esmaspäev, märts 28, 2011

liibüa, liibüa

Liibüa, liibüa. There is something about the Estonian name for this North African country that reminds one of George Herbert Walker Bush vomiting on his Japanese counterpart.

It starts in the front of the mouth with an average-sounding "leeb" and then sort of sloppily falls off the lips at the end with a disgusted "boowaa." Leebboowaa. Leebewah. Leebooa.

How did they come up with such an unsavory rendering as Liibüa? If they cared to, they could easily have copied the British. Libya? How about Liibiia? Or Liibia? Or even Libja? But no. We have a country name that sounds like president throwing up.

Now it seems we all are suffering from an incurable case of Liibüa. NATO has assumed command of the no-fly zone, also known as the "mission to oust Gaddafi, or maybe not, let's just bomb his military and see what happens." I follow the news, quietly siding with the rebels. It's not that I really believe that they will pull off a liberal democracy in the end, it's just that Gaddafi is such a flamboyant dictator that any breathing human with a smidgen of humanism in his veins just can't resist the sight of him going down.

What comes next is just sand: limitless possibilities, more of the same. Who can really control or predict anything? And so we come to the point where seven Estonians were abducted in Liibanon last week, one of whom is the son of someone I know. They were cycling near the Bekaa Valley, having just crossed over from Süüria, at a time when the entire region is convulsing with political demonstrations, seething with unrest.

At first, I couldn't help but think they had fallen prey to their own innate Estonian naivety. Long freed from the bondage of a Soviet visa regime, nationals of this country have traveled to the most unlikely of places to take advantage of the liberties their parents longed to enjoy. Just as Estonians drive like they're in a video game, they travel like 19th century explorers. It's not uncommon to meet slight young Estonian girls who disappeared into the hills of Kashmir and not only emerged unscathed but with caravans of sherpas cheering them on and posing for their digital cameras in moments of global-a-go-go rapture.

The world is made up of the same elements. Rock, sand, stones, trees, bushes, wind, water, sun, and, of course, people. And, no matter where you go, people generally behave the same. The bizarre love triangles, the lust for material goods, the religious pontificating, the uneasy feeling that mankind has been cheated. You'll find it everywhere. As my continent-hopping wife once pointed out: "Do you really feel safe in lower Manhattan?" Or on the Tube in London? Or in coastal Japan? Point taken.

Robbed of all metrics with which to measure the distance between myself and the Libyans rebelling in Liibüa or the Estonians kidnapped in Liibanon, I sit and read the news, listening to The Jam sing "All Around the World," waiting. That's all most of us can do.

esmaspäev, märts 07, 2011

järgmine riigikogu

Estonian parliamentary elections were held yesterday. The results were slightly less than the overwhelming triumph some had predicted for the Reform Party, but Reform won the elections just the same.

The party of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip gained just two seats in the 101-member body compared to its preelection share. Reform now has a mandate for 33 seats, and will continue its role as the largest party in parliament.

Despite the victory of euro adoption and the country's return to growth following the economic crash, Reform's performance was only slightly better than in 2007. This year it earned 28.6 percent of the vote. Four years ago, it earned 27.8 percent of the vote.

Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party remains the second largest party in parliament. They secured 26 seats for the next four years, a loss of three seats. Centre did well in Tallinn, where Savisaar is mayor, and in Ida Virumaa county, where the party received more than half of all votes cast. Despite Savisaar's preelection scandal, he was also the greatest vote getter of the election. This is a bit of a dilemma for Centre going forward: on one hand, they have a leader who most other parties refuse to include in a coalition government, on the other hand, he's their most popular figure.

The Mart Laar-led conservatives Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (translated as the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica but referred to here as IRL), gained four seats in the Estonian parliament. They now hold 23 seats. This was a good showing for them, as it shows IRL has managed to hang onto voters while being in a coalition with a more popular party with a similar political outlook. To me, this refutes the idea that Estonia is headed to a two-party political system.

The biggest victors of the night were Sven Mikser's Social Democrats, who won 19 seats, nine more than they held from 2007 to 2011. Mikser won the vote in Järva and Viljandi counties, where he topped the list, but the party did well elsewhere. For instance, SDE won 26 percent of the vote in the rural, southern counties of Võru, Valga, and Põlva. They also nearly tied Reform for second place in Ida Viru county, where both captured slightly over 15 percent of the vote.

I saw an interesting article where incoming SDE MP Jevgeni Ossinovski claimed that SDE was the "only political party that represented Estonian Russians' interest." That used to be Savisaar's line. Maybe some Estonian Russians no longer believe it.

Of course, the Estonian Green Party failed to pass the 5 percent threshold to secure seats in parliament. They eked out 3.8 percent of the vote. The Greens were plagued by leadership conflicts over the past few years, and their effort to go after basically every voter doomed them as it put them into competition with everybody. It's one thing to try and steal some votes from SDE or Centre. It's another to try and steal votes from Reform and IRL and SDE and Centre.

The People's Union (Rahvaliit) also didn't make it into parliament, but they were largely moribund after imploding in recent years. Former party leaders Karel Rüütli and Jaak Allik will be in the next parliament though, this time as representatives of SDE.

neljapäev, märts 03, 2011

from student to teacher

I taught a class of Estonian kids today, all aged 11 and 12. The bulk of the lesson focused on presidents and politics.

I started with American presidents. They knew Barack Obama, and were aware there was a president before him, George W. Bush, who was "stupid." They unanimously used this one English word to describe him.

But who came before Bush? No one knew the answer. When I finally named Bill Clinton, a few went, "Oh yeah," but the name meant essentially nothing to them. They were alarmed when I told them that the president before Clinton was also named Bush.

"You mean George W. Bush's father was also president?" they said, astonished. When I said that he served only one term, someone asked, "But what happened to him? Was he shot?" "No," I said. "People blamed him for the poor economy." And so we learned the words "economy" and "economics."

The part of the lesson that covered Estonian presidents was just as fascinating. Everyone knows their president, Toomes Hendrik Ilves. I taught them that Ilves means "lynx" in English, and a few students claimed to have seen wild lynxes in the forests. But who was president before Ilves? No one knew. Finally, I put an 'R' on the board.

"Arnold Rüütel!" someone shouted. Then I translated Rüütel -- "knight." "What's a ka-nig-et?" a girl asked. "No, it's written that way, but it's pronounced differently." "Knight?" a boy said. "You mean like Knight Rider?" "No, you fool, that's Night Rider," another boy interrupted. "No, it's Knight Rider!" And so they went back and forth arguing until I had to weigh in and say it really was Knight Rider, because David Hasselhoff was like a knight riding around in his car.

The president before Rüütel was Lennart Meri, whose family name conveniently translates as "sea." And before Meri? "P Ä T S!" they shouted. All the kids knew of Konstantin Päts, the first leader of Estonia to hold the title of president. And one even knew what his surname means in English: "loaf."

"But who was before Päts?" one student wondered aloud. "Before there were presidents, there were state elders," I said. "The one before Päts was named Tõnisson."

"Tõnisson?" a boy said. "You mean that kid in Kevade was president*?" "No," I answered. "It was a different Tõnisson who served before Päts."

"But who was in charge of Estonia between Päts and Meri?" I asked. After all, it was 52 years between Päts departure and Meri's election. Not one of them knew the names of any Soviet Estonian officials, the most significant of whom was arguably Johannes Käbin, first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party from 1950 to 1978, a good chunk of the Soviet era.

I wondered how many Estonian students have ever heard his name. Or Vaino Väljas' name, or Karl Vaino's or Nikolai Karotamm's. It's as if they never existed. But why should a group of kids who can't remember Bill Clinton care about some dusty old Soviet official? What bearing does it have on their lives? Probably none at all. I thought about this lesson as I walked home from class. Maybe next time, I'll teach them something more important.

* Kevade is a book by Oskar Luts about Estonian students attending a rural school at the turn of the 20th century that was made into a popular movie, now considered a classic, in 1969.

teisipäev, märts 01, 2011

ansip rasmussen vanhanen

The 2011 Estonian parliamentary elections are days away. The Reform Party, led by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, is poised to win. But rather than wondering how many seats Mr. Ansip will secure for his party in the next parliament, I am wondering how long Ansip intends to stay on Toompea once the new government is sworn in, sometime next month.

Ansip came to power following the demise of Juhan Parts' government in 2005. While the Parts era from 2003 to 2005 was marked by tit-for-tat ministerial sackings and gratuitous genuflecture to promises and values, the Ansip era has been dominated by the former Tartu mayor's teflon persona and a stubbornness that puts him at the George W. Bush level of resolve. This was the man who said famously that he would resign if Estonia didn't adopt the euro in 2007. His estimate was, in the end, four years off, but Ansip's been in power for almost six years, so, who's counting anymore?

Opponents tried to pin Estonia's avalanche of an economic collapse on the Reform Party, who still believe the country will soon be one of the five richest in Europe. Yet, unlike leaders in other liberal-led countries beset by post-2008 catastrophe (Ahem. Iceland), Reform managed to stay in power until economic growth was restored. Officially, they blame the depression of the past few years on others but take personal credit for the restored growth. There is no arguing. When it comes to politics, these guys are professionals.

Ansip's lengthy tenure is paralleled by only one former Estonian statesman, the ill-destined Konstantin Päts, who led a military-backed coup to seize power in 1934 and stayed as the unchallenged father of the nation until he was deported by the Soviets in 1940. He later died in a psychiatric hospital in 1956, claiming to the last of his days to be the president of Estonia. And did you know that Ansip was born in 1956, after Päts died? Do you believe in reincarnation?

But Ansip isn't really a Päts-like demagogue. He has more in common with his cousins in the Baltic. Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been cited as one role model. Former Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen is another. Rasmussen spent nearly eight years as leader of Denmark before moving on to NATO secretary general. Vanhanen's exit in 2010 was less glorious, but he still spent seven years as PM. In both cases, younger party leaders were selected by the party to take over the reins of government.

Who really will be the next prime minister of Estonia, once Ansip finds some more enchanting career opportunity? Will it be some other Reform minister (Justice Minister Rein Lang? Finance Minister Jürgen Ligi?) or will some Reform Party star rise to the position in a special election held sometime in coming months or years?

In Denmark, they voted for Anders Fogh Rasmussen and wound up with Lars Løkke Rasmussen. In Finland, they voted for Matti Vanhanen an wound up with Mari Kiviniemi. Will those Estonians who vote later this week choose Ansip but really wind up with Keit Pentus in the end? If I could vote in Estonia, I would be asking myself that question.