teisipäev, aprill 29, 2008

a simpler estonia?

A recent trend in the Nordic countries is municipal reform. Denmark took the lead in 2007 by reducing Denmark's 13 counties to 5 regions.

Not to be outdone, Sweden also plans on reducing their counties system in favor of larger regions by 2015. As typical in the Nordic countries, Iceland has ignored the developments in Denmark while Finland hasn't even heard of them yet.

I find it a bit amusing that when the Estonians restored their state, they didn't restore their old county system. The current Estonian state has 15 counties, whereas the state in the 1920s and 1930s had 11 counties, one of which, Petserimaa, has since been stolen/annexed/ceded to Russia.

Does it really make sense to have a Lääne and Ida Virumaa county? How about just one "Virumaa", as it is still called by Estonians. Does Jõgevamaa serve any purpose? Shouldn't we just add some of the smaller bits to the larger ones and give the regions more power in implementing governmental reforms?

I'd like to think that Estonia was capable of pulling off such a reform if it so desired. But don't count on it. Estonian politicians would prefer to argue over the ostentatious võidusamba instead.

laupäev, aprill 26, 2008

the ansip malaise

It's springtime in Estonia. The birds and the bees are buzzing in the trees. No longer burdened by lousy weather and darkness, youth congregate on benches, drink in one hand, laptop in the other, to soak in the endless sunlight.

I spent the afternoon at our friends' daughters' fourth birthday party. The backyard was thick with children. There was the birthday girl, Liisa, but also Helena, Marta, Anna, Marta, Krõõt, Minna, Uku, and Kaarel. One young mother of two even had a third on the way. Happy times, and yet a certain unsteadiness hangs in the air.

It's been twenty years since the Singing Revolution, remarked Ott, who was then only 17, but is now 37 with slightly graying temples. As he stood before these happiest of times, he also managed in his infinite wisdom to identify the missing ingredient. The will to act.

This is what is lacking from Estonia right now. The will to identify problems, of which there are a few, host an honest and open debate, and come to some consensus about how to solve those problems. There is a feeling that there is still more to be done, but that no one is willing to do it, and that the political leadership is incapable of acting without self-destructing in the process. The people are getting anxious. Society feels a bit irregular, in the digestive sense.

Minu kallis naine accurately pointed out that the current leadership needs to marinate a little more before its thrown on the grill. I agree.

reede, aprill 25, 2008

the truth is out there

It's that time of the year. Bronze Soldier removal anniversary time. A time to replay clips of violent youths overturning cars and lighting flags on fire. A time to engage in word battles on YouTube supported by random facts pulled from the KGB archives. A time to lecture Estonia about integration. Yes, it is that time of the year.

A German student in one of my classes said recently that she was surprised how her Estonian interview subjects tended to view the integration dilemma as a foreign construct, a plaything for foreign students and foreign journalists, but something that actually matters little in day to day life.

I privately wonder when I stopped giving a shit. A Swedish friend in Tartu once had to deal with an old Russophone neighbor who one day went crazy in the apartment house corridor shouting obscenities about "Estonians" and his terrible lot in life to live in the City of Good Thoughts. The Swede seemed to conclude that the subject was crazy. In New York we step over people who talk to themselves all the time.

The problem with all of these interpretations of Estonia and what is to be done in this country, is that the "Estonians" the Swede's angry neighbor was railing against are treated as one unified block. The actions of one political party, like Isamaa, can be attributed to all Estonians, because the state is wrongly seen as ethnocentric. But when we revisit the facts, we see, for example, that the vote to remove the odious Soviet statue last winter only passed by two votes.

The reality on the ground is that, when it comes to politics, it's rather hard to pin anything on the "Estonians." In a country where you are 70 percent of the population, it's sort of hard not to vote along ethnic lines. Instead you vote for other reasons. Some people in Tartu are disenchanted with the ruling Reform Party. In Tallinn they opine about Keskerakond. The concerns of everyday life -- day care and housing and zoning issues and roads and sanitation -- take precedence over historical blood feuds and naive suggestions about integration policies.

And so, one year on, I find myself reading the "foreign" English-language press and scratching my head. "There's Soviet baggage in Estonia." Well, what do you expect? "The citizenship processes could be liberalized." Easier said than done, my friend. "Maybe you should take another official language." And maybe you should privatize the British National Health Service.

This country is complicated, but attempts to explain it to the outside world often fail. People fumble for remedies to problems they themselves misdiagnose. It's like 18th century medicine -- they create a host of other conditions for you by trying to solve one unrelated problem. Got the flu? How about some leaches and blood-letting? That's sure to do the trick!

Estonia is closer than you think to solving the Rubik's Cube of the Soviet legacy. Let them work it out by themselves.

neljapäev, aprill 24, 2008


So I have been reading Andrus Kivirähk's Ivan Orava mälestused või helesinised mäed -- a faux memoir of a fictional elder Estonian who remembers the day when young lovers would gather at the home of President Konstantin Päts to play billiards and celebrate their honeymoons.

Even though my Estonian skills aren't up to the task, I bought a handy dictionary to help guide the way. I figured that it would be an excellent opportunity to build my vocabulary while enjoying Kivirähk's absurd humor. So, of course I was the idiot on the Tallinn-Tartu bus trying to contain my laughter as I read about Johannes Lauristin and his golden egg-laying dog. I almost wanted to turn to the button-down Estonian student beside me, her face buried in her mobile phone, and say "hey, this Kivirähk is some funny shit."

At the Lennart Meri Conference I saw Andrus' older brother, Juhan, who is something of political analyst sans absurd humor. I wanted to grab him by the arm too and talk about the tallalakkuja (bootlicking) Leopold Pakt, the imaginary third cosignatory to the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop-Pakt, but I had a feeling if there was one made-up historical figure he did not wish to discuss, it was the lipitseja (brown-noser) Leopold Pakt.

Tallalakkuja and lipitseja are indeed useful words, but some of the other ingredients in this modern-day Tammsaare's vocabulary are less useful. One such word was 'porihing.' I consulted my dictionary and even the excellent aare.pri.ee dictionary, but there was no definition. Finally, minu kallis naine informed me that it was a made-up fusion of 'pori' (dirt) and 'hing' (soul). Literally, dirtsoul.

I am unsure of what I will do with this potent Kivirähkism for the time being. But rest assured, I will make good use of porihing before the month is out!

kolmapäev, aprill 23, 2008

the foreign minister for finland and estonia

"The European Union is 15 times richer than Russia, its population is three times larger, and it spends seven times as much on the national defence. Strong Europe is in the interests of both Estonia and Finland.''

-- Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb in Tallinn today.

(Estonia seriously needs to hire this guy)

esmaspäev, aprill 21, 2008

with whom to sauna?

Recently I was teased by laughing, joking, drinking night game-playing Andrei Petserimaa about my "pinko", "Commie", "lefty" leanings. "Ew," I shuddered to myself, "am I really on the left?"

It indeed seemed gross because these days I don't know where I am on the ideological spectrum. Kriistina Ojuland recently decided to confine "sotsiaalistid-marksistid" to the garbage bin of history. But I don't worship at the altar of St. Milton Friedman, nor have I any use for St. Marx or even St. Thorning-Schmidt. I have no saints. My geopolitical world view has no partisan bedrock.

And it is hard to exactly see where one party begins and the other ends. The current government, with its promises of pension increases and support for the ever popular mother's salary, seems to have borrowed some ideas from the social welfare Shangri-Las across the Baltic Sea. And it isn't it odd that when the government held out an incentive, people started making babies? Could it be that the gospel of liberalism does not apply to procreation?

But left wing? That sounds dirty. Trotsky was charismatic, but "permanent revolution"? It sounds like something Thomas Jefferson might have dreamed up in the sauna high on absinthe. What's a well meaning pinko to do?

In Estonia I tend to subliminally support the Social Democrats, because to me they seem the most normal. Perhaps it has come down to who you'd prefer to sauna with most, just as in the US, they ask themselves "with whom would I like to share a beer?"

Saunaing with Isamaa would be interesting, but after awhile I would get sick of hearing every little detail about the battles of 1944. Enough already with the 1944! Give me some 2008, or 2009 even! Saunaing with Reformierakond seems out of my league. You know that they only have the most expensive saunas, and I don't think I am wealthy enough to use theirs. As for Keskerakond, well, I don't think I could fit into a sauna with Savisaar.

But the Social Democrats? They'd probably have a regular sauna and a mixed one as well. And they'd keep the temperature just right, neither too scalding nor too warm. Given the aforementioned options, I'd have to choose Finance Minister Ivari Padar's sauna. And we could all get together and complain about how bad the second Estonia has it, and how integration is really working, I swear.

Ah, to be among my fellow useful idiots. There would be nothing finer. As for Petserimaa, well, I think he'd be welcome in the Isamaa sauna. They could take a break from discussing Sinimäe and tackle the 1967 war instead.

pühapäev, aprill 20, 2008

kolmapäev, aprill 16, 2008

a conversation with flasher t

There's a funny thing about Estonian blogger Flasher T, author of the lively Antyx. Everyone knows his real name is Andrei, yet they prefer to call him "Flasher."

I recently sat down with "Flasher" to do a non-blog related interview but decided to share the contents with you because Flasher is so damn articulate. Enjoy:

Where were you born?

What is your family background?

My mother’s family comes from Irboska [part of Estonia before WWII, now part of Russia]. My father’s side is Yiddish, and comes from the eastern part of Germany via Riga, Latvia.

How often do you go to Latvia?

Approximately once or maybe twice a year for last few years. I usually visit Riga and the surroundings.

Have you ever been to Lithuania?


Have you ever been to Russia?

Yes. I have been there twice in my life, twelve years apart. The same place as well, St. Petersburg.

How would you describe the relationship between Russia and the Baltic States at the moment?:

Tumultuous. You have to differentiate between Russia as a nation and Russia as a state. As a state, Russia has a useful target in that Estonia won’t get particularly offended because it has the sense of security offered by EU and NATO membership. On the other hand, Estonia doesn’t have the immediate means to retaliate, so Russia has a tool to use in its internal politics almost without any fear of consequences.

I think by default, it likes Lithuania more because Lithuania never had a problem with citizenship, but I think Russian internal propaganda against the Baltics impacts all three countries equally and the average Russian who knows little about Estonia has the same attitude towards Estonia and Lithuania.

As a nation, it has a vague idea of the Baltics as something unspecifically hostile. Statistically, there's a percentage of Russians that are so dissatisfied with state that they will do things because the state tells them not to. And there's a percentage of Russians who are so politically apathetic that they don’t care. Those two percentages are where the bulk of Russian tourism in Estonia comes from.

How would you describe the relationship between Russia and the Baltic States ten or twenty years ago?

It’s always been there because Estonia has always had the combination of nationalism and practical superiority, superiority on an everyday level of creature comforts. On the one hand, Russians are provoked by Estonians’ dislike for them, and on the other hand Russians are practically offended by the fact that even in the Soviet days, life in Estonia was a lot better.

The Russian writer Mihhail Veller tells about how he came to Tallinn and came to work at a newspaper during the Soviet era. He recalls how he was drinking cognac in the lobby of the press house and he remembers seeing the bartender tell one of the regulars that there was a call for him and handed him the phone over the bar. He was stunned by this because it seemed like such a Western thing. In Estonia these things seemed so natural, but in St. Petersburg it wouldn't have happened that way.

That was the Soviet time. Now we have the issue that Estonia has evolved so much more efficiently than Russia. So average Russians are probably offended by the fact that Estonia did not need Russia and that Russia in fact held them back.

But why is your opinion different from the average Russians'?

My viewpoints are not representative of general Russian population. I don’t have a deep Russian identity. I don’t identify myself as a Russian. I speak Russian because that is the language my parents spoke, but my roots are in Estonia, I was born here and I grew up here. I have had no cause to significantly distrust or dislike the Estonian state, and from about the time when I started to develop my own judgment I have been significantly annoyed by Russian propaganda, and not just central propaganda as it applies to Estonia, but just Russian propaganda and the unseemly aspects of the Russian mentality that have been shaped by that propaganda.

How do you think the relationship with Russia will develop in the next couple of years?

I am hoping it will stabilize. Logic dictates that at least for the next 3-7 years, Russian officialdom will not have a desperate need for a scapegoat and at the same time Estonia has shown itself willing and capable to actively fight for mindshare in European politics. I think Russia will probably consider that it will be simpler to look for scapegoats somewhere else, such as Ukraine, Georgia, or the Balkans.

How would you describe the relationship between the Baltic States themselves at the moment?

I think they slightly resent being lumped together but see the logic in it and don’t significantly mind.

How would you describe the relationship between the Baltic States themselves ten/twenty years ago?

In 1988 we had a common enemy. In 1998 we had a common goal. At this point I think the Baltic states are more than ever before in a position to establish their identities independently, not just as Baltic states.

A substantial part of that is that Estonia associates with Finland and Sweden, and Lithuania associates itself with Poland. I think a cute example of Baltic relations is Tallink, which invested massive amounts of money into a new fleet to do the Tallinn-Helsinki and Tallinn-Stockholm route, but has also bought the Riga-Stockholm route and uses its old dilapidated ferries there.

What are the causes for the change in this relationship?

There isn't a significant need to stick together. Before it was us three against the world. Now it is us 27 against the world. And us 27 have a lot more at stake. The overriding necessity has diminished so the three countries have an opportunity to create their identity which they would have always been happy to do had the need not been there. Because they don’t have that much in common, other than that they are all in the same spot and they are all rather small.

How do you think the relationship will develop in the next couple of years?

I don’t think there will be any cosmic shift. There might be a few misunderstanding between Estonia and Latvia because Latvia has decided on a course of appeasement towards Russia, where as Estonia is still pissed and not to let Russia get away with anything. Lithuania is content to keep its head down and figure out its own problems for awhile.

Can you explain where the Baltic States differ from each other?

It comes down to influence. Lithuania and Latvia are quite close, Estonia is ethnically different. Latvia has a stronger German heritage than Estonia. But Estonia has this concept of the good, old Swedish times. Estonia wants itself to be thought of as part of Scandinavia. I think Latvia understands that they can’t pull that off. Lithuania has its two religions, Catholicism and basketball. Even if it doesn't wish to be, Lithuania inevitably turns out to be a client state of Poland in the same way that Estonia is a client state of the Nordic Council.

Do the identities of the native Russians differ from the identities of the native Baltic people?

The difference is in taking responsibility. The key significant between proper locals is that they have a sense that this is their country and they are responsible for how things work in it, whereas local Russians, their biggest difference and the source of their problems is that they don’t feel in charge here. They don’t feel like it’s up to then to change things or that they could change things.

Would you say that the Baltic States can be seen as a region where the people have the same identity?

No, of course not.

Can you explain where the Baltic States and Russia differ in terms of identity of the people?

On the more general level, Russians perceive the space relevant to them as far greater. Estonians are essentially interested in their own farm and maybe their own country. Most Russians aren’t even interested that much in their city. They are primarily interested in their country and its place in the world.

On any level that is really important, Estonians don’t care whether anybody likes or fears Estonia in the world, as long as their pigs are healthy. This goes a long way to explaining differences between Estonia and Russia – levels of street cleanliness, levels of corruption, relations with authorities. This does come from Soviet propaganda, but it was also there historically. Russians have a sense of if they don’t do it, somebody else will. Estonians have a sense of if they don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.

What are the main areas where Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania should cooperate?

Lobbying of common interests in EU internal politics. The rest of it we can handle, but EU internal politics is a place where interests are similar to a large extent and we could benefit from acting as united front.

kolmapäev, aprill 09, 2008


Wow, this is my 500th post. Anyway, I have decided to take a little break from the blog. Not for too long, but the remainder of April is going to be very busy on the home front. In the meantime, the gateways to the northern dimension are always to your right if you need a little early morning discussion or late night entertainment.

pühapäev, aprill 06, 2008

tanking in tallinn

Explain this for me:
Support for the ruling Estonian Reform Party (ER) has declined over the past month, according to a poll by TNS Emor. 30 per cent of respondents would vote for the ER in the next legislative election, down five points since January.

The Estonian Centre Party (KESK) is second with 27 per cent—up four points in two months—followed by the Union of Fatherland and Res Publica (IRPL) with 16 per cent, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) with 12 per cent, the Estonian Greens (EER) with eight per cent, and the Estonian People’s Union (ERL) with four per cent.

Reform Party has gone from enjoying a post-Bronze Soldier crisis high of 43 percent support in July 2007, to just barely topping KESK in this recent poll. Why? Perhaps call it the 'Ansip malaise' -- no euro adoption, higher inflation, a cooling real estate market, and, in general, no big plans for, uh, reform.

Meanwhile, government investments in research and development, education, and health care aren't really matching Estonia's neighbors', and so human development also lags behind. The average Estonian man lives to the age of 66. His Finnish counterpart lives to 79. For all the new, shiny commercial buildings in Tallinn, maybe the average Andres hasn't been feeling enough love from Stenbock House. What's your take?

neljapäev, aprill 03, 2008

nägemist, ilkka

One has to wonder at what point between Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva's departure from Ljubljana, Slovenia, his arrival in Tallinn, his dinner buffet at Kadriorg, and then his no-show at the Lennart Meri Conference session on Baltic and Nordic cooperation the following morning, did he get a text message from Kokoomus leader Jyrki Katainen telling him that he was out and Alexander Stubb was in.

I had a feeling that the endless global media coverage about Kanerva's textcapades with an adult entertainer 30 years his junior may have been getting to Katainen, who perhaps fretted about what impact this would have on the marketability of Kokoomus' conservative chic. But I also wondered who knew what and when. Did all the politicos at the conference know Kanerva's fate before we did. And how long is the delay between official knowledge and public knowledge?

In someways it reminds me of the NATO Bucharest summit. President Bush went on tour in Kiev publicly backing membership action plans for Ukraine and Georgia. And yet it has been widely known for weeks that Germany would oppose MAPs for these two countries. So did Bush utter those words in Kiev just for show and to encourage further reform in these two countries, knowing all along that no matter how hard the US promised to fight in Romania, their fates were decided before the summit? Maybe. But who knew what and when, and how did that influence the show we see on TV? I think a lot of people ought to be asking themselves that question.