esmaspäev, november 13, 2006

The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson

At the end of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson, a man who had known the terrors off war first-hand as a child growing up in Georgia in the 1860s, went with his top hat and a head full of ideas to France to attempt to sell the Great Powers the idea of future of collective security enforced multilaterally through a League of Nations.

While France, Britain, and Italy were busy dividing up the spoils of war at the expense of Germany, Wilson ominously forecasted that the "spoils system" would only create friction that would lead to future conflicts. World War II proved him right. Still, today most would see the submission of any country's right to act unilaterally to a supranational body as an extreme violation of national self-interest, the flipside being that conflict becomes again inevitable when a security consensus cannot be agreed upon.

In a current context, much of Russia's ruling elite sees the dismantling of a statue to the Red Army in downtown Tallinn as a humiliating affront to Russian power, even in a country where 25 percent of the population share its language and religion. They may see it as a punitive action aimed only at rubbing in the failure of the 1991 consensus between the US and Russia - that NATO would not expand beyond Germany, that Russia was no longer a threat, that the Cold War was over.

At the same time, Russia's unwillingness to truly recognize that countries can prosper without expansion or control over its "near abroad" (as former imperial Japan and Germany have learned to do quite well) has left its international pride vulnerable to the outbursts from people like Georgia's foreign minister who mocks the former hegemon's inability to control the free will of its neighboring peoples. The idea is that if Russia did have general goodwill towards Georgia, NATO membership would be useless.

However, it's 1991 anymore. It's not even 2004. And officials in Tallinn should carefully consider how much the dismantling of a Soviet monument in Tallinn is worth compared to the fallout it could create not just next year, but in an uncertain future. Does it really want to rub another Treaty of Versailles in the face of a Great Power, however diminished that power is? Is the humiliation to Estonians every May 9 exchangeable with the humiliation to Russians when their monuments are moved to cemeteries, their falled soldiers dug up in the center of a city and buried someplace less conspicuous?

Does the bulk of Estonia-centered "news" flowing forth from state-owned media outlets like RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS really need to be about the resurrection of "Nazism" in Estonia? I personally do not think so. For some people, honoring the 20th Estonian SS Division is very important. For others, scrubbing the country clean of anything Soviet is another pasttime.

But the Tallinn I have come to know and love over the years has nothing to do with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union -- it is a place where shabby buildings are torn down or dressed up to symbolize a country headed somewhere. That is what draws so many Americans to post-communist Europe - the ability to witness people working hard to rebuild countries destroyed by totalitarian power and a backwards economic system.

The glory of Estonia and its people is not to be found in an old Bronze Monument on Tõnismägi. It's to be found in the orderly suburb of Kalamaja where old wooden houses are quietly renovated and made new and new babies are born and young, optimistic families settle down to eat some Tere! Vanilla Pudding and watch Laulukarussel and all is magus and mõnus.

As Estonia braces itself for another full-frontal PR assault from its eastern neighbor, it might be worth a moment of reflection to ponder whether or not it is worth it.

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