neljapäev, september 05, 2013


Some new vocabulary words

Vastandumine -- Antagonism. Ex:... pole ka maailmapoliitikas juba pikka aega olnud sellist vastandumist nagu me näeme täna näiteks Venemaa ja Ameerika Ühendriikide suhete puhul. {For some time in world politics, we haven't seen such antagonism as we see today in Russian and American relations}

Vaibumine -- Abatement. Ex: Enam kui kaks aastat ning kümneid tuhandeid inimelusid nõudnud kodusõda ei näita vähimatki vaibumismärki. {A more than two year and tens of thousands of lives-taking civil war shows not even half a chance of abatement}

Taandumine -- Receding. Ex: Eeldada, et diktaatorite taandumine looks kiire võimaluse demokraatlikeks protsessideks, oleks väga naiivne. {To presuppose that the receding of dictatorships would create a quick opportunity for democratic processes would be very naive}

Ohjeldada -- To curb. Ex: Kindlasti peegeldub siin Külma sõja aegne liitlassuhe, aga samuti soov ohjeldada USA ja lääneriikide mõjuvõimu Lähis-Idas. {Certainly this reflects a Cold War era relationship, but also a desire to curb the US and Western countries' influence in the Middle East}

Forgive the crude translations.

teisipäev, september 03, 2013

belgian waffle communique

Vladimir Putin recently had a friendly meeting with the prime ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Nothing particularly important was decided but it was an opportunity to talk a lot about "shared values" "shared interests" and other pleasant sounding phrases that everyone finds unobjectionable. After all, who could possibly be against cooperation in "trade and investment" or "global development?"

Courtesy of my friend Gore Vidal, a researcher at the International Center for Defense Studies, I stumbled upon a fascinating Fact Sheet on Russian-Belgian relations that was released as part of the summit. It was intended to highlight the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship and dispel any notions that tiny Belgium is somehow a free-rider. When you look at the details, though, you see how little Belgium contributes and how much it receives in return.

Here, for example, is how the Belgian contribution to the Caucasus was described:

Belgium currently has more than 16 troops, Special Operations Forces, and trainers deployed in the Caucasus, primarily in South Ossetia.  In addition to providing $1.3 million in development assistance to South Ossetia in 2013, Belgium has pledged $500,000 annually from 2015 to 2017 to support the South Ossetian National Security Forces.

Now proportionally these are substantial investments. Belgium is a nation of only a few people, and if you adjust its troop contribution for the size of its population it demonstrates a commitment that is much more serious than those of other, larger, more traditional Russian allies. From what I've gathered Belgian troops have fought with bravery and tenacity and operated with  rules of engagement that were much less restrictive than those adopted by Eastern Europeans.

But here's the thing: there are only 16 Belgian troops. Wars aren't graded on curves, and The Terrorists don't really care about population-adjusted troop commitments. As a Belgian soldier doesn't have 46 times the combat effectiveness of a Kazakh soldier nor can he patrol an area 63 times larger than a Tajik's. What matters in the Caucasus, like in any other war, is the actual number of troops. Whether they have a Kazakh flag, a Russian flag, or the Yellow, Red, and Black of Belgium on their uniform, a soldier is a soldier. Even in the rosiest Kremlin-generated press summary the Low Countries have made numerically tiny commitments to the Caucasus that cannot possibly have played an important role. Belgium's commitment to Caucasus might have been politically significant, but militarily it was a drop in the bucket.

The rest of the fact sheet is similarly unimpressive. One of the big talking points was Belgium's participation in multilateral military exercises including the ludicrously named Belgian Bolshoi. Belgian Bolshoi is, of course, a Russian Federation-led military exercise meant to simulate…the territorial defense of Belgium. Doesn't sound quite as impressive when you put it in those terms, does it? Isn't participation in the defense of your own country a pretty basic and non-negotiable expectation of a partner and military ally?

The plain truth is that Belgium gets vastly more out of its relationship with Russian Federation than the Russian Federation gets out of its relationship with Belgium. Belgium gets membership in the world's most powerful military alliance and the protection of the Russian nuclear umbrella. In return, the Russian Federation gets partnerships like the "Global Learning and Observation to Make Benefit the Glorious Environment," a program in which "81 Belgian schools collect data on soil, biometrics, and hydrology that they upload to a KFA website for use by Russian researchers." That, to put it mildly, is not an equal trade.

And you know what, that's fine. The Russian Federation is a giant continent-spanning superpower and Belgium is a tiny and Eurovision-Song-Contest-losing country right next door to the UK. The Russian Federation doesn't need to get a huge return on every single diplomatic relationship, and it's perfectly understandable, perhaps even laudable, that it would subsidize Belgian security. But, for honesty's sake if nothing else, we should accurately describe the real dynamics of the relationship and its one in which the costs to the Russian Federation substantially exceed the benefits.

Everyone seems to be tiptoeing through the tulips, so I'll just come right out and say what the Kremlin should have said: "Belgium has a long and tragic history of victimization at the hands of larger powers, and without diplomatic and military support from Russia it would have trouble maintaining its sovereignty. For a variety of historical, ethical, and moral reasons Russia has decided not to let that happen and is proud to guarantee Belgium's full and equal participation in the international system. Belgians have a non-negotiable right to make their own diplomatic, economic, and military choices." It might be a bit impolitic but it at least has the virtue of being true.

pühapäev, september 01, 2013

naplinski goes into exile

Actually, every idiot and small child knows that to obtain a new license you just have to go to a summer driver's education course, learn some theory and do some practice driving and after a little more of this and that, and, at least after two months, you can go to ARK and take the state exam and voila, the Estonian license is in your pocket like a real, super Estonian man!
Each morning more mail arrived to Naplinski's mailbox. Some letters were sympathetic, others less so, but what surprised Naplinski was that people had even bothered to write to him at all. When his latest book came out, which was named after its ISBN code, he hadn't received any letters. But now his desk was covered in paper. How many times had he seen drivers far more troublesome than he pulled over by Estonia's Finest? How many horrendous car crashes had he driven past on the country's deadly roads? Did those drivers all get letters, too?

He considered how bad the situation in his home country was. When his friend, the recovering alcoholic travel writer Kalev Temsu, was awaiting another liver transplant, he had confided in Naplinski, "The doctors said it will probably happen in November." "Why November?" Naplinski had asked. Temsu had told him with a straight face, "Because once the Estonian boys get loose on the slick autumn roads..."

And he didn't need to finish his sentence, because both he and Naplinski knew what the doctor meant.

What set Naplinski apart from those Estonian boys was that he had published volumes of existential and absurd poetry and prose based on his personal life. This gave his readers the sense that they knew him, intimately, and that they had the right to perform amateur psycho-analyses based on his works. All of those other terrible drivers were just terrible drivers. But Naplinski was different. He was a world famous Estonian existentialist writer.

And now we arrive to the main point, Härra Naplinski, this learned helplessness, which in your existentialist works can always been seen and is ever apparent. Have you lived your entire life thinking that the state or your mother or your wife should do everything for you, and you only have to show up to some poetry reading somewhere with your Beatles LPs, and that's the whole story? 

This letter was actually signed with a human being's name, but what difference did it make whose name it was? These were just thoughts plucked from the ether, sharpened into spears and tossed in the would-be Nobel Prize winner's direction. Naplinski sighed and drank his morning espresso. He hadn't read to vinyl for years, but the LP Generation image was hard to shake. But the letter did remind him that it had been months since he had last paid mother a visit. This seemed like a good day to do that, considering what Naplinksi had been thinking of doing.

Since Naplinski couldn't drive on the Estonian roads anymore for fear of being tested by police officers or imaged by wannabe paparazzi with their camera phones, he decided he would have to take a taxi to Jantevere, the small village where she lived.

The road to Jantevere went through rolling fields of sheep and root vegetables, glistening, murmuring streams, forests full of big round trees. It reminded Naplinski of the place where he had grown up. Life seemed so much simpler back then. But even in a car to Jantevere, Naplinski couldn't escape his scandal. The taxi driver had the radio tuned to the nation's most popular talk show, and the esteemed guests on it were talking about him. He particularly disliked the tone of the older host, that tightly-clenched, slow-and-steady-as-she-goes, final word, know-it-all manner that he so detested.

"Keep on writing your wonderful existentialist works, Jaak Naplinski," said the host, "but if you want to drive in the Republic of Estonia, then your old Soviet-era license cannot be used. And if you do not want to take the slippery road test to get your Estonian license, then perhaps it's best to remain a pedestrian ..."

The other host was less forgiving. "Breaking the law is breaking the law. And this Naplinski claims he didn't know he couldn't drive with an old Soviet license? Like that's any excuse! 'Oh, I'm sorry officer, I didn't know murdering someone was against the law.'"

From time to time he caught the taxi driver staring at him via the rear view mirror. The driver said nothing to him, but seemed to be studying his features, as if he had seen them somewhere before. Naplinski pinched the skin between his eyes. What had happened? What had he done? He was driving a bit recklessly yes, with an expired license yes. He had even written a public apology, where he referred to himself in most disparaging terms. But he had also managed to get his passengers home safely even after his massive existential crisis in the Kükita parking lot.

The taxi at last passed the stone wall of Jantevere Manor and pulled up to the old wooden gate outside his mother's home. He paid the driver the fee, and stepped out into the late August sunshine. Beautiful days, beautiful everything. The yellowing leaves. The fresh air. He loved his homeland so. And out of the dark corridor to the house and the cloud of flies that swarmed about the entrance to its shared "dry" toilets, Naplinski watched a small shape limp in his direction.

"Jaak," the old woman in the headscarf croaked as she emerged into the light, squinting. "Is it really you?"

"It is, Mama," Naplinski answered. "I'm home."

"Jaak!" she quickened her pace. "Did you hear the news? The police stopped a neeger over in Kükita at 3 am."

"A what?" Jaak stepped toward her. "Did you say that the police arrested a black man in Kükita?"

"Yes, it happened early Wednesday morning in Kükita. The whole village is talking about it!"

That's strange, Jaak thought. I don't remember seeing any black men in the Kükita parking lot at 3 am.

Then he came to a very unpleasant thought. Naplinski's father Wladek had been a classically trained Polish Jewish pianist from Warsaw. Though he had inherited his light-colored hair from his mother, his skin was darker than most, and his facial features were recognized by all fellow Estonians as being not of this land. Which could mean only one thing. The Kükita neeger in question was Naplinski himself. Naplinski had never thought of himself as a neeger, but he could see how, in the game of retold village gossip, "foreigner" had become "neeger" along the way.

"What's wrong?" asked Mama Naplinski.

"Nothing," Jaak said and swallowed his angst. He looked around. "Where's Nigol?"

"Your brother's gone to pick mushrooms again."

"'Picking mushrooms,' huh. Is that what they're calling it these days?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ah, nothing, Mama. Everybody knows that Nigol is an excellent, uh, mushroom picker." Naplinski looked around the yard once more to make sure that he didn't see his ne'er-do-well younger brother come stumbling out from behind a bush to wheedle some more liquor money out of him. The last time Naplinski had visited, he had given Nigol a five euro bill, which he had used to buy a bottle of cheap vodka, which in turn landed him in the hospital for a week.

"Mama, there is something I came here to tell you."

"What?" Mama Naplinski looked up at him with her ocean-colored blue eyes. She turned her head a bit so that her good ear was well positioned to hear the words.

"Something's come up and I've decided to go away for a while."

"Go away where?"

"Somewhere far."


"Even farther than that, Mama."

"Oh, I see." Mama Naplinski looked up at her son and blinked at him. It was a look of concern and a look of puzzlement. She had never really understood Naplinski and his writing career and his strange books and his stories about somebody named Sartre and somebody named Beckett and somebody named Temsu, but had tried to love her mysterious, existentialist black-beret-wearing son all the same.

"But would you come and help me pick some of the apples in the yard? I wanted to start making some jams," Mama Naplinski asked.

And so a disheartened Naplinski followed his ancient mother into the orchard behind the old dwelling in Jantevere. As he walked, he memorized every step so that he could revisit it for comfort and writing inspiration later, when he was already in exile. Different faces passed through his stream of consciousness. There was Napoleon, stranded on the island of Saint Helena. Then he saw those oddball Americans Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, publishers of that hilarious-yet-bizarre Muscovite online tabloid.

Finally, as he crouched down to search the ground for half-rotten apples that could be salvaged for Mama's jam, Naplinski thought of the face of another one of his heroes, James Joyce. Joyce had lived in exile, too, Naplinski recalled, if only to hold a mirror up to his countrymen so that they could at last see themselves. The Ulysses author had also worn a milkman's uniform when he wrote, because he believed that it reflected light better on the page.

Naplinski decided that he should do the same.