laupäev, detsember 30, 2006

Saddam's Death = John-John Squared

Remember the 1990s? We lost two of our most beloved celebrities, John F. Kennedy, Jr., the genetic embodiment of America's post-war high, and Princess Diana, who made anyone anywhere want to listen to Bananarama and go water skiing. Women drooled over steamy photos of JFK Jr. bearing his bare chest and men sheepishly peeked at Di's bikini in any number of tabloid photographs. And then they were both dead - John John took not only his life but his wife's and her sisters in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard. Di died in a car crash in Paris. And we all partied on like it was 1 9 9 9.

But these are the Oh Ohs, dear souls. These are the times that try men's souls. Is it a decade of catastrophe? I am not sure. So many are not here that were here before. But it is a decade for scratching your head. In 1999, the film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was released. Saddam played a central role. Today, he was hanged. He exists no longer. And, as a bonus, the Iraqis got it on tape. And, suddenly, those old jokes aren't quite as funny anymore.

A big wave comes and carries away thousands after thousands of lives. A big storm comes and sinks one of America's most culturally significant cities. And, so long ago, two planes came and topple two of New York's most prominent office buildings. None of it made any sense. Everywhere are corpses, but sanity? It's nowhere to be found.

Inside ourselves we used to feel, at least, a modicum of stability. But now, if they told you that 2+2 = 5, you might start to believe them. Up *could* be down if the right people told you so. Dreaming *could* be awakening. All I have are the same pictures and text you are looking at. Change it to say, "Saddam's death sentence commuted" and show some photos of him alive and he'd still be alive to most people.

How am I supposed to feel about this? What am I supposed to think. The only honest answer I can come back with is nothing. Saddam was a murderer, but his execution doesn't change that, nor does it bring justice. It's just another heavy noose in history. They hung the gang that assassinated Lincoln too, but it couldn't bring back Lincoln. Oswald was shot in Dallas, but it couldn't bring back Kennedy. They hung the criminals of the Nazi regime but it didn't bring back 12 million people. Lavrenti Beria died a Trotskyite death, but his victims sat rotting in unmarked graves. No matter how hard we try, we cannot bring them back, dear readers. Eye for eye isn't a fair trade, it just means two guys are missing eyes instead of one. I am not a religious man, but sometimes I wonder what God would say about all of this. Most times I think he would just shrug his shoulders.

reede, detsember 29, 2006

Murder Begets Execution

It's been nearly three years since Saddam Hussein was captured by American forces. Now, apparently, the time left for the deposed Iraqi dictator can be measured more in hours than in days. The judge presiding over the case says that his death sentence will be carried out no later than Saturday, ie: tomorrow.

A lot of people died at the order of Saddam. Women, children, Kurdish, Sunni, Shiite -- it didn't matter. But a lot of people have also died since Hussein was captured, and again, brutality does not discriminate. So, while Saddam's death will have symbolic importance, most realists believe his execution will produce very little. Some call an execution justice, but I don't think it is. Regardless of whether or not he hangs or rots, all the people that Saddam killed are dead and will remain dead. "Justice" is a compelling concept, but when you are dealing with mass graves in Iraq, it becomes impossible to administer. So, in my opinion, Saddam's impending death will just add an extra digit to the death toll in Iraq.


Saddam is gone. Now don't we all feel better.

neljapäev, detsember 28, 2006

TNR Goes to Estonia and Finds it Stimulating

In the latest issue of The New Republic, Tom Bissell goes to Estonia to find out what all of the 'e-Stonia' buzz is about, and oh, how he finds it.

The best parts of his piece are definitely his first hand experiences in Tallinn, but my personal favorites are his glowing reaction to Estonian womanhood. "Tallinn boasted what I can say were--without fear of hyperbole--the most jaw-droppingly beautiful women I have ever seen in my life," he writes. When he loses his bank card and has to go to Hansapank to pick it up, "a six-foot-two-inch Estonian Amazon so glowingly blonde she appeared to be irradiated" retrieves his new card for him.

Bissell also reacts warmly to the wife of Scott Diel, who is editor of The City Paper. "Diel's biggest impetus for staying in Estonia, he told me, other than his predictably lovely Estonian wife, was 'lifestyle'," Bissell notes.

There's a lot more meat to the story than Bissell's admiration for the exotic Estonian female. But I like it the best. It reminds me of when I was younger and single and sitting in a cafe in Oslo going, "Oh my God." And yes, there are some beauties in Estonia and I do recall at least one time going to the desk at Hansapank and completely forgetting what I was doing there or perhaps, what my name was. So here's a big "terviseks" to Bissell for so honestly portraying his experience. It is of benefit to us all. So read the piece. He is equally smitten with Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

pühapäev, detsember 24, 2006

IKEA - a Christmas Oasis for Väliseestlased

Where can an Estonian in America go, when Christmas means lots of stuff wrapped in boxes and piparkooki is a foreign afterthought? IKEA, of course.

Last night, with minu kallis naine Epp in the humdrums over the lack of genuine Christmas cheer in our lives, hungry for gingerbread and glögi and all the stuff an Estonian can comfortably buy in their neighborhood shop, we searched for an answer that could provide some measure of kodumaa to drive away her Yultide blues.

The answer came in the Swedish royal colors of blue and yellow -- IKEA, located on Route 107 in Hicksville on Long Island. Surely Ingvar Kamprad and Anders Dahlvig, the blue-eyed Rootslased that run IKEA must feel for their northern European compatriots abroad and would have made sure that every Icelander, Norwegian, Swede, Finn, Dane, Estonian, and whoever else drinks glögi at Christmas, had access to much needed gingerbread and mulled wine at this time of year.

And so we went to IKEA, in search of Estonian Christmas spirit. "Yes!" I thought. "We'll go to IKEA and there will be rosy-cheeked Scandinavians willing to indulge us in affordable Jõulu products!" But when I got there and asked for glögi, the Mexican guy behind the counter pointed to a case of sparkling pear wines. And when I went hunting for old-fashioned piparkook, all I could find was a box of capuccino-flavored Anna's gingerbread thins. All the while, a sign in the store market encouraged us to "take a taste of Sweden home." Yeah, right.

Cutting our losses, we decided that we'll make glögi on our own and we took a box of capuccino-flavored Anna's piparkooki thins, because piparkooki is piparkooki, even if tastes like Italian coffee. We also managed to buy several jars of Lingonberry jam, which was interestingly titled "Lingon sylt" and Epp also found cloudberry jam or "Hjoltron sylt" --something that Estonians know well, but that is unknown here in New York.

So although it didn't all work out as planned, we didn't go home empty handed. And at least we had some "sylt" in our basket.

reede, detsember 22, 2006

Estonian Christmas Customs

Estonians have some pretty interesting culinary treats, including herring cooked every which way, sült (meat jelly), kartulisalat (always with diced ham), and tatrahelbed - a salted porridge.

But it is during Christmas time, or jõuleaeg, that they break out the really "good shit," starting with the ubiquitous blood sausage or verivorst. I have tasted this Estonian Christmas treat with mixed results. Sometimes it tastes so foul, I feel like I might as well just go to a field of cows, pick one, and stick a straw in its jugular. Other times it is loaded with barley, and when salted and covered in sour cream, it is palatable.

That's why when it comes to Estonian Christmas food, I'll be the one at the table loading up on pork, sauerkraut, and potatoes with plenty of kangesinep (strong mustard). The added benefit of the mustard is that it makes you thirsty, which means you have to drink more really alcoholic beer, which means you have a better time.

Estonians typically celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve. "Like in other Nordic states," writes Estonia's foreign ministry, "Estonia's celebration of Christmas mostly falls on Christmas Eve, however, Christmas season starts from Advent with people buying Advent calendars or lighting Advent candles. Each year on December 24, the President of Estonia declares Christmas Peace, which is a 350-year-old tradition in Estonia."

There is also the tradition of putting out candles for departed love ones, especially by visiting their graves and placing candles there. At Christmas, whole cemeteries are illuminated. It's actually quite beautiful.

It's hard to tell what is ancient custom in Estonia and what is borrowed from neighboring countries. According to the Estonian foreign ministry, an old custom was to bring Christmas straw into the house and to make Christmas crowns resembling church chandeliers, particularly in northern and western Estonia. More recently, you can see some incarnation of this tradition in St. Lucia processions.

Anyway, since Estonians don't seem to mind borrowing traditions from their neighbors, one thing they should do is steal the tradition of Christmas beers from the Danes. Every year, Tuborg releases its special Julebryg Christmas beer, wishing you a "glaedelig jul" and plenty of drunken merriment. I don't know how many of those I could drink. They are really good.

neljapäev, detsember 21, 2006

Londongrad, Here We Come!

Well this is good news for the unemployed of Ida-Virumaa county, the ones that Amnesty International is worried about. Today, the Council of the European Union has decided to permit non-citizen residents of Latvia and Estonia to travel in the EU without visas.

The decision, approved by the EU's 25 agriculture ministers yesterday at the advice of the European Parliament and EU justice ministers, opens the Union's doors to more than 500,000 "resident aliens" of mainly Russian origin.

I've said this many times, but I'll say it again. The reason there is higher unemployment in Ida Virumaa is because Soviet population transfer policies created an unsustainable demographic situation, where thousands of people were enticed to live in a region that cannot, in the long-term, support them.

For example in Kohtla Järve, the population went from 20,000 in 1959 to 80,000 in 1989. That's crazy. Hopefully those newcomers that couldn't make it in Estonia can press their luck elsewhere.

kolmapäev, detsember 20, 2006

The Logic of Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's panties are still in a bunch over the idea that Estonia would pass a law outlawing violence-inspiring symbols of former occupation regimes.
Russia will oppose the heroisation of fascism in its contacts with Estonia’s leadership and in the international arena, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

“We considerate it sacrilegious and dangerous to put an equality sign between liberators and occupants. At present, this is happening in Estonia,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.

He added that Russia “will continue work in contacts with Estonian leadership and in the international arena to avert a revival of fascism and its heroisation”.

Let me walk you through this. Estonia has a provisional law - yet to be passed - that would ban the use of both the swastika and the hammer & sickle in public settings that could lead to disruptive activity. But the Russian foreign ministry sees this ban as a "heroisation" of fascism. Do you understand that? Because I just can't grasp how outlawing the symbol of fascism makes one part of a fascist revival.

Anyway, if Lavrov wants to see fascism he need not look in Estonia's backyard. Kremlin Inc. resembles more and more each day the regime that has come to define fascism for generations, that of Benito Mussolini's Italy. Is the Russian Federation of today so different from fascist Italy in the 1920s -- where the middle class endorsed corporatism in the face of chaotic laissez faire capitalism and reactionary bolshevism?

As long as the upper classes were pleased with Mussolini, he was given a free hand to convert post-war Italy into a police state. But when Italy lost the war, we all know what happened to Benito Mussolini. Word to the wise.

esmaspäev, detsember 18, 2006

The Economist Slams Amnesty International

And by The Economist, I mean Edward Lucas ... In his [very free] blog, Lucas is the first to look at the report and use the dreaded 'd' word, no ... not 'dipshit' - deportation. It's a gutsy move to remind other Europeans of what they once did when circumstances placed them in similar situations:

Since regaining independence in 1991 Estonia has become the reform star of the post-communist world. Its booming economy, law-based state and robust democracy are all the more impressive given their starting point: a country struggling with the huge forced migration of the Soviet era. The collapse of the evil empire left Estonia with hundreds of thousands of resentful, stranded ex-colonists, citizens of a country that no longer existed.

Some countries might have
deported them. That was the remedy adopted in much of eastern Europe after the second world war. Germans and Hungarians—regardless of their citizenship or politics—were sent “home” in conditions of great brutality.

Instead, Estonia, like Latvia next door, decided to give these uninvited guests a free choice. They could go back to Russia. They could stay but adopt Russian citizenship. They could take local citizenship (assuming they were prepared to learn the language). Or they could stay on as non-citizens, able to work but not to vote.

I am very pleased to hear Edward Lucas, and by Mr. Lucas I also mean The Economist, smack down the Amnesty Report. I don't think the report is as bad it seems from the title, but I do get a little sick of the sensitivity with which some people approach the topic - yearning not to offend. It's nice to see someone call a spade a spade for a change. I personally know a German that was sent "home" from Poland to West Germany after World War II, so the comparison is not lost on me.

These are real things. We live in a real world of living history. Congrats to Edward Lucas for giving us a quick, in-your-face history lesson in response to a report from an NGO that really should be working on something more important. Is there room for improvement in Estonia? Always. Is it worth Amnesty's time while it works on reports about Sudan and Afghanistan? I am not so sure about that.

kolmapäev, detsember 13, 2006

Sweden and Estonia Forge EU Partnership

Taking a break away from flag burning in Russia, let's discuss something that actually matters for the future, shall we?

I was asked recently on Radio Free Finland what Estonia's feelings toward the European Union were, and I basically said that Estonia's accession was very much in the interest of its largest economic and political partners, Finland and Sweden, which also have a considerable presence in Estonian media ownership.

Over the past few weeks though, two events have presented themselves of how Estonia will function within the EU, and I think they both point towards members of a Nordic voting block coordinated by Sweden - which seems to be the only northern European country, other than Estonia, that is constantly throwing out ideas in the European Union and hoping some of them stick.

For example, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and his Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet published an editorial in Die Welt aguing for closer ties between the EU and Turkey at a time when Germany and France appear hesitant to further engagement with Ankara:

The strategic decisions on enlargement to be taken by European leaders in the coming days are about the kind of Europe we want to create. Is it a static Union turned inwards focusing on its own integration capacity? Or is a Europe looking outwards to the rest of the world ready to take on global challenges and global competition? Does the EU see the merits in building a wider community of stable, prosperous democracies or will we keep our neighbours at arms length?

And apparently Bildt and Paet are continuing their united front on the Turkey issue:

At Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers, Sweden and Estonia reportedly signalled to fellow EU members that they were prepared to open up representative bureaus in Northern Cyprus, and begin offering direct flights to the northern part of the island.


At the 8 hour meeting of EU foreign ministers, South Cyprus met with a tough front after requesting that a higher number of Turkey's EU accession topics be shelved, and that Turkey be forced to open its air and sea ports unconditionally. Both Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt asserted that Turkey's new efforts on Cyprus should be taken into account, reminding fellow EU foreign ministers of the promises made to Turkey in 2004 that isolationary measures against Northern Cyprus would be lifted.

While Estonia is a small player on the international stage, its addition to the EU debate backs up Sweden's policies and gives its argument extra gravitas with talk of "the success of EU enlargement" in Estonia and Estonia's ability to reform based on the "opportunity of EU enlargement."

You can clearly see now why politically, as well as economically, the addition of Estonia to the EU has paid off for the Swedes.

esmaspäev, detsember 11, 2006

Estonia's Slavs Get Screwed by Moscow

Just when they thought the Language Inspectorate was fear incarnate, Estonia's Slavic residents have woken up to a new menace - their cousins in Moscow. Today a group of young Muscovites, most of whom we can assume have never been to Estonia, organized a protest in front of the Estonian embassy in Moscow burning Estonian flags decorated with swastika designs on them.

The actions of the group, called "Young Russia," come just a week after a bill was submitted to the Estonian parliament that would ban the use of the swastika as well as the Soviet hammer & sickle in public places where the display could cause a public disturbance. Let me repeat that - Estonia wants to ban the use of the swastika too, but the "Young Russians" painted one anyway on their mock Estonian flag that was burned during the demonstration.

The demonstration also happened shortly after Amnesty International issued a report suggesting ways that Estonia could improve its integration policies. At a time when Estonia's Slavic residents could be enjoying a genuine debate about integration law reform, they have been ambushed by a loud, hateful protest in the streets of Moscow that arouses the displeasure, if not the fear, of genocidal Russian nationalism.

If Russians interested in Estonia wanted to do the local residents any favors they would a) shut up and let Estonia's Slavs speak for themselves; and b) actually read Estonia's laws. Sadly, the Russian audience is fed information by state-owned media that is hostile to Estonia. I wish I could somehow change the situation, but I often fear that I can't. There are too few antidotes for ignorance.

The Bane of Your Existence

When I lived in Denmark about five years ago, I made it a point to learn some Danish. Like fellow Nordic pessimists the Estonians, the Danes told me that I shouldn't even bother, that their tongue was impenetrable, and that they'd rather speak English. But I felt strongly that if you are a foreigner in a foreign culture, you should learn the language - even if it's Swahili or Breton or Frisian. Why should I expect people to know my language in their own country. When I got back to the US I tried my Scandinavian skills on a Swedish woman at a party, who promptly pulled her husband over and said, "William, this young man has lived four months in Denmark and can speak some Swedish." Apparently, he had lived with the woman for years but still couldn't muster a word paa svenska.

When I then became 'involved' with an Estonian woman, I kept up my promise that I would never, ever, be that guy that expects his life companion should think in a foreign language 24 hours a day just because, yawn - scratch, he's too lazy to learn. So far I have had mixed results. People tell me I speak very well, even the coveted "vabalt" (fluently) but I don't think so. My mind still works in English and it is hard to quickly assemble those sentences with Estonia's tricky grammar. And then there are the exceptions. You can go "Tartusse" but you can't go "Kuressaaresse" - no, you must go "Kuressaarde." But as bad as I think I am, young women still think I am good enough to introduce to their non-Estonian knowing boyfriends to me who then will procede to hate my guts for being able to speak the Finnic bog language.

So to all of you out there I am sorry if my private ambitions not to be that guy have ever gotten you in hot water with your loved one. If it makes you feel any better, I took five years of Spanish and I don't remember any of it.

pühapäev, detsember 10, 2006

When Aino met ... Aino

This Sunday night at 9 pm Phil for Finland for Thought will be interviewing me about Estonia and Finland - two countries that should be best friends but tend to still have residual negative feelings towards one another.

This will be a funny interview as Phil is an American - from Baltimore, a city on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland south from New York. I have been to Baltimore on several occasions and I have visited the ghettos of "Ballmer" as well as its nice harbor where they serve crab cakes and you always feel like you are in a John Waters movie.

Having visited the murky ghettos of Baltimore, I think I have a free ticket to ridicule any provincial attitudes from the Finns about their neighbor Estonia. Too often I have heard actual fear from the Scandinavians and Finns about venturing forth into Estonia. They are afraid Estonian mobsters will attack them with accordions, tie them up with knock-off Nordic headbands, and steal their valuable Euros and Kroner.

But the sad thing is that 15 years on, they know so little. There are a lot of enlightened Finns who have spent time in Tallinn and feel safe, and most opinion polls show that they feel closer to Estonia than they do to Sweden. But rather than Phil interviewing a *real* Estonian as a spokesperson for the nation, I will be subbing as a semi neutral force - an outsider that will speak of both peoples frankly.

And, in the true American spirit, there will no doubt be plenty of filthy language and perhaps, if you are lucky, a shoot 'em up car chase at the end. One can only hope. Let me know what you think about põdrad, and I'll be sure to let those reindeer hear what you have to say.

Aitäh JA kiitos!

reede, detsember 08, 2006

Comrade Wolf

Being rather young myself, it's hard for me not to sympathize with Estonia's younger politicians. In my country, politicians like Barack Obama, age 45, are treated as if they are 20-something -- Obama is regularly referred to as a "rock star" in the Beltway media -- while old geezers like John McCain, 70, try their hardest to stay "middle-aged."

So I had warm feelings towards Parts' government in '03 when they came into office because they were young and seemed like they cared. But after the nightmare of watching the ritualistic sacking of minister after minister in the Parts government in '04 and '05, I started to believe that Parts belonged in the opposition because he makes a great critic. And Juku didn't let us down yesterday when he scathingly tore into Estonian foreign policy:

“If we take stock of our foreign policy of recent years, we get a bleak result,” the MP from the merged opposition party Pro Patria and Res Publica Union said in his comments following a keynote address by the minister of foreign affairs ahead of a foreign policy discussion in parliament.

“We’ve lost to Russia in the propaganda war in Estonia and in Europe alike. And that is only because of our own sluggishness and passivity,” the former leader of Res Publica said in his remarks to fellow lawmakers after the speech by Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.

Parts said that Estonia at this point has no clear-cut mission in foreign policy, it lacks initiative and acquiesces in mirroring the policy of large European nations.
Parts described Estonia’s foreign policy of recent years as mediocre and lacking ambition.

Parts in right. The Russian foreign ministry has at least three English-language news services pumping out its version of Estonia to the world 24/7. And what does Estonia have? A generous post by Radio Free Europe? A helping hand now and then from The Economist? Every day when I put "Estonia" into my search engine, it comes back with four articles of Russian foreign ministry-approved pornography about those swastika-loving fascist Estonians who force their poor "compatriots" to speak to them in Estonian. So yes, in that sense, Estonia is very much losing the propaganda war. Even Georgia has its own "news service" with its own "point of view" - but Estonia has none. At the very least, the Estonian foreign ministry should have its releases circulated via all international press wires. They post it on their website, but nobody reads it!

Still, I don't like Juhan's tone. He sounds agitated, almost as if he'd rather use Russia to score points against the Reform Party (which leads in most polls for the '07 parliamentary elections) than actually work with the Reform Party so that Estonia has a coherent foreign policy. I, for one, think that it does. How "coherent" is Finnish foreign policy or Danish foreign policy? Estonia is just 1.3 million people - how "big" a foreign policy do you expect it to have? Over the past two years the country has expanded its foreign presence considerably, worked with its Nordic and Baltic partners, built up its relations with key partners like Sweden, Germany, and the UK, and scored visible visits from high-profile world leaders. That's a lot of work for one large building on Iceland Park.

So my reaction to Parts' comments is mixed. In some ways he is very right. In other ways is a living example of the phrase, "An Estonians' favorite food is another Estonian."

neljapäev, detsember 07, 2006

The Amnesty Report

So the new report about Estonia's minority policies by Amnesty International is out and it is meaty. The document, entitled Estonia Linguistic minorities in Estonia: Discrimination must end at first glance appears like an indictment of current minority policies. But if you actually go through and read Amnesty's Report, you will see that Amnesty, as a whole, agrees with Estonia's integration policies, but believes that they should be better funded, and that economic barriers for Russian-speakers in private business should be removed in areas where Russian-speakers make up an overwhelming majority.

For example, Amnesty makes it clear that it supports the scheduled school reforms, but it points out areas where the Estonian government should focus to end discrimination, as the NGO deems it. For example, Amnesty recommends:

The Estonian authorities to monitor levels of drop-out rates in secondary schools where Russian is replaced by Estonian as the language of teaching; to provide more support for teachers who will be required to replace Russian with Estonian as their language of teaching; to provide additional and adequate resources (including necessary psychological and learning supports) for all students who are required to replace Russian with Estonian as their learning language to successfully manage this transition.

Amnesty also takes a hard look at Ida-Virumaa:

In many parts of Estonia, notably the north-eastern region of Ida-Virumaa, Estonian is not spoken by the majority of those residing in the region. This means that Estonian language skills are de facto not necessarily needed in all professions. The result is that although many persons belonging to the Russian-speaking linguistic minority would be able to carry out several functions in the labour market without endangering public safety or order, they find themselves unemployed with no or limited realistic opportunities to gain legal employment in the formal sector as they do not have the appropriate Estonian language certificate.

I advise anyone who is interested to read this report. My first reaction is "easier said than done" but when you have Amnesty International essentially agreeing with Estonia's integration policies - agreeing with its unitary language policy in the public sphere, I can't say there is much to complain about. Can Estonia's integration policies be steamlined or made more effective? Of course they can.

I think Estonians are still very frightened by the Russian language. They feel as if there is a seven-ton linguistic elephant hovering over their small land at all times. But the reality is that *physically* most of Estonia is populated by Estonians that speak the Estonian language. And it takes two and a half hours by bus to get to the overwhelmingly Russian-speaking portion of Estonia in Narva and Sillamäe.

There are neighborhoods in Tallinn where people only speak Russian - but there are neighborhoods in New York and London also where people only speak Russian too. In some ways you could consider these minorities - the Narva minority versus the Tallinn minority - to be in very different situations. The Tallinners are undergoing a pretty stereotypical "immigrant experience." Like Italians in New York's Little Italy of the 1900s, they live in communal neighborhoods, preserving their culture, but using the language of the majority - in that case English, in this case Estonian - to interact in the private and public spheres.

In Narva, you have much more of a "national minority" situation. This is where you have an ethnically different community residing at some distance from the national ethnic majority. The Russian Estonians of Narva, unlike those of Tallinn, therefore find themselves not unlike the Swedes of the Aaland Islands, or the Sami of Finnmark, or the Bretons of France (bear with my comparisons here, for my sake). They are more of a national minority or cultural isolate than an immigrant community.

Now, I've heard some people tell me that Russian is a "stronger" language. That if it isn't kept in check it will overtake Estonian - turning Estonia into the next Ingria or Karelia - Finnic lands that have been colonized by Slavs. This is a deep-seated, territorial fear. I respect it.

Yet even when 25 percent of the residents of Estonia speak Russian as their native tongue, the language somehow hasn't caught on. In fact it's the Russian teenagers in Tallinn that correct MY bad Estonian when I attempt to order something or pay for tickets. And the younger generation of ethnic Estonians - those younger than 25, even in Tallinn, barely speak Russian at all.

Amnesty International is an NGO. It does not know all and does not command the moral respect of a God. However, they have invested time into preparing this report, and I am not afraid to reconsider some of the questions that exist regarding Estonia's minority policies.

Your thoughts are always welcome.

kolmapäev, detsember 06, 2006

Mina või?

Let me pose a serious question to you. Other than Russia, is there any other country that militarily threatens Estonia? Think hard. Do you expect Swedish tourists to sack the capital? British stag parties to occupy the Riigikogu? Angry Finnish dockworkers to shut down Estonian ports? Since the 14th century, has any other country, other than Russia, ever explicitly waged war against the Estonian people? Wasn't Russia also the country whose soldiers put up a sign saying "we'll be back" when they were forced to withdraw their presence in 1994? Don't Russian military planes routinely violate Estonian airspace?

Then why should the following comments from Major General Ants Laaneots be treated as anything but fact:

Major General Ants Laaneots, new commander of the Estonian Defence Force, who was appointed to the post on December 5, said in his first interview that he regarded Russia as the main threat to the security of their republic.

“We border on an unfriendly state, to put it mildly. Relations with Russia are our main problem from the point of view of ensuring our security,” he said in an interview, published by the Eesti Paevaleht newspaper on Wednesday. He believes Tallinn should rely on the NATO armed forces for neutralizing “the Russian threat”, and should take part in NATO missions.

As they say in the valley, "like, no duh." Anyway, these words drew a response from the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in Greece:

Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov has suggested that the leaders of Estonia and Latvia should stop taking Russia and its people for extraterrestrials and should pay attention to the “impermissible heroizing of fascism.”

Ivanov spoke about it here on Wednesday after the talks with his Greek counterpart Evangelos Meimarakis.

“Using the diplomatic language, I could say that such statements evoke perplexity and concern, that they are impossible to understand,” Ivanov said, commenting on the interview of Major General Ants Laaneots, commander of the Estonian Defence Force, which was published by the local Eesti Paevaleht newspaper.

I love how Estonia and Latvia usually become the same country in the eyes of Russian foreign policy. These were comments from an Estonian general, yet he managed to work Latvia in there too.

But I feel their rapid response betrays the obvious, that the last thing they want while they meet with the French or the Greeks or the Italians as to be seen as threatening to an EU neighbor. They'll continue to act like chauvinistic pricks behind the scene, mind you, but in public they want everyone to know how much they love peace. So in a way, you could read Ivanov's comments as a good thing.

teisipäev, detsember 05, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

That's Mister Fred Rogers there, an icon of my and many others' childhood. Each day I would watch his TV program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and ponder like so many other children why he changed his shoes every time he came inside his house. But this blogpost is not devoted to shoes, it's devoted to neighbors and how you feel about them.

I am interested in learning from Estonians how they feel about four other nations: Swedes, Finns, Latvians, and Russians. These are the four neighbors of the Estonian people. Different Estonians are likely to know more about certain neighbors than others. Estonians from Valga probably know the Latvians well, while those in Jõhvi have a firm understanding of their eastern neighbors, the Russians. Estonians in Tallinn probably know Finns the best, while Estonians from the islands are in a position better than the others to know the Swedes. So tell me your impressions are, what you like and what you don't like, and simply what you know.

For your benefit, I will discuss my neighbors. As a New Yorker I have many neighbors, including people that live in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and, yes, Canada - both Quebecois and from Ontario. Here are my thoughts on each neighbor.

Let's start with New Jersey, perhaps New York's closest relative. People in New York look down on New Jersey as they have usually only seen it from a car window and smelled it from that position as well. The perspective is that Jersey is, in one way or another, dirty. Plus Jersey has no real cities. Its two population centers either commute to New York City or to Philadelphia. And the culture that Jersey does produce is ridiculed in New York. In Jersey Bruce Springsteen is "the boss" and Jon Bon Jovi is a native son that has done good. In New York, both of these guys are tolerated, perhaps privately enjoyed, but publicly mocked. And forget about their marketing schemes. Nobody really believes Jersey is the "Garden State" or wants to sink their teeth into a ripe "Jersey Tomato." Gross!

Beyond New Jersey is Pennsylvania. The line is that "Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between." It could be right. Pennsylvanians to New Yorkers, I think, come across as a bit more folksy and, yes, even Midwestern. Pennsylvanians have their share of all American working class roots, things that New York City dwellers find exotic. I mean, people in PA, as it is called, may have an uncle that worked in the coal mines! And it is hot out there in the Keystone State in the summer! There are so many parks for kids in PA, and so many memories of hot days sucking down sickeningly sweet lemonade. Uh oh, I am getting that gross feeling again ...

Connecticut, on the other hand, is a state I can deal with. Despite their somewhat more elitist attitude and inability to not dress preppie, Connecticutians, as I call them, are generally ok. The only thing is that I feel bad for them because no matter what they produce, it always seems to be less impressive than something from New York. I mean, do you want to listen to New York hip hop or Connecticut hip hop? Do you want to swimming at a sandy New York beach or a rocky Connecticut beach? See what I mean.

To their north are the people of Massachusetts, or Massholes as they are collectively known. Massholes love the Red Sox and hate the Yankees. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they harbor genocidal feelings towards all New Yorkers. You can tell them by their large pushy SUVs making their way back to Braintree with the ubiquitous "Yankees Suck" sticker on the bumper.

North of Mass. is Vermont, Howard Dean's turf.
I like Vermont because it is simultaneously culturally conservative and liberal. You can own as many guns as you want, listen to country music (you'll hear it on many radio stations up here) AND marry your gay partner in a civil ceremony. Traditionally Vermonters have disliked New York (Vermont was a part of New York during the colonial period). Vermont is known for skiing, all sorts of rugged activities, and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Not a bad reputation to have.

As for the Canadians, they are a plodding diplomatic-like people that fear, above all, confrontation. They are so friendly it is scary and will engage in such Good Samaritan behavior as letting you ride the public transit bus, even after your bus ticket has expired! At the same time, they are passive aggressive. I think they secretly also despise Americans and believe that the world would be so much better if Justin Trudeau was king of the world. Truth be told, they could be right.

pühapäev, detsember 03, 2006

West Grows Wary of 'Poisonous' Putin

I never thought I'd see the day where the murder of a Russian dissident topped a local shooting or a celebrity divorce on the cover of the New York Post. But, dear friends, that day has come to pass.

Today, every man, woman, and child that walked into a grocery store or deli in New York had two words staring back at them - Putin and poison. In some ways this phenomenon - of the West viewing Russian President Vladimir Putin as basically a low-life scumbag - to put it bluntly, is the result of the Anglo-American alliance failing to find new enemies in the War on Terror. Osama bin Laden hasn't released a video in awhile, Zarqawi is dead, Ahmadinejad just isn't that funny anymore, and well, Putin is just so easy to despise because he's your stereotypical short guy (5'7" / 170 cm) that enjoys imagining himself as powerful.

With Saddam sentenced to death, we need someone to fear and dislike, and Russia is certain to be as appetizing the second time around as it was 20 years ago. What is interesting though is that this is all happening because of the murder of Aleksander Litvinenko - a former FSB agent who said publicly that he was ordered to kill Boris Berezovsky. Hardly the kind of guy you'd cry for when compared to Anna Politkovskaja, whose books can be found in any quality public library across the US. Yet it is Litvinenko's death that just won't die, not Politkovskaja's. It perhaps is because he died on British soil, or because the polonium fall out from his death has been traced back to Russia, or perhaps because another 150 dead in Baghdad warrants a shrug of the shoulders in America these days.

Whatever the reason, the total lack of transparency of the Russian Federation leads Western media to speculate that a malevolent Putin ordered the hit with a Judo chop of his hand. While that explanation may have merit, it is also the easiest. Less attractive is the "rogue elements" hypothesis. That murky ex-FSB officers did it - and even if they are caught, it will be so much LESS fun than the "Putin did it" hypothesis. And so we continue to indulge in adding mystique to our newly discovered opponent, Vladimir Putin.

What does this mean for the world's only post-communist nordic country? According to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Estonians are "immoral" and "blasphemous" for equating Nazis and Communists. Most of the Russian media will have you believe that Andrus Ansip gives himself the old fascist salute in the mirror every morning. And, more realstically, relations are still shaky, as The Economist pointed out this week. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are secretly afraid that .. um, Putinists will come again and ruin everything ... again.

While that option is still relegated to "What if?" Internet discussion, I think a genuine foreign policy question for those who live in what Russia considers Pribaltika should consider is, "What can be done to ensure Russia doesn't see US as the enemy next time around?" As they stated through the SVR disclosure two weeks ago, they occupied the Baltics because they were "pro-German." If the Anglo and Russian relations continue to deteriorate, will Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians once again find themselves stuck between the devil and the Baltic Sea, with grinning Finns saying "tsk! tsk! you should have made Russian a second-official language, we told you so!"?

Anyway, things are not swell right now. The American government is weak, we are not accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish, and Putin has an 87 percent approval rating. Let's hope things stay balanced, if uneasy, through 2008 when we'll have a much better look at the lay of the land.

reede, detsember 01, 2006

What Freedom Is and Isn't

In the United States, we have an organization called the Ku Klux Klan. Its origins go back to the end of the Civil War, and an effort by the European-descended citizens of the American republic to reinforce their once superior position over non-Europeans, and often non-Protestants through fear and intimidation.

As much as I find the Klan reprehensible, I would gladly defend them in a court of law for their right to march and to be heard in a public place. Because I feel that, as bad as their message of hate is, I would prefer it be expressed with signs or flags with swastikas on them in a public place, than expressed with violence under the shade of night -- the only recourse for forbidden organizations.

Therefore, I disagree with the Estonian parliament's recent law banning the use of Nazi and Soviet symbols in public places. The Russians have decried the law, calling it "immoral". "I see the recent decision of the Estonian government as blasphemous from the moral standpoint," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Amman today. I'll tell you what's more insulting that the Estonian ban, Sergei -- telling the Estonian people that your generous "Soviet people" liberated them while they were busy putting bullets in Jaan Tõnisson's head. Telling Estonia that it is ungrateful for the way you carted Konstantin Päts off to Siberia to die in a psychiatric hospital, then dragging your feet on giving his personal effects back to the Estonian people. That is really insulting.

But as much of a jerk as Lavrov is, I still don't think symbols should be banned. SS veterans should be able to march just as Red Army vets should be able to march. The police should protect them, and the authorities must do their best to protect both, as "immoral" as individual police may find the citizens they protect. Because that is what freedom is. Let the jokers stand with their swastikas and their hammers and sickles - it is the people themselves that should let them know they are irrelevant, not the Riigikogu.

The banning of symbols is a false step for a democracy. In the US there are similar efforts to prohibit the burning of flags. But I oppose all measures that are taken by a government to inhibit speech, and this is one of them. It is not the government's business what symbols people choose to display. It is solely their duty to ensure that the people's speech is protected and is expressed peacefully. By banning symbols, Estonia becomes just as unreasonable as Russia, where they ban movies because they are afraid they will stir up ethnic tension.

I will have no influence on the decisions the Estonian government makes, but I hope that future governments will not take greater measures to destroy freedom of speech.