neljapäev, märts 25, 2010

isa teab paremini

While the Estonian parliament wrestled with a new bill that would raise the age at which residents can begin receiving their pensions, a journalist sent me a few questions: Why don't Estonians take to the streets to protest unpopular government decisions? How come Estonians prefer to cower behind anonymous Internet comments rather than to make their voices heard in public?

Like the men and women on Toompea, I struggled to find an answer. What could it be? What makes Tallinn unlike Athens and Paris? How come other Europeans let their representatives know when they are angry, but Estonians, yawn, are content to yell at the TV set or beat their chests in cyberspace?

Could it be temperament? Could it be that the glacial Estonians are too slow and peaceful to pick up placards and storm the capital to voice their concerns? Or maybe it's the weather? Surely, a late March thaw is no time to stand around in a crowd of cold and unhappy people? I toyed with this idea at first, but eventually came to dismiss it. It is true that the Estonians are stereotypical northerners. It is true that Estonia is cold. But neither stopped the Icelanders from bringing Geir Haarde's government to its knees last winter. Why, they even burned Christmas trees at protests in Reykjavik. So if there is an explanation for the Estonians' aversion to mass demonstrations, that isn't it.

With the iceman theory debunked, I tried my hand at the good old reliable post-communist explanation. Estonians were held captive at gunpoint for around 50 years by Moscow. You needed a visa to visit Hiiumaa. Under such circumstances, of course Estonians are protest shy. Why would anyone conditioned under such a system assemble in public to question the status quo? That's just asking for trouble. I started to buy into this theory too, until I remembered the Latvians with their umbrella revolution and the Ukrainians with their orange revolution. They had communist pasts too, why, they had even been constituent parts of the same commie super state. Still, that hasn't stopped them from taking it to the streets in recent years. Like the iceman theory, the post-commie theory doesn't hold up.

So what could it be? What keeps Estonians indoors accusing each other of being national socialists or communists or both from the comfort of their own homes rather than taking their grievances to the halls of power? Without a simple theory to fall back on, I began to stitch together my own, new theory, a political one at that.

According to my political theory, Estonia has been run by basically the same politicians for years. Since 1999, Estonians have had Mart Laar (Isamaa) as prime minister, followed by Siim Kallas (Reform), who was replaced by Juhan Parts (Res Publica), who was succeeded by Andrus Ansip (Reform), whose current minority government is a coalition with Laar's conservative fusion of Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit, and includes Parts as minister of economic affairs and communication.

It is true that the current coalition is a minority government, which, by definition, means that most Estonians did not vote for it. However, the opposition, a motley crew of Centrists and Social Democrats plus two smaller parties that are on life support, the Greens and People's Union, is in no shape to offer any serious challenge to those in power. Reform and IRL's jobs are secure. And, with parliamentary elections 12 memory-loss inducing months away, Ansip's government is in a position to do basically whatever it wants. Estonians know this and therefore don't bother to waste their time trying to influence those who probably will be unmoved by street demonstrations.

Critics of social democracy often refer to social welfare policies as manifestations of the "nanny state," where the imaginary "nanny" of bureaucracy is entrusted to take care of you from cradle to grave. I would argue that what we see in Estonia these days is a paternal "daddy state," where the government makes its decisions and, in most cases, once the leadership decides on something, it's set in stone. Isa teab paremini, as they say, father knows best. And if you disagree, what are you really going to do? Vote for Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar? If you're a pensioner, chances are you probably already do. And if you're not? Well, I'm sure the party spokesperson will circulate some talking points to allay your concerns.

neljapäev, märts 18, 2010


My father-in-law was right. Andres said we should get a Volkswagen Sharan. But we didn't, we got a Mercury Villager, an Ameerika auto as they call it here. We've paid for it ever since.

Ameerika auto in Estonian doesn't have the negative connotation you think it does. If you drive one, it does not necessarily mean that you are obese or prone to support any war your government presents for your approval. What it means is that if some hooligans decide to rip off your windshield wipers and do damage to your antenna, as they did to our car during the pronksöö in '07, you'll have to order spare parts. From America.

Had we listened to Andres and bought a Volkswagen, we wouldn't have had that problem. There are VW service centers all over Estonia and Germany isn't as far from Estonia as the US. If the Saksa Kultuuri Instituut on Kastani Street in Tartu can be stocked weekly with fresh issues of Frankfurter Allgemeine, then it's fairly easy for an Estonian mechanic to fix a Saksa auto. But we didn't listen to him because the Villager was such a good deal. Plus it had been shipped here from Staten Island by some Estonian-American international car merchant. It still had the dealership's label of Freehold, NJ, on the back. I took it as a sign.

I shouldn't complain. The old red caboose, which I nicknamed "Zhou Enlai" on account of its color and license plate letters and numbers, was fairly reliable, zooming across South Estonian country roads for years, hauling books from Tartu print houses to Tallinn warehouses. But even good things must come to an end, and this winter Zhou froze to death. He's been sitting in a lot in Ülejõe ever since as we contemplate either getting him a new engine or putting him and his rare spare parts out to pasture.

And so now we hunt for a new car, something a little more reliable than Zhou. One of our friends, an Estonian mechanic named Akko who came to Tartumaa via Tajikistan, recommended a KIA, a Korea auto which sounds nice when you say it, but, having seen too many Vietnam movies as a kid, reminds me of a certain dreadful acronym. We were contemplating the KIA, when friends and family came out of the woodwork to point us in other directions. Supposedly the new KIAs are better than the old ones, and the reason why this KIA is such a sweet deal is because that's all it's worth. But it's hard to make decisions when one know-it-all is telling you that a car is a great deal and the other know-it-all is telling you it's a shitbox. What to do?

Looking for cars is a disorienting experience. If you spend enough time looking, you can't help but notice how ridiculously they are all named. Only the drug companies, with their Nolvadexes and Removabs and Jantovens, can beat the car companies with their Fabias and Cordobas and Mondeos. They sound like minor characters from some long lost Shakespearean production. But in this forest of names and numbers, we will find our next ride.

This new car must be energy efficient, we've determined, smaller, but with enough legroom for big people like me, popular enough in Estonia that it is easy to find spare parts, not too expensive, have five seats and preferably four doors (though two doors might be ok), and be automatic because even though we've given up on Ameerika autod, the guy behind the wheel will still be an ameeriklane and in America 75 percent of cars on the road are automatics (in Estonia, it's the other way around). I am writing this post now because I need your help. I am also writing it because I know how passionate people are about vehicles.

esmaspäev, märts 01, 2010


I knew I was nearing reindeerland as soon as I headed towards the Tallinn docks. Some cheeky Finnish youth actually said "Welcome to Helsinki" to me as he trudged through that day's blizzard towards the ship with a bundle of discount booze in his arms.

I had the privilege of spending some hours amongst Estonia's northern kin that day. Some notes on the neighbors:

* According to a recent column by Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb (left) in Finnair's in flight magazine, his country is among the happiest in the world, if not the happiest. How this washes with having three public shooting sprees in as many years is anybody's guess. Maybe those three mass murderers were the only unhappy people in Finland?

* Grouped by some wacky 19th century anthropologists with Japanese and Koreans as part of the "yellow race," there is some truth to Finland's eastern orientation. Finnair maintains reliable services to many cities in Asia, including three destinations in Japan and China each. Even though Finns have had preciously little to do with Asian culture or history, they seem to know what they are doing. It's hard to tell the Finnish elements and the Japanese elements in their marketing campaigns apart.

* Even though Finland has its problems, some Finns still seem to think that life is infinitely better there than in Estonia, which I think they see as troublesome and less stable. Finnish media covered a small protest outside the independence day gala by marginal figures, for example, while Estonian media ignored it. Why? If only Estonia was more pragmatic, if only they knew how to deal with Moscow, if only Estonia had a world class Olympic hockey team, if only Estonians were, basically, Finns, then they would rise rapidly on the happiness scale, according to this line of thought. Little Estonia still needs to grow up. Big Finland is waiting patiently for the day to arrive.

* Some Estonians stereotype Finnish women as being ugly. This is not true.

* Finland seems to enjoy its own monoculture: all the things you could possibly need are produced within the country, with each brand contributing to the national identity. In Finland, your whole childhood can be Moomin, your pantry and closets filled with Marimekko dishes and attire, your communications needs serviced by Nokia. It's easy to spot Finns in airports: they sport the same hairstyles, spectacles, and fashion accessories. It's like they have some kind of secret national uniform. Estonia also has attempted to replicate Finnish monoculture by building its own Esto world of consumer goods, but, so far, it's less convincing.

* Along with consumer monoculture, there is also genetic homogeneity. Researchers will tell you that Estonians are actually genetically closer to Latvians than Finns. That's true, but one should keep in mind that Finns are remote from basically all other Europeans because they descend from a relatively small founder population. This may be why so many Finns look alike. Each one is like genetic concentrate.