reede, jaanuar 30, 2009


Marta, our daughter, was watching Pippi Longstocking one day and pleaded with us to go to Africa, like Pippi and her friends Tommi and Annika.

Epp picked up on this riff and located a relatively inexpensive package to Gran Canaria which, being off the coast of Morocco and West Sahara, can easily pass as "Africa" for 5-year-old dreamers.

But the real rationale behind our expedition to Gran Canaria was to retrace the steps of my spouse a decade prior. Back in 1999, a younger, more idealistic Epp worked in a local market here with fellow Estonian hippies selling trinkets and sleeping in the mountains. Epp also kept a journal: a journal she left behind in a bag at her friend Manuel's hotel.

I had no idea what to expect of these Canary Islands. I had read next to nothing about them, and I have only picked at the Estonian and English language guidebooks that have been among our possessions for the past few days. Our plane was filled with Estonians, but the flight attendants spoke Spanish and Russian.

Maspalomas, where we are staying, is brimming with pasty northern Europeans, who like bratwurst vendors and Irish pubs so much they brought them along on the plane. The local Supermercado peddles in Finnish Koskenkorva vodka but is fresh out of the local Canarian gofio bread because foreigners "have no idea what gofio is," according to the sales clerk. As I walked home from the Supermercado, I was serenaded by a Peruvian pan flute version of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."

Marta, meanwhile, has befriended a half-Finnish, half-Russian girl named Jennifer to whom she speaks in English. I managed to say "Terve", "Privet", and "Hello" to Jennifer and tried to figure out how to convert Estonian words to Finnish ones. Would "vanha äiti" pass as "vanaema"? Apparently not.

Manuel's hotel was in Arguineguin, a smaller, less touristy place than Maspalomas. Maspalomas is an urban jungle of hotels packed with foreigners; Arguineguin is a sleepy Atlantic Spanish town. Epp found her way from the bus stop to the supermercado where she used to hang out and recognized the clerk, Rene, who was still working there. Rene at first did not recognize the woman standing before him, but then realized that the carefree "Epah" of 1999 had returned with her husband and two daughters ten years later.

The hotel, however, was no longer there, and neither was the bag. It turned out that one day a year or two ago, one of the other Estonian hippies stopped by this very supermercado and chatted with Manuel, who mentioned that "Epah" hadn't picked up her bag. The Estonian hippie agreed to take it off his hands, and so now we are trying to track down a mysterious guru named Vello Vedelik who is somewhere on this island together with a horde of trinkets and beads and Epp's travel journal from 1999.

Of course his name is Vello. If you want to make your child a recluse, then by merely blessing him with this name you will have done the trick. If you want your child to be a president, then something formal like Lennart Georg or Toomas Hendrik will do. If you fancy an entertainer, then Marko or Lenna will suffice. But if it is the kind of human being that cannot be contacted by phone or e-mail in 2009, then chances are it's a Vello you are after. And so we are.

Tomorrow we will go to the Maspalomas weekend market to see if Vello Vedelik shows up in his Jesus Christ Superstar-inspired attire to sell to the crowds of Swedes and Brits and Deutschlanders. Then we will see if he's got the lost journal stashed somewhere in his mountain getaway. Our adventure has only just begun.

esmaspäev, jaanuar 26, 2009

haarde day's night

In the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik this week a government fell. Last week, Prime Minister Geir Haarde gave up Commerce Minister Bjorgvin Sigurdsson to satiate the blood lust of the Christmas-tree burning masses. Now Haarde has handed in his own resignation.

The forecast? Possible leadership under a 10-year-old party called the "Social Democratic Alliance" together with its icky-sounding partners, the "Left-Green Movement" (not to be confused with the party "Icelandic Movement - Living Land" [splitters!]). Elections in May (they had been scheduled for 2011) to follow.

While Estland is not Iceland, the political squabbling that undermined its government is similar. In Iceland, you had a 'grand coalition' of liberals and social democrats. In Estland, the coalition includes the Social Democrats, who are willing yet ideologically dissimilar partners for a center-right government. Such coalitions are typically formed for political expediency, though ideology is known to rear its head.

As Haarde's liberal Independence Party heads into opposition, questions arise as to how a center-left government in a small, northern European country that is grappling with an economic crisis will rule. As I have written about previously, we still do not know what this coming renaissance of social democracy may bring. The labor movements of the 1930s have long faded from public memory, and the halcyon 1960s were experienced by today's political leaders only as children. There has been no reformulation of social democratic policies. The red symbols of these parties are cute, yet anachronistic.

In Estonia, the position of the center-left parties, including SDE and the Center Party, is more dubious. In the nordic countries, even outliers like Iceland, social democrats have some electoral track record. In Estonia, SDE is in the government and shows no interest in working with the leadership of KERA, while KERA is in opposition and is hoping to woo SDE. What haunts both parties is that there hasn't been a popularly elected left-wing government in Estonia since 1929! Should Estonia undergo a similar political shift, we will be heading into uncharted waters. In the meantime, we can watch Iceland for clues.

reede, jaanuar 23, 2009

christmas trees on fire

Politics is a dirty business. Politicians are perhaps attracted to it both by their patriotic idealism and earnest hope to serve their communities as well as the lifestyle of catered lunches, expensive rides, and ability to expedite favorable real estate deals.

In Estonia, Minister of Social Affairs Maret Maripuu has announced her decision to resign. She is the first minister of Ansip's 2007 government to leave office under pressure.

A pretty basic DPA Article* about the resignation highlights some of Estonia's identity issues towards the end of this Age of Globalization. "It is absolutely unfitting that in a country seeking world renown as an e-state, attempts have been made to block the transition to the payment of pensions via bank accounts, which is absolutely the norm in the Nordic countries," Maripuu is quoted as saying.

The same article goes on to discuss "Eurobarometer survey showing Estonians trust their government much more than is the case in the other Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, despite the social security payments mess and an economy that has been in recession for months. At 48 per cent, the Estonian government's trust rating remains well above the EU average of 34 per cent and three times higher than Latvia and Lithuania's figures."

Despite these differences, most international English-language news coverage of the recent riots in Latvia and Lithuania has shocked me by the lack of basic knowledge about Estonia. There is a general meme descending in the pages of usually reliable media that the economic crisis is going to undermine political stability in basically any formerly communist country you can name drop in an article.

Bulgaria? Hungary? Estonia? Romania? Stankonia? -- They're all the same boat, whoever they are. Except old Europeans Iceland and Greece have also been rocked by protests and pepper spray too. Icelanders even burned a Christmas tree this week as they attempted to storm their parliament building. Could it be the end of times?

While Iceland becomes the next Latvia, Estonia is still grasping for its inner nord to find its way through the hard times. Experts like Andres Kasekamp and Marko Mihkelson inform us that Estonians are much more practical and restrained; not given to bouts of domestic unrest. Let's hope that Estonia's committment to the ideals of the Swedish absolutists and their Finnic abhorence of standing in close proximity to other individuals will keep them off the slopes of Toompea for the time being.

*An earlier version of this post erroneously attributed the article to Reuters.

reede, jaanuar 16, 2009

knives out

If 2007 was the year of the unruly Tallinn adolescent, and 2008 was the year of the suddenly unemployed construction worker, 2009 may very well prove to be the year of the disgruntled pensioner in Estonia.

As previously mentioned, this is a year of two elections: the elections for European Parliament in June, followed by municipal elections in October.

Soon after the new year had been celebrated with caution from the Estonian President, Estonia's political parties were jockeying to draw first blood.

The scandal of the month belongs to the activities of Minister of Social Affairs Maret Maripuu from the Reform Party who has been criticized for her inability to fix an IT glitch that deprived state support to pensioners for months.

The Center Party is leading an effort to force Maripuu to step down, while the Social Democrats, who have also criticized Maripuu's performance in the past but are part of the ruling government, have taken a 'wait and see' approach. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has defended Maripuu, but said it will take some time to sort out the ministry. Perhaps he thinks that Maripuu's departure would be a trial run for his own.

This of course takes us back to the March 2007 parliamentary elections, in which Ansip's Reform Party scored a very narrow victory over Edgar Savisaar's Center Party. Reform won 31 seats in the 101-member body, while Center took 29 seats. The conservatives, IRL, won 19 seats, SDE took 10, and the Greens and agrarian People's Union took 6 seats apiece.

Reform had been in the ruling government with the Center Party since April 2005, when Ansip took over as PM. After the '07 elections it was believed among the Keskerakondlased that Ansip would flirt with the more ideologically similar IRL party, with whom it has always had a fractious relationship, but ultimately choose to partner with Kesk because it already was in the government and it would be easier to manage a two party "grand coalition" than a menage a trois of conservatives, liberals, and social democrats.

When Ansip deprived IRL leader Mart Laar of the coveted foreign ministry, the Keskid assumed that this would end the negotiations with Reform and that Ansip would come runnin' back to his old pal Savisaar. That didn't happen. Instead, Urmas Paet kept his post as FM, and Laar instead took no position in the government, deciding to play the role of party elder instead. The Center Party suddenly found itself in opposition -- and they were actually favored to win the '07 election.

Ever since that moment, the Keskid have been laying the ground for their return in the '09 election season. With most analysts predicting that economic growth will return to Estonia sometime in early 2010, the time would be ripe to seize power by September in order to take credit for the expected uptick in '10, riding that to electoral success in the 2011 parliamentary elections.

What is Keskerakond's strategy? Lay the economic crisis at the feet of IRL and Reform. It's their die-hard idelogical subservience to liberalism that has gotten Estonia in this predicament, and only Edgar Savisaar with his common sense and empathy for the common man can steer Estonia out this crisis.

Savisaar's opening salvo was a high-tech Christmas card where one could pick their name from a list and watch a paternal, pre-recorded Savisaar standing beside a bonfire in the forest say something like, "Saamuel, be a good person and take some hay to the animals, and remember to give Christmas presents to the children this year."

That was Savisaar showing his solidarity for the common man. Now comes the attack on Reform and IRL to paint them as out-of-touch liberal elitists (with an entirely different meaning from the 'limosine liberals' of American political discourse) who are too busy giving the people bread and circus of the erection and removal of monuments than to even pay the poor pensioners (most of whom live within a cat's whisker of abject poverty) on time.

In Tallinn, nearly every bus stop shows a large green poster blaming Reform and IRL for the souring of the Estonian economy. There is also a website advertised for those increasing numbers of discontented voters,

Politically, it is interesting that Kesk has decided not to blame SDE. Perhaps they harbor fantasies of forming a ruling center-left coalition with Finance Minister Ivari Padar's party. The only problem is that SDE has said that they would not be willing to partner with Kesk if Savisaar is the PM. And even if Kesk, SDE, the Greens, and the People's Union pool their votes, they'd still only have 51 seats in the Riigikogu -- not exactly the 60 seat majority that the current coalition has.

I can only guess is that Center intends to play hard and drive Reform's poll numbers into the gutter, delegitimizing Ansip's '07 win. It's already working. 35 percent of those interviewed in a December poll favored Center, compared to 29 percent for the ruling Reform party.

Those who ridicule the Center Party as the party of the marginalized Russophones might have a hard time explaining those numbers. Non-ethnic Estonians make up only 30 percent of the population in total, and a third of them hold foreign passports. No, there are plenty of Estonians who support Härra Savisaar's party -- among them the disgruntled pensioners who are increasingly featured on the covers of local newspapers, but also ... prepare to be shocked ... the local business community.

In the past, the business community -- a good deal of it controlled by Swedish or Finnish capital -- approved of Estonia's devotion to liberal economic policies. Having grown up under the thumb of nordic social democracy, these entrepreneurs welcomed Estonia into the fold and lobbied for its EU membership -- perhaps hoping to export Estonia's policies back into Finland or Sweden one day. These days, though, you can see them lining up behind former PM and businessman Tiit Vähi, whose critiques of the Ansip government are regularly published in the Swedish-owned business daily Äripäev.

And so it could be that an odd coalition of disgruntled pensioners and angry businessmen may eventually bring about a change of administration in Stenbock House in 2009. I am not sure how to prepare myself for a possible Savisaar administration, but I am starting to think I should brush up on my knowledge of life of another wily patrician from the center: Urho Kekkonen.

laupäev, jaanuar 10, 2009

mods, rockers, hippies, and ... skinheads?

I recently received a letter from the University of Tartu alerting me that the Regional Security Officer at the American Embassy in Tallinn would be in town to discuss an "event" that occurred involving an American student; an American student of African heritage.

Of course I didn't go and meet the officer. I had wood to load into the ahi and ice to remove from my windshield. I had a bad feeling though that another student of non-European descent had fallen prey to the skinheads of Tartu.

I have heard several second-hand stories of black or Asian students accosted late at night by purposefully bald-headed gentlemen who feel it is their personal duty to ward off such undesirable persons from their City of Good Thoughts. Usually, nobody gets hurt. The message, though, is clear. You may recall how the efforts of the purposefully bald allegedly caused the Dutch ambassador and his Cubano* male partner to leave Tallinn three years ago.

What to do? In these situations I pity law enforcement. You can't really arrest people for being purposefully bald or listening to message-driven heavy metal music or having tattoos. If you choose to decorate your living room with swastikas, that's your prerogative. The politsei have real business to attend to, like stopping crazy drivers on the Tartu-Tallinn road.

And besides, how do you know the purposefully bald gentleman in question might be a threat to society? He could just be a Hare Krishna. And if you try to track down a perpetrator, who has perhaps fled to the secret lair of the bald, how could you identify him? "What color eyes did he have?" "Blue." "What color hair?" "Skin."

But then students from outside Estonia come to visit the land of free wireless and online voting and they get harassed by some genuinely scary dudes. I once was held up for cash by a very intimidating purposefully bald man dressed in leather in Tallinn. He explained to me in Estonian, then Russian, then Finnish, and finally English (I was too amazed by the tattoo on his face to respond) that I should loan him some money. I obliged him; he seemed threatening, even though our ancestors both come from Europe.

Another time a pack of prematurely bald young men passed me on the street, one gave me the evil eye, to which I answered back a boisterous "tere päevast!" I secretly ponder what is the position of the baldheaded on persons of Mediterranean background. Did we spend too much time in the kiln of the creator or were we baked just right? In any case, we are probably low on the list: I mean, who has time for pestering paesans when there might be an unsuspecting Indian student on the next block?

I really have no idea what the solution is here, and I am not sure the Regional Security Officer at the American Embassy would know either. Without a crime, even a hate crime, there is no criminal. And even if you haul the perpetrator before the court, it's only one person, not an entire way of thought, that is on trial. As a resident of this city, I genuinely empathize for those people who are darker than blue. At the same time, I feel powerless when it comes to finding solutions.

esmaspäev, jaanuar 05, 2009

if the glove does not fit

I promised that I would not post on the trial of the four Bronze Soldier "defenders" until there was a verdict in the case, and today there was a verdict: not guilty.

The four -- Dmitri Klenski, Mark Sirõk, Maksim Reva, and Dmitri Linter -- had been charged with conspiring to foment the two nights of unrest in Tallinn in April 2007 in response to the removal of that statue to a military cemetery.

While some Estonians may have authoritarian impulses, the truth is that this country is as permissive as its nordic neighbors, and the BS riots were no exception.

The government didn't rip the statue out of the ground and dump it in the Narva river in indignation at the execution of almost all their predecessors by the Soviet state in the 1940s. No, they invited Lutheran and Orthodox clergymen to purify the ground and did DNA testing on the soldiers' remains to return them to their families.

The stone platform for Mr. Bronze was carefully assembled brick by brick in his new home at the military cemetery, only lacking the hammer and sickle halo that adorned the monument at Tõnismägi. "Careful with those bricks," Minister of Defense Jaak Aaviksoo perhaps muttered to his subordinates during the removal. "We want to make Härra Pronks' new surroundings as comfortable as possible."

The violence and alcohol-fueled looting that followed the removal has inspired many fingers to be pointed in a variety of directions. Some blamed the stubborn Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and his eager helpers Rein Lang and Jüri Pihl for stirring Tallinn's beastly youth to burn flags and steal Sprite.

Others blamed the nauseating 24-hour coverage by state-owned Russian TV news programs for creating an intense atmosphere of unease where any hiccup or sneeze near the monument was repackaged into propaganda and broadcast to the hungry masses.

I personally blamed demographics. The more Estonian Tallinn gets (55 percent of Tallinn residents identify as Estonian today), the less the city's residents wanted to deal with a May 9 celebration in the town center for eternity. They didn't necessarily want to remove the statue, but they also didn't necessarily care if it was gone either.

The state prosecutor's office, though, blamed Sirõk, Linter, Klenski, and Reva for organizing what was an extremely unorganized event. They had to put someone on trial, didn't they? They couldn't put themselves, ITAR-TASS, or the Estonian Statistical Office on trial. The four activists' path to the court room was clear.

If anything, they could have tried them for poor decision making or lack of organizational skills. But, in the end, the effort to tie recorded phone conversations and e-mails with urban anarchy didn't wash with the judge. In some ways, I am pleased that Estonia has demonstrated that it has a functional judicial system, where a citizen put on trial, even one as disliked as Klenski, can walk out of the court room with a big, clown-like smile on his face.

I am also pleased that this event/circumstance/situation, barring any appeals, has run its course. Sirõk can go back to school; Klenski can go back on ETV to crow in his overdone Estonian; and Linter and Reva can go back to doing whatever it is they did before. Your 15 minutes are up for now fellas, but don't worry, if Deep Purple can still get gigs in Tallinn, so can you!

laupäev, jaanuar 03, 2009

an encounter with the godfather

Wintertime is the time to be in Lõuna Eesti. Tallinn may have the medieval flavor, kitschy bars, and money-leaking tourists, but Tartu and environs have the winter sports, attractive Olympic gold-winning athletes, and somewhat less-attractive wannabe athletes as well.

Tartu also has the ice and snow, and the strange appearance of the sun during the past few days has meant that young fathers like myself who wish to spend quality time with their daughters have ventured forth, sled in hand, child in tow, to the Tartu Spordipark for some rigorous kelgutamine -- sledding.

All would be well, except yesterday my naine and lapsed had an encounter with Priit Pullerits, the godfather of Estonian journalism, a Postimees editor and columnist who provides his fellow maarahvas with crucial insights into winter sports and integration.

Pullerits, as you may recall, in 2007 raised the important question of why gay rights groups choose to parade down main thoroughfares, rather than gather beside lakes. But yesterday, he had something else on his mind: why were all these abominable tykes on sleds crowding up his cross-country skiing trails!

You see, the Tartu Maraton is just weeks away, and the Tartu Spordipark is the ideal place to train for the marathon, a 63-kilometer test of endurance. Kiddies on sleds may be useful inspiration for those journalists who wish to encourage Estonian population growth or stress the importance of exercise for today's Internet-loving slothful youth, but when the Estonian godfather of journalism straps on his suusad [skis], he means business and y'all better get the hell out of the way.

Fortunately, I wasn't there to witness Pullerits scold the children for interrupting his marathon training, but I did quiz our friend Mart, who was present for the scolding, about it. "So did you fight him?" I asked Mart, a calm man of Seto extraction who teaches nature restoration. "I beg your pardon?" he replied politely. "Did you fight Pullerits when he told you your kids couldn't sled on the course?" I asked again. Mart smiled to himself and responded in the negative.

Today we went back to Tartu Spordipark and were pleased to see that no one had heeded Pullerits' advice to stay completely clear of the cross-country skiing tracks. On the other hand, there were now so many skiiers that the kids and their sleds had migrated to a lone hill unfrequented by would-be Marathon participants. Besides, what responsible parent would let their kid sled in front of a Marathon man like Pullerits anyway? That would be a recipe for disaster.

And though the problem appeared to have been solved -- kids and sleds get their one hill, Pullerits and other ski-heads get the rest of the park -- someone had posted a large red and black sign at the entrance to the Spordipark that proclaimed that sledding on trails designated for skiers was strictly forbidden. "Ah," our friend Helen pointed out when she saw the sign. "I can see that our friend Pullerits has been here."