esmaspäev, juuni 30, 2008

tume energia

There is something about the word "Duma" that doesn't sound right in the Estonian language. Perhaps it is that, at least to my ears, it resembles the word tuuma --nuclear. And what does a tuumajaam (nuclear power plant) generate? Tume energia -- literally "dark energy."

Yesterday's display of dark energy came from the lips of Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma committee on international affairs.

Kosachev himself is an example of the weirdness of Russian political life. He is technically a politician, but he never faces off in a competitive election. So he's not actually accountable to anyone. It's not like it is in the US, where if you got tired of Sen. Alphonse D'Amato you could trade him for Sen. Chuck Schumer, or if you got tired of watching fake cowboy Sen. George Allen tossing footballs out to the crowds, you could part ways with him and vote for Sen. Jim Webb. No, Russia is stuck with Kosachev. He is only responsible to the chairman and CEO of Kremlin, Inc. -- Vladimir Putin.

His speech, through which he tried to deplore the hypocrisy of the European community in its attitudes towards last year's riots in Tallinn, came out all wrong:

“In Estonia when the defenders of the monument celebrating the conquerors of fascism were beaten by police, there were no open letters, or resolutions to the European Parliament, no condolences sent - only complaints that youths outraged by murder had interrupted the Estonian ambassador’s transportation.”

Is it just me, or is there something a bit chilling about the Russian usage of "youths"? It reminds me of another fellow that's always on about the "youths" and their service to the cause.

The dilemma here really comes back to the Potemkin candidacy of "politicians" like Kosachev. And that is that the Nashi "youths" who harassed the Estonian ambassador's transportation are a pro-Kremlin group founded by and funded by the state. They were working, like everyone else, at the behest of Mr. Putin and his "United Russia" party. How can their outrage ever be taken seriously? Who buys them their neat jackets and organizes their camp love-ins?

Then, of course, we must unpick Kosachev's statement. Were his loyal "youths" beaten because they were "defending the monument" or because they were throwing rocks at police? I was in Tallinn the week after the show went on, and I witnessed first hand the huge damage to private and public property. In my opinion, there was probably not enough police presence in Tallinn during the first night of disorder. Perhaps Mr. Dmitri Ganin would still be alive had the politsei managed to seal off downtown. But that would have taken extra police muscle, and, as we can see, the police are expected to subdue drunken rioters hurling stones with soothing words and kid gloves.

How the police doing their job is equivalent to Russian state officials beating up Mari activists, I am not quite sure. But, in Kosachev's mind, the Finno-Ugric World Congress was the place to remind the Estonian delegation that they were in Russia, an unfriendly country. Kosachev's United Russia ventriloquism was on display the day previously where he said that Ilves' speech to Finno-Ugric minorities was "incorrect" because he had mentioned the dreaded "i" word -- independence. Note to Ilves, next time make sure Russia corrects your speeches before hand.

In any other country, Kosachev would just be another annoying lawmaker. But the fact that he is accountable to one man only, and therefore must do the bidding of that one man, means that refusing to listen to the insinuations of Kosachev is the equivalent of refusing to listen to the insinuations of that one man.

Some people think that Estonia's Russian policies have failed because Estonia used the "i" word, or forgot to thank Russia for liberating its parliamentarians of the 1920s and 30s from their lives. But, please, let's be serious shall we. This is a show. It is a show where Estonians can earn the respect of their constituents by walking out of an assembly, and where unelected sycophants like Kosachev can earn brownie points from their all-powerful boss/bosses.

This is not something that matters like missile defense strategies or access to oil and gas reserves. This is a row about nothing. Really, think about it, what are the Estonians and Russians mad at each other about? Statues? History? Attitudes? Language requirements for civil service positions? Preambles to border treaties? And this impacts our daily lives how? Exactly. Just as Seinfeld was a show about nothing that managed to stay on the air for nine seasons, the Estonian-Russian crisis continues to pump out juicy headlines about ... nothing.

Everyone benefits and the only people it really hurts is the Estonian transit industry (to the benefit of Russian competitors) and the Estonian Russian minority, whose would-be perspectives are overshadowed by Russian meddling and Estonian obtuseness. Do they even have an opinion? Who cares! Let's argue about "fascism" and how prominently monuments are displayed in the capital cities of foreign countries. Ah, Christ. There's a good Monty Python sketch in here somewhere. I just know it.

pühapäev, juuni 29, 2008

ilves medvedev

The expectations were nil. The postmortems have been not so good. And yet, there was something comforting about seeing the giant from Ärma and the bear cub from Kupchino seated next to one another, framed by their respective flags. Perhaps diplomatic niceties that cost each side nothing are in order.

neljapäev, juuni 26, 2008

can you manage?

On Jaanipäev, we went to visit Tiina and Mart, some friends who were back in Estonia, but actually live elsewhere in the European Union.

As our conversation wound its way around various topics, Tiina asked me about my experiences living in Estonia as a foreigner. Up until this point, the conversation had progressed in Estonian, but then things got complicated.

"Kas sa saad hakkama*?" she asked.

"Mida?" I responded.

"Kas sa saad hakkama?" she asked again.

"Mis hakkama?" I said.

"I am sorry," I continued in English. "Can I start what?"

"Can you manage?" she asked again in English.

The verb hakkama means "to start" in Estonian. When used with saada in a question form, it usually translates as "can you do x?" For instance, kas sa saad mängida? translates as "can you play?" while kas sa saad aidata? translates as "can you help?" But not kas sa saad hakkama? That somehow translates as, "can you manage?"

This reminds me of the time we were at Pille's and I rose to get some more food. Pille brought the plate to me and ordered me to tõsta ise. "Raise it up by myself?" I asked, somewhat foolishly. In English we would have said "help yourself," but in Estonian, apparently, one uses the fork to literally "raise" or "lift" or tõsta the food on to their plate.

But back to managing. That was an interesting question indeed. I gather from reading some of the comments on this blog that some people simply cannot manage dealing with the rednecks of Paide, and have opted to deal with the earthquakes and mudslides of California instead. But, I feel that given enough time, I could learn "to manage" anywhere.

Occassionally, I get a weird feeling when I am driving through the environs of Tartu, looking over magnificent, sprawling fields and endless blue skies, with the radio on playing some accordion-backed Estonian classic. I feel that this place is very special and endearing. And yet, at the same time, I know in my bones that I am not of this place, nor will ever be of this place. I am a foreigner.

Fortunately for me, Estonia is an anonymous, northern European country, where nobody really cares where you come from, or at least they won't tell you they care to your face. All social interaction is conducted at arms length, and so it is easier to manage here than, say, in Germany or France or even the UK, where one might feel they are stuck in cultural quicksand, sinking into an abyss of foreignness.

In the UK, one might feel that they are being suffocated by Britishness. I recall sitting next to a drunk Briton on a bus in Kidlington as he explained to me how Portuguese football coach José Mourinho's managerial skills left much to be desired -- as if I knew what he was talking about, or could bring my own anglo slang to the party. Thankfully, nothing like that would happen to you in Estonia, as people don't speak to each other on public transport.

So, yes, I can manage. It was nice of Tiina to ask that -- to imagine that I might too have feelings and sentiments about my own life. Honestly, I am so immersed in my daily routines, that these larger existencial questions often pass me by. But can some people not manage? And why? Those are interesting questions.

* This post has been updated to correct a spelling error. I originally wrote hakkada instead of hakkama. The Estonian language takes two verb endings -ta/da and -ma. I have generally learned the distinction of when to use them by ear. I have also learned to spell some words by ear. It should be hakata, rather than hakkada. Why does hakkama have two 'k's while hakata only has one 'k'? I don't know.

teisipäev, juuni 24, 2008

i disagree

The recent decision by the parliament of Lithuania to ban both Soviet and Nazi symbols, as well as national anthems, is, in my mind, a mistake.

It is not a mistake of "blasphemous" proportions, as the policy shapers in the Kremlin will tell you. That they are so uncomfortable with unauthorized history telling is their own national pathology. I have chosen to put them on ignore.

But it is a mistake because I believe that the prohibition of these symbols only makes them more sexy; by turning them into contraband, you reinvigorate the desire for access. By banning something, you only make it more powerful.

And do not look West for inspiration, because we have not handled the legacy of the Second World War well either. For reasons unknown, we use it as some sort of moral compass. All political decisions can be fed through the Neville-Chamberlain-in-Munich-o-meter for the detection of various strains of appeasement. The words "Versailles" and "Sudetenland" may not mean anything to the average person, but they know the Austrian with the funny mustache when they see him.

If you take a few steps back, you can see that we are all really quite mad. We treat both of these regimes, Nazi and Soviet, as if they were not our own, as if we were not related to them, the same way that we may not wish to be related to a certain odious relative. But the fact is that we are related to that relative, and you can no more sever your genetic fabric than you can sever your connection to history. You can cut your relative out of photos, but that doesn't mean he wasn't there. You can ban symbols or music, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist.

And why do you ban music and symbols? Thanks to my exposure to these symbols and music, I have actually come to see the cultural legacy of both regimes as terrifically antiquated and reliant on outdated forms of media. I mean, the Soviet and Nazi cultural legacy comes down to bold poster art and creaking film strips of parades. There are some people who live vicariously through such art forms, but to most people, the only thing that could make them interesting is that you are not supposed to be looking at them; in the same way that a person views the wall that separates them from the X-rated section of a video store, a person can view the legal trip wire that might be set off should he drive around town in Vilnius blasting the Soviet national anthem.

But he probably wouldn't drive around town doing that, anyway. Why? Because he knows some big Lithuanian dudes nearby named Daumantis and Algirdas might decide to take the law into their own hands. And so social mores prevent our hypothetical Soviet propagandist from performing his musicology experiment. No laws are necessary.

Why do lawmakers consistently waste their time delving into this stuff? It's not just in the Baltic rim countries; all over the world parliaments churn out ceremonious gobbledygook that barely impacts the lives of average people. And it creates distance between the representatives and their constituents, because, believe me, the first thing on the people's agenda in Estonia, for instance, might be increasing worker productivity and lowering inflation. Banning symbols and music is something you might do after happy hour at Stenbock House.

Or maybe I am wrong and this is all ok with you. What do you think?

esmaspäev, juuni 23, 2008


Today is Võidupüha, or Victory Day in Estonia. It's part of a long weekend called Jaani which combines Võidupüha together with St. John's Day (Jaanipäev), to create an orgy of meat grilling and beer consumption.

Why Võidupüha? This is the interesting thing about living in a country that was founded in 1918. In the US, our country was founded in 1776, and so many of us are well acquainted with the political and social fabric of that time. Even today, you'll hear American politicians occasionally roll their tongues as if their speeches had been lifted from the works of Thomas Paine.

But in Estonia, the backdrop is the end of World War I and the Estonian Independence War that followed. Võidupüha commemorates the victory of the Estonian Liberation Army over the troops of the German Landeswehr at Võnnu (Cēsis, Latvia) on this date in 1919.

For a country that has been victorious in so few battles, they really savor this one. And by "savor," I mean play accordion music and load up on food supplies and alcohol. The line at the local supermarket was long; Estonians filled their carts with mind-boggling procurements of beer, jars of pickles, buckets of saslokk, all while generic accordion music set to an umpa rhythm called out from the speakers.

It seemed odd, really. Estonians? Festive? Not working? Going to a party? Why, that must mean that it's summertime. For my part, I bought a tub full of greasy juustu-sibulla leivad (cheese and onion bread), and two packs of A. Le Coq to ... celebrate the victory at Võnnu. I also made sure to put the sinine-must-valge up outside, just to remind any Germans that might happen to pass by who is boss in this land of umpa music and great beer.

kolmapäev, juuni 18, 2008


I have heard a number of political rumors, but one circulated by Eesti Päevaleht is by far my favorite: that Jüri Pihl, the Minister of the Interior, is navigating his way into the top seat in the Estonian government.

The rumor is based on several assumptions. The first is that, if the et tu Padar? moment is to come and Reform is to be forced into opposition, then the Social Democrats, and their measly 10 seats in the Riigikogu, will play deal maker for a collaboration between the interests of IRL and the Center Party. This would mean that SDE would be able to demand the top concession, the prime minister's seat, in the new government.

The second assumption is that Pihl, not SDE leader and Finance Minister Ivari Padar, is more favored for the job. I mean, let's face it, prime ministers have to get up early, wear suits all the time, travel abroad, and give boring speeches about cyber attacks and e-stonia. Why would a guy from rural Võru county, like Padar, volunteer for a position like that?

The third assumption is that Pihl has built himself a veritable tower of power within the security services. By combining institutions and appointing loyalists he now has an important power base in the country, somewhat equivalent to Reform Party's friends in the banking industry and the media, or Center Party's pals in the transit sector. He now has a position from which he can effectively bargain. Perhaps he even has a secret file marked "dirty laundry."

laupäev, juuni 14, 2008

luck of the irish

What is it about Europeans that makes them blind to the fact that they live on one continent, or at least one sub-continent with common cultural furniture?

To an American, if you fly east across the Atlantic, you inevitably reach one of two landmasses, Europe, with its medieval architecture and fondness for electronic music, or Africa, with its post-colonial blood feuds and civil wars.

But in the eyes of some Europeans, Europe is anywhere else but here. Here's a quote from an Irishman who voted no on the Lisbon Treaty last week:

"You know, I love traveling through Europe, but I don't really want to live there all the time. I'd like to stay as close to America as Europe."

Except it's 3,000 miles from Ireland to the US, my dear euroskeptic Irishman, and less than 300 miles from Ireland to France. That means that you really are closer to Europe than the US. You can't be as close to America as to Europe because it is actually farther away.

Here's another gem from one of our Western European friends, this time a Spaniard:

"Spaniards feel Spanish, the French feel French, and the Dutch feel Dutch. We will never all be in the same boat."

Except Spaniards don't feel Spanish anymore, do they? They feel Galician and Catalan. They feel Basque, just like the Basques in France. And do the Belgians really feel Belgian? Or do some feel more Flemish than Belgian? Remind the EU not to include the word "feel" in the next version of the constitutional treaty they cook up.

There are a few other reasons why I am mad at Ireland this weekend. One is that they have proven that humans are indeed a cynical species. Humans just take take take, and they don't reciprocate. Common currency? Oh, I'll have that. Structural funds? Yes, please. Publishing EU documents in Irish to make you feel good? Naturally. Treaty that civil servants slaved over and nearly all political parties endorse? No to you, EU! We are suffering from Eurofatigue, I mean ... look at all the immigrants. That's another rich one from the Emerald Isle. Immigration fatigue. This from the country that sent its people around the world by the boatload to colonize other countries, one pub at a time.

But, I digress. Estonia is guilty of this way of thinking, too. I once told a woman that I was headed to Poland (the trip was canceled in the end, but never mind). "Oh," she said. "You're going to Europe." "But I am in Europe," I insisted. "Not really," she replied.

On another occasion, a gentleman came back from skiing in the French Alps. "I just got back from Europe," he said. "Dude," I pulled him aside. "We are in Europe. Estonia is part of Europe." "Sort of," he agreed, "but we are more on the edge of it." Right. Roman alphabet. Lutheran churches. Blond people named Katrin and Karl. EU Member State. Not exactly Europe.

In instances like these, I'd like to know exactly where this mysterious Europe is. Some represent it as the mountain villas of France. Others see it as the murky canals of Amsterdam. And still others think of it as a leaning tower somewhere in northern Italy.

Wherever Europe is, people sure like its valuable money and its passport-free travel. But, for whatever reason, they don't take kindly to its treaties. Maybe the treaties would finally pass if Brussels let the Europeans vote on them, rather than those pesky Irish, French, and Dutch instead.

reede, juuni 13, 2008

the good english

A little while ago I wrote a critique, chiding the Estonian government and media for the inaccessibility of quality English-language material in the global information market.

To be really honest, I sort of hate it when English-speakers whine about not being served in English wherever they go. Anyone who thinks they should be able to perform every function in a foreign country in the language of Her Majesty is kidding themselves. And even if you do manage, you are always putting the burden on others, you ungrateful sods.

On the other hand, English is useful. The Lennart Meri Conference in March was held exclusively in English, even though this is Estonia. I have been transcribing the remainder of conference as of late, and I was particularly impressed with the linguistic skills of Sven Mikser, who chairs the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs committee.

You should bear in mind that it is one of my objectives in life to obtain some fluency in the Estonian language. I practice everyday in various circumstances, and I try to broaden my source material by listening to boring Estonian radio programs in the car or watching talk shows on TV. The problem is that I don't think I'll ever be able to catch up with Mikser, who has probably been learning English since a relative gave him a contraband Thriller LP for his tenth birthday.*

Just check it out:

To draw in Iran, a little bit. I would say that there seems to be a marriage of convenience instead of love between Iran and Syria. The clique in Syria seems to be buying domestic legitimacy by trumpeting this almost extinct cause of Arab nationalism, which has given way to radical Islamism. But, by trying to lead the cause of Arab nationalism, it is actually deferring to non-Arab Tehran. So how do you see this axis evolving over the next couple of years?

Now, how the hell would I ever manage to say anything so eloquent in Estonian? "Marriage of convenience instead of love"? "Buying domestic legitimacy"? "Trumpeting this almost extinct cause of Arab nationalism"? Mind you, not "espousing" or "professing" or "endorsing," but "trumpeting"! Can you use the Estonian equivalent of the word for trumpet (trompet) as a verb? Kas keegi saab trompetada eesti keeles? On tõesti võimalik või?

I am not the only one who should be jealous of Mikser. Compared to Mikser, other Estonian politicians sound like the Swedish chef. They can only dream of one day being able to speak "the good English" as well as Mikser does. And I can only dream of being able to say something like that in eesti keel.

*As far as I know, Mikser did not receive Michael Jackson's Thriller for his birthday. I was just making that up, to show that, typically, foreigners have been learning my language longer than I have been learning theirs. Maybe he got a Lionel Ritchie album instead.

kolmapäev, juuni 11, 2008

15 years

It's been nearly 15 years to the day since the Riigikogu passed the Law on Aliens, a legal document that defined the legal status of stateless residents in Estonia whose status came into question after the Citizenship Act was passed in February 1992, defining Estonian citizens as citizens of the Republic of Estonia prior to 1940 and their descendants.

There have been so many myths spun from the passing of these two acts that it is hard to discuss them all in a single blog post.

Myth #1 is that the laws were passed specifically to disenfranchise the Russian-speaking part of the population. Some Estonians support this myth. They use the alarming demographics of the 1989 census as the rationale behind the acts. But, in reality, roughly 10 percent of pre-1940 citizens were ethnic Russians. So this myth is actually false. In fact, I recently read that up to 10,000 people on the Russian side of the southeastern border -- which was Estonian up to 1944 -- have Estonian passports because of the jus sanguinis principle.

Myth#2 is that these acts disenfranchised 30 percent of the population. This myth is also somewhat untrue. For starters, because permanent residents have the right to vote in municipal elections, they are not completely disenfranchised. The second dilemma is that, as former Soviet citizens, they are entitled to Russian Federation citizenship, as the RF is the successor state to the USSR. They are therefore potential RF citizens who have not elected to file the paperwork to reconcile their status. Estonia requires them in most cases to pass an exam. But there are a variety of citizenship options available.

Myth#3 is that statelessness is somehow permanent based on ones historical status in Estonia. Therefore, to this day, you will read by some angry voices on the Internet that 30 percent of Estonia's residents still lack citizenship. In reality, the naturalization process has worked well enough that 8 percent of residents, or slightly north of 100,000 people, still have this status.

Sitting here in 2008, I feel quite different about these acts than I may have felt even five years ago. In the past, if you supported even the premise of Estonian independence, then you subscribed to the whole package, the language laws, the citizenship laws, and the interpretation by *some* Estonians of certain parts of history.

Today, though, it's hard for me to look at the young, smiling faces of the newly enfranchised from citizenship ceremonies in places like Jõhvi or Narva and think that a) they ever were really repressed in some way by the state or that b) they were ever in anyway truly not part of it. How could they have ever not been Estonians?

And so, the citizenship issue has become, in these 15 years, a formality. Estonia has already traveled so far down this road of naturalization on the basis of jus sanguinis that the endless hours of arguing over the acts of 15 years ago seem a waste of time. There is no going back. The decisions were made.

Increasingly, though, I find myself reevaluating this part of the Estonian package through a political lens. How did these acts get passed? Who passed them? It seems to me that the right-wing parties had a political agenda, and they hammered that agenda through. For them, we give thanks. Estonia successfully navigated its way to EU and NATO membership with limited domestic opposition. Estonia implemented a school reform policy to end asymmetric bilingualism. Estonia set up tax policies that, at least for the time being, significantly reoriented the economy. Pat yourself on the backs, guys.

Still, this political factor, that these were decisions made by parties perhaps out of their own self-interest, rather than just the national interest, poses an interesting conundrum for the future. The decisions of the past have been made. Estonia integrated fully into the West. Mart Laar's bold vision of the irreversible westernization of his country has been mostly achieved, and if the steady hand remains, that process will be concluded sometime in the next few years, when the rising generation of Estonians, born in a free, western Estonia, begin to be heard in the public discourse. All of these old debates will be as real for them as Vietnam is for the Lindsay Lohan generation in the United States. And what will the agenda be then?

I wonder how this process will be interpreted by this new Estonia, all of whom are enfranchised, but not all of whom were enfranchised from birth. Will the myths of national angst prevail? Will these older distinctions of citizenship manifest themselves in politics or in the work place? Will these acts still be seen as part of the Estonian package, or will Estonia have grown bigger than that, so that they are viewed dispassionately as history?

Will future generations of Estonians sit in history class, as I sat in mine, debating the merits of these acts, the same way we talked about the Missouri Compromise in eighth grade? We talked, argued, agreed or disagreed, but then the bell rang and we went to lunch, where we spoke of more important things, like the collapse in popular support for New Kids on the Block.

When I think about citizenship policies today, I feel like Estonia's finger is moistened and it's about to turn the page on this era. It hasn't done so yet, but there is a page-turning feeling of inevitability in the air.

esmaspäev, juuni 09, 2008

mission statements

The Economist's Edward Lucas has an interesting piece up about Latvia, dubbed "The Latvian Puzzle." Puzzling is the appropriate word.

I have no idea what to write about Latvia. Its politics are dominated by parties with names that don't seem to mean anything. I mean, who isn't in favor of a new era? Who doesn't wish for a country governed from the harmony center? And a union of greens and farmers? That sounds adorable. Do they also sell organic lemonade and rhubarb pies?

I think the opaqueness of reading Latvia comes down to this: Estonia, for all its warts, has a mission statement to become a wealthy, northern European country that exports its sheer brilliance. This mission statement is embraced by all political parties. The Reform Party uses it, the Social Democrats use it, even the Center Party will tell you that Estonia needs to adopt progressive taxation policies, because Estonia should follow the Nordic model more closely.

In my opinion, some questions that could help to solve the Latvian puzzle are:
  • what is Latvia's mission statement?
  • And, also, how do recent Latvian positions either contribute to or detract from that mission statement?
  • For good measure, we might also include, how does Latvia's mission statement, or lack thereof, impact Estonia's mission statement?
Daugavpils blogger Pēteris Cedriņš has been turning over this question in a number of posts in recent months. There doesn't seem to be an answer. But if you are looking to solve the Latvian puzzle, it might help to begin by asking questions about how Latvia envisions its future first.

pühapäev, juuni 08, 2008

what's with the red?

The Finnish Social Democratic Party has elected Jutta Urpilainen as party chair.

Urpilainen beat Erkki Tuomioja's quest to lead the party and, being only four years older than yours truly, is relatively young.

Urpilainen, like all good sotsid, prefers to cloak herself in red, the color of, uh, social justice and affection. See examples of her social democratic fashion statement here, here, and here.

Urpilainen, though, is not alone. Estonian sotsid have also fallen prey to the idea that if they wear red, votes will follow. Check out Heljo Pikhof, Marianne Mikko, and even Ivari Padar. Ah well, as they say, better red than ... whatever color this is.

laupäev, juuni 07, 2008

most like

There's a funny little poll to your right. In the context of defining who Estonians are, I have heard them compared to all of the categories.

Finns and Finland comes most readily to some minds. Despite the historical differences, the cultural ones are quite deep, suffice to say that when people ask me what some of the first words I learned in Estonian were, I must confess that they were actually in Finnish, like minä olen mies. You would think that the Internet sauna was an Estonian invention, but, sigh, it's not.

The German connection is also real. As Kalev Kesküla pointed out in a recent Eesti Ekspress article, in Finland, politicians condemn alcohol as a wicked vice; in Estonia, they put on their korporatsioon hats and drink beer with the students. Could Estonians be more sakslased than soomlased?

Some, though, like to stick the Estonians together with their Baltic neighbors, the Latvians. In their view, the Latvians and Estonians are pagan peoples who only like to sing and roast sausages yet frequently get screwed over by larger neighbors. As one Estonian confided in me, "whatever happens to them, will happen to us."

Estonian identity appears on its face to be built in response to Russian identity. "Whatever they are, we are not,“ think nationalistic Estonians. But if that were the case, then why did/do Russians love Georg Ots and Anne Veski so much? And how come so many Estonians just magically manage to switch to Russian when need be? Questions, questions.

Finally, Swedes. Estonians themselves have only produced a few films, including Noor Pensionär, Nukitsamees, Viimne Reliikvia, Jan Uuspõld Läheb Tartusse, and ...Did I mention Nukitsamees? But, if you really want to understand the Estonian psyche, I suggest you simply borrow the works of Ingmar Bergman. Try The Virgin Spring or The Seventh Seal for starters. Rape, murder, death, doom, and … some humor. It’s all in there.

kolmapäev, juuni 04, 2008


Walking around the streets of Tartu, you are bound to hear many languages. Language number one is, of course, Estonian. This is the native language of more than 80 percent of this city.

Language number two is Russian. There are other languages, too. You'll hear Finnish outside pubs, Italian in La Dolce Vita, and Polish outside the university's main building. Swedish is a hard one to recognize, because it sounds a lot like Estonian, only with different words. English, of course, is omnipresent.

And then there is German. Some Germans are local, others are students, a third group are tourists. I'm told that there are even some Baltic Germans in Tartu of ancient, sword-wielding stock. When I see Germans or meet them I an intrigued, but never tell them what I think, because the German soul is a mystery.

What I am wondering, though, is how exactly does it feel to be a German in a place that was formerly known as "Dorpat"? What kind of cultural deja vu do they experience when they realize that most of the architecture in the town center reminds one of the buildings back home? How does it feel to be introduced to a group of Estonians with names like Hans, Karl, and Katrin?

One German I know who has never visited was positively shocked when she learned that the Estonians were (unobservant) Evangelical Lutheran, punctual types who use European (German) words like reklaam and reisibüroo in their language. An instant kinship was born.

But what of the one's who have visited? Is there any connection, or have all warm feelings for the Teutonic past been locked away in the attic of the German national collective unconscious? How do Germans feel about Estland?


Remember a few months ago when I said I would probably support Hillary Clinton or John McCain because of their "experience." Sometime in February, I changed my mind.

The McCain option was just for fun: I think the Republican "revolution" of 1980 has long run its course. I mean, to what elderly statesman would McCain appeal to be his secretary of state? Alexander Haig?

With Clinton and Obama, perhaps it all came down to how they ran their campaigns. Hillary's suffered from infighting, debt, and a husband who just couldn't help but utter an expletive or two. The stereotype about Hillary -- that she would do or say anything to win -- was driven home to me by her fuzzy delegate math and arguments about which states should count and which ones shouldn't. Plus, I could never put my finger on why she wanted to be president, other than that she wanted to be president.

I must admit, the "entitlement thing", that, by somehow being a former first lady and senator in her second term she was "entitled" to the nomination, deeply annoyed me. The Clintons market themselves as electoral powerhouses, but Bill only got 43 percent of the vote in 1992, and owed Ross Perot many heartfelt thank yous for that one. Meantime, the DLC-led Dems, epitomized by the Clinton presidency, went on to lose congressional election after election from 1994 through 2004. Thanks for the memories, guys.

What I sense swayed others to Obama was that they could cut the Clintons out of the equation. There would be no rings to kiss, no misplaced expletives to suffer. Instead, they could all make a deal with the young, charismatic leader who managed to escape "Preachergate" relatively unscathed. Joe Biden could be secretary of state, John Edwards attorney general. Maybe Bill Richardson could be vice president. It's the kind of big-wig deal making that last went on, oddly enough, back in 1980, when the interests of Bush, Kissinger, Haig, et al., all coincided with that sunny optimist and his dish full of jelly beans, Ronald Reagan.

So, in a way, that is what we are voting for in this election. The leftovers of Nixon-Ford-Reagan-Bush-Bush, or a semi-new constellation of leadership. We'll see how the general election plays out, but I understand why so many voters responded well to the theme of change.

* By the way, Obama isn't the first person "of color" on a major party presidential ticket. Herbert Hoover's vice president, Charles Curtis, was half Native American. He also was the last vice president to sport a mustache.

pühapäev, juuni 01, 2008

a critique

On Friday I tried to access the Estonian Foreign Ministry's webpage, but it returned an error. The page simply could not be accessed. "Is this another cyber attack?" I thought to myself, scratching my head. But, fortunately, it seems to have been just a temporary outage.

Not that it would have done me any good to visit. The Estonian Foreign Ministry's website is available in Estonian and English, which is nice, but it typically takes days for the English-language updates to be posted after the Estonian ones. In the Estonian-language version, it's already May 31, but in the English-language version, it's still May 27.

This communication problem is, sadly, exemplary of a larger inability of the Estonian government, or indeed, other actors within Estonia, to communicate efficiently outside of the domestic market. Do a search in Google news on "Estonia" at anytime and you are likely to produce material from three sources: American or British press, which relies heavily on news services, like Reuters or AP; more analytical journalism or editorials, typically from the Jamestown Foundation or The Economist; and Russian-state owned propaganda, which covers only two themes: a) Estonian glorification of fascism; b) abuse of the rights of Russophone Estonians.

What is lacking is an Estonian voice in that information space. Other countries that wish to be heard, like Georgia or Poland, have official "news wires" that post information that gets recycled internationally. Estonia has instead decided not to participate in publicly funded information campaigns, and I understand why. Why should Estonia fund state propaganda to tune out Russian state-owned propaganda networks? By acting like them, doesn't that make us just as awful?

I have never believed that counter-propaganda is the answer to the inaccurate nonsense that spews forth from paid hands like Russia Today, who somehow can turn an Estonian communist who died in 1938 into a "Soviet war hero" and not blush. Instead, the only proper avenue in an information war is to saturate the market with more diverse opinions that swamp the primitive messages of the state-owned propaganda dealers.

The problem here can be solved both by creating a more prolific information environment that is geared towards the external media market as well as towards the domestic market, and by some non-governmental actors, especially the press, to do the same.

Perhaps it would sully the liberal reputation of Estonia to release the statements of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on English-language news wires. But it would not discredit the reputations of partially government-funded think tanks, like the International Center for Defense Studies, to do the same. ICDS publishes a quality journal called Diplomaatia and regularly publishes insightful English-language material. Yet this information is not being disseminated to the extent that it could be.

And what of the Estonian press, that great love-in between the interests of Norway's Schibsted and Hans Hansapoeg Luik? Postimees debuted a Russian-language edition, but couldn't Postimees, Eesti Päevaleht, Äripaev, or Eesti Ekspress, at least circulate on a weekly basis some of their most prescient editorials in the English language? And by no means do they have to stop at English. If the Estonians could penetrate the Francophone, Germanophone, or Swedophone readerships, then the more the merrier.

Look at the Helsingin Sanomat. It has full, English-language international editions with archives going back to 1999. If you want to know about the Finnish position on the cluster bomb ban, go and read, it's all there. Shouldn't Estonia also have something like that? Shouldn't tech-savvy Estonia, with its Skype development office and its Second Life embassy, also have at least one of its newspapers available in an international format?

What do you think?