esmaspäev, märts 30, 2009

meri veri

One Meri cousin, Lennart, just had an airport named after him to coincide with the annual foreign policy conference that bears his name. He's been away for three years already, but newspaper headlines still celebrate his anniversaries and ask, "What did he eat that made him so smart?"

The other Meri cousin, Arnold, spent his twilight years on trial for the deportation of the men, women, and children of Hiiumaa while being defended to the bitter end by the Kremlin and its media. This week, he even received an award from President Dmitri Medvedev for his WWII heroics.

Yet there is something you should know about each of these Meri cousins. They are now both dead.

Lennart Meri is an important man for Estonians for many reasons. But perhaps the biggest reason is that there have been far too few great Estonian political leaders. Needless to say, only after Lennart's death would they rename something as consequential as an airport. They didn't name it after Konstantin Päts. They wouldn't name it after Arnold Rüütel.

Nobody buys the collected speeches of Päts or Rüütel at the supermarket. But their bookcases shine with intelligence when they carry the words of Lennart Meri. Indeed, if there is one Estonian that the state would like you to grow up to be, it is the whimsical, swashbuckling polyglot Lennart, followed distantly by Estonia's plethora of Olympic champions.

But if there is one Estonian the state would like you not to grow up to be, it was cousin Arnold. The Russian media portrayed him as a kindly old grandfather who proudly served in the Red Army and -- most importantly -- willingly abandoned the national interests of the Estonian state to Soviet state interests when the Soviets deemed necessary. The political gods of the 20th century had decided that Estonia would not survive, said Meri, so he chose the lesser evil. This is the kind of Estonian that the Kremlin, through the ages, has preferred.

Still, when cousin Arnold would make his rounds on May 9th, speaking to fellow veterans in the language of the Soviet state, a lot of Estonians probably saw him as one thing: a sell out.

Estonians don't click their heels and say "sbasiba" do they? They aren't really happy that the Soviets came back in 1944 to stay and sit on the Estonian soul for 46 more years, are they? They don't justify their role in deporting their own people to die in Siberian camps with the response, "I was just following orders," do they?

No, there was something really distressing about cousin Arnold, and the most distressing thing was that he and Lennart were flesh and blood. One was just as Estonian as the other.

The Estonian discourse on dealing with the Soviet period, especially the crimes of the Soviet state, is quite deep -- a far cry from the sort of Russophobic village hysteria that has been used by the Kremlin-supported media to describe the Estonian dialog. How would they know anyway? How many Kremlin sycophants are functional in the Estonian language?

It feels though that the discussion has moved away from, "How could they do that to us?," to "How could we do this to ourselves?" It's true that even some of the June Communists, including puppet Prime Minister Johannes Vares, did not want Estonia to join the USSR in 1940. But they voted for it anyway. It is true that some Estonians did not want to deport their fellow citizens to Soviet concentration camps. But they did it anyway. Like cousin Arnold, they were "just following orders."

The most painful legacy of the Nazi occupation is Estonians' participation in the crimes perpetrated by that state. But equally as painful is the collaboration of Estonians with the Soviet occupation authorities. It is one thing to blame all ones suffering on an external enemy. It is another thing when the person who held the keys to your survival or ruin lived right next door, attended family parties with you, and sprang from common roots.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Estonians are notoriously distrustful of one another and why they still say that an Estonians' favorite food is another Estonian.

pühapäev, märts 22, 2009


It is now March 22, and there has been snow on the ground for four, full months.

Winter arrived around my birthday in November, and I am not really sure when it will leave. Allegedly, spring has sprung and, yes, I hear birds chirping in the trees. At 5.30 am this morning, I saw the kind of translucent gray light pouring in through the windows that one could expect at 9.30 am in December. And yet, I do not believe it could be over.

This morning, blinded by the sunlight, I walked to our compost heap to deposit some orange peels and spaghetti our youngest daughter had dumped on the floor, only to spy my neighbor sunbathing in his backyard. He was sitting in a chair, lounging in the sun like an Estonian lion, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and rolled-up trousers. "Is it that warm?" I thought to myself as I stood on the crunchy snow. "Is my neighbor a mirage? Am I going crazy?"

Could be. I am told that it's the kevadväsimus -- spring fatigue -- that's been setting in, a crisscross between cabin fever and winter exhaustion. It is the yearning for sunlight and all of the earthly pleasures that you know must be right around the corner coupled with the grim knowledge that nature will find a way to delay your satisfaction for as long as possible.

It seemed like it snowed almost every day last week. Even my stoic Estonian abikassa was reduced to emotional rubble by the kevadväsimus. "I just can't take it anymore," she opined, her face in her hands. "I need to get away." "Honey," I console her. "You grew up here. How did your 15 year old self deal with kevadväsimus?" She looks at me like I am crazy and that she has never been 15 before.

For some reason I felt the strong need to bleed out my fatigue with some punk rock. I brought out a live Clash album and put it on while I made breakfast. To my surprise, my two young daughters loved it. [London's burning with boredom now, London's burning to na na na na night.] I turned it off, but they begged for more. "Keep playing it," the older one yells. "Play more of that crumply music." Could they be suffering from the kevadväsimus too?

I remember my first spring in Estonia. It had been black and icy and unforgiving as the North Pole. My rear was black and blue from all the spills I had taken on the ice. Inside, I felt petrified. Then a hot silvery beam of sunlight touched me on my neck outside of the Hotel Olümpia in Tallinn. I felt like sobbing inside, I was so overcome by the change of the season. The women around me were suddenly more beautiful, the budding greenery more luscious, the chocolate heavenly. Yes, the Estonian climate is some kind of physical embodiment of a mood disorder. And now it is the end of March. Here we go again.

laupäev, märts 14, 2009

knee deep

Is politics sport or comedy? If it's Estonian politics, I would have to vote for the latter.

It all started when Russian Ambassador Nikolai Uspenski, who bears an uncanny resemblence to Dr. Seus' Grinch Who Stole Christmas and who I suppose is only capable of smiling from behind the reflective windows of his country's embassy in Tallinn's old town, criticized the Estonian state's treatment of its linguistic Russophone minority.

His words were criticized in turn by Sergei Metlev, a 17-year old student in Tallinn who, according to the article before me, asked in response if teachers in Mari-El, a Finno-Ugric republic within the Russian Federation, could fulfill their duties without knowledge of the Russian language. Metlev is described as the head secretary of the Students Representative Assembly (Õpilasesinduse Assamblee) in the article.

Unsurprisingly, the story of the articulate teenage Estonian Russian versus the cranky Russian ambassador got people all fired up on the Internets. The Postimees story that carried Metlev's original comments drew 148 comments, but after Metlev's school controversially disciplined their outspoken student, 227 more commenters chimed in. Of course, the readers of Postimees' Russian edition also went bananas, registering 134 comments in one story concerning a statement from Tõnis Lukas, the Estonian Minister of Education. Another story about the affair drew 189 comments. And where there are fiery comments, dear readers, there is always more coverage of the controversy!!!

Because of this most recent flare up in the ongoing comedy show called Estonian-Russian relations, Uspenski had to dress his cute little dog Maksim up like a reindeer and sled over to Islandi Väljak for a little chat with his Estonian counterpart. I wonder what they talked about. Language Inspectorate? Treaty of Tartu? Päts' medals? Eurovision? Chelsea FC? For all of you who ever wonder about the integration debate in Estonia, the case of Metlev vs. Uspenski is exemplary. Attempt to discuss integration, wind up knee deep in media-fueled nonsense.

pühapäev, märts 08, 2009

capo di tutti i capi

The Estonian Social Democratic Party selected a new party leader over the weekend, Jüri Pihl, the sitting Minister of the Interior.

Curious about this development, I decided to read through the comments on Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht about what the average Estonian thinks of Pihl.

In summary, they think his 15-year career in police surveillance in Eesti NSV plus his post-independence role in building up Estonia's Security Police board, Kaitsepolitseiamet or "KAPO" for short, would make him a more fitting head of a politseiriik [police state] party, than the party of Padar and Palo, not that they particularly like those two sotsid either. (Commenters tend to be pretty conservative in their views).

I personally thought Pihl would have suffered politically from the Hermann Simm case, if only because any association with pre-independence Soviet structures, particularly in the police or military, renders one suspicious in Estonian political discourse.

However, I noticed that the issue of Eesti Ekpsress prior to Pihl's ascent to party chair had a lovely story about the 55-year-old Pihl and his wife, 33-year-old prosecutor Lavly Lepp. I have a gut instinct that, for many of Estonia's winning generation, this relationship is reassuring. To them, Pihl is no longer an old mustachioed KAPO director from Kuressaare -- he's a nice guy with a cool wife who, according to some sources, enjoys grilling and talking with friends. They've got it all, in the words of Ekspress, just like Bogart and Bacall.

Pihl also is, for an Estonian, somewhat charismatic and, most importantly, he seems to know what he is doing. The "I know what I am doing" factor goes a long way in politics in any country, and is worth more politically than ideological commitments to a party platform. Even though many Estonian voters perhaps do not think Prime Minister Andrus Ansip knows what he's doing, he has stayed in office since 2005 largely due to his ability to project that he is in charge. Liberalism? Social Democracy? 'Tis but garnish for decisive leadership, sõprad.

I have a feeling the Sotsid who agreed to elevate Pihl to the leadership position felt a similar way. Sure, Pihl's kind of new and he has a shadowy law enforcement past. But nobody wants to mess with him, and he looks like he can win. And what good is a political party with no votes?

neljapäev, märts 05, 2009

face it, she's madonna

Did you hear that Madonna is coming to Estonia? She's going to give a performance at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn on August 4 as part of her incredibly lame sounding Sticky & Sweet Tour.

How do I know this? Because the event is being hypermarketed in Estonia. The front page of Postimees yesterday was an advertisement promoting the concert. The commentators in all media outlets are weighing in on what Madonna's stop in Estonia means for the country and, most importantly, how it will reflect on the nation's image.

When it comes to high profile visits, Estonians are sort of like the poor country girl from Võrumaa who moved to Tallinn and made it big. There is a "realness" to Madonna's concert. Estonia suddenly isn't a nobody from the middle of nowhere. Estonia is somebody, somebody important, somebody who hangs out with Madonna and the Japanese Royal Couple.

Estonia now really exists, according to this train of thought. That Finnair connection you took at Helsinki did not deliver you through a black hole to the fifth dimension. Estonia exists, and the Sticky & Sweet Tour is proof of its existence. It's no fluke. Estonia is a real country.

Sure, there's the in Soviet times factor too -- Madonna didn't make it to Tallinn during The Virgin Tour in '85. But, let's face it, most of Madonna's Estonian audience probably doesn't even remember the Soviet times. They have come to expect events like these. If Robert Plant could schedule a gig in Tallinn, surely Madonna Ciccone couldn't be far behind.

And so we wait for Madge and her cast of nubile dancers and her new 22-year old Brazilian boyfriend to arrive in Tallinn and bring the pages of Kroonika to life. Estonian mothers, lock up your teenage sons! The Sticky & Sweet Tour is nigh!

teisipäev, märts 03, 2009

stuff i am reading

Guns from Finland -- Eesti will pay Suomi €2 million (31.3 million Estonian kroons) to acquire to acquire forty-two 122 mm 122H63 howitzers.

Money from Sweden -- An agreement with the Riksbank would allow Estonia to borrow up to 10 billion kronor ($ 1.12 billion).

[Maybe they could throw in an IKEA while they are at it? I find it curious that two of the Western European lender countries, Sweden and Austria, have invested heavily in their former imperial possessions (Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia) but nobody ever seems to point this out]

Where's Misha? -- "Two highly-respected erstwhile allies, former Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze and ex-ambassador to the United Nations Irakli Alasania — have broken ranks and are now calling for the president’s removal."

Mexico, 1970 -- The real danger to the Putin-Medvedev regime is a "coup by the captains and majors who do the grunt work of running the state and don’t have enough hard currency to go into exile. This was the pattern of Latin American regime change circa 1970 and stands as the best historical analogy to present-day Russia."

Master of the game? -- "President Obama has sent a letter to his Russian counterpart that raises the prospect of the United States halting development of its missile defense program in Eastern Europe if Russia helps resolve the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program."

[Was this part of the plan all along? Freak the Russians out over a missile shield that didn't even work and then press them for assistance on Iran in return for its removal from the agenda?]

pühapäev, märts 01, 2009

the choice of a new generation

The European parliamentary election season has already begun, and so I am increasingly bombarded with signs and newspapers advertising various candidates.

Isamaa and Res Publica Liit has been the first to begin advertising in a bold way. One of their candidates is Karoli Hindriks, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, perhaps best known for running MTV Eesti.

If Hindriks is any kind of example, then Estonian political advertising has come a long way from the "plats puhtaks" campaigns of the 1990s, or even the juicy economic populism of 2007. Because seeing Hindriks' advertisements, one would not know exactly why you should vote for her other than that she seems like a charismatic personality.

Perhaps this is the legacy of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Who really wanted to say, "no, I can't" to Obama's "yes, we can"? Even if you had your doubts, the way in which the candidate was marketed to you made you put them aside. Resumes suddenly did not count as much. What counted was that the candidate had "it." Hillary didn't have "it"; John McCain certainly lacked "it", but Obama was the "it" candidate extraordinaire.

To date, most Estonian politicians follow a few tracks to public life. There are the academics and the journalists and the career politicians and the business leaders that went to Tallinn to work things from the other side. But, increasingly, you see Estonian politicians coming out of the business community, where many held roles in sales and marketing. And their approach to politics does not differ much from their approach to their former jobs. They sell their candidacies the same way they might sell a perfume or a car or a TV channel.

I was struck recently by an editorial in which a representative for the Ministry of Population and Ethnic Affairs wrote that they now viewed Estonian citizenship as a "commodity" that had to be "advertised" and "sold" to the country's remaining 105,000 stateless persons on the grounds that it would somehow enhance their lifestyle: it would give them access to opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise.

And the truth is that the Minister of Population and Ethnic Affairs' prior gig to going to work in government was running Saint-Gobain's Estonian office. Her specialties are in advertising, marketing, and international business administration. The contacts of these younger politicians from the private sector also find their way into government and they think the same way. They will work in the public sector the same way they did in the private sector because that is what they know how to do.

Estonia's Swedish-bankrolled economic boom of the last decade may have come to an end during the past year, but the perspective acquired by its young people who came of age during that era will remain and is now increasingly manifesting itself in politics. And so in a few years time, the Estonian state may come to be run in a way that is not significantly different from how Swedbank or MTV Eesti has been run. I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing.