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 www.investinnarva.ee.

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.