of Finland. But the Russian airforce has found it, and they have violated Estonian airspace more than a dozen times since 2003. In particular they have violated airspace near Vaindloosaar in August 2004, twice (in five hours) in November 2004, again in April 2005, and as recently as this October. Russia has denied all intrusion.

The clever Estonians have noticed the trend, and some say that Russia may be doing it on purpose to annoy them. *shock* It is interesting that they have been "testing" NATO territory more deliberately since March 2004 when the Baltics were admitted.

But whatever their little game may be it seems funny that it includes Vaindloosaar. From what I gather it's has only been known until now for bird watching and its 130 year old lighthouse. Now it seems to be the Russian airforce's favorite Estonian Island.

reede, detsember 02, 2005

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Helsinki & Tallinn

And so we're on to the final lag on our quick jaunt through the six Nordic capitals, heading to the land of Finno-Ugric peoples that seem simultaneously caucasoid and mongoloid. In my opinion, Finland is like the Greece of the north, while Estonia is like the Cyprus of the Baltic. The stereotype is that Finns are fat drunks, while Estonians are thin drunks. The stereotype is probably correct. Both capital cities have their charm, although Tallinn is obviously the more immediately pleasing of the Finnic cities, but first...

Fifth stop: Helsinki, Finland.
For starters Helsinki is much bigger than you expect. Finland seems like the black sheep of the Nordic countries, and you expect its capital to be nothing special. BUt the city is big and interesting. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, Helsinki is a fairly modern city, which means its roads follow some sort of grid logic. The "head" of the city (I wouldn't call it the center) is the Esplanaadi which protrudes away from the harbor and up towards the trains station and that big Lutheran cathedral you see in that photo to your right. Of course there is also the giant Stockman's department store. The reason Helsinki is overlooked by tourists is because it lacks in that immediate Euro charm that draws the throngs to Venice and Prague. It's square and even and often gray and brown and nothing too exciting. As with Oslo, the better, more "capital-like" city lies on the sea - Turku - which actually used to be the capital. But Helsinki has its treats. My favorite place was Savonlinna, an old barracks in the harbor. The whole harbor is interesting and it might be fun to just cruise around. Also, I have never wandered around Helsinki at night without something going on and people doing something. Unlike sterile, uninteresting Oslo, the drunks of Finland appear as if they have a good time in the open up here. Also, if you are looking to stay inside, you should check out Chiasma, the art museum. It's really interesting.

and Final Stop, Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn seems to be undergoing a major renaissaince in building these days. One day it's an abandoned factory, the next day it's been destroyed, the third day there's a Swedish-style shopping center there in its place. The architecture here, outside of old town, is postmodernity defined. In one place you find an old church, then a Khruschev-era building, then a rotting 19th century dwelling, then one of those giant Nordic-style department stories, all on top of each other. While jarring and inconsistent, it gives the explorer a desire to find the diamonds in the rough. The old town is obviously very nice and easy to get lost in. I've never really bought much there myself, but I am sure there are lots of things to bring back from so far away. The public transit leaves something to be desired as the trams are often packed, muddy, and friggin' gross. They also have this outdated system for checking tickets so watch out you don't wind up in the back of a security vehicle paying the fine! Tallinn is supposed to have an outrageous nightlife, and I am sure those stag parties are great, but I think that's more advertising than reality. The feeling in the city itself is mostly sterile northern efficiency. Tallinners have a reputation in their country for being materialistic and business-like. I think that's true. My favorite parts of Tallinn city are Kalamaja - a neighborhood of old wooden houses northwest of the old town and grimey train station (which is looking better too) and the old town itself, which is really fun to walk. Toompea, the neighborhood where the parliament building is located, in particular is more peaceful than Raekoja Plats (townhall square) which is loaded with tourists all-the-time. The neighborhoods in Pirita are similarly pleasing, like Kalamaja, for a reflective, peaceful walk. It's hard to know what to do outside Tallinn, since I have spent so much time inside the city. But I'd recommend no matter what picking up some Saku Originaal Strong (the best beer EVER) and eating some chocolate from Kalev to keep the seratonin levels in your brain up on those moody Estonian days.

neljapäev, detsember 01, 2005

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Oslo & Stockholm

Norway and Sweden. As the two countries of the Scandinavian peninsula they seem like brother and sister. However the the countries that essentially share a language and history are quite different. Norway is a wilder, more remote kind of place, while Stockholm seems like the epicenter of Nordic civilization with its proud Gamla Stan (old town). I visited both cities in 2001, and again in 2003.

Third stop: Oslo, Norway Oslo is the capital of Norway, but it seems sort of like an afterthought when you read about how beautiful the rest of Norway is, particularly Bergen. Far from the fjords, Oslo seems like a city born of convenience and little else. Like Reykjavik, most of the main public buildings here, as well as infrastructure, appear to be decades old, though well-kept. The city is rather sleepy and at times seems backward or struggling to keep up with the times. It is also really, really cold. The kind of cold that numbs your lower spine if you don't watch out. I was there in October with a fever and it was miserable. Unlike Copenhagen or Reykjavik - when I walked through the streets of Oslo I wasn't that interested in what was going on in all those windows. Norwegians, of all northerners, seem the quietest and least friendly. Things seem pricey, but not worth it. My favorite place in Oslo is the Akershus Castle on the eastern side of the harbor. Whatever you do you should stay close to the harbor because that is where the life is blowing in from the icy water. The old stones of the fort will keep you strong in the face of the mediocrity below.

Fourth stop: Stockholm, Sweden. After provincial Oslo, Stockholm seems like a positive metropolis. The buildings are consistently inviting and Gamla Stan, in particular, is worth the trip alone. Swedes are not much more sociable than the Norwegians, but they tend to gather together in larger groups and seem more approachable. I can't really think of my favorite place in Stockholm, but I can say it is a city that let's you breath with its wide avenues and public spaces. A few places I have discovered while there are 1) The Observatory Museum in Vasastaden, north of Norramalm. Skip the museum and climb the hill for a nice relaxing view. the area in general is inviting and welcomes you to hang out. 2) Gamla Stan - walk the old town many times. It's really beautiful. 3) Sodermalm. This place is less explored but it also has a lot of nice shops to experience especially near the bridge that connects the southern island to Gamla Stan. My favorite thing to do woul dbe to walk that bridge from Sodermalm over the river to Gamla Stan at night. I have done it several times and the beauty of Stockholm's harbor never ceases to amaze. Also, if you can, take a ferry through the archipelago. The lttle rocky islands, with their red cottages, complement Stockholm's royal style. The capital of the Nordics, for sure.

A Quick Tour of the Nordic Capitals: Reykjavik & Copenhagen

*This story has been updated to correct factual errors*

For some reason I have been itching to travel again. It must be the whole month I've spent without getting on a plane. So I thought I'd turn this blog into a little travel guide for the six Nordic capitals: Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn. Yes, yes I know, Tallinn is included in most guidebooks in the East Europe section, for some good reasons, and bad ones too. But because Lonely Planet and Rick Steves have started including Tallinn in their Scandinavian guidebooks, and because this blog is about Estonia, and because I have been to all the Nordic capitals, yet not all the Eastern European or Baltic capitals, I decided to do it, in the words of Frank Sinatra, "my way."

First stop:
Reykjavik, Iceland, also known as, "Stærsta smáborg í heimi" or "The smallest big city in the world." That it is. With a population of about 190,000, is a pretty small, yet famous town. I went there in March 2001 hoping to find outrageous parties with beautiful women. Instead it was rather cold, gray, lonely, and brown. The city itself is cordial enough, although a lot of the infrastructure - like bus station - looks like it dates back to the Johnson administration, or in Reykjavik's case, the Geir Hallgrímsson administration (he was mayor from 1960-1972). The city has the feel of a fishing village, and the harbor figures prominently. The downtown is meandering, yet not that large, and the outskirts are framed by brownish green hills and painfully transplanted deciduous trees. If I could pick an Icelandic meme, it would be either death or hardship, and one place to visit would be the ancient cemetery on the southside of town. Gnarled and overgrown, it's the perfect place fto visit and you get a good view of the city too. Altogether it's a sweet place though, with lots of little shops selling expensive food and knit sweaters that cost a lot. I think the pervasive feeling in Iceland is one of frontier distance and independence. By being on an island so far away from the mainland you feel an immense weight has been lifted from your shoulders. Nobody can drive to visit you. They must fly. How perfect.

Next Stop: Copenhagen, Denmark. About 1.8 million people live here giving it the ambience of a big European city. The city is divided up into "bros" or boroughs, with the center most accessible through the Norrebro or Vesterbro stations. The center of the city builds upwards from a series of canals, and the streets are, like Rekjaviks, old and twisting, offering more knit sweaters, kabobs, alcohol, chocolate milk - all that stuff that Danes like. Saturday night in Copenhagen, or any night, is pure mayhem, as *nany* Danes are functional alcoholics. Don't be surprised to walk into the main train station at 1 am on Sunday morning to find passed out young women strewn about the entrance where their dates left them. The Strøget is the center of the city, a long series of walking streets where you'll see a lot of good looking young people wearing expensive clothing and listening to so-cute-you-want-to-vomit pop music. Of course Copenhagen also offers Christiania where you could famously go and buy soft drugs at all hours until the Pusher's Street was closed down a few years ago. My favorite part of Copenhagen was Norrebro, where there are some nice parks, record stores, and modestly priced middle eastern restaurants. It's a good place to relax in a city that has often be characterized as pure evil.

teisipäev, november 29, 2005

Fancy a Cup of Estonian Tea then?

Well, everybody hold your breath. Tony is coming to town! This is better than Jõulumees! Well sort of. Because it appears Jõuluvana Tony will be bringing his Baltic pals a lump of coal, namely an EU budget cup proposal that will make Eestimaa lose $320 million euros of investment. (sigh)

Well, on Thursday the British PM will enjoy some time with Estonian PM Andrus Ansip, and the Latvian and Lithuanian PMs, whoever they are. [They are currently Aigars Kalvitis and Algirdas Brazauskas, yes they are Balts, and yes they end every word with a folksy 's']

According to the AP, security will be tight:

Estonia has put in place stricter border controls ahead of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Tallinn for a meeting with his Baltic counterparts, the Estonian interior ministry said.

"From today until Friday, the data of all persons crossing the Estonian border are to be checked against an electronic data base," said interior ministry spokeswoman Katrin Vides.

The article goes on to say that:

Blair will hold talks in Tallinn on Thursday with his Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts focusing on the contentious EU budget and other issues related to next month's EU summit.

Britain holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of 2005.

Blair's visit will be the first by a British prime minister to Estonia, which, like its Baltic neighbours, was occupied by the Soviet Union for five decades after World War II and joined the European Union in May 2004, 13 years after regaining independence from Moscow.

First I'd like to commend the AP for getting its history right. But also I would like to add that this is a pretty historic visit. It is both easy and difficult to imagine that Blair is the first British PM to visit Tallinn. But when you think of his predecessors - John Major, Margaret Thatcher, and long before them, Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlin, Stanley Baldwin, and Ramsay MacDonald - you get the idea that being an EU member really is a big deal when it comes to relations with your European neighbors.

Though Tony is tarnished and not his 1997 Cool Brittanic self, it's nice that he popped in for a Saku and to hear some whinging from his Baltic friends. However, I am not so sure that the...ahem...Milton Friedman disciples of the Ansip government will be jazzed about signing off on a budget that denies them a government handout. ;)

esmaspäev, november 28, 2005

More Foreign Labor is Not the Solution for Estonia

The picture to your right is of property for sale in Estonia's easternmost city Narva, which is commonly referred to as a "border town" because its inhabitants are primarily Russian-speakers and the area is widely considered to be economically depressed and stereotyped as suffering hardest from common urban problems such as unemployment, HIV infection, alcoholism, et cetera. You can find more real estate opportunities there at

Yet be forewarned. The situation is said to be so dire in Narva that the population has fallen from a peak of 82,000 15 years ago, to 67,000 today and it continues to plummet. There is an idea that somehow the state is responsible for providing the people of Narva with quality infrastructure and moderate lifestyle-supporting employment. But the problem is that the current city of Narva is one big manifestation of the failure of the Soviet economic system, the system that ferried migrant workers across Eurasia to take part in various conceptual industrial projects that never really got off the ground.

The old Narva, before this grand project was initiated, was a modestly sized city of 22,000 in 1939. But that rose to 30,000 in 1959, and then to 58,000 in 1970, and upwards to 74,000 in 1980, and 82,000 in 1990. The city's population quadrupled in 50 years! Yet now it appears to be sliding back to a more comfortable (and realistic) population level that is based on actual economic realities, rather than state-idealized industrial opportunities.

There are other places like this in Estonia - the city of Paldiski stands out as a troubled exclave of migrant Soviet workers, where the population has been at least halved in the fifteen years since the end of the Soviet occupation.

But the greater truth in this example is that the state-planned migration of workers to new locations usually results in these mini-social catastrophes. As old economic orders are replaced by new ones, once-prosperous enclaves become destitute, crime-ridden, and dependent of the state (that got them there in the first place) to provide them with a suitable living standard.

Which brings us to this idea courtesy of The Baltic Times (subscription only):

TALLINN – The government developed a new integration plan that focuses on bringing in immigrant labor, the daily Postimees reported, emphasizing that the linguistic integration of non-Estonians already living in the country will not be neglected.

In connection with the free movement of labor, Population Minister Paul-Eerik Rummo said it was necessary to consider what an increased number of immigrants would mean for Estonia. He added that the country should look beyond national borders.

Although it is legally inaccurate to say so, EU members arriving in the country have to be seen as new immigrants, the population minister said.

It seems that in light of the recent riots in the suburbs of Paris - which were generally between the frustrated and unemployed children of immigrant workers brought to that country for similar purposes, and the state who they blame for their predicament - bringing more laborers to Estonia might in the long term be a bad idea.

It would only worsen the situation Estonia finds itself dealing with in the case of Narva. Take it from an American. Here in the US we have our own Narvas - the remnants of failed economic systems that chose to move people from place to place, then leave them there as the economy shifted to other, more lucrative areas.

We have our Oakland, Californias - where migrant workers from the rural south were brought in to work on Naval installations that have since been closed. Our southern Mississippis - where migrant workers were brought from Africa to work in a long deceased plantation system. Kurat, Eestimaa - take a look at the Americas as whole - and look at the failed states of places like Haiti, where thousands upon thousands of slaves were sent in the 17th and 18th centuries to be employed in long-dead money-making schemes. And Haiti - which was probably sparsely populated by native groups before French capitalists embarked on their particular failed mission, is now a ripe sewer of the bad side of humanity.

The wiser thing for Estonian companies to do in my opinion, is not to take workers in, but to build plants outside of Estonia that are run by Estonian management. So rather than invite the foreign labor into the country - you go to where the foreign labor is. And when there is no need for the labor anymore, you just uproot, and sail elsewhere. It seems like a more practical solution to a labor shortage, than some antiquated form of mass migration

kolmapäev, november 23, 2005

More on Nordification...

Aleksis K. posted this thought following the last post so I thought I'd address it.

"Being Latvian, I think the Estonians are pretty lucky that they have such close ties to Finland. We have no one like that to help us out on the road to westernization. Of course, I see the danger of Estonia loosing some of its identity if it does not keep the Nordic influence in check."

Well, here are my thoughts. Finland certainly has "helped" Estonia to "westernize" but I actually think that "Westernization" is a favorite discussion topic in intellectual circles, but isn't really that relevant.

Other than the influx of Finnish commercial goods and businesses, I don't see how Estonia is not a "Western" or "European" country. I never knew Soviet Estonia. But to me it seems certainly "formerly communist" yet wholly Western. It;s not orthodox. It uses the Roman alphabet. It looks, walks, talks, smells like the West. How could it not be?

I also don't think that Estonia joining the Nordic area is a loss for the country - rather it's a bonus, because Nordic identity is driven by cultural values that are not at odds with Estonian values. I don't see any "clash of civilzations" here. It's just that Estonia is quite small, and is located in an area with an emerging pan-Nordic identity. One could expect the identity to have the same impact as it has had on another Nordic outpost - Iceland. Small. Distant. Yet Nordic.

As for Baltic identity, I'll say this. There are three different Baltic identity concepts. The first is the one I discussed in the previous post - the "Germanized" identity - the one that Estonia shares with Latvia.

This Baltic German influence can be seen in some fairly obvious German genetic residue, as well as ubiquitous cultural artifacts. There are shared architectural connections, shared Germanic surnames, etc. But that's not inherently Estonian or Latvian. It's German. And since the Germans are gone, it is a historical identity. It lacks a base to propel it forward. That is why it is being replaced by a Nordic identity in Estonia.

The second Baltic identity is obviously the Baltic language group. This belongs to Latvia and Lithuania alone, and excludes Estonia. This is perhaps more significant in creating a cleavage between Estonia and Latvia. Latvia is seen as being pulled southwards by the linguistic influence, while Estonia is pulled northward.

The third and final Baltic identity worthy of discussion is the new post-1991 identity, embodied by the reinstitution of the "Hansa" trademark, most prominently via Hansabank. This is the shared belief in economic liberalism, as opposed to Nordic social democracy.

The only trouble with all three Baltic identities for Estonia is that none of them offer any solution to the cultural dilemma - that being that Estonia is a small country with an educated population that is looking to "graduate" its talents to a larger cultural area.

The Nordic arena provides the perfect setting for Estonians to export its culture and engage in a stimulating and enriching cultural dialogue. Estonia could never do that in the autocratic Soviet Union, and since there is no emerging Baltic cultural identity, it makes greater sense. That is why this is probably happening

esmaspäev, november 21, 2005

The "Nordification" of Estonia

Once again I bring you back to Eesti Maja on 34th Street in Manhattan. The interior decor is wood paneling, and the photos of the people on the wall, most which date from the 1930s, reveal round, unhappy-looking individuals, that look pretty Germanic in dress and attitude. And I was thinking about Eesti Maja and how German it felt, and how Germanic Estonian cuisine can be, and how the layout of the tri-color Estonian flag follows a pattern set by Germany, and started thinking about why it felt old and somehow "non-Estonian" and then it hit me.

The Estonian House is a time capsule, from the 1930s, when Estonia was still "Germanized." The Estonia I have lived in and known has undergone "Nordification." When I think of Estonia, I think of expensive niche products, national parks, modern Nordic-style office buildings, cross-country skiing, and lots of people in trendy north European clothing blabbering away on cell phones. This obviously wasn't the case in the 1930s. Nokia was just a Finnish town then, not a Finnish empire. And Nordic fictional archtypes like Pippi Longstocking and the Moomin trolls didn't even exist.

And again, it hit me -- did "Nordic" even exist before 1945?

When I am reaching back through my rudimentary knowledge of history I came to the assessment that no, it didn't. It wasn't until the post-war era, the era that Tove Jansson published the first Moomin books (1945), and Astrid Lindgren published the first of the Pippi series (1944), Thor Heyerdahl set out on the KonTiki expedition (1947), and Ingmar Bergman began his famous film career (1946) that Nordic identity began to emerge. This was also the time that the northern countries - which had actually been divided by political squabbling throughot the 19th and early 20th centuries, began to seek new partnerships through the recognition of Iceland as a republic (1944), establishment of the Nordic Council (1952), and, more recently the creation of the European Union, and the repositioning of Sweden from a pacifist monarchy to the center player in the "Northern Dimension."

Sweden, or Kalmar - the name given to the short-lived union of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden - seems to be in a period of growth in international influence. Instead of relying on hard power though, it relies on "soft power" - diplomacy and business. The "Nordic ideal" is being diseminated as we speak every where a person has access to an Ikea, or anyone that corresponds with their friends using a sleek Nokia phone, or relies on the convenience of Skype, a thoroughly Nordic and joint-Danish Estonian project - to communicate with those far from them.

Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish businesses seem to own the majority stakes in most of the Estonian economy, and, likewise, it appears that their values are being distributed, albeit slowly.

Make no mistake about this, the process is a major, major, major event in Estonian history. This is on par with the Teutonic Knights bringing Christianity and syntax in the 13th centuries, or the Russian tsars trying to convert Estonian peasants to orthodoxy. This represents a new era in the reorientation of Estonia. When I think of "Estonian" books to buy my daughter, I automatically now think "Moomin" or "Pippi." Though they are foreign - sort of - they at the same time appear to be hers. They are Estonian. Or rather, Estonia is no longer just Estonian. It is Nordic. It belongs to a larger cultural area.

This kind of reemergence of the Nordic empire may also be much more than just the success of Ikea or Nokia - it is propelled by tangible, and agreeable, cultural ideals. And it makes me wonder if it was the decline of Russian ideals that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Was it the emergence of culture centers WEST of Estonia that led the country back into the Nordic fold. Likewise, was it the decline of the culture that had once produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky that led to the inability of the Russian Empire to keep neighboring countries oriented to Moscow and St. Petersburg? Was it the silencing of expression during communist rule that ultimately led Estonia west, where it was predisposed to be biased due to common religious and alphabetic symbolism?

Could be.

Most likely it also has something to do with the fact that when the Estonian leadership was decapitated in 1940, the "thought leaders" of the Estonian republic set up an exile government in Stockholm. The "country", despite the efforts to include it in Soviet culture, became based in Sweden. The nation's surviving founders learned to speak Swedish. They adopted the Swedish way of life In fact many of them remain there to this day. And this was just one more link to the emerging Nordic culture.

There has been talk in the past of changing the Estonian flag to reflect this new culture. It seems a little too soon to throw away such a great national symbol. However, as evidenced by the baby-bib above, the reality is that even if some old symbols remain, if places like Eesti Maja exist as time capsules, the nation has become irreversibly altered - not just since 1991, but ever since it became, via Finnish television and the ex-pat community, part of the remerging Nordic landscape.

laupäev, november 19, 2005

Estonian Tartan? Aye mate.

I don't really understand why, but for some reason the Scots and the Estonians have some special bond. Maybe its their affinity for foods that involve potatoes, intestines, and blood, or maybe its the crappy weather. Maybe because of all those bar owners in Tallinn who own places like McCools, and the Bars Nimeta (without a name), and Nimega (with a name)?

Don't know.

However, our poor Urmas Paet (see last post) was recently in Scotland and those rugged Scots presented their blonde friend with his very own tartan!

From a statement on the Estonian Days Scotland website:

The tartan was produced as a symbolic gift from the people of Scotland to the people of Estonia and marks both the historic and the new links between the two countries. Designed by Perth-based House of Edgar, the tartan uses the blue, black and white of the Estonian flag plus gold and red from the Lion Rampant to emphasise the strong Estonian-Scottish relationship. The final tartan was selected by the
Estonian Foreign Ministry from a selection of designs, all using this theme.

Iain Lawson, the honorary consul in Scotland, suggested that the tartan be used by Estonia to invigorate its pint-sized defense forces.

"Whether or not the tartan will be used for kilts remains to be seen - especially given Estonia's Baltic location and its wintertemperatures of minus 40 degrees - but I'm sure the fashion houses there will be extremely enthusiastic and who knows, Estonia may yet produce its own Tartan Army!"

Sounds like a good idea! I personally think that a tartan would make the Estonian defense forces seem extra tough. It would allow them to borrow a little Robert the Bruce/William Wallace like courage. And that's not a bad thing...

neljapäev, november 10, 2005

Tibladistan Denies Paet Visa

Poor Urmas Paet. He's only 31-years-old and instead of living it up at a nice cushy job as journalist for Postimees or Eesti Päevaleht, he gets the shitty job of being Estonia's foreign minister.

Today, as was reported in the stunningly accurate Russian propaganda news services of MosNews and RIA Novosti, Paet was denied a visa to visit St. Petersburg to address a roundtable on cross-border cooperation organized by the St. Petersburg Center for International Cooperation. [Blog note - they are propaganda mouthpieces as they ran the same exact story]

The explanation, according to RIA Novosti, was bad blood.

On September 2, the Russian Foreign Ministry commented on a Baltic News Service report regarding "a number of tactless remarks about Russia" by Paet. The ministry said he had "deliberately twisted the facts and substituted the object of criticism" in comments about Russian xenophobia in the central republic of Mari El, which has a significant ethnic Mari population.

"As far as Paet's assessments of the situation in Mari El and the position of the Ugro-Finnish peoples in Russia are concerned, it is difficult to comment upon this. Not only does the opinion of Urmas Paet not correspond to reality, but even some of the members of Estonia's Cabinet of Ministers do not share it either," the ministry said.

According to the same article, there was also some heavy-handed bureaucracy involved.

A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Tallinn said Paet was not issued a visa because the proper diplomatic procedures had not been followed.

"The Russian Embassy received an official visa request from the Estonian Foreign Ministry two days prior to the forum, and we would have been able to issue it only if we violated all the existing norms for the proper reception of high-ranking foreign officials," Irina Pavlova said.

Here's some more from Regnum:

As the embassy officials noted, the current Russian laws on high official (that includes Foreign Ministers) welcome presume that a high guest must be invited by the corresponding Russian organization that can provide transport, communication and security. In the case of Paet, no such invitation existed, and the Russian party could not provide the head of the Estonian Foreign Ministry with an appropriate welcome. Moreover, the organizers invited representatives of the Estonian Foreign Ministry, not the minister himself. To all other Estonian representatives, who received invitations to the conference in Saint-Petersburg, visas have been granted.

Oh, what can I say? This sort of just shows how draconian things run in Russia. Urmas gets to fly all over the European Union thanks to his latest stint in government. One day he's in Scotland, the next day France, the next week Denmark. It's all the same. Maybe he forgot that something like his visit would take months of preparation to choreograph properly.

Russia is not Europe, Urmas. It is like China. Imagine you are dealing with the Chinese, and you will be able to deal with the Russians. Suspend your belief in facts, reality, reason. Then perhaps you will gain some traction in your Russian policies.

Instead Urmas is now a bit upset. The Estonian Foreign Ministry quoted him as saying..

"This is disappointing... This [decision] has shown that Russia is not interested in relations with Estonia."

And the regional affairs minister Jaan Õunapuu has also declined to attend the conference. Being less important, Õunapuu was granted a visa.

esmaspäev, november 07, 2005

Stopping Savisaar

In the Estonian House on 34th Street in New York, amidst the early 20th century wood paneling, joyless black & white photos of Estonians in the 1930s, and funereal wall piintings of scenes from Kalevipoeg, sits a portrait of Estonia's deposed president and one time dictator Konstantin Päts. The deposed leader looks down on the grandchildren of the citizens he briefly governed with a grimmace suitable for a man who died in a Soviet psychiatric hospital and whose presidential regalia still sits in Moscow like some morbid trophy.

Yet, while he is dead, some might say that the spirit of Päts, (Pätsu vaim?) lives on in the embodiment of one Edgar Savisaar. And with the results of the municipal elections in Estonia still fresh, many Estonians have paused to wonder - will Savisaar be the next leader to turn sour on democracy and crown himself "state elder" in the guise of Päts?

Moreover, when the moment comes again, will a Savisaar government be just as inept as Päts' government was in the autumn of 1939?

It's hard to get a read on Savisaar. From the perspective of 2005 he looks like the champion of the Russian-Estonian minority and rural pensioners. He's affable, strong, pushes their buttons, and has a solid electoral base. The leader of Keskerakond, the Center Party, also was the one who went to Russia last year to sign an agreement with one of their major parties signaling that they will work together on policy issues. From The Baltic Times (subscription only):

The Center Party signed a protocol of intentions with Russia's ruling party United Russia despite intense criticism from right-wing parties at home and an atmosphere of tension between the two countries.
The document, signed by the representatives of the two parties in the National Library in Tallinn on Dec.11, paves the way for a more comprehensive cooperation agreement to be compiled in the future. - 12/15/04

Savisaar defended his tactics by saying that Estonia's Russian policies have been a failure, and, you know, the guy has a point...

"Since the restoration of independence we cannot point out a single major victory Estonia has had vis-à-vis Russia. There is no border treaty, [the first Estonian President Konstantin] Pats' medals are still in Moscow, and Tartu University property is still in Russia," Savisaar said.

But still, he's smarmy. Vilja Savisaar, his more Euro-Liberal and less-obviously-corrupt wife, tends to give Keskerakond its "safe" image. She wears her power suit and looks like she belongs in Res Publica. But activities like the Dec. 2004 trip leave many suspicious. Is the guy who once summoned Estonians to protect Toompea from Soviet troops just in it for himself? Will he switch sides if it benefits his business interests? Maybe. Like, I said, it's hard to get a read on Mr. Savisaar. Is he a wiley patriot, or just an opportunist?


With Keskerakond's impressive victories in the October municipal elections, you'd think that the opposition was down for the count. But that's simply not true.

According to the Estonian National Election Committee Keskerakond got 25.48 percent of the total vote, while the Reformierakond got 16.91 percent, Estonian People's Union 12.47 percent, Isamaalit 8.58 percent, and Res Publika 8.46 percent.

The Tallinn vote was even more impressive for Keskerakond. They won 41 percent, to Reform's 20.6 percent.

But what does this mean? It means that if the right-wing parties joined up, they'd have a solid enough electoral base to beat Keskerakond. Just as Savisaar has united the Russian-Estonian minority and Pensioner bases - who have very different agendas, but fit together as the party of the left outs, parties like Reform and Res Publica can do the same.

And who is left in? Andrus Ansip's Reform party, who are sort of the party of the status quo - committed to Estonia's economic policies, Taavi Veskimägi's Res Publica party, who are sort of a younger, more ideological party of Reagan youth minus the social agenda, and Villu Reiljan's Eesti Rahvaliit - the agrarian-left People's Union, who can compete among pensioners but probably wouldn't join forces with Reform unless there was some sort of major kick back for older, worse-off Estonians.

These parties have been forming coalitions for a long time, but they have been depending on Reformierakond to be the vote winner and coalition founder. That's simply not going to cut it anymore. If Reformierakond was to absorb Res Publica - who are on their way out anyway, and run a joint ticket with Eesti Rahvaliit - who would compete with Keskerakond among their rural base, they'd have an electoral powerhouse that could keep Savisaar out of power for a long, long time.

However, this is unlikely to occur. More realistic would be a coalition of Res Publica and Reform, one that could win enough votes to keep the Center Party out of the national government, if not the city government, where it looks like they have gained something of a foothold. To do that would mean that some of the Res Publika ideologues would have to go. But with diminishing electoral prospects, it may appear more appetizing to those that are sitting in the Riigikogu contemplating reelection in 2007. To those that dislike the Center Party, I can only say this. There is an electoral opportunity for right-wing parties to kick Savisaar's ass in 2007. It is up to Reform and Res Publica if they want to take advantage of that opportunity.

teisipäev, oktoober 18, 2005

Alexander Yakovlev (1923 - 2005)

Most large nations are guilty of crimes against humanity. Supporters of these crimes will largely brush them off, too falsely patriotic and in denial to take responsibility for actions that were beyond wrong. But it takes an especially brave individual, particularly in a place like the USSR used to be, to come forward and acknowledge those historical sins and seek in some way to ameliorate their consequences.
Alexander Yakovlev, a senior adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who died today, is often credited as being the "Godfather of Glasnost and Perestroika." In charge of ideology he introduced an openness that eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR.
Of importance to this blog, he initiated the exposure of the 1939 Soviet secret pact with Nazi Germany, or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that paved the way to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The acknowledgement of the occupation of the Baltics alone would cost Yakovlev his head in the Kremlin today, let alone 20 years ago. But he did it, and he didn't do it as an outsider. He fought in the Soviet Army in World War II, and spent his life climbing the ranks of the Communist Party. But in the end he decided that truth was more important than dogma. Maybe it was the decade he spent as envoy to Canada in 1973 - 1983. But somewhere along the line, he made a brave decision.
One thing I regret and admire about my country is our willingness to deal with the past. I must say that I was very pleased when President Clinton invited the victims of the Tuskegee Syphillis Study to the White House in 1997 and apologized to them on behalf of the American people. I felt the same way about when Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush agreed to pay economic redress to Japanese-Americans who were relocated to internment camps during World War II. The government of Estonia has made similar gestures recently, opening a Holocaust memorial in Klooga to those that died in the concentration camps there in WWII and condemning the actions of Estonians that took part in those camps.
Still, sadly, I feel my country, and many others still have much to 'fess up for. Guys like Yakovlev, though, did the right thing. Perhaps the current occupants of the Kremlin could learn a thing or two from the older generation.

esmaspäev, oktoober 17, 2005


Well the liars at ITAR TASS - the mouthpiece of the Russian foreign ministry - are back at it again. In the past week they've repeated the same numbers as in today's press release on the municipal elections...

Over 20 percent of Estonia’s permanent population (260,000 people) do not have Estonian citizenship. An overwhelming majority of them are Russians.

Over 100,000 permanent residents of Estonia are Russian citizens.

That's not true. In a recent statement by the foreign ministry, it was stated that as of this summer 9.8 percent of Estonian residents lack citizenship. 6 percent have Russian citizenship. What's 6 percent of 1.35 million? 81,000.
Where does ITAR TASS come up with thier bogus information? Do they just make it up.

God, I wish there was a news service that could counter that garbage passed on as "real time news" that is circulated around the globe as having any merit of truth. But until then we'll just have to live with the liars.

pühapäev, oktoober 16, 2005

Clever Ants

If you spend enough time in Estonia, eventually you will learn the tale of Kaval-Ants, or "Clever Ants." Ants is a character of folklore that is supposed to reveal something about the Estonian character. Unlike Kalevipoeg, who most agree was something of a knavish jerk, Ants is still held in some regard. I never read the take on him, but I understand that he was something of a slave who always managed to play dueling masters off one another all the while filling his pockets as he watched the idiots squabble away.
In the 19th Century, such masters may have been the Baltic Germans and the Russian Czar. These days, however, Kaval Ants has his hands full trying to tiptoe around the...Germans...and Russians. Or Moscow and Brussels. Take your pick.

Take this story that just ran in some marginal non-native-English online webjournal "Axis News" entitled "Municipal elections in Estonia VALIMISED 2005:
Brussels Will Force Tallinn to Speak Russian" containing this gem:

The management of the European Union carries out active secret work on support of those political forces in Estonia, which agree to mitigation of a position concerning Moscow and the Russian-speaking population of the country.

The text gives background on the municipal elections and only provides the following "fact" to back up its claim.

Brussels decided that the municipal elections in this country can be used for support of those political forces which will agree on mitigation of positions concerning Moscow, and also concerning Russian-speaking minority of Estonia (including recognition of Russian as the second official language in the country). According to the information received by the author from several European diplomats the contacts on this issue between the representatives of the European Community and leading Estonian political forces took place recently.

Unfortunately, to date there are no mainstream Estonian parties that are willing to establish Russian as a second official language. Not even Keskerakond, which has distanced itself from Dmistri Klenski, a local politician who wants to make Russian the second official language of Tallinn, and not Isamaalit, Reformierakond, or any of the other parties. So who these Eurocrats met with to appease Russia is beyond me. The only one i can think of is Keskerakond's Edgar Savisaar, who is looking to assume the mayorship of Tallinn as soon as possible. He certainly is clever. But would Keskerakond ever recuperate if he did?

But that brings us to another, clearer point. What business does Brussels or Moscow have in telling Estonia how to run its country? Perhaps Brussels can make some requests, as Estonia is an EU member state. But Russia has no jurisdiction over Estonia. It has recognized its independence since 1991. And it has no right to A) tell it what kind of monuments it can erect B) tell it what kind of citizenship laws it must enact and C) Tell it what its official languages should be.
Somewhere in this mess there must be a Clever Ants waiting to spring to the forefront to manipulate Mommy Germany and Daddy Russia in order to get out of this mess.
Estonia joined the EU and NATO, this is true. But it will always be the safe keeper of its own sovereignty, and right now it is up to Estonia to pick both of their pockets as neither can be trusted.
The Western Europeans just want cheap oil. The Russian mafia, I mean government, just wants to feel powerful again, especially when they can't raise their own submarines or put down the Chechens. And in the middle, once again, is Kaval Ants.
I know the Estonian government possesses some great intellectual faculty. Estonians, as a whole, seem like pretty well-read, well-versed people. I hope that those in charge can marshall some cunning to get out of the way of the Brussels-Moscow collision.

teisipäev, oktoober 11, 2005

Vana Andrus

As you may have noticed, there is always some kind of tension between the Russian Federation and the Estonian Republic.

Today, living piece of human garbage and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said
“Latvia and Estonia are clearly stifling the Russian language, and the situation requires tight contacts between Russia and EU in solving that problem.”

Look, I have only been in Latvia for one day in my life. But in Estonia, no, the situation doesn't require tight contacts between the EU and Russia. Because Russia has no jurisdiction over the majority of Russian-speakers in Estonia. Some 6 percent of the 25 percent of Estonia's 1.3 million population that are of Russian heritage are indeed Russian citizens. Another 9 percent, or more, are citizens of the Estonian Republic. The remaining 9 percent have yet to decide which citizenship they wish to obtain.

That means that Russia only has the right to speak on behalf of those 6 percent that have decided that they will be Russian citizens and stay in Estonia. Everyone else is represented by the Estonian state. So, like, butt out, dicks.

More good news from the warm-hearted, fun-loving, Vodka-endorsing nation of invaders to the East came from Sergei Yastrzhembsky, aide to Putin, who said:

"Moscow has taken many steps to accommodate the interests of Tallinn and Riga. Now it is their turn to start the search for a way out of the stalemate,” Yastrzhembsky said. “Russia will be prepared to resume discussions, but only when it sees the readiness to reciprocate.”

In times like these, one may pine for some kind of hard-headed history professor to step up to the challenge and make Lavrov wish he'd never been born. But instead we have the man in the gray flannel suit, Estonian Prime Minsiter Andrus Ansip, who said in the past few weeks that Estonia 1) is giving up its claims to financial compensation from the RF, and 2) No apologies are necessary for murdering the entire Estonian government in 1940.

"I cannot speak for the future, but we have no claims today," he said. "No people, no country can live in the past. We should move on quickly rather than lay claims."

RIA Novosti quoted him as saying, followed by:

"We do not want Russia to apologize, because apologies should be sincere, and if not, then its better not to apologize at all."

How polite. Some people think that Estonia deserves a charismatic leader like Lennart Meri again. But maybe Ansip, who took over the reins from the cock-headed and clueless Juhan Parts after Res Publika crashed last March, is the right guy for the job.

His job isn't major economic reform. Although he is from the Reform Party, the party is actually the status quo party, with less shadowy connections than the most popular party - the Center Party - which is the party that promises much, but has yet to deliver.

What may make the Ansip government last until 2007, the time of the next scheduled parliamentary elections, could be Ansip's stern, emotionless, wholly unsexy demeanor afterall. Unlike the other politicos in Estland, he seems to be the least about himself. Maybe that can make his government succeed where the others have failed.

kolmapäev, oktoober 05, 2005

Meie Arnold

Well it looks like grown-up Estonian President Arnold Rüütel is trying to sort things out amongst the spoiled, younger political elite of his country and the one adjacent to it with regard to the border treaty.

"Meie Arnold" told RIA Novosti yesterday that he believes that "[Estonia and Russia] should hold a high-level discussion [of the issue] to find a solution, to cut this Gordian knot."

"It is an issue of international relations for both countries, and respective foreign ministries should start negotiations to get out of the deadlock," he added.

The border treaty, long-awaited, was signed in Moscow in May, but Russia withdrew its signature after Estonia ratified it adding a preamble which indirectly mentioned the Soviet occupation.

While the Estonian side is (of course) correct in their reading of the law - that they have not added new components to the treaty and they have no territorial claims - it may make sense to wakeu and realize that Russia is not a European country. It's an Asian country, like China. It's not logical, it doesn't care what the laws says, it just likes being a dick to its neighbors so it can encourage faith by its own citizens in its current government.

So, really, if you need a border treaty, then just get a border treaty. The rhetorical points have already been scored. Every history book published outside of Russia describes the Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltics. So, really, why bother.

Arnold may be an Old Communist, but at least he's not chomping at the bit - like Putin or Margelov or Laar and others - for heavy duty rhetorical combat. Instead of writing history books, he enjoys the tend to his garden in Saaremaa. Hopefully the old compromiser can end this issue.

teisipäev, oktoober 04, 2005

Like...OK, Already

Far away, on another corner of the Internet in a foreign language, my wife the blogger is revealing to Estonians everywhere the secrets of our life. From laptops in Võrumaa and rowboats on Naissaar, Estonians can read about my latest smelly fart, my caffeine-fueled New York anxiety, the romantic perils of my older brother.

What can I say about full disclosure? If it makes interesting reading than so be it. But it doesn't help knowing it is being read by the most judgemental people in the world.

Look, who am I to judge? I'm just an overweight, lazy American. But really, I am, somewhat troubled by Estonian pigheadedness. It's what is slowing down their government with all these frivolous, symbolic resignations and political pussyfooting.

And where does my daughter fit into that mix? Torn between a nation of vehement anti-intellectuals and self-styled know-it-alls? Right now she seems to be interested in Elmo, but which side will she come down on?

One place where our cultures have been rubbing has been the topic of the future.
Last time I checked I was nearly 26 years old and had little interest in real estate. But then again, last time I checked my wife was 31 and was thinking about what color to paint her house.

Still near my sexual peak, my interests in real estate are nil. I have yet to experience the dramatic drop in testosterone levels that leaves men in their 30s pining for trips to Pottery Barn and jumping at the sight of a color wheel. "Oh Joy - A Color Wheel!"

Not me, no sir. Not yet. Why is it that when I hear the words "buy a house" it scares the living shit out of me. I imagine myself chained to the home, toiling day after day, painting and painting, sawing and sawing, doing everything and passing out at night, only to awake to a leaky roof spitting on my forehead. Not to mention my wife pointing out everything I've done wrong after I've done it. Could it be? Could it have only taken me 26 years to become my father? Doesn't it usually take like 40 years?

But that's the Estonian man's so called ideal. To build his own home. To spend all his free time hammering away, slugging down õlut and hammering away again. And, like it or not, that's the trip I signed up for.

It could be worse. I could be married to a "Keepin' Up With the Joneses" American. The type that expects an X-pensive wedding ban and desires three or four wedding showers. That would really be a nightmare.*shudder*

Whatever, all I can say is that I am a bit ambivalent about the future but a little tired with the present. Who knows. Whatever whatever and whatever, amen.

reede, august 05, 2005

Eesti Reis in Review: Travel By Tallink

This is a bit by bit review of our trip back to Estonia, which occured between July 23 and July 31, 2005.
Our trip to Estonia really began on the Tallink ferry connection between Stockholm and Tallinn. Moving around in Europe, you get to understand why some people in, say Scotland, may think Estonia is quite far away, so far it is unknown to their base geographical knowledge, even though it only takes a few hours to fly there. This is unusual for Americans, but you have to realize that Europeans are actually tribes. They may have wireless Internet and three mobile phones apiece, but they are tribes nonetheless - like the Masai or the Apache. Estonia in the Scottish mind is probably quite far away - on the otherside of Scandinavia and then some...almost Russia. Nostroviya!. So gliding across the Baltic from Stockholm to Tallinn you get to feel like you are mixing tribes. Estonians and Swedes drink side by side in ferry pubs, and their children speak the universal language in playrooms.

I first started to really recognize that I was indeed back in Eestimaa when I awoke in the middle of the night and went to the 25 Hour Cafe to get a drink of water.
From the lower deck boiled up the flat sounds of totally drunk South Estonians.
For you uninitiated, the South Estonian accent/dialect is flat as gurgling mud. It sorts of sounds like a hot-wired washing machine on spin cycle.
These excellent specimens of the ancient Aiestr tribe were drunk, and they looked like something out of Bonnie and Clyde. The leader of the drunks had short hair and was talking a kilometer a minute, clearly invigorated by his beverage of choice. He had ordered a sandwich from the server, and was practicing his Italian.
"Per un momento" he said as he searched his wallet for necessary cash.
"Kas te oskate mis 'un moment' tahendab?" he asked [Do you know what 'un momento' means?] "Tahendab yks hetk, itaalia keeles." [It means 'one moment' in Italian].
Being very thirsty this guy pissed me off, but the scene couldn't have been better. His drunken tattooed friends smoking and gulping down spirits while Don Juan de Abja-Paluoja held court.

In the distance as the sun came up later we could see the Estonian coast. The Swedish archipelago (and Finnish as well) is rather rocky. But the Estonian coast still looks like a soothing, wild forest. You can see few settlements. I can't believe that it was forbidden to travel like this only 30 years ago, but here were were sailing into Tallinn harbor, with Oleviste Kirik there to greet us, and an eight day whirlwind tour of Estonia ahead.

When I first came to Estonia in 2002 Tallinn's harbor left something to be desired - especially when compared to the sleek modern Finnish harbor 40 km away. But here I could see the money had indeed flowed south with all those Finnish drunks. One by one ancient warehouses that look like the marine waterfront of Bridgeport, CT are being torn down and replaced by Nordic-looking office spaces, hotels, and shopping centers, which mix in a sort of kitschy, tacky touch. For whom they exist, I don't know?

There are only 1.3 million Estonians, and of them, I bet few are qualified or have the capital to buy that office space. Are the Nordic capitalists pondering a move to Tallinn? Could be.

The ferry terminal is actually quite a nostalgic place for me. It is where I sort of met and fell in love with my wife. When you are married, you don't notice that you are married (I know it's hard to explain). But when you see the place where you sort of knew you were going to be together it is a powerful feeling.

When we got into the terminal, we had the triple disaster of Marta running around, Epp trying to locate her Hansa card, and me being a nervous wreck. Marta in particular enjoyed riding the elevators, while Epp was busy cancelling her card and getting a new one by phone. Still, despite the pandemonium, we managed to pull things together and move outside. Estonia's air is especially clean, at least to these New York lungs, and it is a powerful intoxicant. You breathe it in and all you want to do is relax. It can be disarming. Things move at the same pace, perhaps more efficiently, but without that rabid New York anxiety that leans on you everywhere here. In a sentence, it was good to be back.

teisipäev, juuli 05, 2005

Future Destinations: Pärnu

Though Estonia is a fairly small country - about the size of Denmark - there are still many places I have never been to. This post is the first in a line of posts I plan to do about future destinations in Eestimaa. The first in line is Pärnu, a city of about 45,000 in the southwestern edge of Estonia, known to all Estonian's as "the summer capital of Estonia." Estonians will recite this fact the same way Danes will tell you that Danish sounds like speaking with a "hot potato in your mouth."
What makes Pärnu the summer capital is its long sandy beach, which Finns, Swedes, Russians, and, yes, Estonians, will tell you is bodaciously rad. It is the beach that draws bathers here from Stockholm and Turku, where they are fed up with rocky beaches and want some white powder between their toes. It is also assumed that because Pärnu is the summer capital one might catch a glimpse of former PM Juhan Parts playing beach volleyball with Tõnis Palts, or Kristiina Ojuland sunbathing with Ene Ergma. Pärnu, I am told, is a place to be seen.
Pärnu is an old Hanseatic town whose history goes back to 1251 when it was founded by Bishop Henrik I. Another important date is 1837, when the first mud baths were opened up. Ahh mud.

In a 1979 edition of National Geographic on Estonia, Priit Vesilind had some photos about the mud spas which were a favorite of all Soviet vacationers. I am not sure I am into submerging my torso in mud, but, while in Pärnu, do as the Pärnlased dictate.

A final cool thing about Päarnu is its awesome flag (at left). In some ways I think that Pärnu's flag is superior to Estonia's flag.

This is fitting because Pärnu was the city where the Republic of Estonia was proclaimed in 1918.
So if there is a t-shirt with that flag on it, I'm snatching it up. To sum up, Pärnu has a bit of a reputation. I will be visiting it in just a few weeks, and I hope it lives up to all I have heard.

esmaspäev, juuli 04, 2005

The Next Estonian President

In some countries, the head of state is a BS position - tailored for those who like to lunch with the sultan of Brunei, but have little power over anything else. Who, for example, is the president of Italy? We all know the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the president (Carlo Ciampi), is irrelevant. Other countries, though, have quite strong executives. South of Estonia, in Latvia, lives Vaira Vike Freiberga, an internationally-known and semi-capable executive. North of the Gulf of Finland, is Tarja Halonen, who isn't the most famous woman in the world, but is an able-bodied executive as well. In Estonia, however, it appears as if President Ruutel is more of a Ciampi, than a Chirac. "Meie Arnold" has a certain grandfatherly grace that makes him a fit executive. But as things get more complicated sometimes it makes one pine for the days when the president was Lennart Meri, a filmmaker, writer, and English-speaking leader who could connect with any listener, from San Francisco to Johannesburg.
That's why when Arnold steps down and retires to study agriculture on his home island of Saaremaa, Estonia will need a new executive who isn't a shy, old grandfather, but a self-promoting lion of the republic that will be able to share the stage with Vlad Putin, and represent the people of Estonia.
Drawing up a short list some names came to mind of who will succeed Arnold when he finishes his term. It could be Mart Laar, of Isamaalit, but maybe he's too controversial and not diplomatic enough. It could be Toomas Hendrick Ilves, because he is a fairly good diplomat and is well-connected. Plus he likes to wear a bow-tie, which will distinguish him to the West as a sort of Baltic Tucker Carlson.
But my pick for the next president of Estonia is an athlete. Someone who can communicate well in English and who woudl win the election hands down. He is only 30 years old, but he would be the perfect representative of Noor Eesti.While it may appear funny now, if Estonian race car driver Markko Martin was to hang up his helmet and try his hand at politics, he might be the perfect candidate. So when Putin goes on the national stage and says something idiotic, Martin would be right behind him with a quick comeback. Estonia needs a youthful fighter to lead the republic. And I am sure that there's plenty of room at Kadriorg for Martin's sports cars.

reede, juuli 01, 2005

The Swedes Show Some Backbone...

According to Eesti Päevaleht online, the Swedish foreign ministry is the latest to take Estonia's side in the border dispute. In an article published today, a Swedish ministry spokesperson is quoted as saying:
"Rootsi hinnangul puuduvad igasugused takistused...mis ei voimaldaks kokkulepetel joustuda."

Translation: "In assessment of Sweden, obstacles of all sorts are absent from permitting the agreement to come into force."

It should be noted that Sweden's foreign minister is Laila Freivalds, who was born in Riga in 1942, and fled to Sweden to escape the Soviet occupation of Latvia.

esmaspäev, juuni 27, 2005

Russia Plays Hardball

According to various state information channels in the Russian Federation, the Russian government has revoked its signature from the border treaty inked with the Republic of Estonia on May 18 in Moscow.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:

There will be no ratification since there will be no agreement itself. We need to start new negotiations to settle the border issues.

According to the Estonian foreign ministry there are no border issues.

The Estonian side has repeatedly assured that it has not linked any new issues to the border treaties, and thus, the Russian side's assertion that Estonia has added new aspects to the treaty is ungrounded.

You've got to love Lavrov. The guy shakes hands with Urmas Paet, and then decides a month later that he didn't really shake hands. Later, in Helsinki, Lavrov said he feared that the European Union might 'yield to temptation' in saying that:

Estonia ratified the agreement, although with some amendments, and Russia should have also ratified the agreement with its own amendments, for the sake of the agreements simple existence. In order to avoid such a temptation, we revoked our signature under the agreement. The agreement doesn't exist.

So where does that leave Estonia? Should they revoke their preamble to appease a bitter neighbor? Why would a sovereign nation do such a thing? I hope the EU does step in and ask the RF to honor its obligations. It will be interesting to see what the bureaucrats in Brussels will do when they are finally called upon to show some spine.

pühapäev, juuni 26, 2005

Eesti Beebi Boom...and a Maelstrom of Marriages


I heard the news today at around 8.30 am, while my 1.7 year old daughter was pointing at my nose and saying "noo-noo" and grasping at my face, trying to wrest control of my left eye from its socket.
Our friend Pille gave birth to her first daughter Roosi on Jaanipäev, June 23, 2005. Roosi pushed her way out in just 45 minutes, and she is the latest child to join what is called the Eesti Beebi Pomm, or Estonian baby boom.
Over the past two years, Estonian women who climbed out of the economic reforms of the early90s with stacked CVs and reliable bank accounts have been encouraged to have more children by the state, which will pay their entire annual salary to them during the year they take off upon motherhood. But they also have heard some kind of biological clock ticking, and so everywhere I go I see titad (babies). You could notice the difference on the way to my wife's work. First in line was Marta Maria, our child, who came in December 2003.
But soon the office secretary, as of September 2004, was immensely large, as was Epp's co-worker, who also was expecting. Then our friend Eberhard and his wife Ingrid had a son this past February. So all of a sudden we are surrounded by new life. And the Estonian state is surrounded by new tax payers.


On this side of the Atlantic, another trend is crouching and creeping. On July 7, my friend Becky will marry Pete, her beau of many years, at a country club on Long Island. I have a feeling that, before 2010 is out, I will be dining several times a country club on Long Island. Becky's Wedding will no doubt be large and leave a lasting impression. This is because Becky and Pete, despite their lowkey Yankee collegic demeanor, are Italians at heart. There will be much wine and celebration. If only they would step on a bottle after the society of ethical people marry them.

Becky and Pete just returned from a wedding in Ol' Mississipp'. This is the part of the country Northerners like to feel superior over because we beat them in a war about 150 years ago. It still does feel good though. Winning does. This particular wedding joined not plantation perverts though, but Plimouth progeny, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins.
It must have been hot down in the Delta. Speaking of the War of Northern Aggression, our friend Jess, and her BF Dan, will also tie the knot sometime next year. My wedding blessing in July 2003 was devoid of the attendence of such luminaries as Jessica, and even my best friend since the High Priesthood of the Hookachal (the 80s) days, Jocko.

Therefore I may not be in attendence when Frank D. of Setauket, gives away his daughter Jessica, of GA, to Daniel G., son of Frank G. of Florida. But that's ok. The name for their first child? My only hope is that Jessica will rechristen herself Gessica. Now that...would be cool.

Finally, my own brother will tie the knot, ETA Sept. a country club on Long Island.
Toot sweet. They too are mired down these in lists of people to invite, clothing to wear, hors d'oeuvrs to serve, Motown or Disco, questions.

For him and his bride to be, it must be great to have their own event, after sodding off through so many of their contemporaries'.

To all the babies, brides, and beaus...this is me saying "Good Luck" or "Kõige Head!"

neljapäev, juuni 23, 2005

Somebody Gets It...

Here is a great piece by the Eurasia Daily Monitor that explains why the Russian Federation are the ones with "dead donkey ears" when it comes to their failure to ratify the border line agreed upon by the Estonian foreign ministry and Russian foreign ministry on May 18.

the Russian government seems intent to retaliate against Estonia's reassertion of the state's legal continuity, as reflected in the Estonian parliament's reamble to the law on the ratification of the border treaty.

The piece, by Vladimir Socor, goes on to spell out why it doesn't really make a difference what Estonia's preamble says.

The refusal has no legal grounds however. The duma would be asked to ratify the treaty as signed, not the preamble to Estonia's ratification law. Moreover...the preamble contains no reservations toward the border treaty's terms, no demands of any kind, and no conditions for the treaty's implementation as signed with the Russian side.

So now, the Estonian government can only wait. They have a border line, as decreed by President Arnold Ruutel yesterday. A very interesting end to an interesting Spring. One interesting thing I have been just starting to understand is the basis for the preamble, which is to restate that the Estonian government today is the legal continuation of the Estonian government proclaimed in 1918, and recognized at the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920.

In September 1939, the Estonian government foolishly allowed the Soviet Union to station troops in Estonia. Hundreds of thousands of troops were brought into the country as the crisis in Europe deepened. In June 1940, the Estonian government was driven from power by "demonstrators" that seized Tallinn's police stations, parliament, communications etc.

The solely Communist government was proclaimed and requested to join the Soviet Union, where it was accepted in August 1940. Military officers and government officials from the legitimate government were rounded up and deported by the Soviets, most being executed in Estonia and in Russia in 1940-42.

However, the Communist government did not last long. In 1941 the Nazis took Estonia, and Estonia was incorporated into "Ostland" - its province that was supposed to include also Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus.

As the Nazis retreated in September 1944 however, Estonia's prime minister, Juri Uluots, formed a new government, one that was still recognized by the international community. As the Soviet's reinvaded Estonia in the fall of 1944, the new ministers fled. Most were captured and executed. But Uluots and others escaped to Stockholm, where a government in exile was set up, not dissimilar to DeGaulle's French government in England in the early 1940s.

This government in exile remained until 1992, when the prime minister in exile, acting in duties of the president, presented his credentials to the incoming Estonian government.

The Russian Federation does not accept the continuation of the Estonian government. In their mindset, the Stalinist history, that Estonia willingly joined the USSR in 1940, and the old government was dissolved. It's worth noting that the exile government was recognized by the international community. But it may take a long time before Russia "purges" itself of its Stalinist myth making.

kolmapäev, juuni 22, 2005

Borders, New Yawk, and Jaanipäev

Well, it looks like the Russian Foreign Minsitry decided that it doesn't want to ratify the treaty, because they are a) excessively paranoid about land claims and b) didn't get to control every sentence in it.
The treaty explicitly does not link the referenced documents in the preamble to the border agreement. The Estonian Foreign Ministry reiterated this point today by stating:
"The Estonian government did not tie the ratification of the border treaties with any additional annexes that would allow presenting new demands and neither did the Riigikogu when they supplemented the bill."

Poor Eestimaa. They thought that Venemaa would actually understand their highbrow legalisms.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry decided today that ratifying it would be impossible.
Perhaps the Estonian foreign ministry needs better translators?
Readers of Postimees seem to be happy with the situation. Some commentators seem to think that Russia just wants to show its strength, and their are pleased that the Visa situation for Russians entering the European Union will be further complicated.
As for New Yawk it's just work, work, work. In fact, I'm supposed to be working now. But Ii have no time for 'me' so I have to take it where I can.
In Estonia this week is the week where everybody eats a lot of sausages, burns a lot of wood, drinks a lot of beer, and has a lot of unprotected sex.
That's right, its Jaanipäev. What holidays do us New Yawkers have like that? The Puerto Rican Day Parade? Sha, r-i-ight. As if.
The ultra-right-wing Wall Street losers that run this city of capital would never be into allowing the peons a day a whole week off to celebrate being alive. No. It's get back to work, lick Michael Bloomberg's boot. Downtown Brooklyn might be a sh*thole, but West Side Stadium, the Olympics - these are New York's priorities. And where are the Democrats? Behind in the polls.

teisipäev, juuni 21, 2005


Well, the word out of Venemaa is that they'll probably ratify the border treaty anyway. As written in the Russia Journal, the "most trusted news source in Russia," Sergey Mironov, chairman of the Federation Council, said that Russia must ratify the treaty wihout any reservations.
The article however does say that Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920 "has lost effect." This is interesting because Mironov didn't say this, and no source in the article maintains this. It just appears as a factual statement. This is how "journalism" works in Russia.

The Tartu Treaty established the statehoods of Finland and Estonia. The "elected" Communist government that requested to join the Soviet Union in June 1940 was never recognized by the international community. Instead the old government remained in exile from 1944 through 1992 in Stockholm, Sweden, and returned to power in 1992. That's what happened and what has been recognized.

The state border line was redrawn after the war with Finland in 1944 as well. So this border treaty essentially represents the end of the Cold War. That is why it is so important.

esmaspäev, juuni 20, 2005

Estonia Ratifies...and Russia Balks...

The Riigikogu ratified the border treaty with the Russian Federation today, passing the resolution 78 - 4. Res Publika had originally refused to vote until a preamble was added that mentioned the occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940 and 1944 by Russia's predecessor state, the USSR. However, the ruling colaition disagreed with that idea.

A compromise was drafted that claimed that the current Estonian republic was the same republic that was declared in the Treaty of Tartu in 1920. The 'occupation and annexation' claims were dropped because the Estonian parliament knew that the Russian parliament would object to these claims and thought it fruitless to pursue recognition of this historical wrong when they could just as easily get their border treaty signed.

The preamble reads:

Proceeding from the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia proclaimed on 24 February 1918, as it is stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, from the Resolution of the Republic of Estonia Supreme Council of 20 August 1991 "On the National Independence of Estonia," and from the Declaration of the Riigikogu of 7 October 1992 "On the Restoration of Constitutional Power," and keeping in mind that the Treaty mentioned in Article 1 of this act shall, in accordance to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, partially amend the state border line established by Article III Section I of the Tartu Peace Treaty of 2 February 1920, shall not influence the rest of the Treaty and shall not determine the treatment of bilateral issues not connected with border issues.."

Pretty clear if you ask me. But Russia, who asked that Estonia sign the treaty first, now has more problems. They are unhappy with the treaty because it mentions 1918, and if one does some thinking then, it de facto acknowledges the occupation and annexation.
"I don't think the border treaty, in the form in which the Estonian parliament ratified it today, would be acceptable to Russia," said Mihail Margelov, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the Duma's upper house.

What is going on here you might ask? Why would Russia not want to ratify, really? It's not that hard to sign. You have a meeting, raise your hands. You vote. It's ratified. The other way - bringing in advisors, creating more diplomatic intrigue, more empty threats about "goose eggs" and "donkey ears" - that's more difficult to do. So why go through that, when you can ratify the treaty and go back to your Dacha for the summer a happy parliamentarian?

As I see it, it can only be about two things - money or pride. I think it's both. This is a very acceptable document to ratify, but Russia is worried about two things - admitting ins ome fashion that it occupied and annexed Estonia in 1940, and being liable to compensate all of the people who lost their property, livelihoods, and lives when the occupation commenced.

However, this diplomatic game has backfired for the Russian Federation.
The egg could have been on Estonia's face. They could have made Estonia look weak, and unfit for the ranks of the EU. If the nationalists in Isamaalit and Res Publika had decided that they should push the occupation issue further, then Estonia would have looked bad and unreasonable (ie. like Latvia.) However, since their treaty doesn't really push the issue, it is the Russians who are caught looking ridiculous with egg on their face. They seem irrational (which they are).

If the Russian parliament is unhappy that's their problem. They are the ones who requested that Estonia sign the border treaty first.