esmaspäev, mai 31, 2010


I just spent a week in Ireland and though I have but one Irish grandmother, I did feel comfortable with the country, some familiarity with its people.

Even if we did not look the same, they did seem to be relatives of some kind. There was some intimacy there, some immediacy to the Irish. And then I took two planes and landed back in Eesti.

As soon as I arrived, I knew that I was not of this place. When I sat among Estonian passengers on the flight back to the mosquito coast, when I chatted up the cab driver on the ride back to my home, I knew the language, the surroundings well, but felt intrinsically that these people were nemad, them, and I also knew that I was not like them, even if I am married to one of them, and even if my daughters are two of them. To be a bit more specific -- this doesn't mean that I look down or up at them; I merely acknowledge their difference. And I started to wonder about these instinctive ideas of us and them and what roles they play in today's Europe.

While Estonians are them to me, I started to wonder if they were meie, "us," to others. And who were these others. Estonians are foreign to Italians, foreign to Irish. But to Swedes and Finns? Even if they care not to advertise, it's hard for those who have come here and spent time among the Estonians to look at the locals and not feel a familiarity with the place. For Finns, this is perhaps the only place in Europe outside of their homeland where they can speak their native tongue and be kind of understood. And how about the Germans, who come expecting little Russia and wind up feeling like they've come across some Twilight Zone version of Schleswig-Holstein? Indeed, for a lot of northern Europeans, Estonians are "one of us," and this sense of kinship may have played a subtle role in the fate of Estonia.

I recall how then Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins at the Lennart Meri Conference a few years ago remarked that any application by Iceland or Norway for European Union membership would likely be fast tracked, while interest from Georgia or Ukraine for European integration would always be looked upon officially with polite openness, but privately with intense skepticism. I have to ask, was it really geopolitics, or was it something else that drove such attitudes? Is Europeanness more than just democracy, rule of law, and historical coincidence? Or does it have to do with German lawmakers meeting their Estonian counterparts and coming away feeling that the Estonians are a chip off the old block? Is it really possible for Nordic decision makers to look at, say, the Icelanders and the Georgians the same way? Is it possible for them to construct the Georgians as an "us" and keep the Icelanders as a "them"?

Of course, the Estonians share kinship with the Russians too, but it's a precarious relationship given the status of Finno-Ugric minorities in the Russian Federation. Russians can appeal to common Finno-Ugric roots, but the Estonians feel a tinge of sadness, for in their eyes, the Russians with a Finno-Ugric past have lost the one thing that continues to define the Estonians' image of themselves as a separate nation: the language. So there will be no warm embrace. Yet again, kinship plays a role. And this is not just information gleaned from some ethnology course. This is the process of looking at someone, spending time in their company, and deciding that, by some stretch of the imagination, they are family.

But for me, as close as I get to the Estonians, I still know that we are different. I know that they are, to put it simply, a them. I wonder though how foreigners with Estonian roots feel when their plane touches down in Eesti. Do they feel like they have landed in a foreign country? Or do they feel that they have finally arrived home?

kolmapäev, mai 19, 2010


Yesterday, the Estonian Green party expelled some of its top members, including former leader Peeter Jalakas, who briefly replaced party leader Marek Strandberg after the party bombed in last year's municipal elections before Strandberg muscled his way back to the top. In total, 20 members of the party were given the boot, officially on an ideological basis, though I suspect there were personal reasons too.

In carrying out this purge, the party leadership has removed internal opposition. That might help them iron out a platform for next year's parliamentary elections. But the question remains, how will a party that is on life support already benefit by eliminating some of its better known members? Can the Estonian Greens really afford to get rid of its members when it polls abysmally, and wasn't able to get any seats in the municipal elections or last year's European parliamentary elections?

I have always felt that Estonia needs a postmodern Green party to shake up the dull back and forth between the Reform Party-led right and the Centre Party-led left. But is the current Green party the Green party that Estonia needs? Or will it mosey off into political oblivion after it (likely) goes down in the next parliamentary elections?

kolmapäev, mai 12, 2010


When I heard the news today that the European Commission had recommended that Estonia adopt the euro as its currency on January 1, 2011, I was pleased.

Though I appreciate the aesthetics of Estonia's national currency, the kroon, the euro is the money that most of Europe uses. There is a belief that the adoption of the euro will allay any concerns about investing in an insecure economy, turning the FDI tap back on next year.

Local leaders haven't yet done the happy dance on Toompea. They are being cautious, reserved, taciturn. Eesti Pank President Andres Lipstok warns that Estonia's work is pole tehtud -- not finished. We won't know for certain whether Eesti really will join the troubled euro zone until July. But people are talking nonetheless. Here's a roundup of what they are saying:

Edward Altman, finance professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, calls the adoption "ill timed" in Business Week. "Expansion at this time is not a good idea," Altman is quoted as saying. "There may have been internal political pressures that we don’t know about that caused this to happen or maybe it shows they are still a dynamic entity and want to show the world they’re not finished."

Peter Garnham blogs on the Financial Times website that euro adoption is better for Stockholm than it is for Tallinn: "The adoption of the single currency will not change much for the denizens of Tallinn, whose currency, the kroon, has long been fixed against the euro in a currency board ... But the EC’s enthusiasm for Estonia to join the single currency did have an effect on the wider market, helping the Swedish krona to rally across the board."

Garnham cites UBS analyst Geoffrey Yu: "We believe this is a major positive for Swedish krona as the risk of [Estonian] devaluation will no longer exist."

Jack Ewing writing in the New York Times notes an "unusually blunt" report from the European Central Bank that seems less convinced of Estonia's readiness for euro adoption. "While the country is well within the limits on government spending and debt, the Baltic country has a history of high inflation that raises concerns," Ewing states, citing the ECB's position.

Meantime, The Wall Street Journal's Richard Barley writes that the EC's decision "sends a signal that the euro zone is here to stay—but it may be a while before there are any more entrants."

According to Barley, the move is "due reward for the extremely severe recession it has endured." He writes that it will "remove the risk of any foreign-exchange mismatch in private-sector lending, a key concern for Western European banks in the depths of the crisis." Still, he argues that there will be "big challenges on the monetary-policy front: euro-zone interest rates may well be too low to restrain inflation as the Estonian economy reaps the benefits of euro membership. And at some point, Estonia may get an expensive call to support other euro-zone states in trouble, as the current members are doing for Greece."

With the EC saying one thing and the ECB saying another, Estonia's favorite analyst Lars Christensen at Danske Bank said that "though Estonian euro membership is likely it is still not a done deal due to the ECB’s obvious reservations." Said Christensen, "This is now entirely a European political decision."

UPDATE. Here are some more:

Russian analyst Igor Kostikov tells the Voice of Russia that Estonia is well prepared for euro adoption: Noting that Estonia's public deficit is well within the 3-percent of the GDP, as required by the Maastricht agreement, Kostikov says that Estonia is an "even better budgetary performer than Belgium and France, let alone Greece and other countries in Southern Europe." According to Kostikov, Estonia's entry would be a "signal of Eurozone readiness to encourage frugal economies" and the "lure of the euro remains irresistible."

For some, Estonia's status as a former Soviet country is no longer something of which to be ashamed, at least when it comes to euro adoption. Ahto Lobjakas writes in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty online that,
"assuming no late reverses, Estonia will be the third former communist-bloc country to join the euro after Slovenia and Slovakia." Poland and Romania are currently on course to accede to the single currency in 2015, he notes.

Edward Lucas, I presume, in The Economist reveals that the real remaining hurdle to Estonian euro adoption is political. "Some euro zone members (France is often mentioned) think that allowing an obscure and volatile ex-communist economy to join a currency union that has too many dodgy members already should not be a priority. If Estonia is really so solid, why not wait a year to be sure?"

By the way, The Economist leader had great artwork, so I decided to steal it for my own nefarious purposes. Credit where credit is due ...

esmaspäev, mai 10, 2010


Ever wonder what might happen to your country should an alleged "Kremlin stooge" come to power? Just look at Ukraine. Since President Viktor Yanukovich took office in February, Kiev has made nice with Moscow on many fronts after years of acrimony.

On every one of Putin-Medvedev's pet issues, NATO membership, historical revisionism, the future of the Black Sea Fleet, Yanukovich's Ukraine has seen eye to eye with the Russian Federation. There is even talk of deeper integration between the two countries' energy sectors, though any deal will respect Ukraine's sovereignty, of course.

Some call Yanukovich a traitor, others see him as a wily leader who is duping Moscow into giving Kiev more than what it receives in return. But one election pledge that Yanukovich has failed to make good on so far is the elevation of Russian to the status of an official state language.

Russia has a bit of a fetish for official languages. While external observers tend to describe the linguistic situation for many of its minority languages as dire, the Russian Federation maintains a policy of retaining official status for minority languages in certain republics, so that in Mari El, the official languages on paper are still Russian and Mari, though the UN, for example, has criticized the actual treatment of the Mari linguistic minority. As you can imagine, when Yanukovich promised to make Russian an official language of Ukraine, the Kremlin-controlled media swooned.

But there's a problem. In order to make Russian a state language, Yanukovich has to change the constitution, and even he and his mighty coalition of the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and the Bloc Lytvyn, still can't do that. So, instead of mirroring Russia's federal republics, where Russian and the "titular" language are co-official on paper, he's decided to peddle Ukraine down the European route by implementing laws that protect the use of Russian under the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Most countries in Europe have adopted the charter. In this part of Europe, there are three notable exceptions: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Finland ratified the charter in 1994. Sweden ratified it in 2000. Poland ratified it last year. In fact, one of the 15 languages protected by Poland is Russian. But the Baltic countries have yet to ratify this charter, which was the main suggestion of Amnesty International following its controversial critique several years ago.

Language policies continue to be the third rail of politics in the Baltics and, obviously also in Ukraine, because of Soviet language policies, memories of tsarist-era Russification campaigns, and in some places, demographic conditions that would make it difficult to receive any services in the national language at all without state enforcement. So it's a headache, but, in the case of Estonia, I have to ask, had the country not been occupied and annexed in 1940, had it not withstood mass Soviet "population transfer" -- as it is termed -- would it still not have opted to adopt the charter, this same charter that its neighbors have adopted?

There is this idea out there that minorities have no official status in Estonia. This is not true. The 1918 manifesto that proclaimed Estonia's independence specifically mentioned Estonia's minorities: "All ethnic minorities, the Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews, and others residing within the borders of the republic, shall be guaranteed the right to their cultural autonomy." It's actually the second principle in the manifesto, right after, "All citizens of the Republic of Estonia, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, and political views, shall enjoy equal protection under the law and courts of justice of the Republic. "

The Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities, passed first in 1925 and again in 1993, similarly enshrined minority rights. Under the guidelines of the law, national minority cultural autonomy could be established by persons belonging to "German, Russian, Swedish and Jewish minorities and persons belonging to national minorities with a membership of more than 3000."

The problem for the Russian minority in this case is that, with about 340,000 potential "members" in Estonia, it's kind of hard to elect a cultural council that represents everybody's interests. This is not the case for smaller groups like the Estonian Swedes or Ingrian Finns, both of which elected councils based on this law in the last decade. State authorities have noted the trouble for Estonia's Russians in applying the autonomy law, but no consensus has been reached.

So it seems that, in Estonia's case, the adoption of the charter might not actually be a bad option. But should some "Kremlin stooge" come to power in Tallinn and try to adopt the law, would the session end with eggs and smoke bombs on Toompea? Would the politicians who passed such a law be seen as a traitors or wily leaders, "solving" the minority issue once and for all by giving Estonia's minorities freedoms they actually already enjoyed? I don't know. It is reassuring to know that, with Estonia's historical narrative strongly supported in the West, and the country deeply integrated into NATO, there are relatively few opportunities for any sea change in future policies, regardless of who holds power.