kolmapäev, juuni 24, 2009


There are five things every Estonian needs to celebrate Jaanipäev, the all day and night, midsummer's eve extravaganza that makes Christmas look tame.

1. Liha (meats) -- preferably plastic buckets of chicken or pork šašlõkk -- what we in the US might refer to as shish kebab. Chicken breasts, sausages, and basically all other socially acceptable animal by-products are welcome, but no Jaani celebration is really complete without some serious šašlõkk grilling. Šašlõkk comes in various marinades, ranging from vinegar to plum to blueberry to yoghurt, and tastes best after being roasted over an open spit. Because the sun rises at 4 am and begins setting at 10.30 pm on Jaanipäev, a celebrant has several opportunities during the day to consume šašlõkk.

2. Õlu (beer) -- I know there are a lot of people who look down on beer drinkers as lower-class alcohol-consuming heathen and would prefer to toast the longest day of the year with vodka or maybe even a nice chianti. On Jaanipäev, though, you've really got to drink beer, and I say this as someone whose magic cure for the wintertime blues is limoncello. But what brand of beer? If you are in northern Estonia, they'll try and push a Saku on you, while the southern Estonians will force you to drink A. Le Coq. I even know some crazy muthas who go for Alexander or even the boozer's choice, Saaremaa X (10 percent alcohol), which is also manufactured by A. Le Coq. Ultimately, beer brand is not the most important question. If your lawn is littered with empties the next morning, half of which you don't recall imbibing, then you've done your service to the Estonian state.

3. Makk (radio) -- No Jaanipäev celebration is complete without a boombox blaring the Estonian jams and their modern dance facelifts. For a small country, Estonians have produced a large corpus of music, ranging from country-influenced thumpers to covers of AM Gold hits, like "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies, which you've never really grooved to, until you've grooved to it in eesti keel. My personal favorite yesterday was an old accordian-driven tune by Kihnu Virve called Imeline jaaniöö -- "wonderful Jaani night." What's great about stations like Raadio Elmer, is that they won't just play, say, Roosiaia Kuningana by Anne Veski, but they'll also play a new, sped-up 21st century dancefloor version of the 1980 hit to match the rest of the drink-to-you-drop party programming that just keeps going and going and going. Why I bet, they're half way through a disco-upgrade of Uno Loop's classic, Mis värvi on armastus? right now.

4. Tuli (fire) -- A Jaanituli is the most essential ingredient of a Jaanipäev celebration. An old pagan tradition, the bonfire is actually a great way to dispose of old crap. Estonians gladly seize this opportunity to torch old boats, remont leftovers, archives of SL Õhtuleht newspapers, and whatever else will burn. The spark is put to the wood precisely at sunset. From your nook in the Estonian countryside, you can look up to the sky and see the smoke drifting from neighboring jaanituled. If you are feeling festive enough, or have had enough Saaremaa X, you might feel moved to suddenly leap over the towering flames of the Jaanituli for good luck. Those Estonians who accidentally fall in feel no pain, as there is no pain on Jaanipäev.

5. Sõbrad (friends) -- Estonians are infamous for being rude jerks most of the year, but on Jaanipäev, no matter who you are, you are welcome in the village. People call out to old friends from car windows, guests show up out of the blue with Gin Long Drinks, and roving gangs of strange children invite themselves over to eat your food and play with your kids' toys. Here's your neighbor Ants helping himself to a beer, there's your black sheep cousin Marju, savoring your tasty šašlõkk, and nevermind the old schoolmaster Teodor, who is playing one-handed badminton by himself in the corner (as he has a beer in the other hand at all times). Jaanipäev is the only day out of the year when you can count all 1.34 million inhabitants of Eestimaa as your friends.

kolmapäev, juuni 17, 2009

eesti nokia surm

The representatives of Estonia's main investors, Sweden and Finland, are not the type of people who attract a lot of attention.

These glazed-over northern neighbors are usually polite at all times, even when they vehemently disagree with something. Recently, though, the ambassadors of Estonia's Nordic investment class have begun to speak up. What is their central message? It's time to build a modern Estonia.

The dream of Estonia's Nokia, a wonder product that would lift all boats, is dead and gone say the northerners. Instead, Estonia should invest on building the infrastructure and investment environment to attract small- and medium-sized enterprises(SMEs) from its most reliable partners, Sverige and Suomi.

Two channels of information from this interest group come via the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Estonia and the Foreign Investor's Council in Estonia.

Depending on the year, Swedish foreign direct investments usually make up around a half of all FDIs in this country. SCCE puts out a quarterly magazine called In Focus. In the latest In Focus, SCCE Chairman Anders Hedman pops the question, "Is it right to criticize Estonia?"

"I think it is very painful indeed for many Swedish-Estonians when their friends in Sweden read about the bad Estonian economy and the possible devaluation of the Estonian currency," writes Hedman. "It was for sure funnier three years ago, when you heard people with similar background describing the Estonian success story," he writes. "Even funnier today was the statement by Ansip that Estonia was soon going to be the richest country in Europe!"

That was Estonia in 2007, but what to do in 2009? Point A: Be receptive to criticism. "What are the usual reactions to criticism here on the street? I have always met two reactions here. First is; Go home if you do not like it here! Second one; You must be working for KGB!" Point B: Take responsibility. "If someone is in charge, which I think it is difficult to say that [Prime Minister Andrus Ansip] is not, the PM has to take his responsibility and the consequences of his mismanagement." Finally, Hedman makes Point C: It's time to build. "This time not based on luxury consumption and real estate bubble based on borrowed Swedish money, but on high productivity, competitive salaries, qualitative production, investments in infrastructure and exports!"

Meantime in a June 10 letter to Ansip, FICE Chairman Martin Breuer, of the Holland Business Club in Estonia, declares Estonia's elusive Nokia dream moribund. "We suggest that we no longer hunt for the iconic Estonian Nokia, it’s a rare species that once in a while happens to evolve," Breuer writes. "A large and thriving SME community is in our opinion the ‘industrial’ base that a relative small and open country as Estonia suits best."

How to accomplish this? Better air connections with less landing and service fees and more state investment in Estonian Air as a "strategic national carrier." Increase the talent pool by making it easier for talented multinationals to live and work in Estonia. Improve support for foreign investors by providing them with more English-language support. (Note: In Focus, despite being the language of the Swedish Chamber, is not published in their national language). Invest more in vocational education. Relax state and educational language requirements to encourage multinational talent to relocate to Estonia.

Hmm. I understand why multinationals, who hop from job to job around the world, would prefer to benefit from Estonia's tax system and IT infrastructure while not letting too much of its Estonianness interfere with their lives. But what I don't get, from the Swedish perspective, is why they have no national pride. Estonian Swedes or "Swedish-Estonians" once were and, now obviously are again a national minority. Why are they demanding services in English, when they could be clammoring for them på svenska?

Second, I am not sure I understand how exactly this new ideal Estonia would work. Nordic and multinational companies relocate to Estonia to take advantage of its hypothetically gifted workforce and business-friendly infrastructure while typically paying most of their taxes in their home countries, therefore depriving the state of money that could be used to fund investments in the airport, vocational education -- all the areas where the same investors claim attention is needed? Como?

Unless these SMEs actually incorporate in Estonia as their home country and pay the bulk of their taxes to the Estonian state, I see a lot of benefit for them, but less for the country. But maybe that is the model they are after: More "Swedish-Estonian" managers plus better qualified work force = one of the five richest countries in Europe and Eesti Nokia all in one? That just might work. But I am not an expert on these things. Your opinions are very much invited.

esmaspäev, juuni 15, 2009

kiri kaunasest

At 10 pm on Friday night, I finally got the chance to explore Kaunas.

Lithuania's second largest city -- its onetime capital in the 1920s and 30s -- left a bad first impression. I walked to my hotel across a city that seemed underpopulated. There were so many buildings and so few people. Where could they be?

In the center of the city I was greeted by ruined wooden buildings that looked that they had been evacuated suddenly and left to rot. I wondered if their former owners now reside in south London or south Chicago. Uneven sidewalks guided me past disappointing facades and bland Maxima supermarkets. The truth is that such sights exist all over Estonia. It's just that I have gotten used to them and they tend to disappear over time. But in Kaunas I noticed few signs of construction -- I only saw two houses with scaffolding on them during my trip -- and I felt as if Kaunas was stagnating.

The old city, though, was a different world. Cut by a snaky cobblestone walking street, it was fun to explore, and helped rid me of my initial dissatisfaction with Kaunas. Though it was similarly empty (and this was on a Friday night) the ubiquitous balconies and Catholic churches reminded me a bit of New Orleans. I could imagine Fats Domino in one of those corner cafes, munching on some smoked pigs ears and singing, I found my thrill, on Siauliai hill.

Suddenly I was glad I came, even if I never really had any plans to visit Lithuania. That's the funny thing about the concept of the Baltic countries. These countries are right next door, but too often there is absolutely no reason to visit your neighbors. It's like the little old lady who lives behind our house here in Tartu. Technically, we are neighbors, but I have only spoken to her one time when her cat got stuck in our tree.

Last year, I met a Baltic enthusiast who told me about how much she loved Riga. I wish I could have shared her sentiment, but I've inly been to Riga twice, both for extremely limited amounts of time. Almost anyone you meet will tell you its a divided city groaning under immense social and economic pressures. The international media is currently tearing Latvia's image to shreds. All I can really tell you is that the bus station looks exactly the same as it did six years ago.

Riga supposedly is a jewel, if you take that scenic photo of one of its old squares from the right angle. It's a diverse, cosmopolitan city of Letts and Latgallians and Livonians and Russians too. It does feel more worldly than most of Estonia. I can see why they think they are the center of the universe. Estonia meantime is the windy-headed land, the home of the stubborn peninsula people. Of what is Riga the center? Latvia?

I want to respect my Latvian and Lithuanian hosts, but I've never gotten used to the names of the Baltic currencies. Lats? Litas? Could you imagine Portuguese Portas or British Brits? "Fish and chips with extra vinegar, please." "That'll cost you 10 Brits, mate." And see, there you have it again. The Balts speak Baltic languages and have Baltic currencies. They live on a sea they themselves call the Baltic. The Estonians? They're a little different. They call it the West Sea.

Last week, a panel that included the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs was asked by an MEP-elect from Lithuania about the future of the Baltic region, which to them meant Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (there were no Finns or Prussians on the panel). Despite being distracted by their Lithuanianness , I noticed that both of them mentioned the same fellow: one TH Ilves of Estonia, who once had some wacky ideas about rebranding his nation as the only post-communist nordic country.

I asked the panel why it was that Ilves gave his speech 10 years ago and people are still talking about it. They informed me that the Jõulumaa reference was strictly humor, yet it doesn't seem to die.

It's true the outside world looks at the three countries as a contiguous unit. If Latvia is forced to devalue its currency, so the logic goes, then of course Lithuania and Estonia will follow. It's fate. The fiscal management of sovereign countries cannot withstand the underlying Baltic bedrock that joins these three sisters together, with a common capital in Riga. We all know this isn't true. The world doesn't stop in Tallinn harbor or at the Curonian spit. It keeps going.

The Lithuanian foreign minister made some salient points. The Baltics must cooperate because they have mutual interests, interests that concern energy, security, energy security, and historical truth. I agree with him. I think all these identity issues should be left to work themselves out. We don't need to argue about what Ilves said. Common interests should define cooperation rather than cooperation for cooperation's sake.

As my bus headed north from Kaunas, I kept waiting for something resembling Estonia to appear. Outside Riga, I saw my first thicket of sparkling birch trees. As our caravan rolled into the wooded hills of northern Latvia, I considered how batshit crazy those Teutonic crusaders must have been to invade such an impenetrable fortress of greenery all those centuries ago. I conjured images of Estonian sumo wrestling star Baruto or Olympic discus champion Gerd Kanter armed with axes and paganism. Scary thoughts.

Our bus pulled into the Tartu station at 10 pm and it was still light out. I stood amongst buildings -- the Tasku shopping center, the new Tartu Kaubamaja -- that did not exist that last time I went to Riga six years ago. Walking through the city, I was suddenly overwhelmed by throngs of Estonian ladies and gentlemen in folk costumes. There were Setos and Mulks and other varieties of Estonians. They were coming from a song festival and they were happy. It felt good to be back.

neljapäev, juuni 11, 2009


The Estonians had warned me that Lithuania -- Leedu in their cutesy Finnic tongue -- was an especially boring place.

Even the teenage girl who babysits my daughters informed me that it was an igav maa ("boring country"), chock full of Maxima supermarkets -- and this was a comment from a human being that has spent most of her life in south Estonia.

So, I was prepared for boring. What I got was central European. Yes, I know, everyone hates it when you try to break out of the Baltic straight jacket, but I am an observer, and I don't feel much more different here than I did in Prague or Ljubljana. It's humid, cut by rivers, and populated by ladies who somehow manage to walk over cobblestones in yellow high heels.

What's the difference between Estonia and Lithuania? Well, Stereotypes are nasty little things but we DO rely on them to find our way in foreign surroundings. I asked my seatmate on the bus if there were any especially dangerous pockets of Kaunas, you know, something like the Baltimore City Bus Terminal at 4 AM of the East. He said no, and, so far, he has been proven right. But my stereotype of Kaunas, is that there seems to be no innate rush among the populace to give the place a facelift.

In Estonia, I feel as if there is a collective determination to exterminate every last outpost of shitty Soviet-created ruin and replace it with something shiny, efficient, and new. Nothing is ever finished, but one day, one glorious day, all of Estonia will beam with buildings refurbished with materials from Ehitus ABC or Bauhof. Old monstrosities will be demolished and replaced by modernity. Ancient farm houses will receive a fresh coat of paint. Everything will be as it should be and there will be free wireless Internet.

In Kaunas, I get the feeling that people are happy with the way things are. Unkempt grass? Dilapidated buildings? Eh, what the heck, let's grab a Svyturys and go watch the game at the bar. This city feels like it is what it is. The Lithuanians just happen to live here. That's how I feel right now, at least. But who I am I to arrive at gross generalizations after spending one day in a place?

Here's another observation. Lithuanians have funny names that bring to mind some Roman epics. Consider: "Eimantas sat in his cashier seat at the local Maxima, plotting his revenge against his cruel manager Daumantas for stealing his fiance Jadvyga's heart. I know what I'll do, thought Eimantas. I'll put poison in Daumantas' pierogies!" Or something like that.

We'll see what the next days bring for your man in Lithuania. Seeing that a trip to the local Maxima can even fire up my synapses, I doubt they will be boring.

teisipäev, juuni 09, 2009

inglid ja deemonid

Even though I have lived here in Estonia for two and a half years, and my wife and two daughters are all Estonian citizens, those fascisti up on Toompea have not yet bestowed upon me the right to vote in European parliamentary elections.

Nevertheless, I have eagerly followed the elections of Estonia's six delegates this year and was surprised by independent candidate Indrek Tarand's awesome victory.

It is said that Tarand -- with whom, like every other human in Estonia, I have exchanged e-mails -- achieved victory with only 40,000 measly Estonian kroons.

This is only partly true. He also had a string of quasi endorsements from the Estonian media and rode high on a wave of popularity nurtured by his role as a TV host. Finally, one can never forget that Tarand was disciplined by the University of Tartu for bringing candles to the grave of War of Independence hero Julius Kuperjanov back in the Soviet era.

In every county and city, save Tallinn, Ida Virumaa, and Võrumaa, Tarand won. He beat the Center Party's lead candidate, Edgar Savisaar, also known as his wife, Vilja Savisaar. He beat Tunne Kellam, the free-coffee-distributing wise conservative, and Ivari Padar, the personal-hygiene-ignoring passionate social democrat. Why, he even beat Kristina Ojuland, the dancing liberal.

The Estonian punditry is now lining up to argue that his performance is an indictment of current lackluster party politics, and maybe they are right. For years now, Estonians have been voting against the other candidates. It's like my brother-in-law explained one day: "I have to vote for Isamaa Res Publica Liit in Tartumaa to cancel out the votes for Keskerakond in Ida Virumaa."

It's a political landscape where everyone seems arrogant and a little crooked. You've got to hedge your bets. Tarand, though, has also been accused of arrogance. And I am not sure if, independent candidates aside, it could be any other way. I mean, it is politics we're talking about here.

And so Estonia will send a TV show host to Brussels, along with someone named Savisaar, a farmer from Võrumaa, a dancing liberal, a coffee-distributing conservative, and others. The people have made their choice.

neljapäev, juuni 04, 2009

noh, kes peeretas?

Andrus Ansip has completed the valitsus remont - government renovation - he began last month by firing the three Social Democrats in his government.

An attempt to woo Rahvaliit -- the agrarian People's Union -- into the government failed when Isamaa Res Publica Liit , the conservatives, killed the agreement. IRL party boss Mart Laar had been saying that a minority government was a possibility from the beginning and, wouldn't you know, he was right!

Interior Minister Jüri Pihl has been replaced by Marko Pomerants, Finance Minister Ivari Padar's chair will now be warmed by Jürgen Ligi, and Population Affairs Minister Urve Palo's spot will not be filled. Her duties were split up and transferred to other ministries.

Now, with two parties running the Estonian government that the majority of Estonians did not vote for in the last parliamentary elections in March 2007, it's a right wing love-in. Not only do most of the ministers ascribe to the same political philosophy, they look the same and come from the same places. They'll be counting on the support of the Greens and Rahvaliit to get things done. Let's call them the loyal opposition.

Out of a cabinet of 13 ministers, 12 are male, 1 is female. Four were born in Tartu, but Culture Minister Laine Jänes (born in Moscow) and Education Minister Tõnis Lukas (of Tallinn) call the city home. So most of them are Tartlased. Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo, age 55, is the eldest. Social Affairs Minister Henno Pevkur, 32, is the youngest. Of course, the environmental minister hails from Saaremaa and Pevkur is from Ida Virumaa, so you can count that as diversity if you like.

But just because this male, middle-aged, ethnic Estonian cabinet looks homogenous, doesn't mean it is. Each minister has their own personal touch that distinguishes them from the rest. Pomerants in particular is known by some as Minister Kes Peeretas? -- Minister "Who Farted?" -- for his habit of keeping his nose to the political winds. Somebody called him that in my presence when he was social affairs minister during the Juhan Parts government, and it stuck. I can't help it. Each time I see him, it comes to mind.

Meantime, the opposition shows no signs of coming together behind a certain platform or alternative leadership. Pihl and Padar politely wished their replacements luck, while Savisaar has been telling the press that IRL now controls the Estonian government and that Ansip is, essentially, the prime minister in another Laar government. Laar's job is to make the decisions, argues Savisaar, while Ansip's job is to take all the criticism.

Good old Edgar. He doesn't mince his words, now does he. He leads what is, according to opinion polls, the most popular party in Estonia, and yet nobody ever seems to want to form a government with him. And the others in his party gladly lineup behind him, like lambs to the electoral slaughter. Something just doesn't smell right.

esmaspäev, juuni 01, 2009

tõesti sündinud lugu sürgaverest

Vana Kull was disturbed by his son Kullipoiss' drinking problems.

"Kullipoiss," said Vana Kull. "I will pay you a weekly allowance if you stop drinking."

Kullipoiss thought over his father's proposition, and decided that a weekly allowance was a better deal than being a drunk. He agreed.

For decades, Kullipoiss lived off of his father's weekly allowance and he did not touch a drop of alcohol. But then, one day, Vana Kull died, and Kullipoiss inherited his estate.

Now Kullipoiss is a drunk again.

( A true story heard while visiting my wife's relatives in Viljandimaa yesterday.)
* photo courtesy of Johannes Pääsuke.