neljapäev, mai 31, 2007

Latvia Elects Seventh President

Today, Latvia elected it's seventh president since 1920, yeah, I said it, since 1920. Unlike the BBC who pussyfoot around the matter, I have no qualms in saying that Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis, and Kārlis Ulmanis were all presidents of Latvia, and Čakste + Zemgals + Kviesis + Ulmanis + 50-year interlude + um, Ulmanis + Vīķe-Freiberga + Zatlers = 7, not three since 1991, or whatever nonsense those monarchists try to feed you.

I mean Oliver Cromwell and his son ran England for ten years, and when the monarchy was restored, it was by Charles II. That is, they didn't start counting monarchs all over again, you bad British journalists.

Anyway, Zatlers is to most people outside of Riga an unknown quantity. He looks Latvian, which I guess is half of the battle. But the other half? "Mr Zatlers has headed several medical organisations," writes the BBC. Perfect. Some minor surgery, and all of Latvia's woes will be fixed.

For whatever reason, I find it hard to follow events in the other so-called Baltic states. I attribute it to the name thing and the border thing. First, the name thing.

The Balts all end their names in 's'. This means that each individual Balt merges into a pastiche of 's's. In Latvia there are Gunters and Valdis and Aivars and Aigars and so on. In Lithuania, there are Mindaugas and Gediminas and Rolandas and Algirdas.

These impenetrable forests of Baltic names make it difficult to distinguish one Baltic politician from another. While in the Finnic lands we have names that are easy to distinguish, like Jaak, Jüri, and Juhan, in Baltic countries it's all 's' everyday. Kaunas. Vilnius. Venstpils, Cēsis. The fun never stops.

So congratulations, Zatlers, and good luck. With all the flamboyant homosexuals whose only aim is to topple Latvian society out there, you are going to need it. Not to mention the Russians.

teisipäev, mai 29, 2007

Heiki Breaky Heart

The first wedding I ever went to was my own. It took place in Tallinn four years ago almost to this day. The only people there were myself, my wife, and the Tallinn city official that married us.

When we went to get our license to marry, my wife was informed that, because of my Italian heritage, she should know that it was entirely possible that I had another family somewhere near the village of Pacino or Corleone in Sicily, with little Ninos and Nunzios running around.

Anyway, we stood there and the official went through a semi-long statement, which included a poem. I understood about 5 percent of the ceremony, but when she looked at me and asked me a question, I said "jah". Then I signed a sheet of paper, put a ring on my wife's finger, kissed her, and ... congratulations ... I was married.

Since then our marriage has outlasted marriages by respectable and very much in love people. For example, we have been married longer than Lisa Marie Presley was to Michael Jackson, or Nicolas Cage was to Lisa Marie Presley.

Anyway, enough about us. Last weekend, we attended a "real" Estonian wedding. It occured in Tartu, and this time I understood a full 65 percent of the ceremony. I also got to meet "real" Estonians. Did you know that there really are Estonians with names like Sigrid and Birgit? And I thought they just put those on the name days calender because they ran out of names!

Anyway, after the ceremony -- to which everyone brought flowers -- ribbons were tied to our automobiles and off we drove, honking through red lights into the manure-rich fields of Põlvamaa, which is the county directly south from Tartumaa (for you geographically challenged people).

On the ride to the turismitalu, first the bride and groom stopped at some random place on the road to have their picture taken. I have seen this before and I have no idea why they do this, perhaps only to piss other drivers off that are not in the wedding party.

Then at another juncture, we all stopped our cars and got out as one of the groom's friends began to play Estonian folk songs on his accordion. Apparently, in Estonia everyone knows someone that can play the accordion. Even if you were born in 1985, the year of compact discs, Nintendo, and the personal computer, if you are Estonian than you can play the accordion and sing songs about fishermen.

The groom was given an axe and made to chop wood in front of the applauding crowd, ready with digital cameras and digital recorders to capture every humiliating moment. For her part, the bride then peeled a potato, which she held up to the partygoers. A random car came down the road and honked in appreciation of how tubli the groom and bride were. All travelers in the car were smiling; an unusual occurrence in Estonia.

Finally, we stopped at a building right outside the turismitalu where atop a tall chimney was a huge stork's nest, complete with stork sitting on top of it, guarding its eggs. The groom climbed up and tied a ribbon to the building; a symbol of fertility, I guess.

At the party, we dined on potatoes, garlic-laden leib, and marinated chicken and fish. I ate way too much, but it was so good and I am not that overweight, so I figured what are three more oil-soaked slices of leib between you and me? Different members of the party were assigned roles: photographers, drunks (technically "noh, mehed" -- guys that say "noh" (well) to remind people to keep drinking).

Then there were the shouts of "kibe", to which the groom and bride had to instantly lock lips and make out in order to prove their love to the crowd. Then the crowd would count in earnest the seconds of tonguing -- "üks, kaks, kolm ... kaksteist, kolmteist, neliteist."

There were also tower-building competitions and, of course, more accordion music. I like Estonian toasts. They are simple and to the point. The ones I heard were "thank you very much, it's very nice to be here, good luck, lots of love," and that's it. There was no grandstanding, as far as I recall.

As we ate, they played dreamy ballads by guys like Uno Loop in the background. I heard "Mis värvi on armastus?" (what color is love?), what basically amounts to Estonian elevator music, at least three times. Then we sang songs together with accordion and guitar backing. Songs about postmen and fishermen, and things of that nature.

After I staggered off of my bench, my gut filled with potatoes and hapukapsas and pork, I went down to the lake for a walk. At that point, the band they had hired, which was really quite good, began playing Elvis covers. When I got back, they started asking around in the crowd for Heiki.

"Heiki, Heiki, kus on Heiki?"

An upright looking gentlemen with spectacles look puzzled and answered that he was said Heiki.

Then they told him they were going to play a song for him, "Heiki Breaky Heart."

The band then launched into a rocking version of Billy Ray Cyrus' 1992 hit, which was 110 times better than the original. And you know what? It's Tuesday, and I still have "Heiki Breaky Heart" stuck in my head.

reede, mai 25, 2007

A Scandinavian Playground?

When Estonia undertook its rebranding campaign at the end of the '90s to change its image from the tired "former Soviet republic" to a positively-transforming Nordic country, all of its neighbors chuckled.

The Finns that paid attention perhaps suffered their own identity crisis, pondering the distinction between Scandinavian and Nordic, and if the Swedes thought that Estonians weren't Nordic enough, could it be that Finland was really Baltic!?!?

The Swedes that paid attention perhaps were irked that some poor country full of Finnic bog people that only figured out what to call themselves in the middle of the 19th century could aspire to be as cultured, wealthy, and perpetually morose and neurotic as they are.

Meanwhile to the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Russians, Estonia's attempt at inserting the word 'Nordic" into every promotional booklet printed about the country reinforced their image of Estonia as a land of pompous asses, who dared to think that they were as good as Sweden, the greatest country on Earth (TM).

One can imagine many boots kicking fervently downward as Estonians tried to crawl out of the muck of post-Soviet identity in the international marketplace. It was only American and British guidebook authors, like travel guru Rick Steves, that realized that, 'yeah, Tallinn is only 80 km from Helsinki, I better put it in my Scandinavian travel book', or Lonely Planet that realized that 'yeah, Tallinn is part of the Scandinavian experience, we should include a small segment in Scandinavian Europe' that gave Estonia's rebranding strategy legs.

But the real testament to what has happened in Estonia is the prevalence of Swedish and Finnish capital, which total 70 percent of direct foreign investments in this land of barn swallows and corn flowers. This doesn't seem to be changing. Despite European Union membership, German and British and French capital is not drifting to these quarters.

Estonia is too small and too far for serious investment when dollars and pounds can flow into larger, closer markets like Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic. For the Finns, Swedes, and to a lesser extent the Danes and Norwegians, Estonia is attractive because it's a market they can dominate with relative ease.

Used to managing multinational corporations, Finnish and Swedish businessmen probably find the Estonian market to be a breeze. They can take a quick ferry there or fly there in an hour or two. And since the people are as wired and as ... Lutheran ... as they are, they make easy business partners.

Not to mention that so much of the money flowing here is spent by Scandinavians and Finns. It's spent on summer houses, or on food and beverage businesses that are actually owned by Nordic capital. It's spent on the tourist industry. Swedes build spas for other Swedes in Estonia. I mean there are people in Estonia that are handling telephone inquiries for confused Swedes. It's not that easy to get Indians to do the same job, so Estonia is an attractive choice for this brand of outsourcing.

Also, in the Nordic market, 1.3 million is a lot of people. That's more than 1/9 of Sweden, 1/5 of Denmark and Finland. If they could own everything in this market too, and make it eventually as wealthy as they are, then that would be a legitimate longterm investment.

What I am getting at here is that the Estonian market is less foreign than it is an active player in the northern European economy. With that comes the financial security of being connected to a comparatively stable system, but the other questions about what markets lie beyond Stockholm and Helsinki and Oslo and Copenhagen? How can Estonia become not just a regional player but attract capital investments from elsewhere in Europe and, indeed, the world?

And, again, why would anyone else want to come play in the Scandinavians' backyard? It's "their" market. It's within "their" sphere of influence (ha ha). These are questions that should be answered as Estonia moves forward. Without trying too hard, Estonia has become -- or regained -- a position in the Nordic community. What will be the next steps, and how will this relationship develop?

neljapäev, mai 24, 2007

There are no 'spheres of influence'

I was reading this isolationist claptrap from the Cato Institute this morning that basically makes the argument that NATO should reexamine its mission in light of its commitments to the Baltics. The following line obviously struck a nerve:
Indeed, a crisis could result if a future Russian president concludes that NATO's mere presence in the Baltic region is an intolerable intrusion into Moscow's rightful sphere of influence.
And that got me thinking about this curious term, 'sphere of influence' and what exactly it means. And I began to understand that the term is nothing but a moldy intellectual raisin leftover from the Kissinger years when strategists divided up the world into 'spheres of influence' as part of an ambition to create a multi-polar, rather than bipolar (haha) world.

But in reality, throughout the entire Cold War, the concept of spheres of influence was a misnomer. The Soviets had no problems supporting Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries in Latin America. They even parked some weaponry in Cuba as I recall in the early 1960s. They had no respect for an American "sphere of influence."

Meanwhile we flew spyplanes over Soviet territory, and in the late 40s and early 50s, British intelligence was quite active in the Baltic region. The US and the USSR fought proxy wars from Angola to Vietnam. The world in no way was divided into regions of influence. The very idea smacks of weakling diplomacy at some 19th century conference where empires divide up the spoils at the end of a war.

But even if you go back to my home of New York, you'll see the same thing. The Dutch originally claimed all the land from the Delaware River to Rhode Island. But then the English took Rhode Island, and the Swedes moved into Delaware, and the English took New Haven, and ... surprise ... in 1664 the English fleet sailed into New Amsterdam harbor and by show of force took control of the city that is now called New York.

No one, it seems, has ever respected the idea of a sphere of influence. There is just competition between states. That's all there really is. According to Wikipedia, an SOI is "an area or region over which an organization or state exerts some kind of indirect cultural, economic, military or political domination."

Good to see that according to Wikipedia, Estonia doesn't fall under the Russian sphere of influence. As a sidenote, the isolationist conventional thinking is that the Baltics are worthless so they don't merit defense.

In any case, the U.S. should never have undertaken military commitments to the Baltic republics. These obligations are a dangerous liability, and the U.S. must extricate itself from them.
Too late! Look, the argument that Estonia is indefensible is a false one. As stated previously, Estonia won its war of independence with the limited support of other countries, notably Britain and Finland. In all other previous wars, Estonia has been defensible.

Sweden lost Estonia in the 1710s because all the forces in the Baltic region -- Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia -- ganged up on it. Not to mention Charles XII made disasterous tactical decisions (like invading Ukraine). You could say the same for Hitler as well. He made the foolish decision to invade Russia, and lost, not to mention he was fighting a war on two fronts.

Neither of these wars saw the strategy of the War of Independence utilized. In Finland's Winter War, the strategy of simply defending the state's borders was used to defeat a larger, more powerful enemy. And that's the thing. Russia's armies have been notoriously ill-prepared and disorganized. Given the current crises in the military over there, it seems like it's a long-standing issue.

But don't ask me for guidance. I am sure that the gentlemen and women in NATO thought long and hard about military assistance to the Baltic and determined that it was, in fact feasible. Moreover, they recognized that an attack on the Baltics would be a disaster for Europe. The last time something like that happened, it means tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Sweden and Germany.

Not to mention the financial impact such an action would happen when 70 percent of your foreign capital comes from Finland or Sweden. A war in Europe would be a disaster for everybody, and that's why institutions like NATO exist -- to clear everyone's mind of that alarming option. NATO is a deterrent. It is an institution that arguably preserves the peaceful resolution of conflict. I really wish the Buchananites would wake up and understand that.

kolmapäev, mai 23, 2007

What is to be done?

In a few more days, the Estonian Statistical Office will publish population data for Estonia as of January 1, 2007. This happens once a year, and it provides us with info on the changing demographic information on Estonia in lieu of an official census, wich isn't scheduled until 2011. If the patterns of the past are correct, we'll probably catch a glimpse of a few interesting trends.

The first is the most obvious. The population in Estonia will decline again. The preliminary numbers show that as of Jan. 1, there were 1,342,000 people in Estonia, down from 1,367,000 five years ago. There are a variety of reasons for population decline in Estonia. One is that more people die than are born (duh), although in recent months that has been changing. Another is emigration. And finally, there's abortion, because at conception, there is positive population growth, but a good chunk of those potential babies never make it past the first trimester.

Another trend is a shift in nationality in favor of ethnic Estonians. That change is happening across the board. Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Finns -- their proportion of the population continues to decline, while the Estonian proportion continues to rise. In 2001, Estonians made up 68.2 percent of the population. Last year they were 68.6 percent. Meanwhile every other group declined. Maybe they leave. Maybe they identify as Estonians. Or maybe they just have a larger number of elderly in their population group. Who knows?

This is not an unusual occurrence. The decline of Swedes in Finland followed a similar path. For whatever reason, Swedes in Finland went from being 15 percent of the population in 1800, to 6 percent of the population in 2005. Up until the 1890s, Swedish was the language of administration in Finland. In 1892, Finnish became co-official, and this carried over when Finland became independent. But despite Finland's official bilingualism, and attempts to "save" Finland Swedish, the language there is in decline.

This has happened so much so that when I inquired from Finns about their Swedish capabilities, I was met with a sort of shrug and told "they have their own newspapers and TV shows." Then when I asked an editor of Helsingi Sanomat if the paper intended to print news to serve any of Finland's lingusitic minorities -- the Russians in Helsinki, for example -- I was met with a cold stare and told unequivocally "no". Bilingualism was touchy-feely, official crap, apparently, but in Finland, the language was Finnish. At least that's the lesson I learned while I was there.

Still, the reality for Estonia is, no matter what historical spin you put on it, there will be a large Russian-speaking community in Estonia for many years to come. Because of recent events in Tallinn, many are wondering what can be done to better integrate this group. But nobody seems to have the answer. Some say relax school reform, others say ride around in a sleigh in Narva handing out Estonian passports, and some others talk of making Russian a second state language, "like they have in Finland", as if that would change the overall situation.

Meanwhile, Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht and Eesti Televisioon all have Russian-language versions. Even I can vote in municipal elections if I stay here for five years. You've got to take a test to get a passport. It's a bitch of a process allegedly for some, so I do hope they spend some of that surplus on that so Estonia can assign citizenship to the 118,000 people that still don't have it. Unemployment is 5.3 percent. Anecdotal evidence shows that Russians feel excluded or like they don't belong. But then I am reminded of the Finland Swedes "who have their own newspapers and their own television shows" and think, isn't the life of a minority like that in every country?

On the bus to Tallinn recently I witnessed two things. The first was a pack of young Russian-speaking kids, about 12. They all spoke in Russian and I even began to understand some of the stuff because they didn't shut up from Tartu to Tallinn (one even hit me in the head with a sneaker at one point. Boys will be boys). But then one's phone rang and he switched immediately to Estonian. He had a little bit of an accent, but it was very slight. And he was no older than 12.

Then at the bus station I was approached by a young man in his early 20s. He spoke to me only in Russian. I had a hunch that he wanted some money, so I decided not to answer him back in English, and I figured that Estonian was out of the question. So I just ignored him. And my sensitive and intuitive soul began to wonder if I had just made the young man feel less at home in Tallinn by ignoring him. Perhaps he felt leftout. Ignored by society. Maybe my sleight of hand would encourage him to join Nashi as a commisar and actively work to destroy the government of AndruSS AnSSip. What could I do about this, and furthermore, what could society do?

I tried to find a metaphor to help me sooth this linguistic dissonance that rattled around in my mind. And finally I decided that I could do nothing except not give him any money and go and buy my bottle of Värska to drink.

teisipäev, mai 22, 2007

4 AM, Heathrow Airport

I wrote this at the 24-hour Starbucks in Terminal 4 of Heathrow Airport on Saturday morning. I am not sure if it is any good, but it sums up some of the things that have been on my mind vis a vis Eestimaa. I call it a "Treatise on Cyber Warfare" because it sounds good. Here it is:

How do you defend a small country from a larger, aggressive neighbor? This question is at the heart of so many Estonian policies, it's hard to tell where to begin.

Take the Ministry of Defense. It has a psychological goal to create widespread opposition to foreign rule among the Estonian population. And people wonder why they moved a Soviet war monument from the center of town!

For us out here in the world of the Internet, and as has been apparent from the recent cyber attacks on Estonian infrastructure, there is a high awareness that on every forum there are those that work psychologically or in reality for the goals of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin.

Like Russian policy in the past, and as the perfect metaphor of the Internet attacks provides, they intend to attack their target by overwhelming it with force and/or by sowing instability with the clear, logical goal of instating its control within the mask of chaos. Imagine a poison that works by making the individual appear to suffer from food poisoning, then reveals its true identity by the time that it is too late. That, my friends, is Russian foreign policy.

But how does a small nation counter that policy and how, in particular, can Estonia survive when the Kremlin is allegedly regaining power? I have been pondering this, and I think that it is important now that Estonia defines its goals with regards to this cynical power in Russia and acts consistently according to those redefined goals. Some of you may not like what I am about to say, but they are thoughts, and thoughts that need airing.

1. It is time to accept the Russian government for what it is.

So many foreign policy goals towards Russia seem like domestic goals from within Russia, especially from Estonia's rightwing politicians. But the fact is that Russia is run by ex-KGB men, and they will not renounce Stalinist history. The Russian government is not rational. It is not compassionate. It is not a true friend for Estonia. It is a sea that needs to be kept at bay. Estonians live in a bad neighborhood. They must recognize this. Estonians say that Russia screwed them over the border treaty and that Russia is not acting logically or legally. Why is this a shock? How is that unexpected? Of course Russia did what it did. It does not respect laws or conventions. So then why even bother to expect them to reverse their position? It's fruitless.

Estonians must accept that their neighbor is not one to be negotiated with, but rather one to be kept out of as many affairs as possible. That means ending diplomatic impasse with Russia quickly and efficiently, with the sole interest of keeping the Kremlin's fingers out of Estonia. Remember, Estonia is operating from a position of strength. It controls and administers its own territory. I welcome every effort from the Estonian government to keep Russian political interests out of Estonian politics.

2. It's time to dig in for a propaganda war.

Estonians somewhat naively expect logic and goodwill to eclipse the foul anti-Estonian propaganda that is used for domestic purposes within Russia. In some aspects they are correct. That is because most of the West views Russia with suspicion. Russian news is equally as slippery. Estonians, as Westerners, speak a common mental language that other Westerners understand, 1+1 = 2, et cetera. But Estonia must do more to make its story known in the West.

Estonia should continue to rely on its foreign ministry and some institutes for support, but should also build a greater presence in other key political centers in Europe. Who is busy selling Estonia in Paris? Who does this chore in Madrid or Rome? Estonia must broaden its connections with its allies. Right now key diplomatic initiatives are being undertaken, especially regarding NATO and EU goals in places like Ukraine and Georgia. But Estonia must work harder to woo key global and European players like the UK, France, Germany, and Italy. They should be priority contacts for Estonians. The recent work with Israel and Japan should be commended. A trip from President-elect Sarkozy would be an asset.

3. It's time to renew the commitments to pan-Scandinavianism and pan-Europeanism.

Estonia started off on a good path in the late 90s by trying to rebrand itself as a Nordic country. This was met with resistance from some in the Nordic community, as well as the Latvians and Lithuanians, but it worked in helping Estonia portray itself as an up and coming hi-tech society to people outside the region. It used skillful marketing to change its image from foreign and unsafe to stable and accessible. But the job is not done, especially in Western Europe. In the UK and even in Sweden today Estonia or Estland is some suspect place near Russia (ie. near chaos). So the job of rebranding Estonia is not finished. Instead, these ideas should be continuously restored.

What is lacking again is a constant reminder of Estonia's place in the global sweep of history. We must ask ourselves honestly, how did Estonia come into being? It came into being because of its connections to Germanic and Swedish intellectual culture. Estonians don't call it the "good old Swedish days" because they think Swedes are dapper blondes with nice cars and want to be them. Estonia, for all its lovely native culture, was a colony of the Swedish empire. But because of its status in that empire it was exposed to the comparatively liberal values of the Swedish empire in the 17th century, which laid the groundwork for the rise of Estonian nationalism in the 19th century. Think of the Romans in the UK. They came and stayed for 300 years, but after that their legacy has never been carried away. Instead it has been built on, age after age. We tend to forget how important history is, but Estonia must stay true to its roots and think about its future in terms of that perspective.

This narrative is working its way along, but it is unfinished. The recent events in Tallinn showed a government that is capable of governing in times of chaos and diplomatic intrigue, but it also revealed a country that has some adolescent growing pains to go through before it achieves the desirable status of irreplaceable normalcy where civic institutions are pushed forward by the hard efforts of the past.

4. Reject Conflict, Embrace Progress

After dealing with all the negativity from Russia in recent weeks it has dawned on me that the appropriate response should not be to negatively push back but to act positively and pragmatically. A negative action should be met by a positive one. The Russian propaganda engine churns, while the Estonian one builds relationships in Paris. Fighting swarms of Internet propagandists isn’t going to work out to the advantage of those who enjoy Estonian sovereignty. Instead, we should fortify our castles in other ways.

The best way to deal with the Nashists is not to fight back, but to ignore them and treat them with the dull rhythm of law and order. Their negative actions should only result in positive reactions. Their hunger for conflict should never be satiated.

Let them starve.

laupäev, mai 19, 2007

The Urve Palo Fan Club

Is it just me, or has Rahvastikuminister Urve Palo been getting attention in recent weeks that isn't exactly commensurate with the amount of media attention given to other newly sworn in ministers? I am still waiting for ten hours in the life of Helir-Valdor Seeder.

reede, mai 18, 2007

A typical day in fascist Estonia

You can read President Ilves' speech here.

Another Fine Mess

I forgot to put this in the last entry, so I'll add a few more stories and observations here. So, after my business ended on Wednesday evening, I decided that it was time to go and check out those brooding mountains around Edinburgh and, perhaps, climb a few.

I saw in my 2001 edition Lonely Planet Britain guidebook that Holyrood Park has climbing trails. I also read that it was an easy 30 minute hike to the peak of the highest one in Holyrood Park, called Arthur's Seat. It was getting about dusk, but the sun didn't seem to be setting anytime soon, so I began my adventure.

After making my way to the foot of the Royal Mile, I quickly made my way into the foot of the park and found the trail that would leadme to Arthur's Seat and spectacular views of the Firth of Forth. I entered a bit of a valley and began to spy those lovely yellow bushes that ring the largely treeless hills of Holyrood Park. I was totally alone, and suddenly I felt my survival mechanism kick in, perhaps informed by too many Hollywood films. I began to suspect that the Sand People from Star Wars might be tracking me and my droids, or, even worse, that Mel Gibson, his face painted blue, might swoop down in a kilt and carry off with me head.

Instead I saw fellow Americans on their way down from the summit and was glad to think that if they made it up to the top, I could too. So I kept going up higher and higher. I began to regret that I had eaten all those cookies for breakfast. And then there was the chicken curry for lunch. I could feel it all sitting like a pile of rubbish in my intestines. The sweat began to pour off my forehead as I trudged upwards. A sweaty jogger passed me by, even as the path towards the top became rocky and steep.

Finally I made the mistake of looking down. This was truly a "Holy shit" moment. The whole of the Firth of Forth was below along with the miniature city of Edinburgh. And even worse, the peak I was heading for was up higher. I was out of breath and then when my eyes refocused I looked down and saw that below my path was a steep angle of bushy grass heading down meter after meter into the valley, where a chummy miniature Scotsman was walking his miniature dog. I began to feel lightheaded and disoriented at this moment, and suddenly remembered something about myself: my great fear of heights.

I tried to move my body up the path towards the peak, but a hard wind began to blow specks of humid rain on my face and I knew that if I ever got to that top, I was going to cling to the Earth crying until some butch Scottish jogger found me and ordered a helicopter to rescue me. I decided it was time to take an alternative route down. I followed an open stretch of land below the peak and found a nice even path that I presumed would take me down to the bottom so I could go home and treat myself to a beer and reflect on my cowardice.

Unfortunately, the path turned into a steep, slick rocky staircase that took me along a path that ringed the peak on one side. I decided to throw my pack on one side of my body, the side closer to the mountain, so that if the wind did knock me over, I would fall against the mountain and not down it. All the while I watched Scottish female joggers on paths below me, blissfully unaware of the chicken that was about to fall on them to his death.

I made the mistake of accidentally leaning into those fine yellow bushes which I found were prickly and hurt my hands. A perfect metaphor for nature, and especially Scottish nature I thought. Inviting from a distance, threatening up front. I went step by step along that path, as the wind picked up and the rain began to fall a bit harder. It was still just drizzling but I wanted to get down before any real storm developed, leaving me cold and wet on the side of a mountain in Scotland.

Finally the path gave way to a slope that ran through a natural corridor of vegetation, and beyond that a path that led down the sloping lower portions of the hill to the base of Hollyrood Park. I was safe. I would live. And then, below me, a Scottish lady jogger went jogging right up the path I had just crawled down from without any outward signs of fear of heights or a lonely death in the park. I thought about my wife, who would have probably ambled up to the summit with no problem, and wondered what happened to the courage gene, and how come I didn't get it?

I concluded that I was a coward, but that that was ok with me. I have other skills to live on, and he who fights and runs away lives to run away another day. Besides, I've almost been killed a few times by the bloody British traffic here which drives on the wrong side of the street. So what's a little mountain adventure in the context of the every day perils one must face in this country?

At the base I tried crossing the street, again fearful of getting mowed over by an impatient Briton in their car. Do you know that I have crossed the street three times so far here to get on the correct side to catch a bus, only to see the bus go whizzing past me on the opposite side of the street where I just was, because of English traffic law?

Anyway, I was glad to get down at that moment because the skies began to open up and it got dark. I found myself an African food establishment to take refuge in, and returned to my hotel. It was 10:30 pm.

neljapäev, mai 17, 2007

The Royal Mile

In case you wondered what happened to me, I am on a trip that originated in Edinburgh but will finish tomorrow in Oxford followed by a London-Tallinn return home.

What can I say about the UK? Well I am still trying to figure out which George Georgian architecture is named after, and, by the way, how did so many buildings in Edinburgh turn filthy black?

I've had a number of pints on a number of nights, and passed the time contemplating a Republic of Scotland with Sean Connery as its president. The Scottish National Party recently won the election here, and I got to watch their dour leader talk about the Scottish national interest on TV late at night. I was also asked by a random pollster on the street about this victory to which I declared I was happy, because labour and the conservatives are rather boring.

In Scotland, everyone is toasting you all the time. "Cheers, mate" is what my passport control officer said to me as I entered the country. "Cheers" "Cheers" "Cheers" -- I feel like a regular Ted Danson. People like queues as well. This brash New Yorker quite purposefully got out of queue to board a bus and was met with several gasps by shocked queuers. Stores close at 6 pm, which is ridiculous and lame. Just as I am getting ready to shop, they are closing their doors.

Then there's the money. You give someone a £5 note and you get back a small bag full of change. You get on a bus to go somewhere and you are expected to expertly filter through this pile of 20p and 2p and £2 coins to provide the driver with the correct amount related to the number of stops you intend to stay on for. Everyone looks at you like you are an asshole, but, in my opinion, whoever came up with the 2p coin is the real asshole here.

Everything is also expensive. You are tricked into thinking you are in the US because the prices match. "Hey, 4.20 for a kebab combo platter, what a deal!" you think. But in reality it costs more like $8. And that, my friends, like most things here, is a rip-off. That's why Brits come to New York to slum and shop. Our most expensive city is cheap for them.

You'd think that being in an English-speaking country would make my life easier. It hasn't. That's because I feel as if I am speaking a foreign tongue in the way I must strain to understand them and they must strain to understand me. I almost just want to not talk altogether. I thought about faking an accent but I figure that'd get me in more trouble. I get asked where I am from all the time. My English sounds more like the Engish of the local Polish labor force than the stuff coming out of the mouths of Scots.

But I must say, I like it here. History is always slapping you in the face. I literally bumped into an old Anglo-Saxon church here in Oxford today. And the Nokia store in Oxford is actually housed in one of these leaning towers of the Elizabethan era. It's just amazing. It's also nice to have access to interesting foods, and you can bet that when I come back I'll have some local cheddar with me to last me a week or two before I have to switch back to kadakajuust.

If there's one thing that perturbs me, it's the Royal nonsense. In my bones, I really still can't believe that this country has a hereditary monarchy, and that her face is on my money. Even in Edinburgh, there are monuments to tough looking soldiers in funny hats and kilts who fought for the empire in the Second Boer War. This was a war between breakaway Afrikaans (Dutch) states in South Africa and Great Britain. Not exactly something to get worked up over, but I guess any war is good enough to reinforce belief in an empire.

Then there's the celebrity nonsense. Yes, I believe Kylie when she says she is not having an affair with a married man. No, I am not interested in Kate Middleton, Prince William's ex. In fact, I'd like to meet Kate Middleton, just because I may be one of the few people in this country that doesn't know anything about her and dosn't want to know anything either. I am wonderfully uninformed about celebrity goings on here and I want it to stay that way.

Anyway, I am still waiting for Scottish nationalism to bear its fruit and give us a Connery presidency before the "real James Bond" is too old to hold office. And for a little taste of home tonight, I spent 90p on an "American cookie" -- which was an attempt at a chocolate chip cookie. It tasted more like cake and chocolate chips, but it was still really good.

reede, mai 11, 2007


As you may have experienced, Estonia has been under a cyber attack in recent days. This means that websites, such as the foreign ministry website, have been routinely inaccessible as mysterious anti-Estonian activists attempt to cripple, but mostly annoy, regular joes like me that live in this country.

Meanwhile unofficial sanctions against Estonia have commenced. A cut in oil transit. A cut in regular transport. A closure of a train line connecting St. Petersburg and Tallinn. Unpleasant posturing by Russian officials, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who claims that by moving a Red Army statue to a cemetery Estonia is rewriting its history.

Nobody in Europe listens to the rambling thoughts of Russia's foreign ministry. After years of working side by side with Siim Kallas and Siiri Oviir, not to mention Toomas Hendrik Ilves, EU MPs predictably were not swayed by the "Estonia is glorifying Nazism" argument. One too many of them have been to Tallinn and gotten loaded in the company of Paks Margareeta and Pikk Hermann to buy the nonsense spewing forth from Moscow.

While Russia's visceral reaction to Estonia doing something it told it not to do is alarming, it hasn't cost us our heating or food here in Estonia. We are still living comfortably, watching the whole matter play out with detached bemusement. Before May 9 I was a bit worried that the modern day Komsomol that Russian state-monitored TV has been producing would do something rash, but it appears that they too are so awash in the luxury of stable Estonian life that they are unwilling to try anything smart with the police again, let alone Kaitseliit.

People that care about the Red Army got to lay their flowers on May 9. They got to sing their songs and wear whatever color suited them. And I have to say that images of the gathering at the verdant military cemetery did seem more appropriate than the mess that broke out on Tõnismägi last year. Vladimir Lebedev and Tiit Madisson did not meet. There was no more talk of occupation. In fact I think most people are tired of talking about the past, period.

In Estonia I think most people understand that the riots, while carried out by kurjategijad, were a symbol of general unhappiness on the part of the Russian-speaking population by their position in Estonian society. The problem stems from the fact that under the conditions of the USSR, Estonians had to learn Russian to get somewhere in the bureaucracy, but in Estonia it's the other way around. I think that 16 years on, many in the institutions in the Russian community accept that they live in Estonia and will have to recieve some Estonian education in school.

On the other hand, perhaps it's time for the Estonian rightwing, which has been driving the "Estonianization" campaign, to conceed that you can't really legislate integration. You can put the tools in place, but you can't just pass a law and make it so. So the idea that Russian language school instruction will be supplanted by Estonian instruction to the point that 60 percent of instruction is in Estonian is a fool's errand for Estonia's civil servants. Why not start with 30 percent?

Of course while all of this has been debated real integration goes in in communities across Estonia. In places like Saaremaa relative newcomers have had little trouble accessing the Estophone world. Obviously in places like Narva that's harder, and perhaps it's time to recognize that your policy for Kuressaare and your policy for Narva might need to be different. Recent developments, like making Postimees and Eesti Televisioon websites available in Russian is a welcome step.

I personally read Estonian newspapers. I am increasing my language skills daily. I can go to the insurance agency or the doctors and I have no need to use English. In fact it's easier for me to use Estonian sometimes rather than try to do business in half English and half sign language. But that doesn't mean that when I come home I don't read the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. That's why Estonians, who are suspicious of Russian language intrusions into the Estonian language space, should not fear things like a Russian-language ETV channel.

On the other side, it would be nice if Estonia's politically awakened Russian-speakers could finally see that Russia only uses them as a political tool for domestic purposes. No one could speak with a louder voice to Moscow than they could. And they might be able to get a better deal if they spoke to the officials in Tallinn on their own rather than having the spectre of the Russian ambassador floating around them at all times.

Meanwhile, Russian nastiness towards Estonia -- a land mostly made up of bogs, forests, 1.3 million stubborn people, and farmland -- continues unabated. Some hope that Russia's anti-Estonian campaign will end when there is a new election and Russia needs new faux foes to target for domestic purposes. I hope they are right.

kolmapäev, mai 09, 2007

Why the Estonian State Doesn't Love the Red Army

Yesterday saw a historic event. Three ministers of the Estonian government, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo, and Population Affairs Minister Urve Palo, did what none of their predecessors had ever done. They laid flowers at a memorial to a controversial statue that officially is dedicated to all fallen soldiers of World War II, but for decades was for one army, the Red Army.

Discussion in Western media of the controversy in Tallinn often boils down the Estonian experience into words like "mass deportation", "repression", and, of course, "occupation." News oulets like Reuters have been softening their take recently, describing the Estonian experience as "what they see as an occupation." But what does this all mean, and why did it take the Estonian state 16 years to lay a wreath at a memorial for long dead men?

Most readers here know of the pact that Hitler and Stalin signed in 1939 that lay the foundation for the war that broke out later. What essentially happened is that two former empires decided to scrap the results of the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles and conspired to reconstitute their former empires. Estonia fell into the Soviet sphere, and after about nine months of a mutual assistance pact, where the USSR agreed not to interefere in internal Estonian political affairs, a coup was organized in June 1940, and a pro-communist government was dictated by Moscow that petitioned for membership and was accepted into the USSR.

The Estonian state, meanwhile, was liquidated, and by liquidated I mean imprisoned or murdered, between the date of occupation in 1940 and the winter of 1942.

Among the first to go was President Konstantin Päts (pictured). He was arrested on July 30, 1940, by the NKVD and deported to Russia. He lived out the last days of his life in a psychiatric hospital in Kalinin, where he died in 1956. In 1990, his remains were reburied in Estonia.

Otto Strandmann, a former prime minister and head of state, (pictured at right), decided to take his life rather than surrender to the NKVD Soviet Secret Police. He committed suicide on Feb. 2, 1941, when the NKVD came to arrest him. He is buried in Tallinn.

Aado Birk, a former prime minister, was arrested in June 1941, and sent to Sosva prison camp where he was sentenced to death, but died before his execution on Feb. 2, 1942. This was an immense price to pay considering he had only served as an interim prime minister for two days in 1920.

Former prime minister and head of state Ants Piip was arrested by the NKVD in June 1941, and sent to a prison camp in Perm, where he died in October 1942. He was 58 years old.

Juhan Kukk, another former head of state, was arrested by the NKVD in 1940. He died in a prison camp in Russia in December 1945.

Karl Akel, left, was not so lucky to find himself in a prison camp. Akel had served as Estonian head of state for nine months in 1924. For this crime he was arrested in October 1940, and shot by the NKVD on July 3, 1941.

Jüri Jaakson, who served as head of state in 1924 and 1925, was similarly arrested, sent to Russia, was tried and executed on April 20, 1942 in Sosva.

Some Estonian political leaders slipped through the cracks though because no one knows whether they were shot, or if they merely died of disease or hunger in a Soviet prison camp.

One such man is Jaan Teemant, who served as head of state in 1925-1927 and again in 1932. For his crimes, he was imprisoned in July 1940. Nobody knows what became of him after he was arrested by the NKVD.

Another man for whom no ending is known is Jaan Tõnisson. Tõnisson played a central role in the founding of the Estonian state and served as prime minister and head of state on several occasions. He was arrested by the NKVD in December 1940. After which no comprehensive data is available, although some say he was shot in Tallinn in July 1941.

Finally, Kaarel Eenpalu, who served as head of state in 1935, was arrested and deported to Vjatka prison camp in Russia, where he died on January 28, 1942.

But don't worry. The Soviet Union tried to kill all of Estonia's prime ministers and heads of states, but it didn't get them all. So there is a happy ending to this tale of suffering and murder at the hands of Moscow.

That is because August Rei, right, who served as head of state in 1928 and 1929, escaped to Sweden before he could be shot or sent to die in a prison camp.

Rei was appointed prime minister in duties of president by the last legal respresentative of the Estonian state, Jüru Uluots, in January 1945 in Sweden. Rei lived a long life, and remained in his position until his death in 1963 at the age of 75. In 2006, his remains were reburied in Tallinn.

Because of August Rei, the Estonian state did not die in 1940 or 1941 or 1945. Estonian independence that was restored in 1991 was not the foundation of a new country, but the restoration of an old one. Gold that the Estonian government had deposited in a safe place in 1939 was transferred back to the Estonian state after 1991 upon which it based its restored currency, the kroon.

The purpose of this history lesson is not to sour the memories of the soldiers of the Red Army that defeated Germany 62 years ago this day. It's to explain to those that are willing to read, why exactly the Estonian state was not content to allow a memorial to the army that supported these actions in Estonia stand beside its national library and the church where it buries its leaders.

Furthermore, it's to underscore the humanity and restraint the state has taken in dealing with its past. Ansip, Aaviksoo, and Palo no doubt have relatives that shared the fates of Jaakson, Tõnisson, and Akel. But that terrible past is no longer an obstacle for the state as it observes what are essentially international holidays. Therefore, the laying of the flowers yesterday at the military cemetery in Tallinn at the foot of the Bronze Soldier was more than a PR stunt for the purposes of reconciliation. It was a moment of coming to terms with history.

teisipäev, mai 08, 2007

Tomorrow it all ends

In May 1968, several gentlemen climbed the steps of Helsinki's Tuomiokirkko and unveiled several red flags featuring a golden hammer and sickle.

These were the flags of the USSR, a country that had attacked Finland only 29 years prior and had annexed most of Karelia and along with it Finland's second most important city Vyborg, displacing 400,000 people and making one out of every eight Finns a refugee.

However, those men, as loyal as they were to a country that had often been hostile to Finnish independence, were left to wave their little red flags and talk of communist solidarity. And one by one they died, and with them, their cause.

Such is the strength of liberal democracy. Rather than using the resources of the state to crack down on opponents, the liberal democracy sets the ground rules for appropriate dissent, allows opponents of policies to make their voices heard, and then, depending on internal politics, either uses those voices for political gain or ignores them.

According to Kommersant, tomorrow's great provocation will be again organized by Night Watch and with the implicit consent of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Estonia. It will again take place at Tõnismägi, which has become symbolic of the loss of Soviet space in Tallinn's city center.

The future participants of the rally are asked to wear read, which will remind Estonian police of the red flag, which they see as one of the symbols of occupation. Raising red flag at a rally might be punished by arrest. Young Russians want to tickle the authorities’ nerves with red clothes.

What should the Estonian response be? To let them wear red, of course. Let them lay flowers, let them sing Communist songs. And when their moment of irritating the authorities is over, roundly denounce them for what they are: Communists. They may not consider themselves such, but if you are wearing red, and singing songs of the USSR, then I think it's fair game to be called a Communist. And once they become known as young Communists, they will become even less politically relevant because Communism is a corpse.

Do not call them "Russian scum" and do not call all assemblies by forces hostile to the Estonian government "hooliganism". But always remember to put each and every act in the proper European context and let liberal democracy do the rest. Rioters are rioters -- as they are in Budapest and in Paris. Communists are communists, as they are in Rome and Berlin and London.

Finally, Russian nationalists in Estonia are cowards, because they are too afraid of their motherland to venture back there. Those that burn Estonian flags and chant "Rossija" are cowards because, inside, they prefer the good life of Tallinn, with its exquisite shops and charming architecture, with its growing economy, to the shantytowns that lie across the border. So, by all means, Russian nationalists should be called on this fault in their character. One good turn deserves another.

In the end, the strongest society is the one that is the most tolerant of its dissidents and puts their actions in the proper context. Whether they be young hooligans, young Communists, or displaced Russian nationalists, a liberal democracy is elastic enough to handle them. If the government stays true to these principles, tomorrow should go off without a hitch.

esmaspäev, mai 07, 2007

A Funny Thing About Time

Since the end of the Second World War, the USSR, and its successor countries, especially Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, have celebrated Victory Day on May 9.

Although the Germans surrendered to the Soviets on May 8 in Berlin, it was already early in the morning (12:43 am) in Moscow. And so, due to this time difference, those who celebrate the Soviet victory celebrate on May 9, not May 8.

At the same time the German surrender to the British and Americans occured towards the end of May 7, but hostilities were agreed to cease at 23:01 Central European Time on May 8. And so, the Americans and Europeans recognize May 8 as Victory Europe Day.

The Estonians' predicament is as interesting as always. You see, the Soviets set Estonian clocks to Moscow time when they reconquered this small land in 1944. That is, in Helsinki it was 11:43 pm when the Germans surrendered to the Soviets, but in Tallinn it was officially 12:43 am.

However, since most would agree that the sun reaches Tallinn and Helsinki after it reaches Moscow, you can surmise that the Estonians prefer to celebrate this event now at the proper time on May 8, rather than May 9. You could call it revisionism. Or you could just say that the timing of the commemoration is reality-based, as opposed to ideology-based. Either way, Estonia now celebrates the "end of the war" -- which dragged on into the 1950s in Estonia -- on May 8, not May 9.

A big little country

This past weekend we finally got in our car and drove north from Tartu, all the way up the spine of Estonia to the north coast of Lääne Virumaa.

We started heading north along a road that would take us straight up through Jõgeva and Rakvere to our destination, but on a whim we decided to drive east to Peipsi Järv, which is really something of an inland sea., separating Russia and Estonia.

We traveled through Alatskivi, the former home of Juhan Liiv, who wrote the famous lines, "sügise tuul, raputab puud." This was a picturesque area of rolling hills and forests and little lakes. I could feel the tension of living in a town stripping off my body as trees became often the only sign of life.

Then farther to the northeast, stopping in Kallaste, where we came upon a community that is partially Russian-speaking, but has lived in Estonia since the 18th century. My wife said they spoke to her in the shop in accented Estonian. Driving north along the shores of Peipsi, we encountered many of these villages of "Old Believers". The homes in their villages are built closer together, and I see what kept them apart from the Estonians for so long -- thick forests that separate their perches on Peipsi from the Estonians inland. These places feel isolated. They are literally stuck between forest and lake.

We headed north through Omedu, and other seaside villages. It's amazing to think that Estonia is happening everyday here too. That while I was worried about the troubles of last week spreading to Tartu, the people of Omedu were perhaps worried about making some pickles or smoking some fish. And they do sell smoked fish on the side of the road. I have never been a lover of smoked fish but I have to say being so close to the wind and Peipsi made me consider changing my mind.

As soon as we hit Ida Virumaa the trees shot up tall and imposing. The soil was sandy and the forests were thick. Trucker traffic began to weigh down on the roads and we decided to turn towards Rakvere at Rannapungerja. Legend has it that some uppity Estonian peasants beat up some of Napolean's troops in this small seaside village, an act that would foreshadow his stunning defeat at Waterloo.

The road to Tudalinna was mostly dirt. Cars take a beating in this country and dirt roads are marked in yellow on our map. By the time we arrived at a road that wasn't made of gravel or dirt, my car was surrounded by a thick ribbon of yellowy dust. Heading across Lääne Virumaa my opinion that most of Estonia is made up of farmhouses and guys on tractors was reinforced. Finally we spotted signs of life, and the city of Rakvere began to emerge, filling my heart with joy at the sight of actual people living close together in dwellings.

Being in Rakvere was odd. Again I had that, "So Rakvere has also been living its life all the time here in Estonia?" sense of bewilderment. You see, Estonia looks so small on a map that you think that just by being inside of it you can sort of cover it all at the same time. For Tartu I use my eyes and ears, and for Tallinn I use Aktuaalne Kaamera and Reporter. But I hadn't considered Rakvere before, and there I was, staring at its yellow teacups (later explained to be a modernist Lily of the Valley), wondering why it was that I had been to Viljandi so many times, but this was my first time in Rakvere.

One thing that is obvious about traveling in Estonia is that the money that has enriched cities like Tallinn and Tartu has trickled down to some places, including Rakvere, but that many towns are still huddled groups if 19th century wooden houses and crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks. But these still are functioning communities, not just little enclaves of pensioners and alcoholics. Wherever you go you'll see a couple of Estonian boys in a souped up car driving across a field. Or teenage girls walking down the road from the local Konsum eating jäätis.

North from Rakvere we headed into the deep forests of Lahemaa National Park. It's called Lahemaa in that there are many bays, not 'lahe maa' in that it's a very cool place. I'm still keeping my eye out for a place called Vahvamaa, let me know if it exists. Anyway, beneath the stars that night on the coast, looking at the Gulf of Finland and hearing the lapping of the waves, I have to say I felt at peace and a little strange.

The legs of the pines that stretch up to the heavens look solid and peaceful during the day, but at night they resemble the legs of giants, and I can see how nature has inspired the mythic race of Estonian giants, from Kalevipoeg to Suur Tõll to Leiger. I could imagine them walking through the forest on a night like that night, picking up and hurling the huge boulders that lie strewn along the coast.

So often I hear people talk about Estonia as if it were only Tallinn. But nothing could be farther from the truth. For a country the size of Denmark or the Netherlands, Estonia seems roomy inside. It's a big little country, if such things exist.

neljapäev, mai 03, 2007

Flasher's Manifesto

I met up with Andrei of Antyx last week and found him to be a knowledgable person capable of holding court on a variety of complicated subjects, like the Six Day War, and other snapshots in history.

So I think all of you should go to his website and read a statement he produced following the events last week in Tallinn. Flasher is of Russian and Jewish heritage, but he's 100 percent Estlander and he has presented his words as "the truth."

As the famous Tallinn writer Mihhail Weller wrote, Estonians are not short of steam - they just have a bad whistle. A little more, and detained non-citizen marauders may start to be taken out past the Narva border crossing and left there. In my eyes, as a half-Russian, half-Jewish grandson of people who fought in the Second World War on the side of the USSR, they have already earned the suitcase-train station-Russia treatment.

Why the EU Wants the Našistõ Nipped in the Bud

With the issue of the Estonian government's decision to relocate a Soviet war memorial to a military cemetery de facto concluded -- though the repercussions will no doubt linger for years -- the situation at the Estonian embassy in Moscow has become the new focus point of this contest of wills.

For six days activists from the Kremlin-endorsed Nashi youth group have harassed Estonian diplomatic officials, climaxing in yesterday's activities where a press conference held by the Estonian ambassador Marina Kaljurand was stormed by dozens of the teens who are too young to remember the USSR.

Kaljurand was saved only by her bodyguard's mace which kept the crowds at bay. Yesterday also her car and the car of the Swedish ambassador were attacked, prompting diplomatic protests from Sweden, the EU, NATO, and the US State Department for Russia to honor its obligations under the Vienna Convention of 1961.

Today even Finnish President Tarja Halonen weighed in, calling the situation "grave." She will also meet with the EU presidency, currently held by Germany this week.

But why is the EU so concerned? I mean a ripped flag and marauding gang of teenagers are reprehensible, but it's not like they've stormed the embassy just yet. However, I think that the EU has seen the "Putin Youth" as a problem for quite some time, and they are using this opportunity where one of their own, Estonia, is under attack, to settle some things with Russia.

As The Moscow Times reports, Britain has come under target from Nashi in the past as well:

The British Foreign Office in December appealed to the Foreign Ministry to end the harassment of British Ambassador Anthony Brenton by Nashi members after Brenton participated in a conference organized by the opposition coalition The Other Russia at the Renaissance Moscow Hotel.

In the weeks and months following the conference, Nashi members periodically picketed outside the British Embassy, demanding that Brenton apologize for promoting fascism, tailed his car and disrupted his speeches.

So the EU is quite aware that a Kremlin-endorsed youth group has the potential to cripple its diplomatic missions in Russia, and that the Russian authorities -- as in the case of Britain and Estonia -- have been slow moving and reluctant to reel them in.

The question for the EU is that whether the Russian authorities turn their Nashi attack dogs on any country that draws the ire of Russian state-owned television? And will their ambassadors continue to be safe when the hordes of Putin Youth are growing bolder -- attacking cars, breaking up press conferences, physically threatening the safety of foreign diplomats.

Who will be next? Poland, perhaps? Or will it be the Czechs? Maybe it will be the Swedes if they have too many concerns about the pipeline deal? Or the Finns if they flirt too much with NATO? Russia has a very clear obligation under the Vienna Conventions. The EU will find out soon whether or not it has decided to ignore its commitments to that treaty too.

kolmapäev, mai 02, 2007

Attack on Swedes Draws Stronger EU Response

For several days now, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has been using the EU card in his negotiations with Russia.

Now it appears the cavalry is on its way, but not just due to the fact that Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand was attacked this morning during a press conference by activists from Nashi, a Kremlin supported youth group.

Today, the youth group attacked the Estonian ambassador's vehicle, ripping off its Estonian flag. But it later attacked the vehicle of the Swedish ambassador to Russia, Johan Molander, pictured, also ripping off his vehicle's Swedish flag. The event drew instant protests from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, and -- no suprise here -- whether for the sake of Kaljurand or Molander, an EU delegation is on its way to sort things out with the Russians.

The issue here is Russia's adherence to Article 22, Item 2 of the the Vienna Conventions of April 1961, which states:
The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

I am begining to think that Russia's reluctance to clear it's openly endorsed youth group may have more to do with domestic politics. How will Russia's leaders look when its most "patriotic" citizens are removed, perhaps violently, in order to protect the diplomatic mission of a country that has been subjected to a propaganda war for most of the last 16 years?

I can imagine Russian officials are figuring out ways out of this right now. One might be to attend the ceremony on May 8 in Tallinn, bite their lip, and recognize that this is over. Talk of integration issues can resume, and they need to. But as for this issue, it needs to be put to rest immediately. Perhaps the EU can talk some sense into Moscow.

teisipäev, mai 01, 2007

Demographics and Estonia: An Overview

In light of last week's clashes in the capital and the post-mortem spinning that began almost immediately afterward, many in the English-language readership have been given inaccurate depictions of what the demographic situation in Estonia is, and how this feeds into local, and international politics.

A Multi-Ethnic Country

To begin, let me make a broad statement. Estonia has been multiethnic for centuries. Estonians themselves are a distinct ethnic group, but the territory of Estonia has been home to a variety of other ethnic groups, most prominently Swedes, Germans, and Russians.

To complicate matters, the process of Estonian integration is also centuries old and predates any kind of "draconian" citizenship laws from the early 1990s. Most Estonians are not 'ethnically pure' Estonians. Instead, they have some ancestors from a variety of different countries.

Estonian Ambassador Marina Kaljurand, who is holed up in the Estonian embassy in Moscow right now, is not an ethnic Estonian. She is half Latvian and half Russian by birth. Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar is also half Russian. Lennart Meri, Estonia's second president, was Swedish on his mother's side. And the blood lines between the Baltic Germans and the Estonians are notoriously intertwined.

To make matters even more complicated many of Estonia's Soviet-era Russian-speaking community have also followed this established path of integration. They have perhaps married into Estonian families or simply "Estonianized."

Two examples of this come from the same family. Estonian politicians Mihhail and Aleksei Lotman are the sons of the St. Petersburg-born semiotician Jüri Lotman. By ethnicity they are Russian Jews. Yet Mihhail is in the rightwing Isamaa-Res Publica Party, and Aleksei serves in the Green party in the Riigikogu. Hence, their ethnic origins have not precluded them from achieving rather prominent places in Estonian society.

Those that are of mixed backgrounds in Estonia are quite often multilingual. In addition to Estonian they know Russian and perhaps English. Those with ties to other minorities may speak Finnish fluently or Swedish. In fact, in the Noarootsi district in western Estonia, there is a Swedish-only high school. This is in an area where there are only 50 ethnically Swedish people living there.

Geographically Homogenous

Despite Estonia's multiethnic heritage, the country is still rather homogenous. In 13 of Estonia's 15 counties, ethnic Estonians comprise more than 80 percent of the population. This is the case of Estonia's second largest city, Tartu, as well. As people watching the news last week saw, the main centers of the ethnic Russian population are in Tallinn and in Ida Viru county in northeastern Estonia. Estonia is 69 percent ethnic Estonian and 26 percent ethnic Russian. Most of that 26 percent are located in these urban areas.

Tallinn is an interesting example of how demographics can change rapidly in Estonia. In 1989, nearly 500,000 people lived in Tallinn. Last year, it was home to 396,000 people. Six years previous in 2000 it was home to 400,000 people. Of those 4,000 people that were lost in six years, the population decline was greatest among ethnic Russians.

While the ethnic Estonian population numbers about 216,000 people in Tallinn, the ethnic Russian population numbers about 144,000. In six years, the ethnic Estonian population declined by 1,000 people, while the ethnic Russian population declined by nearly 3,000. One could insert statistics from the 1970s here to show an inverse effect of ethnic Russian population growth, but I do not have access to those statistics.

It is my interpretation that rather than feeling stronger in Estonian society with the backing of a resurgent Moscow, Estonia's Russian community in Tallinn is actually feeling weaker as the demographic balance shifts every year in the favor of ethnic Estonians. Hence, monolingual Russophones are encountering the reality of their minority status on a more frequent basis. This increases the frustration that led to things like last week's riots.

Another factor is that Estonian politics are controlled by individuals that do not come from areas adjacent to large Russian minorities. Andrus Ansip is from Tartu. Mart Laar was born in Viljandi. And, as we all know, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born in Stockholm, though he never apparently pursued citizenship there.

Hence, in the recent controversy, it has been Tartu politicians, like Ansip and Minister of Defense Jaak Aaviksoo, that have been making decisions that impact the lives of Tallinn residents, where Edgar Savisaar, widely considered to be more in tune to the feelings of ethnic Russians, since he technically is also one, has condemned their activities. You'll notice that other Tallinners, like Reet Aus, a fashion designer whose grandfather actually designed the Bronze Soldier, have called the removal policy a bad choice. In this instance, you could think that cosmopolitan Tallinn is being held captive by provincial politicians. It is an argument that could be made, though I decline to make it.

Stereotypically, monolingual Russians feel like they are looked down upon by Estonians, while Estonians are quietly distressed by the longterm inability of Russians to adapt to the Estonian culture on their own and their continued admiration for forces that were historically hostile to the Estonian people, like the USSR.

Carrots and Sticks

Estonia's post-1991 integration policies have both condemned and praised. One overlooked fact is that they have been working. Estonia's stateless persons decline every year, and currently only 9 percent of residents lack citizenship, compared to 32 percent just 15 years ago.

Estonia's politicians have employed a carrot and stick approach to goad monolingual Russians into integrating into Estonian society. However, these Russians that have yet to integrate see it mostly as stick and stick. Since they don't have citizenship they cannot vote on the policies that effect them the most.

Estonian school reform is another hot issue. Dealing with a monolingual minority that has difficulty in obtaining high paying jobs and status in society has spurred Estonian politicians to endore a high percentage of education in Estonian at the public school level. This has created additional pressure on ethnic Russians in Estonia.

Again, it becomes complicated, because to succeed in Estonia, knowledge of Estonian is an asset, but since obtaining that knowledge is difficult, some monolingual Russians see it as a discriminatory hurdle to "weed them out" of political and economic participation.

Therefore it remains controversial, although some in the Estonian Russian community that have integrated openly call their kin "their own worst enemy" for not acknowledging some basic facts about Estonia.

To complicate matters monolingual Russian speakers receive most of their news from Kremlin controlled Russian media. Since 1991, Russia has conducted an anti-Estonian propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the country in the international arena with a longterm goal of bringing it back under its control. I would not like to believe this, but after reading hundreds of stories in the Russian media, I can only conclude that this is the case.

In my opinion, Russian foreign policy generally views its neighbors through a 19th century lense of "spheres of influence" and seeks to control them as a matter of course, despite what value they may actually add in end. Russian nationalists also believe that they have a right to control territories that one belonged to the Russian empire in the 19th century. Swedish businessmen perhaps think similarly.

A Lack of Leadership

While Estonian Russians in Estonia are at the center of some distressing trends -- a chauvanistic Kremlin, population decline, government pressure -- they have yet to organize and work effectively with local authorities in a potent way.

Kremlin-supported parties in Estonia actually face declining support, even as more people naturalize. "Thought leaders" like Dmitri Klenski -- who speaks Estonian, but spouts Stalinist history -- get media attention, but cannot get elected.

Edgar Savisaar's Center Party is an ethnic Russian stronghold, yet at the same time it hasn't made the group any promises to reverse language laws or citizenship requirements. And, moreover, nobody is really sure of what this group wants politically.

Some want to become an official minority, with Russian as a state language. But there are ethnic Russians that oppose this too and put their kids in Estonian kindergartens to get ahead. There are even some who still think that Estonia "belongs" to Russia, and are waiting for the "red ship" to come and continue the slow eradication of the Estonian people.

Russification and Estonia's Neighbors

As a final note, it's worth mentioning that Estonia's eastern Finnic neighbors that remained in Russia after 1918 have been largely assimilated into Russian society and have lost the characteristic that distinguished their ethnicity, their language.

Over the past 80 years the number of self-described Ingrians -- a Finnic ethnic group residing in the vicinity of St. Petersburg for millennia -- dropped from 26,100 to 300. As is noted here, due to the Second World War, "Physical extermination and russification had achieved their purpose: post-war generations of Izhorians have no knowledge of their native tongue."

The example of their ethnic kin in Ingria has left Estonians with a deep fear of the same thing happening to their land. Some extreme Russian nationalists openly joke about the extermination of the Estonian people, or the death of Estonian as a "small, obscure" language, feeding this fear and reinforcing people's support for the country's language and citizenship policies.