teisipäev, juuli 31, 2007

Can Comedy Cure the WWII Blues?

By all accounts, the manner in which the Teutonic Order took possession of Estonia in the 13th Century was not laughter inducing. Yet, Estonians, looking back at their past centuries later, managed to reduce the bloody conquest to a comedy called Malev.

Over the past few days I have read a lot about the recent gathering of Estonian SS veterans near Sinimäe in Ida Virumaa. It has been picked up by the Russian-controlled media as part of its ongoing war against Estonia's rightwing government. I have nothing against old veterans of any army gathering. They are old and lived through hell, they should be allowed to assemble and pay homage to their fallen comrades who were cut down in their prime for foolish purposes.

Yet it is true that the role that the Estonian state -- as represented by a letter from Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo who was conspicuously absent -- played in these ceremonies is controversial. An official letter calling the SS veterans heroes on par with those who brought Estonia its independence in 1918? Hmm. That's an interesting way of looking at it.

Yet, as always, things are more complicated here. The Estonian state that operated underground during the German occupation did not support enlisting in the German Army until it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war in mid-1944. Then Prime Minister Jüri Uluots, acting on behalf of President Konstantin Päts who had been deported in 1940, called on Estonian men not to resist being drafted into the 20th Waffen SS in order to keep the Reds out so the republic could be restored.

How do we know Uluots was not a Nazi? Because the first thing he did when the Germans began retreating was appoint a new Estonian government. And so, because the Estonian state told its people not to resist that draft it now owes them, even in their elderhood, something for their sacrifices -- like official letters and a military band.

The problem with this situation is that idiotic World War II propaganda is still being used by Russian nationalists and Estonian nationalists to sew feelings of hatred for one another. Official commemorations -- such as at the Bronze Soldier or at Sinimäe -- are used by some to fan the flames of discontent, and to link that struggle -- which now seems preposterous in its ideals -- a Bolshevist Superstate? an 'Aryan' Europe? Come on! -- to the present where it honestly serves no purpose.

Sometimes I wish people would look beyond the mind numbing propaganda of the 1940s and realize how stupid the whole thing was. I mean the Germans and Russians spent thousands upon thousand of lives over what exactly?

Think about all those German and Russian tombstones in Ida Viru county. Why of all places did they die in Estonia? There's no downhill skiing here. No vast reserves of oil to export. The harbors are nice, but the Russians have learned to live with Ust-Luga. Anyway you add it up, you have slightly more than one million people, some farm land, some lakes, and a lot of berry and mushroom yielding forests. The idea of a "world war" occuring in this remote part of Europe is, I am sorry, a joke.

The memories of the horrors of that conflict are still raw and the veterans deserve their respect. But mark my words, at some moment in the future, Estonian filmmakers might manage to squeeze a Malev-like comedy out of the sad tale of the Estonian Waffen SS.

esmaspäev, juuli 30, 2007

Formerly Swedish

The other day I was dispatched to the Tartu Konsum to purchase sugar for making jams. We have several apple trees in our back yard that are bearing fruit -- too much fruit -- and it was decided to turn nature's bounty into something more palatable and that can be put in long-term storage or gifted to friends.

My assignment at the Konsum was to find moosisuhkur -- literally 'jam sugar' -- but none of the paper bags of sweet white stuff said that. One however glared out from the top saying something that I recognized instantly -- syltsocker. In Estonia 'sült' is jellied meat. But, being a geenius, I put everything together and, after some inspection on the top of the bag (see photo), discovered that this was indeed the moosisuhkur I was after. This particular product was manufactured for sale in Sweden and its two sentries on the Gulf of Finland -- Suomi and Eesti.

Kom Loss På Svenska

Unknown perhaps to many Scandinavians, for whom the 'near abroad' of Tallinn brings to mind uncouth pickpockets ready to pounce at any sign of S E K, Estonia has something of an underlying Swedish influence. It's hard to put ones finger on it, but in most places it is there, a Scandinavian bedrock upon which other things -- German manorhouses, Soviet tenement blocks -- were built.

The way it hits you is not through viewing the churches on Toompea, but rather, by shopping for things like moosisuhkur. It's by looking at the back of a coin and seeing three familiar lions, lions that oddly resemble the coat of arms of Denmark. It's by seeing the ubiquitous signs for firms like Ragn Sells or Falck -- things that are so part of the Estonian landscape you would never notice them until you are told they are owned -- like everything else -- by some guy in Sweden or Denmark.

History tells us that the Swedes and Danes were most active in Estonia from the Viking era until the defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721. Their activity though, is often boiled down to land possession. Denmark kept Ösel, while Sweden got Dagö. The language of commerce was German, the language of the Teutonic Knights and their land-owning descendants. When the Russians took over, they made a deal with the Baltic German upper class that meant that the German identity of Estonia would remain intact, although loyalty would now be to the east, rather than to the west.

But strangely, the German influence in Estonia is largely historical. There are German-styled buildings, German household loan words for things, German-influenced Lutheran churches, and German names on headstones to long dead Estonians named Johannes. But the Baltic German minority left Estonia during the prelude to World War II. So their influence feels more like the one you get while digging out moldy items in your parents attic, rather than the 'here, today, tomorrow, next week' feeling you get when you realize that something you are holding binds you to something more essential to the foundation of your society.


One hint of where the Scandinavian influence in Estonia first took root can be found on the west coast, where a few hundred Swedish-speaking descendants of the Estlandsvenskar that first inhabited Estonia's many islands -- called Aiboland -- in the 13th century live on (see photo of famous rannarootslane Maria Murman (1911-2004), right).

In 1934, Swedes were the third most populous minority in Estonia after Germans and Russians, but their numbers dropped rapidly in 1944 when young Estonian Swedes packed into boats to flee the 'Soviet liberation of Estonia'.

Recently though efforts have been made from both sides to reinvigorate what has historically been an important minority for both Estonians and Swedes. For Swedes, the importance of Estlandsvensk is linguistic -- it is a unique dialect of a comparatively small language. It is also a historical curiosity -- Estlandsvenskar are seen as being more 'pure' in their Swedishness than modern Swedes, they are considered a time capsule of Swedishness, if you will -- something to be studied and preserved.

For the Swedish part, Den Andra Stranden is an excellent website that compiles interviews, essays, and various forms of media to preserve Estlandsvensk culture

For Estonians, Swedish influence is important as it serves as a vital link to the northern European community which Estonia uses as a way to measure its own development and among which it sees itself as playing a larger role in the future. Despite the mass emigration of Swedes in 1944, the Swedish linguistic influence also lives on in Noarootsi commune's high school, which is the only high school in Estonia to offer language immersion in Swedish.

Musical Connections

One interesting factoid is that there is a significant musical dialogue between Sweden and Estonia going back to the 1970s when Jaan Manitski -- now a former foreign minister of Estonia -- managed the Swedish pop group ABBA.

In recent years, two Swedes, Sahlene (pictured) (2002) and Sandra Oxenryd (2006) have represented Estonia in the Eurovision Song Contest. For whatever reason, Estonians have been ok with Swedes representing them, even if they don't speak Estonian.

Finally, who could forget Swedish 80s rock band Charizma, who in 1990 penned the classic song, "Join Hands" with the following deep lyrics, "the time has come to build a bridge of friendship Estonia and Sweden. Join hands, join hands together. We're friends forever." Charizma also tried to represent Estonia in the Eurovision song contest in 2004, but they lost. :(


One of the sticking points in the Estonian-Swedish relationship however has been Swedish acquiescence to Soviet demands during the occupation period, such as returning Estonian soldiers to Soviet-occupied Estonia and recognizing Soviet power in Estonia.

Swedish acquiescence to Soviet demands did not occur only towards Estonia, though. Sweden similarly made concessions to the Soviets and Nazis alike when it came to closer allies like Finland or Norway. Nevertheless, some Estonians have a gut reaction to not trust Sweden as a reliable partner in the international arena, especially when dealing with Russia.

Despite this, Sweden has remained one of the most important partners for Estonia in Europe, with its huge investment in the country guiding its business class into supporting inclusion in the European Union. The government of Prime Minister Carl Bildt proved especially receptive to the restoration of Estonian independence in the early 1990s, and now that Sweden's most prominent blogger is back in government, you can be sure to see more of his face around Kadriorg, sharing coffee with Estonia's Swedish-born president. Bildt and Ilves have both been among the most prominent of including Estonia in a space that Ilves called, partially in gest, 'the former Swedish empire'.

teisipäev, juuli 24, 2007

Eesti Nimed

One interesting part of becoming a parent is deciding on a name for your child. There are countless books written on the subject and many hurt feelings to endure as you are told that the jumble of consonants and vowels so dear to your heart are pure rubbish.

With our daughter Anna, we chose a name that was in both our families, but had symbolic importance for Epp because it was her great-grandmother's name. However, we did hear from some that 'Anna' could be too Slavic in touch, and might set off 'Russian alarms' among ethnic Estonians who have a highly efficient way of telling tribes apart. This is funny, because Anna is perhaps one of the most timeless names in the other nordic countries.

Bigotry aside, I understand why some Estonians might be pained by Russian names. I mean there is a prominent Russian politician whose last name is written in the Roman alphabet as Yastrzhembsky. And don't get me started on Tartu-born actor and theater director Andres Dvin-jan-i-nov. If there ever was a candidate for a renewed names campaign it is he. But, back to the point, the greater irony is that we were being told that a name born by an Estonian woman born more than 100 years ago was 'un-Estonian.'

How Estonian is it?

That got me thinking about what exactly is an Estonian name. The obvious answers are 'Kalev' and 'Linda' -- the main characters from Kalevipoeg. But we received a family tree from an Estonian cousin in England that traced my wife's family back to the early 18th century, and there were no Kalevs nor Lindas nor Vambolas nor Lembits in that tree. Instead, there were a lot of Estonianized versions of Germanic names, among the most common were Mihkel, Martin, Mart, Tõnu, and Tiidrik for boys, and names like Els, Ann, and Marri for girls.

When people first encounter vowel-laden Estonian personal names, they find them odd. Imagine two brothers, one named Aap and the other Priit! The reality is that this is how Estonians of yore interpreted named like 'Abel' which became Aapeli and then just Aap, or Friedrich, which somehow morphed into 'Priit'. The Estonians were not alone in this regard. In Finland, they heard 'Fredrik' and turned it into 'Veeti'. One can imagine how an Estonian villager heard the name 'Dietrich' and couldn't pronounce it but managed to mangle it into 'Tiit'.

That brings us to the debate over foreign loans. Estonia, like other countries, has been borrowing names for centuries, but some Estonian purists will still point out that Toivo and Aino are Finnish names, as if Estonia was somehow not Finnic itself. Estonians also like to shorten all names by taking the first syllable and adding an 's'. If you name is Peeter, you become 'Pets'. If your name is Pirgit, you become 'Pirks', and if you are like my brother-in-law Toivo, you are known to the world as 'Toits'.

For those of you interested in learning more about the history of Estonian personal names, you an read this excellent Estonica page here.


Occasionally it seems that names come and go with generations. For example, there are plenty of aging great grandmothers in Estonia named Salme, Laine, and Aino, but among the newborns of Tartu or Tallinn or Toila, there is hardly one of these to be found. My sister-in-law considered naming her daughter -- who received the Hungarian-flavored name of Ilona on her birthday -- Aino, after her grandmother, but the idea was dropped. Who would want to give a old person's name to a sweet cherubic child?

But again, age plays a role. We were told by an older acquaintance that 'Anna' reminded her of her mother-in-law, who also was of Epp's great-grandmother's generation, and therefore she did not have a fondness for the name. Even worse was when we named Marta. Our friend Signe told us that Marta was an old woman's name and said it aloud with a look of pure disgust. "Pff. Marta. Pff."

Yet the reality is that most of these aging Martas and Annas are now long deceased, their nasty turns as school teachers and mothers-in-law only remembered by gray-haired grannies and people like Signe. It seems that once the dust has settled on your grave, it's ok to resuscitate your name for future generations. So expect a flurry of Johanneses and Ainos in about 10 years! I am already running into Martas on the playground here.

One funny story is of our Flemmish friend and his Swedish-Estonian wife who named their children Aime and Raivo. It seems that the 'traditional' Estonian names of the 1940s that have been cast aside by current child-bearing generations in Estonia have been preserved in the Estonian diaspora. When I think of Raivo, I think of Onu Raivo. It is quite cool to know there is a little Raivo out there somewhere, perhaps slightly irritating his older sister Aime.

Farm Names

Finally, one addendum to the saga of Estonian names is the family name. Many Estonian families had German names before the 1930s. Epp's maiden name was Saluveer, but her great-grandfather was Johannes Schwarzberg. What is interesting is that before the adoption of German names in the 19th century, some Estonians had talu nimed -- farm names. So Mats Lenk might have been Uustalu Mats before his name was Germanized. I am told that older generations still use these farm names to refer to one another.

In the 1930s, approximately 210,000 Estonians chose new names for themselves. They settled on cute animals, like Orav (squirrel) and Jänes (bunny), or sturdy trees like Tamm (oak) or Mänd (pine). I have read stories that these days some Estonian Russians also choose new names to help them succeed in the marketplace, or maybe because having a last name like Yastrzhembsky really is too burdensome in a country where people have names like Mart Laar.

I wonder what would happen if there was a new names campaign. Would Estonians still name themselves after trees and animals or would they opt for something for modern? Jaanus Skype? Elo Selver? Tarmo Säästumarket? Piret Wifi? Kristjan Mobiil? What would you choose if you could start all over again? The whole idea of a names campaign is interesting, but sometimes I think it would be cool if everyone could go back to using their farm names.

laupäev, juuli 21, 2007

Vaata Kes Tuli!

So I am going to be out of commision for the next few days. Why? Because my family just grew from three members to four. Our daughter Anna was born last night here in Tartu on Toomemägi. What can I say? My wife Epp is very brave and she did a splendid job of handling this gigantic challenge of bringing another human being into the world.
Child is very cute and rosy and is crying sometimes because she was pushed out of her warm, moist little fetal swamp into the cold light of the real world. Most notably, this set of events occurred 33 years ago before to the day in Viljandi when Epp's mother, Aime, gave birth to her. That is right, our new daughter was born on her mother's birthday. This should make for very fun summer birthday parties in happy years to come.

neljapäev, juuli 19, 2007

Pullerits Draws Ire of International Gay Press

It's that time of year again, homoparaad time, when Estonian homosexuals, plus colorfully flamboyant supporters from across the globe, join together to 'do' Tallinn in the name of pride.

The first homoparaad went off without a hitch, but last years romp through the medieval capital made Tallinn look like Riga as boneheads assaulted paraders with sticks and stones. It was messy and left an unsavory taste in everyone's mouth, including Estonian journalism godfather Priit Pullerits who recently questioned the need for such a parade:

The purpose of the parade is to display eccentric behavior so it’s understandable that gay activists don’t want to gather in a forest or at a lake, where they can come together without annoying others. This is about the vociferous proclamation of sexual content in public. But one’s sexual preferences are a personal issue that doesn’t need to be rubbed in your fellow citizens’ faces. The organisers claim the parade is necessary to remind people of the existence of their homosexual fellow human beings, however I don’t believe there’s a single person in Estonia who doubts the existence of homosexual tendencies.
Pullerits' op-ed piece drew a response from Queerty, a New York-based snarky online news source that took issue with both Estonia and Pullerits' more than famous vuntsid. "Because people already know gays exist, they should become invisible? What year are we living in? We understand Estonia isn’t the most up-to-date country on the planet (see Pullerits’ picture), but this shit’s ridiculous," commented Queerty.

Pullerits' style is indeed timeless. I happened to pick up the debut issue of Favoriit from 1993 or so last summer and Pullerits was rocking the vuntsid all the way back then. In fact, I think I am safe in saying that Pullerits does not look like he has aged one day since that photo was taken in 1993. It is quite striking.

But, even though I am terrified of the international gay press, I will say that Priit has a point. It could be a tad disconcerting to see transvestites walking down your street. And it could also cause a 'what year are we living in' moment. Transvestites -- the most noticeable participants in any gay parade -- were edgy back in 1975 -- the year The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out. Elton John in the duck costume? That was 30 years ago.

The bottomline is that transvestite is played out. It's as new wave as capezio shoes. It's as done as disco and it is not really coming back. It lives on in Amsterdam and New York the same way hair metal lives on in Los Angeles and parts of Pennsylvania. And why don't transvestites meet at lakes rather than on public streets for their gatherings? What do gays have against lakes? Point to Pullerits.

On the other hand, if said gays and their de rigeur transvestite accompaniment are so lacking in edginess, if they are so *yawn* boring, then why should we care if they have a parade once a year to feel good about themselves? Other people get to parade right? (Well, not in Estonia), but you get the picture. The Estonian government recently moved a statue just so Red Army veterans could have a more peaceful place to pay respect to the dead. And you are telling me they shouldn't permit a gay parade?

See, supporting the gay parade doesn't mean you like guys like Ru Paul parading down the street, it just means that you don't mind guys like Ru Paul parading down the street. That, in a nutshell, is tolerance. And that is why I am very much in favor of this year's homoparaad going off without a hitch and making the Estonian organizers feel very much superior to their Latvian counterparts. Because if Estonians can feel better than Latvia and gays can feel good about themselves, then everyone wins, even Pullerits.

teisipäev, juuli 17, 2007

A War Over Capital, Not Capitals

People have been turning the furniture upside down in their apartments trying to figure out the deterioration in relations between Moscow and London. We all know the story, Alexander Litvinenko, ex-KGB, became British citizen in the company of the fraudulent and much loathed Boris Berezovsky, then was poisoned last year by a rare radioactive element in a London restaurant, and the radioactive substance left traces everywhere one Andrei Lugovoi (in the pinstripe on the left), also former KGB, went on his trip back to Moscow.

Like any media phenomenon this one is getting increasingly difficult to follow and it must be taken in proper context. Some believe that that context is unwarranted NATO expansion, which aroused the iracity of 'the bear'. Others think the breakdown in East-West relations has something to do with a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, put there ostensibly to give NATO partners the same protection as other (American) members of the alliance.

I think that one sliver of truth in this mosaic is contained in the following Bloomberg article:

The U.K., which is the largest foreign investor in Russia, could find that British companies are barred from major new energy projects, said Lukyanov. BP Plc's Russian joint venture is the third-largest oil producer in Russia and last month had to surrender control of the giant Kovykta gas field to state gas monopoly OAO Gazprom.
So the UK has some pretty strong tentacles that reach deep into the heart of the Russian market. And a nationalist leader, like Vladimir Putin, perhaps wishes to shake the tree, get that capital to flea, and to establish state-owned control -- through Gazprom or its subsidiaries -- over market areas where British firms are currently established.

This reminds me of some of the cockier comments that Ansip made this spring. One -- made to journalists during the Pronksöö, was that he did not fear sanctions because Estonia's major trading partners are Sweden and Finland. The other -- made at the Reform Party meeting -- was that the less Russian capital in Estonia, the better for Estonian security. While sounding bitterly provincial, he was also probably right.

Some Russian analysts, discussing the future of Russia's relationship with its favorite Baltic state, Latvia, basically supported this economic view of influence.

I think that Russia will not be of first importance to Latvia’s foreign policy, in spite of the fact that Latvia depends on Russia economically ... However, if Russia builds up its relations with Latvia preventing the neighbor from making unfavorable moves to it, Russia can influence that country. If Russia continues reacting to such steps too slowly, as it does now, its position will remain as weak as it was when the “Bronze Soldier” monument was removed in Estonia.
There you have it. Capital equals influence. In another Russian analytical piece that came out this weak, similar ideas were expressed in dealing with Georgia. In his piece, Aleksey Pilko argues that Russia should abandon the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to build a Russian-friendly elite in Georgia that will "mean greater Russian influence in the wider Caucasus, which can only lead to enhanced security on Russia’s southern border."

Given that these ideas are being churned out by Russian strategists, perhaps it is time to argue less about extradition law in the Lugovoi affair, and move onto what is really being reconsidered in Russia over who owns what. Stalin's Russia tried to make the USSR free of 'troublesome' minorities. Putin's Russia it appears is trying to make the Russian Federation free of 'troublesome' capital.

esmaspäev, juuli 16, 2007

Stateless Persons Down to 8.5 Percent

Those of you who actually reside in Estonia may not think about it on a daily basis, but for those outside of Estonia 'the citizenship issue' is often on the tip of their tongues when talking about Estonia.

The Estonian Foreign Ministry recently updated its page to reflect that as of July 2, 115,274 people still have undetermined citizenship in Estonia. That is 8.5 percent of the population. In 1992, 32 percent of the Estonian population had undetermined citizenship.

Like a good open liberal New Yorker, when I first heard of Estonia's citizenship laws five years ago I said, 'well why don't they just given them citizenship then?' It has been since then that I have begun to understand the painful reality is that there was no 'silver bullet' for statelessness in Estonia in 1992 and there still isn't one today.

The reality is that the Republic of Estonia existed de jure from 1944 to 1991. It did. That's why guys like Toomas Hendrik Ilves received Estonian citizenship in the early 1990s. Because their status of citizens never ceased, even if they were born in Stockholm or Berlin or London.

Couple that with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from the USSR to occupied Estonia in the 40s through 80s, and you have a problem. Those people had Soviet citizenship. On December 25, 1991, their country ceased to exist. At that point they became stateless.

How was Estonia supposed to handle these several hundred thousand stateless people when it already had citizens. How do most people become citizens? Through naturalization. Some of these stateless persons had been in Estonia since the 1940s. Others had been in Estonia since the 1980s. Who was to judge which ones had to naturalize. And could living in a country for two years without any knowledge of the local language or culture really guarantee one citizenship? If so, why would someone that immigrated in 1994 not have those same rights?

Ay, it's a conundrum with no easy answer, other than naturalization. Over the past 15 years the policy has been molded and reshapen and tweaked and, lo and behold, as of today 145,470 people have naturalized. That's not great but you can't say that it's bad and you also can't say that the policy doesn't work because it appears that it does.

pühapäev, juuli 15, 2007

Those Hot-Blooded Estonian Women

No matter what topic of conversation you enter into it, chances are, if you are a foreign guy, you will be sucked into the vortex of discussing Estonian womanhood at length. Most young gentlemen under 25 revel at the chance to chatter on about their sojourns to and fro nightclub with Triinu and Piret and Kaili.

But when you actually marry one of this northern specie the questioning grows more tiring. "Yes," you want to say, "I know they are attractive." 'Yes," you carry on, "they are very stylish", "Ok," you concur, "they might be the most beautiful women in the world." It gets to the embarassing point that you realize that some people still consider women to be some kind of property, and your Estonian gal to be ... a trophy wife.

Taken in the context of paging through Kroonika magazine, one could see where this idea comes from. Kroonika is a catalog of platinum blonde Barbies, usually straddling some kind of masculine-related item, if not an actual man, and waxing on about what kind of attributes they look for in their guy. A jaunt across Tallinn will leave you feeling equally stimulated as you spy young ladies wearing cowboy boots and hoop-earrings -- a sure sign that they are ovulating and desperately want you to help make up for the lack of suitable males in the Estonian population tonight.

So to indulge all of you in what you want to talk about anyway, I thought I'd address a few of those too frequently asked questions about Estonian ladies.

Why Do Foreign Men Marry Estonian Women?

Beyond these superficial glimpses at the opposite sex, there is the real phenomenon of foreign boys shacking up with Estonian girls. Some people wonder why. I'll tell you why. Because the traveling-guy-meets-exotic-foreign-female-and-settles-down-to-sire-a-multitude-of genetically-diverse-children parable is the oldest tale in the book. Ever since Fletcher Christian spied some random Polynesian teenager, mariners like ourselves have been doing it.

But why we stop in Estonia? Why not proceed through Latvia and then conquer all of Belarus? Free Wifi. No, actually, Estonian women are not alone in this regard. Across Europe Americans and Brits and others routinely partner with whomever they can. When I was living in Denmark I met two gents at a bar who were Americans that had left to evade the draft in the 1960s. They had runaway to Malmö of all places to marry Swedes and eat lingonberry jam for the rest of their lives. So I guess that is my first response: Estonia is not unique. This happens everywhere.

That being said, Estonians are amenable to marriage. They have a liberal, "eh, what the heck" approach to it and see it as a manifestation of romantic love, as opposed to the US where it has been viewed over the past 20 years or so as a phase in life that occurs sometime after a big promotion at work. In the Soviet ice age, Estonians got married young so that they could move out of their parents' homes. These days many still marry young because, "eh, what the heck" coupled sometimes by a loud "oops" and a surge in hormones.

In this context of ladies that aren't afraid to get married and wandering guys that are looking for a place to put down their roots, it shouldn't be surprising that so many foreign guys wash up on Estonian soil. A final factor is that Estonia is 54 percent female and 46 percent male, and of that 46 percent, a good chunk are either drunks or Eurovision fans, leaving the market wide-open for synergistic coupling.

How's Your Girl?

It's hard to stereotype any person. What one can do is relate their experiences and hope they jive with those of others. My Estonian naine likes to start her mornings with the sound of her mobile phone saying, "on aeg arkata, kell on seitse!". Then the water is put to boil, then the coffee, the sweet nectar of Estonian life, is first brewed. We have been drinking Löfbergs Lila these days. My naine says it tastes as good as melted ice cream.

The most cherished of breakfasts is some kind of porridge, perhaps tatrahelbed. The Estonian woman's culinary universe is flavored by porridges and jams and keefir and Kalevi komm. These foods are fine. The ones I find worrisome are maksapasteet, varieties of dried fish, and jellied meats. Whenever some person is carrying on about the Estonian beauties, I don't think he is thinking of one with a lump of sült hanging from the corner of her mouth.

Estonian women know how to live life au natural. Mine dreams of days spent in forests picking mushrooms and berries and maybe a swim in a pristine countryside lake, preceeded by sauna. Tonight we ate seenakaste with potatoes and kurgid. It was so good. I washed it down with an A. Le Coq Pilsner and chased that with a plum tart. Then, as I lay on the doorstep of a fine slumber, my naine appeared with a cup of freshly brewed coffee to nurse me back to health and put me back to work.

They Who Wear The Pants

In Estonian society, women allegedly run things. This appears to be true, although our president and prime minister are not women. But in day to day life, it is the females that are organizing and the men who are obliging. With the advent of both mobilephone and Internet, my Estonian woman can order her day into a multitude of meetings that flow seamlessly into one another, complete with time calculated to get from one meeting place to another.

As a male, duties are assigned to you because the organizer has a special way she wants things done and its best not to take it upon yourself to, say, fold the laundry because that laundry might be dirty or intended for other usage. The real trainwreck occurs when several duties are assigned simultaneously (wash up dishes, take out garbage) and as you are finishing washing your last plate, you are asked, "How come you forgot to take out the garbage?" Don't even bother trying to explain yourself.

Estonian men are supposed to be like MacGyver. Like Lennart Meri, they should be ready to spring into action at any time with screwdriver in hand, fixing leaky pipes and roofs along the way with tree bark and some manure. As a foreign guy, your lack of handiness might make you into something resembling a male model. You just sit around and read the newspaper, relying on 'real Estonian men' to figure out what is wrong with your car.

Worry not. If you have two arms and two legs, the chances are good that your Estonian woman will find something useful for you to do. And, as they say in construction, showing up is 90 percent of the job.


If you really want to know your Estonian naine, it is a good idea to get a sense of where she is coming from. Most likely it's from a small corner of of Eestimaa that ends in a suffix like '-vere' [Eg: Adavere] or '-tsi' [Eg. Muratsi]. In this place you will meet her mother and perhaps even her grandmother or great aunts. Don't be surprised if Mrs. Claus, the spouse of Jõuluvana. comes to mind upon meeting vanaema.

Vanaema knows all sorts of tricks. She knows when is the best time to plant cucumbers and how to make bread and how to make a whole litter of kittens disappear with a bucket, a burlap sack, and a rock. The current generation of vanaemad in Estonia have lived through thick and thin. Soviets, Nazis, Soviets, Uno Loop, Collapse of the Ruble -- they have seen it all. Yet when they talk, they probably prefer to gossip about village life. Is somebody pregnant? Did somebody buy a new car? How much did it cost? Vanaema knows.

Sometimes it is hard to believe that the girls in VanillaNinja will one day become those old ladies you see walking the streets of any small village in Estonia, but genetics are a safe bet. So take a good look at your Eesti vanaema. Because chances are, if you stay together, this person closely resembles the one you will be sleeping with in 50 years.

Her Other Boyfriend

If you are married to or are in partnership with an Estonian female, the chances are that you may develop arvuti-envy. As she scrolls through blog.tr.ee or the online version of Eesti Ekpress, you might feel pangs of jealousy as she makes expressions of surprise, or even laughs, while you passively await her attention. She'll assure you that she is just paying her taxes, but in reality she is engrossed in a debate over child rearing in Perekool.

As talented and handsome as you are, there are some ways in which you will always be outdone by the Internet. The only way to handle this is to get even. And maybe even get your own blog.

Noh, mis te mõtlete sõbrad? Kas eesti naised ongi kõige ilusam naised maailmas?

reede, juuli 13, 2007

The English-Speaking Minority

With all the endless talk of minorities and minority rights in Estonia, smaller, less vocal minorities usually get lost in the shuffle. The Swedish minority, most of whom fled in 1944, is just now beginning to reassert itself in its section of Estonia, once called Aiboland. Beyond the Russians and Ukrainians of Tallinn and Narva, there are also Inkeri Finns spread like voi from Toila to Treimani. In fact, in a few counties, Finns are among the dominant minorities, especially during summertime.

Some say that Russians that arrived in the 1960s are a national minority because, hey, 2001: A Space Odyssey, came out a long time ago. But following that logic, history is in the eye of the propagandist, and an argument could just as soon be made that the 1990s were a long time ago -- so long ago that Estonia wasn't even in the European Union or NATO. We are talking ancient history here. We are talking about when Michael Jackson was still somewhat popular.

On that note, I present to you us: the English-speaking minority. Though unrecognized by the state, and wholly unworthy of an Amnesty International report, we do exist. We have our own culture, a culture of speaking English and hanging out in bars like Wilde's Pub in Tartu or Hell Hunt in Tallinn. We have contributed immensely to Estonian culture, hell, one of us helped you with the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001, without which you would have never received an invite to join the European Union. We write interesting stories about you for people to read in The Baltic Times or the City Paper. And what do we ask for in return? To shack up with your women. Just kidding, we ask for nothing in return.

In the spirit of English-speakers of the past, like Robin the Hood or Kevin Costner, we do right by Estonia just because ... we like it here. We heep shame upon the bloated, former Soviet windbags of the Russian Federation, even while giving pause to look incredulous that we owe any more loyalty to Washington or Sydney than we would to the merry men and merry women of Toompea. And English isn't even an official language yet. Instead, we make due with official government webpages that are in our language, and bank ATMs that gladly hand out cash without a question.

Estonia does give its minorities the right to form a cultural autonomy. Though rigid, vengeful legislation prohibits recently arrived minorities, like the English-speakers, to form such a collective, or even to have public education in our own language, we have alternative routes to preserving our language and customs.

The larger, more vocal Russian-speaking minority has its own Russian Cultural Center in Tallinn. I have often wondered what an English Language Cultural Center would look like? Would we sit around reading Shakespeare to appreciate better the art of our mother tongue?
Would we invite English-speaking music acts, like Aerosmith or James Brown, may he rest in peace, to perform in Tallinn? That gets to the root of the question: What is English-language culture. In relation to Estonia, we don't do nearly enough.

What English speaker raises a pints to the brave Brits that helped Estonia win its freedom from the human-gobbling bear of Bolshevist Russia? Who among us Americans gathers to drink to Sumner Welles, the kickass New York-born Under Secretary of State that articulated the non-recognition of the occupation in 1940? When Brits gather in Tallinn, its to watch the football game, fight, vomit, hit on local girls, and fight some more. When Americans gather it's to watch the football game, eat, vomit, hit on some local girls, and eat some more. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Though we are overlooked and occasionally disparagingly called 'Yankee' or 'Limey' or just plain kurat, there are high-ranking Estonians that know how to cater to our needs and make us feel wanted here in Estonia. One such person is President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Though born in Sweden, and a mulk through and through, Ilves is fluent in the English language, and, it gets better, his third foreign language is Spanish! Ai Caramba. Ilves is well respected and liked among English-speakers though privately they are worried by his ultra-continental bowtie.

Although we tend to think of English-speakers as just Americans or Brits, the truth is that many nationalities make up the English-speaking population. There are Australians (see photo at left) and Canadians, and perhaps even New Zealanders. Many third nationalities, like Spaniards, Swiss, and Swedes have also been swallowed up by this English-speaking mass of Homo Anglicus. They work in a variety of fields like IT, teaching, and bar tending, each one carving out his own niche as an English-speaker in Estonian society.

So to all of you who ponder about Estonian minority issues, or minority issues in Europe or even the world, remember us English-speakers holding down the fort in Saaremaa and Pärnu and Tartu and Tallinn. We may be able to get by in eesti keeles, but ask us how we really feel, and we just might have to answer you in the King's English.

neljapäev, juuli 12, 2007

Nuts for Ansip

Somebody in Estonia really likes Andrus Ansip. It's not my in-laws. They hail from Viljandimaa: Mart Laar country. They are Isamaa to the bone. I was asked a few times about my electoral preferences close to election day by them, to which I sheepishly mentioned that our family's sympathies lay with the commie Social Democrats and the pinko Green Party.

It's not that I don't like Mart Laar. I think he's rad. It's just that I am afraid that if the patrician/historian were prime minister again, it would get to the point where the Riigikogu would be debating resolutions condemning Russian imperial atrocities from the Great Northern War. But I do like history, so I have a feeling I'd be able to live through it.

I dislike the Center Party's Savisaar, of course -- of course -- because I have deep anxiety that he would handle Estonia as he has handled Tallinn, and Tallinn is messy. The traffic is awful, the architecture going up is unwisely chosen. I get the impression that Savikas only listens to people that are wealthy enough to own their own islands. At least Jüri 'Abiratas' Ratas -- the previous mayor, one year older than I -- spoke eloquently of wider bicycle usage and a mammoth Kalevipoeg straddling Tallinn Harbor.

Which brings us back to Ansip. I was pleased when he was reelected in March, not because I especially liked him, but because he defeated Savisaar, who seemed like he was gloating at the debate. And that's where the recent poll from TNS Emor shocks me a bit because I had a gut feeling that Ansip was a 'lesser evil' kind of politician. An, 'I really don't like Savisaar, so I am voting for Hunt Kriimsilm' kind of politician. Instead, the new poll tells us that about 43 percent of Estonians -- I guess the ones I never discuss politics with -- are behind Andrus all the way. Not only that, they like Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and Justice Minister Rein Lang. A sh*tload of Estonians support the Reform party. That's reality.

The Center Party's poll numbers have atrophied to 18 percent of the vote, putting their coalition of poor rural Estonian grannies and poor urban Russian grannies nearly at the same level of support as Isamaa-Res Publica Liit's. I am not surprised that the Social Democrats hold their share at 10 percent. I'll confess, I am an Ilves/Palo Social Democrat at heart. Why? because I like how Ilves manages to work whatever book he is reading into every speech and I like Palo's touchy-feely yet logical approach to the issues.

That doesn't mean that I don't sympathize with what Ansip or Laar or even sometimes Savisaar are saying. I mean I enjoyed watching Ansip duke it out in the heady days of the Bronze Soldier. He looked arrogant yet cool and in charge, and I respect him for that. It just means that I have the same reaction to the Social Dems that, say, people in Utah have when they hear George W. Bush talk about Jesus. They know how to push my buttons. Good thing I can't vote. Here.

But going into the election, the Reform Party only had about a quarter of the vote locked up. How did they jump to 43 percent? One can only deduce that it is because of the government's demeanor during the nasty days at the end of April and because people still have work, roads are still being fixed, and why change horses when things seem headed in the right direction? The Reform Party is the status quo party, and the status quo is a Selver in every neighborhood.

These are, generally, happy days in Estonia, and Andrus Ansip is unexpectedly presiding over this era of satisfied feelings. If any of you can speak to the popularity of Reform in Eesti right now I am very willing to hear your take on how Ansip's party has attained this edge. It's interesting because I think many foreign policy analysts have mixed feelings about his leadership.

esmaspäev, juuli 09, 2007

Põhjamaade blogid

One thing I have been trying to cultivate here at this blog is links to other regional blogs. I should be perfectly clear that without inspiration from Phil at Finland for Thought and Aleks at All About Latvia, I probably wouldn't have started this vehicle for sliming Estonia's politicians and their birthday parties.

One thing I would like to do is to get more input from Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic blogs but finding them has proved difficult.

First of all, why these countries? Well, of the four Sweden is the most important because of the presence of Swedish capital in the Estonian market. Institutionally Sweden is quite different from Estonia, but in terms of regional interests, I think that it is an overlooked contributor to the debate. I used to read Carl Bildt's musings on a regular basis. I can sort of read some Swedish, it's not that different from English and I used to live in Denmark, but when I do translate Bildt he's talking about the Sudan and Bosnia, not Sweden.

What I would like to read from Sweden is something about Swedish domestic politics within a regional context. Why? Because most blog lists that Estonia is on lead me to countries hundreds upon hundreds of miles away, like Uzbekistan. Even Russia seems gigantic and foreign. But Sweden is also a small country on the Baltic Sea where they write in the Roman alphabet. They also have to think about Nord Stream and things of that nature.

Plus there are interesting things going on there politically. I mean the Social Democrats are out of power. And there are people that have told me that the Social Democrats are Sweden. The world must be simply upside down. However, instead of writing about Fredrik Reinfeldt's new government, it seems that all Swedes do all day long is fret about the Middle East or vacation in the wilderness. If it's not some play-by-play analysis of the latest attack by the Iraqi Martyrs Brigade, it's an account of a cozy weekend on the archipelago.

Norway is no better. It is an important country because it is a NATO partner, it's a regional energy producer, and every journalist in Estonia's paycheck basically leads back to Schibsted in Oslo. But in Norway it is the same. Darfur and Palestine are important. Oslo? Unimportant. I haven't even bothered checking out the Danish blogosphere for fear that it might be more of the same. And if it isn't about Darfur or terrorism, it's about IT or design. Yuck.

The Icelandic blogs are spectacular just because they are mostly centered around photgraphs of that island's breathtaking nature. Unknown to many, the Icelanders are the bad boys of northern Europe (the Estonians would be the obstinate boys). They were the first to recognize the restoration of independence in Estonia, and their historical nemesis are the Danes, a land of nasty, potato-in-the-mouth Lars von Triers. So they are spunky.

The only gent I can locate is the exiled Swede writing Pro Libertate Nostra. As expected, he's one of these libertarian guys that never stop carrying on about Ayn Rand. But at least he's interested in the world. And he namechecks the Estonian Reform Party in his "about author" section, so he can't be that bad.

My mission for you is to help locate more sources of information that can better help us understand the northern European region. If you know of any good blogs, in any language, pass them along.

reede, juuli 06, 2007

Rein Lang's Birthday Bash

Imagine you are the justice minister of a right-leaning government in northern Europe that was once upon a time occupied by the Third Reich, like, say Lene Espersen of Denmark. How would you celebrate your birthday? Would you do it by attending a private performance of a play called "Adolf" and tell your friends to dress like they would in a 1930s beer cellar in Munich?

That's what Rein Lang did last week, and he so far has not expressed any acknowledgement of poor taste in the matter, let alone considered stepping down. Instead he's dismissed the event as a private matter, even though a predecessor of his, Jaak Jõeruut resigned after someone in his ministry wore a shirt that said "kommarid ahju" (communists into the oven).

Some say that Jõeruut's resignation was more of an excuse to get out of his position and into one he prefered. Maybe most resignations are like that. Still, despite the international political overtones -- Russia routinely accuses Estonia of fascist sympathies -- you have to wonder, what the hell was Lang thinking, and maybe it's time for a little more damage control.

Rein Lang, like Ansip, would never step down, especially when his main critic is Öine Vahtkond (the Russian-state supported Night Vigil). But if Prince Harry had to apologize for his costume party, then perhaps a justice minister of a EU country might seek to address any misgivings about his 50th birthday party bash.

neljapäev, juuli 05, 2007

Welcome to Estonia: We Are Not Outrageous

The trip to Estonia takes some time. If you fly Finnair you might get a seamless connection out of Helsinki, but most often you need to change flights, in my case at the Prague Airport.

The last time I was in the Prague Airport, prior to this trip, was in 2004 when we first moved to the United States. I recalled that they had the most excellent salami sandwiches in the cafeteria, and, sure enough, this time they were still there (fresh ones, don't worry) costing whatever amount of Czech money they did. I ate two.

I have been to Prague before and I found it a romantic city. It lies in a hazy valley along a river in the plains of central Europe. Czech women, or rather, Czech women, Polish women, Slovak women -- they all know how to draw attention to themselves. One word comes to mind: outrageous, in the way that Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin would say it in their famous "We Are Two Wild and Crazy Guys" Saturday Night Live sketch.

I feel like Prague is an outrageous kind of town: the kind of place where you take in the outrageous sights, dinner with outrageous women with outrageously (dyed) blonde hair named Milla or Lenka. You dine on outrageously greasy Slavic food, top it off with some outrageously cheap Staropramen, and then to bed for love-making to outrageously cheesy saxophone solos. And they have good salami sandwiches.

But Estonia is not outrageous. Looking out the window it looks like the rest of Europe (and that means you too Finland). It's green with rolling hills, rednecky farms, winding roads, with pockets of broccoli-like forests in between. If you are lucky, your roof is orangey-brown, tiled, and dates back to the age of Hansa. If you are unlucky, it's drab and gray and Soviet and dates back to the 1950s.

What has always hit me when I enter Tallinn is the immediate coolness of everybody and everything. It's like taking an aspirin, and I can only compare it to getting off the bus in Oslo or Stockholm at 5 am in October. There is this silent chill, even though it is sunny and warm out.

I think the first actor that induces the decline in emotional temperature is the architecture. Everything is a) in order and b) cute. Each sign is both threateningly sterile and childish at the same time. It's like the symbol for the children's playroom at Kaubamaja. It's just a little monkey, but his expression makes us wonder if he is hiding something.

Another factor that contributes to Nordic climate control is the advertising. I would have to say that if there is one overlooked medium for expressing Estonian identity today it is its local advertising field. Every large company, from Hansapank to Estonian Air to EMT to Elion indulges the locals in calm, northern tones of light blue and gray, along with a spike of catatonic yellow or orange to spice things up.

Fluffy white clouds drift through a peaceful sky, coronating a sensitively yellow flower, and framing a blonde lady with a smile that communicates a feeling of tranquility, as opposed to outrageous happiness, holding a mobile telephone. Need I say more? Less inspired Estonian advertisers are content to just put a nice photo of a tree up with their slogan and company name. It has the same placid effect.

The actual slogans are, again, cute and sterile at the same time. In fact, the Estonian language also falls into this category. Take the word "kuuüür". It looks cute with all of its little diacritical 'ü's. But really, it just means 'monthly rent'. Usually, though, it is to the point. The ad for a trip to Oslo is a picture of a Viking ship bathed in a red bloody sunset. What does it say below? "Come to Oslo for an outrageously wild and crazy time!"? No. It says "Tallinn-Oslo". How perfect.

Some Estonian women try to dress as Czech women. In this regard they fail miserably. You might see them walking half naked down the street on the way to the bus station. But talk to them, and you'll be met with the same expression of the monkey at the mängutuba in Kaubamaja. This is a nation where you can watch a whole episode of Benny Hill and just sort of digest it, emitting a few chuckles, most likely towards the end in the vein of, "that Benny Hill, why is he riding a bike all the time? Silly person."

Though Estonia is productive its citizens -- and 115,000 stateless people -- operate in some kind of twilight between just being asleep and awake. It as if they are all sleepwalking through their jobs. They do them well, but with little fanfare. You are sent by the zesty Czech stewardesses to passport control where they treat you with all the pizzazz of rinsing the sink out after brushing their teeth. I once smiled at a Finnish passport control officer, who in turn bared his teeth at me in a painful attempt to copy my gesture. The Estonian ones wouldn't even bother reciprocating.

The changeover to Estonian temperature will continue throughout your day. You may meet a silent bus driver named Rein who listens to Estonian standards of the 1930s on his trek to Tartu and back. Or there is the train conductor Aime, who will exchange money with you while averting any direct eye contact. These are all characters in this entirely not outrageous country, where the most fiery politician looks up while he talks and plays with his hands, summoning the wisdom of Milton Friedman. They act with the same love of communication as the concierge at a hotel in Nuuk. That is not to say that they aren't polite, gregarious, and borderline warm in their dealings with you, especially if those dealings involve alcohol or, to a lesser extent, caffeine.

Some people are turned off by the "wall of ice" they meet when they come to places like Eestimaa. When I told people I was studying in Copenhagen, I was told that I was crazy and I should head to someplace like Rio. The only difference is that in Rio, the other dudes carry weapons and might beat you up for looking at their sister the wrong way. In Tallinn, as in Copenhagen, they stare at their beer and mutter to themselves. There is an atmosphere of restraint and appreciation of silence. For a New Yorker like myself who has suffered through the ups and downs of the East Village on a Saturday night, living here takes on monastic dimensions.

kolmapäev, juuli 04, 2007

The Ministry of Silly Walks

One of Karl Marx's most famous quotes is "religion is the opiate of the masses." It is ironic that in the Soviet Union, communism became a similar wonder drug. The Stalinist repackaging of the botched Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and subsequent invasion of Russia by ex-ally Nazi Germany was an excellent example of why we must read and read and read some more about the past, because how much of what we are taught can be that true?

Yesterday they finally laid to rest the Bronze Soldier controversy. I don't blame the government for doing what it did, and I am quite glad they decided to engage the nefarious Russian Federation-backed youth groups that threatened -- and achieved -- lawlessness to show their disappointment with democracy and, coincidentally, their immense love with the fruits of capitalism.

I am especially pleased that they managed to scrub clean the Soviet halo from the memorial and make it what it should be: a memorial to war dead and nothing else. As routine parliamentary election loser Andrei Zarenkov told ITAR-TASS: "The Estonian authorities want to turn 'the bronze soldier' into an ordinary grave monument." Exactly, mu kallis sõber.

So where do we go from here? What could we possibly do with our lives now that WWII is over ... again? I recommend not thinking about it anymore. This excursion on a wobbly rail has concluded. Jaak Aaviksoo can go back to the Ministry of Silly Walks, and all will be mõnus and catatonic in the lovely world of Eesti. Because Estonians are tree people and bog people and wind people. They aren't really monument people. And, quite frankly, this has wasted plenty of our valuable time.

esmaspäev, juuli 02, 2007


Reading the English-language news on Estonia is often reading the Russian news on Estonia, or reading the Estonian news' response to the Russian news on Estonia. Like the neverending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Estonian-Russian relations are like a Rubik's Cube that can never be 'solved.'

But why waste so much energy on that relationship with diminishing returns? Toomas Hendrik Ilves speech at CSIS last week was refreshing in that it did not delve into hot, sexy Estonian-Russian relations. Rather it focused on European integration issues, less sexy, but ultimately more important for Estonia. He didn't give the crowd what it 'wanted', but rather what it 'needed.' He served them meat and potatoes, not junk food.

I think that ultimately this is the correct stance towards Russia, because beyond historical memories there is not a particularly strong need to think about Russia or engage with Russia in Estonia. When it comes to economics, the environment, labor issues, cultural participation, defense -- most great issues confronting Estonia today call for greater cooperation with the West, not the East.

At this juncture one has to wonder what Estonia's relationships are like with other key countries in Europe and abroad. How are things going in the UK, Germany, and France? How is the Estonian relationship with the Scandinavians developing? And finally, what about Estonia's role in its neighboring countries: Finland and Latvia?

First the UK. The UK is a pivotal voice on the world stage. They count, especially in Europe. Estonian-British relations are good, but they could be better. The visit of the Queen last autumn was a great sign of bilateral relations. To the shame of Slovenians, preeminent journalist Edward Lucas writes about Estonia on a regular basis, going so far as to call Ilves and Putin the two most distinguishable leaders in former communist Europe. Yet at the same time, the British press was out of the loop during the Bronze Soldier mess in April.

What Estonia needs in the UK is an NGO that can represent Estonia's viewpoint through non-political channels. An organization that can draw on local talent to get Estonia's viewpoint across to the paid wild animals of the British media. In that light, what Estonia needs is a more aggressive, wheeling and dealing Estonian Institute in London. Estonia has similar institutes in Hungary, France, Finland, and Sweden. This can also operate as a cultural organ that can keep British-Estonians connected, which in turn will strengthen the ability of the communicate their interests.

The next country is France. France is a great country for Estonia to cuddle up to because a) they desire to be powerful, especially in a unified Europe; b) they are another jilted world power passed over by the Anglophones, they have a historically cozy relationship with Moscow; c) they have a new president of Hungarian descent who will feel your pain.

Rather relying on the US as a "big power" to 'protect' them from Russian insanity, it might make sense to build a multipolar collection of big friends. France must be one of them. The key here is language. France already hosts an Estonian Institute, but to what extent does it facilitate generated coverage in French language media about Estonia? Furthermore, I think the French leadership would appreciate a good wooing. We all saw how Ilves' visit to Tbilisi progressed; it was all wine, more wine, sunsets, hand holding, and more wine. Why not give Sarkozy a moment like that in Kuressaare?

Then there's Germany. German-Estonian relations are good, but as Jens-Olaf points out, the media representation of Estonia in Germany is dominated by lazy journalists who read Russian-generated press releases and translate them.

The Estonian treatment of World War II: we were a small, neutral country, victimized by large rapist powers, might turn some heads in Germany, where the Red Army is still remembered for its ability to organize mass sexual abuse of local women as well as its skill in defeating the Nazi government. But this is a country where if you say, 'hey, that bombing of Dresden was a little intense' you are labeled a rightwing Nazi sympathizer; so don't try to tickle the Germans here.

Where Germans might react favorably to Estonia is if Estonia is able to accomplish what the historically closer-to-Moscow parties (Social Democrats, Greens) have been unable to accomplish in their countries. The 'small progressive northern country' meme might have extra impact here. I am thinking in terms of alternative energy -- biofuel usage, wind farms: stuff the German left has been clamoring for and hopes everyone will adopt. If Estonia is able to win friends on that side of the equation, while continuing to court the rightwing with its taxation policies, Estonia will be seen as "good" in both eyes of Germany.

To do that, there needs to be, as I have said, a greater NGO-like presence in Berlin that can coordinate stories and engage local media. Remember to throw in the Teutonic knights and Baltic Germans for some measure. People thrive on memories of their glorious past.

The Scandinavians. When dealing with the Scandies remember two conflicting things: 1) they think that their society is the greatest in the world and they are the smartest, hottest, greatest people in the world 2) they are restrained and value modesty, even while drunk.

My experience is that Estonians are the same on no. 1, but diverge at no. 2. Some things that would turn Scandinavian heads would be: a gay pride parade that goes of peacefully with the ok of local government. We've already seen Ansip with a yamaka on his head, could Ansip in drag be far behind? This would assure Scandies that their values are indeed the best and in turn separate Estonia from those louts in Moscow and Riga. And I actually agree with it, which makes it even more compelling.

Hyping both the progressive energy policies and Internet everything (government, commerce, social life) would also do favors for the image of Estonia among reformed Vikings because they also think the idea of downloading softcore pornography in a sauna while doing your taxes is a splendid way to live. The message should be: 'we have so much in common, Sven' and 'please, send us our own Ikea.' -- another one I agree with, by the way.

Now for those reindeer. I think that Estonian-Finnish relations are great. Other than the fact that every other new story about Estonians in Finland is related to doing something illegal.

What I suggest is, rather than feeding the Finnish press stories about good things Estonians are doing (which nobody will ever publish), it is time to feed them stories about bad things Finns are doing in Estonia, and the good things Estonia's boyscout-like bureaucracy is doing to stop them.

Finns are the kind of people who pay taxes even when they don't have to out of collective social guilt. This kind of approach towards relationship building will strengthen bureaucratic ties -- between Tallinn-Helsinki police forces, for example. This relationship exists, but perhaps does not receive that much attention, as both sides are known to utter just a few words per day.

As a sidenote, more could be done to facilitate Tallinn-Helsinki business interaction. I am thinking about more regional seminars (it's not that hard to take businesspeople on a day trip to Tallinn for part of a business conference), and, interestingly, funding more opportunities for people to learn Finnish in Estonia and Estonian in Finland so that the many people that do switch jobs have an easier time doing so. An IT guy that wants to move south should find the move encouraging and vice versa.

Another country that deserves to learn a little Estonian is Latvia. The Latvian relationship is so mired in history, especially historical suffering, that it is hard to know how to go forward without crying and patting each other on the back.

I think one way to do that would be to facilitate learning of Latvian and Estonian in both countries. Estonia's Latvian knowledge boils down to the word for ice cream. Couldn't they learn a few phrases as well? Would it be helpful in school if, rather than learning one language for several years, you could take a class where they taught you some regional languages -- a few weeks of Finnish, a few weeks of Latvian, etc. The problem, as I see it, is that interaction is slowed by the language issue. It would raise awareness for each others' existence.

Latvia also has a new president that few know anything about. People are worried that he is just a place holder while Latvia's real leaders pull strings behind the scenes. Latvian politics are too ... Latvian for Estonians to figure them out. They need not to. Rather, Estonians should continuously hold out their hand, especially to President Zatlers as he learns his office. Ilves is a more experienced politician. There are many opportunities here to earn Latvian gratitude.