neljapäev, aprill 30, 2009

gospel of liberalism

I watched Finance Minister Ivari Padar last night on ETV and I was surprised by how bad he looked. Maybe it's the hellish job of being a social democrat in a center-right government, or just the fact that rumors are circulating that Prime Minister Andrus Ansip would like to dismiss him.

Padar's sin was making the argument that, rather than cut anymore at Estonia's already bare public sector, perhaps Estonians themselves could sustain a tax increase to pay for some of the services they enjoy.

This of course was not music to SDE's coalition partners' ears. Taxes, from the standpoint of liberals, always go down. They never go up. Given the choice between paying your teachers and nurses and sanitation workers a decent wage and lowering taxes, the choice is obvious: you lower taxes.

This is the philosophy of those who see the state as inefficient and intrinsically evil, though they don't mind running it themselves when given the opportunity. And if you really need money, the Swedes are always there to bail you out.

Except why is Sweden so sturdy and its satellite Estonia in such shit shape? Both nations should share the blame. The Swedes offered free money to the Estonians, and the Estonians took it, even though they couldn't pay it back. Now the relationship between the two countries has become even closer. Russia may own Estonia's past, but Sweden owns its future.

Estonian reliance on Sweden and Finland has created a narrowly structured economy heavily reliant on investments in financial intermediation, real estate, and the domestic consumption fed by both. Now that the money has dried up, Estonia has few places to turn. It keeps waiting for its shiny Nokia to appear, but it doesn't spend the same amount on R&D that Finland or Sweden do to produce those Nokias and Volvos and Ikeas.

Besides, investing the same amount of money in R&D to get to that point would necessitate capital, and perhaps even some tax increases. But such a scenario should never come to pass, because tax increases are not what Estonia is about. Here taxes are only supposed to go down, they never go up. If you need money, go ask the socialists in Brussels for it.

The problem with this philosophy is that, up until last September, the private sector was considered to be far more sophisticated than the public sector. Liberals could make their arguments based on the assumption that the financial managers knew best. Maybe they still do. Maybe Padar is wrong and Ansip is right. But how would we ever know. We are all tied to the theory of how things are supposed to work. But just a few years ago, these same characters were forecasting eternal growth and lighter tax burdens. Now, that appears to have been a fantasy.

So, on these days, I am happy I am not the social democrat Padar. But I am really glad that I'm not the liberal Ansip either.

esmaspäev, aprill 27, 2009

seto maffia

We only spent eight hours at our new place in Setomaa yesterday, but my entire body is exhausted. It's not like I took on particularly arduous tasks. It's just the constant movement: chasing children, carrying items, opening dysfunctional barn doors.

My wife's grandmother Laine did not approve of us finding a maamaja -- country house -- in Setomaa. She recommended Tõstamaa, the coastal area of Estonia north of Pärnu where she was raised.

I really like water too, Laine, but Tõstamaa is expensive. One might pay more more a rundown outhouse on the coast of Estonia than for what we dropped on a little house with a barn, sauna, and rundown outhouse in Setomaa.

There's something else you should know. Laine's husband Karl was born in Setomaa, though he is not himself a Seto, whatever that means. Seto people are basically Orthodox Estonians from the border region with Russia that speak a funky dialect that is very close to Võru, the main differentiator probably being faith, as most Võru speakers are Lutherans.

But the reality is that our nextdoor neighbors in Setomaa are like Karl in that they aren't Setos. They don't appear to be Orthodox. And they definitely didn't speak any special Finnic dialect with us. As far as I could tell from the conversation, these people moved to Setomaa for the fresh air and country life. They were sort of like us, we of the Italian family name.

Our friends Helen and Mart who live near Obinitsa aren't Setos per se either, though Mart has deep roots in Petseri, on the other side of the border, which makes him sort of like an exile Seto who has returned, I guess. Mart seems to know so much about Seto culture, that I cannot accurately represent his wealth of knowledge. One day in a parking lot in Värska, I told him it was hästi libe -- "very slippery" -- in Estonian. "Ah, but do you know what the word "slippery" is in Seto?" he asked, as if I might now. "It's %&#%." Or something like that.

All properties in our parish have names. Our farm, built in the 1920s, originally had a Russian name, like "Nikolaikova," that was shortened to a cute Estonian name, like "Niku." The farm was later bisected into two farms, and we were encouraged to choose a new farm name, while the other property owner maintained the old name, "Niku," for their farm.

This is actually a good example of how things can become Russified or Estonianized. If it is Russified, it becomes Orthodox and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. If it is Estonianized, it is rendered with a few extra vowels, some with diacritical marks, in the Roman alphabet. On the Estonian side of the border, there are villages with adorable names like "Lüübnitsa" and "Võmmorski."

I didn't like the existing name of our farm anyway, so Epp and I went back and forth trying to think of a new name. Epp suggested Leelo Talu, after the famous seto folk song form, but she later decided that it might seem obnoxious for some guy from New York and a lady from Viljandimaa to name their farm after the most sacred word in the seto vocabulary.

We played with other names, trying to remember the few seto words we knew. How about Ubina Talu -- "Apple Farm" -- because ubina is "apple" in seto language? No matter how hard we tried, these seto names didn't work for me. Why? Maybe because it's just a cosmetic way of appreciating the local culture. So we settled on Sassi Talu, after Epp's great-grandfather, who lived in Setomaa. I was told that this worked well because "Sass" is also a Seto name.

Then there is the discussion of what to do with the house. Most Seto interiors are spare and wooden, save for a ornate "Icon Corner" for the Virgin Mary. The Estonians I know seem to exotify the Orthodox Church. They have grown up as dull secular Lutherans, and anything with a splash of color and some incense is instantly more appealing. To me, though, these trappings of Orthodox life remind me of my own Catholic upbringing. Do I really need a mystical Orthodox portrait of the Virgin Mary on my wall? Really? Do I?

Maybe Seto folk patterns and colors would be a better route to show our appreciation for local tradition. As he is familiar with Seto architecture, Mart advises foresty greens or sky blues for the exterior trim on the house, and I am not opposed to green. I think it's a good choice. Still, I feel like a blind man, feeling his way around the southeast Estonian landscape. With some advise, the house might look great. Without it, it might look garish and out of place.

One bonus for me is that there are people in Setomaa who do speak the dialect, and in Tartu there is also a subset of people who belong to a category I call, "I have no idea what the heck this guy is saying," most of them either from Võru or Setomaa. One of them works at the place where I get my car fixed. Whenever he picks up the phone, it sounds something like, "%&%&? #%¤&! #¤#¤?" So, I figure that if I can break the Seto dialect, then I will hold the key to understanding all varieties of the Estonian language in my hand.

neljapäev, aprill 23, 2009


Our refrigerator now contains four round küüslaugujuustud -- garlic cheeses. It's mahe toit -- natural food, bought directly from this year's maamess.

We bought four of them, because if we had bought only two, they'd be gone in two days. With this investment, we managed to secure enough of our favorite cheese to last possibly a week.

The word mess in Estonian means something like "fair." Maa is "land," but it's also "earth," and it's also "ground" and it's also "country," so a maamess is a "landearthgroundcountry fair."

What does that mean? It means tractors and animal feed and forestry equipment and local cheeses and meats and vegetables and robotic masseurs and women's magazines and insurance companies and folksy newspapers and even political parties.

The patron political party of this year's maamess, as well as the countless other öko festivals and gatherings we have attended in recent years, is Erakond Eestimaa Rohelised -- the Estonian Green Party.

Founded prior to the 2007 parliamentary elections, the party used to seem like the brainchild of leader Marek Strandberg. Our well-meaning friends in the Estonian Social Democratic Party (SDE) advised us that the Greens would quickly implode following the elections; they were supposed to be the new "Res Publica" -- the ill-fated vehicle of Juhan Parts & Co. that merged with the smaller but more tenacious Isamaa Liit in 2006.

But the Rohelised did not implode. They still poll rather well. They have followers too -- men and women, young and old, estophones and russophones -- who don snazzy green t-shirts and stand in booths at gatherings like maamess to talk with possible voters. And I have to say that I like them, even if I am not sure what they stand for, other than eating organic cheeses and scoping out new tractors, because "greenness" is very appealing to Estonians.

Case and point, when we went to deliver two boxes of Roheliseks Kasvamine - "Growing Green" - a book authored by mu kallis naine, the guard at the gate waved us through: "You don't have to pay!" he smiled. "I am green, like you. We are on the same side!" I can imagine this social movement catching on because the devout brand of liberalism sold by the Reform Party doesn't look as appealing during a global recession, and the left-leaning populism of the Center Party isn't convincing because their leader is rather unattractive, yet thinks he can win votes by plastering his face all over Tallinn.

Estonia's two biggest parties are both money parties. They buy billboards and revolving signs and new brands of kohuke snacks. This kind of advertising does not convince me. Beyond Reform and Center though I am pretty content with the choices. The conservatives in IRL are an obstinate, history-obsessed bunch of professional Estonians, but I do not doubt that they love their country. The social democrats can be eurofriendly poseurs, but I share their concern for their fellow impoverished, drunken maarahvas. There are a lot of people living in squalor in Estonia. This is the truth.

Finally, there are the Greens, whose soothing öko colors strike me as the most Estonian of all. The Greens are not as well-financed as Reform or Center, so they actually have to do grassroots work to capture some votes. This kind of grassroots work is an essential component of a healthy parliamentary democracy. It is ideal that you go to a country fair to talk with politicians, rather than choose between the slogan printed on every Tallinn city garbage can and the promises displayed at every Tartu bus stop.

My only question is, if the Greens hang out at country fairs, where do the social democrats and conservatives hang out? Are there young co-eds in red SDE t-shirts canvassing at the local Taara punkt bottle return to reach the down-on-their-luck losers of neoliberalism? Do the representatives of IRL adorn folk costumes and hang out in the history sections of Rahva Raamat and Apollo bookstores next to the latest works of their party elders?

In some ways, I hope they do, because Estonian political parties are among the least trusted institutions in the country. A little more face-to-face time could go a long way; much longer than any kohuke, bus stop promise, or revolving sign.

esmaspäev, aprill 20, 2009

mongolian people's republic

My research into Estonia's June communists has yielded some interesting results.

The June communists were the armchair social revolutionaries and left-wing MPs drawn up by the Soviet legation in Tallinn in June 1940.

This government was installed following an ultimatum from Moscow to form a friendly government capable of carrying out the terms of the September 1939 mutual assistance pact. They were called "June communists" because they weren't actually communists. They just happened to find their communist souls after being instructed by the Soviet legation to do so.

Most had some connection with Moscow. They were brought into its web of deceit and blackmail via Soviet cultural diplomacy programs. They had been invited to present their poetry for example, by their Soviet "counterparts" in the USSR.

The head of this puppet government was Johannes Vares, a Pärnu physician and modernist poet. His deputy was Hans Kruus, a university historian. The foreign minister was Nigol Andresen, a school master with leftwing views.

According to the declaration of the government upon its installation, Estonia's new leaders would adopt a pro-Soviet position to enhance their country's independence and security. Between June 21 and the faux elections held July 14 and 15 -- which were not only unconstitutional, but closed to opposition and rigged by the Soviets -- the government continued to assuage the people that life would continue as it had before.

The elections would be free and fair, said Foreign Minister Andresen. Social Minister Neeme Ruus said that there would be no collectivization; that Estonia did not need collective farms. And at no point did anybody mention applying for membership in the Soviet Union.

The discussion of joining the USSR began on July 17 -- after the new parliament composed of handpicked Soviet stooges and leftwing intellectuals had already been "elected." Spontaneous demonstrations coincided with the outcome of a meeting between the Soviet emissaries in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that decided on the course of events that would see the occupied countries into the Soviet Union.

According to several sources, the June communists were actually surprised by this. They didn't mind the new found status of going from marginal politicians to national leaders, with the aid of Soviet tanks of course. Still, giving up Estonian sovereignty was not what they had in mind. Why, on July 17, the same day of the "spontaneous demonstrations," they had even welcomed the new Soviet envoy to Tallinn, who toasted Estonian independence and pledged to uphold the Treaty of Tartu.

Hoping to secure some other future for their country, the Estonian leadership proposed a different outcome to Andrei Zhdanov and Vyacheslav Molotov: Estonia would have the same status as the Mongolian People's Republic, not the Ukrainian SSR, as the draft of Estonia's resolution to incorporate with the Soviets had read.

The Mongolian People's Republic? It existed from 1924 to 1992 as a nominally independent Soviet puppet state, wedged between two ideologically similar, but geopolitically rival communist regimes. While they remained free to be Mongolians, rather than Soviets, life in the Mongolian People's Republic was no picnic. About 35,000 people were killed during purges in the late 1930s. Its national leaders and intelligentsia fell prey to the same orgy of bloodletting that took place next door in the USSR. Yet, in the perverted logic of 1940, the year that Hitler took Paris, this was a preferable fate to gaining the same status as Ukraine for an Estonian poet-physician, a historian, and a school master with leftwing views.

Zhdanov's response to Vares' Mongolian suggestion was to point a loaded revolver at him and threaten him with either death or detainment (sources differ) should he not fulfill the Soviet legations orders to vote Estonia into the USSR. The Lithuanian "foreign minister" Vincas Mickevičius had a similar idea. He actually visited Molotov in Moscow, and was told that in the future, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, would vanish as independent states, and that all of these diverse nationalities would be absorbed into the great Soviet people.

So there would be no special Mongolian status for Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania in 1940. But the idea is another to throw on the pile of big "what ifs" for Estonia, next to all the others.

neljapäev, aprill 16, 2009


We missed our flight to Helsinki by two minutes last week. We arrived at the check-in desk at 7.47 am, to be told by the clerk, a human devoid of all empathy, that two minutes is a long time in aviation. She had closed the flight at 7.45 am.

With our two children, one of whom was fairly sick, we explored other options. Despite the apparent unfairness of the situation, we decided to take a fast ferry to Helsinki and rejoin our journey to New York there.

But there was another problem. The 10 am fast ferry was cancelled due to ice in Helsinki harbor. At this point, I summoned my inner Sonny Corleone. I imagined throwing garbage cans at the Finnair customer service agents, three of whom hung up on me while they went to run my query past their supervisor.

Finally, a compassionate Finnish person arrived at a solution: they would inform the gate at Helsinki that four New York-bound passengers would be arriving a few minutes late. We then boarded a slow ferry to Helsinki that was scheduled to dock at 1 pm. If we took a cab, we could make it to the gate by 1.40 -- just enough time to board. So we relaxed on the ferry and listened to instrumental piano versions of "Garota de Ipanema" while I downed several more coffees -- necessary for supervising my children, as the wife was also under the weather (hence our early morning tardiness).

But there was a problem. A technical problem. The ferry did not dock until 1.20 pm. This allowed us 20 minutes for running the 250 meter long ramp off the ferry, hailing a taxi, speeding through the thickest Helsinki traffic, and getting to the international terminal at Vantaa. Of course we didn't make it. My lungs heavy with fluid from dragging a gigantic suitcase down a ramp at frantic speed, I was almost relieved when they told us that, at 1.53 when we arrived, we could not board the plane.

After going to the transfer desk, hat in hand, children in tow, my breath still heavy, a God of a customer service agent named Lindström decided to book us on a flight the next day. And we would have a full 24 hours to recuperate in the silence of Finnish suburbia. For reasons barely understood by me, I love Finland. Maybe it's because it's the place where I met my wife, or maybe the sky is so blue and trees so green, or maybe even because the people are helpful and unintrusive. Whatever it is, I was glad we were there.

The problem is that I wish it was easier to get there. It is an important place. And to get to this very important place, you either have to take one of two daily small planes or a ferry, that may or may not be running due to the weather. Wouldn't it be great if the politicians who constantly tease us with big ideas about a chunnel-like undersea connection to Helsinki would make good on their word and get to work digging it? Then I wouldn't have to nearly suffer cardiac arrest just to get between two points that are only 80 kilometers (55 miles) apart.

laupäev, aprill 11, 2009

... and even more rasmussen

As nations, the Danes and the Estonians have some things in common.

The males of these small Baltic Sea countries tend to subscribe to the lifestyle of perfunctory denim wearing, sausage grilling, and beer for breakfast, while the females play catch with mobile communication devices and obsess over ways to make their naturally blonde hair more interesting.

There are other similarities. Both Denmark and Estonia have three lions on their national coat of arms and like most northern Europeans, each country harbors the inner pride that their nationality is superior to all others, even if the national passtime includes complaining about the vanity and egomania of their civil servants.

But in terms of asserting this private sense of worthiness, the Danes and the Estonians are different. For Estonians, it is good enough to feel better than their eastern and southern neighbors. And even if the northern neighbors are better off and more secure, they're still inbred, inebriated, overweight, and speaking some archaic form of Estonian.

But for Danes, the Baltic Sea region is not enough. They once had Iceland and they still have Greenland, which, by definition, extends to a role in the Arctic. And they did keep Saaremaa until the mid-17th century. Why, they're a former great power, aren't they? Yes, a former imperial power that might still have by some fantastic stretch of the nationalist imagination a claim to Estonia. The Danes envision themselves as unsung leaders of the world, waiting for the opportunity to seize power so that they can make their Scandinavian righteousness and love of all that is just and good truly universal.

The recent decision to make current Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen the next head of NATO therefore is a step in the direction of eventual global submission to the wonders of the Danish way.

There were some issues with his appointment. Rasmussen is said to be unloved by the Russians, to which I ask in response, who is? Sometimes I doubt the Russians even love themselves. Next there were the Turks, unhappy about his free speech posturing during the cartoon scandal. No problem. Anders Fogh will have a Turkish deputy to keep him in line. Finally, there was the trouble of finding a replacement for Copenhagen's most toothy smile. The solution? Finance Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, aged 44. By having the prestiged surname alone, he qualifies for the job. And did you know that Løkke sounds a lot like the Estonian word for 'bonfire'? How pagan.

I have never met Rasmussen, but I once sat next to a guy on a bus who had. It was at the Lennart Meri Conference in 2007. We were headed to the Old Town, where Mart Laar was going to show us all the places Peter "the Great" passed out after long nights of debauchery. All the seats were occupied, except one next to an older gentleman with a moustache.

"Where are you from?" I asked out of politeness.

"Denmark," he sighed.

"Does Tallinn remind you at all of home?"

"Well, the weather certainly does."

"I used to live in Copenhagen. It was a fun city, though I heard they closed down Pusher Street in Christiania."

"Yes they did," he smiled. "Rasmussen's been trying to rein in some of the excesses there."

"Now that was an interesting place. Some of the drug dealers were very professional looking middle-aged women."

"Oh, I am sure it was just like a proper farmers' market," he snickered.

"What do you think of Rasmussen?"

"Well, I think he's done quite well. He's very talented; he always has been, for as long as I've known him."

"You know Rasmussen?" I asked in astonishment.

"Know him? I trained him."

I soon found out that my busmate was Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the former foreign minister from Denmark from 1982 to 1993, and head of Rasmussen's Venstre Party from 1984 to 1998. Uffe is head of the Baltic Development Forum and a friend of Estonia. I hope his Venstre successor will continue in that tradition.

esmaspäev, aprill 06, 2009

dr. vares

I've been doing a little research on the so-called "June communists" -- the puppet government of Estonian literary men and ne'er-do-wells that was assembled in the Soviet legation in Tallinn in June 1940.

The sitting Estonian government had been given an ultimatum to form a pro-Soviet government on June 15. President Konstantin Päts first put forward August Rei, a Social Democrat and Estonia's ambassador to Moscow, as a candidate for prime minister of this "pro-Soviet" government.

The Soviets rejected Rei's candidacy. Instead, they chose a prime minister for the government themselves. It would be Johannes Vares, a 50 year-old, wealthy Pärnu doctor and radical poet who dabbled in cubism and anarchism. In modern American parlance, Vares would be considered a "limousine liberal" -- a person of wealth who expressed compassion for the plight of the working people of Estonia.

At first, Vares seemed like the perfect man for Moscow's plans. He was a genuine national cultural figure who could assuage the masses that Estonian independence would remain intact, and that their indepedence was secure, until the Soviets fulfilled their plans of annexing the country.

For the Soviets, though, there would be one problem with Dr. Vares, according to the memoirs I am reading. The main issue was that he was a naive dope who proved incapable of carrying out their basic orders. Most of the June communists were men who had no political background at all. Vares had none. Nor did his "foreign minister," Nigol Andresen, a school master. Vares' personally selected deputy prime minister, Hans Kruus, a professor of history in Tartu, similarly had no political experience.

According to the memoir of Ants Oras, a professor of English who knew most of the "June communists" personally, none of these men were even communists. He describes Vares as an "anarchist by temperament," whose grasp of political problems was "uncertain." Vares was "a type destined to remain opposed to any regime, pouring forth magniloquent dreams and vituperations in verse."

During the month between Vares' installment as prime minister and Estonia's request to join the USSR, Vares, Andresen, and others made daily radio broadcasts assuring the Estonian people of Estonia's intentions to remain an independent country that would now, thanks to its Soviet protector, have more freedom and equality than ever before. Vares himself was kept under 24-hour supervision by the NKVD and complied with all the requests of the Soviet legation.

An issue though was that he himself did not understand what to do as prime minister. According to Oras, Vares visited Soviet emissary Andrei Zhdanov several times a day for instruction. Sometimes the government itself did not understand the Soviet legation's orders. Vares was "in a state of miserable confusion" as to how his statements on air were contradicted by the actions that he was ordered to take, Oras writes.

Zhdanov himself had assured Vares that Estonia would not be incorporated into the USSR. When Vares was told that Estonia would be annexed he was "horrified." The June government made a last ditch effort to negotiate for "Outer Mongolia" status -- then a Soviet-dependency but not part of the USSR. According to Oras, Zhdanov threatened to shoot Vares if he did not comply with the order to vote for joining the USSR.

Vares, who called the vote a "fiction," himself did not speak in Moscow in favor of joining the USSR. He had written his own speech and was not permitted to speak by his handlers. Instead, Johannes Lauristin, deputy foreign minister, read the prepared speech in the presence of Stalin. The Soviets deliberated, and unsurprisingly accepted Estonia as the 16th republic on August 6, 1940.

Vares was evacuated from Estonia in 1941 after the German advance. He returned to fulfill his duties as a puppet political figure in 1945, but committed suicide in Kadriorg Palace in November 1946, though some speculate he was killed by the Soviet secret police.

Several other June communists were eliminated by the Soviets after they had outlived their usefulness. Maksim Unit, minister of the interior in Vares' government, was executed by the NKVD in July 1941. Economy Minister Juhan Nihtig-Narma was deported by the NKVD to Siberia where he died in 1942. Boris Sepp, the minister of justice, simply disappeared. War minister Tõnis Rotberg was also deported by the NKVD in 1944. He died in a Soviet prison camp in 1953. Similarly, Nigol Andresen, the foreign minister, was purged as a "bourgeois nationalist" in 1950. He was sentenced to 25+5 years in Siberia, but was allowed to return home after Stalin's death.

The central question of my research was whether the June government were willing collaborators who gave up Estonia's independence or whether they were useful idiots who were manipulated by their Soviet handlers and then discarded. Right now, I am leaning towards the latter.

neljapäev, aprill 02, 2009

hüvasti, lenin?

Aprill aprill on torupill! St. Petersburg - April 1, 2009

[For some reason, [some] Estonians [who have seen Bullerby Lapsed] say, "April, April is a bagpipe" when they make April Fool's Day jokes. I don't get it, but, I don't mind it either. I don't think the St. Petersburg vandals that made it look like Lenin ate some explosive chili were Estonians though. Most likely Georgians.]