neljapäev, mai 21, 2009

cycles of rebirth

Estonia, right now, is experiencing a period of transition that will lay the foundation perhaps for the next 20 years.

Seemingly overnight changes are taking place that make the past seem more distant than it really is. Change comes in many forms. My bank, for example, is no longer Hansapank. It's now Swedbank. Even the ATM signs have been changed. It is as if Hansapank never existed.

The currency in use is now the kroon, but within a few years time it could be the euro, and the Estonian currency will go the way of the markka or the lire. The legal tender we hold in our hands will soon be anachronistic.

Slowly, the next "present" is being stitched together. And, some day, the current Ansip government will seem as distant as the Vähi or Siiman or Kallas governments. People will wonder whatever happened to various party apparatchiks. Maybe they've gone back to academia or the private sector. Because of various events during the past four years, though, the Ansip years may be looked upon with greater controversy, but that is only for time to tell.

Political change is occurring today. By sacking Ministers Ivari Padar, Jüri Pihl, and Urve Palo, Prime Minister Ansip sends the Social Democrats into opposition with the likes of the center-left Center Party and the Greens. Together, they have 46 votes in the Riigikogu, but all poll well, and could perform better in the 2011 elections, especially with the discrediting of the "miracle economy" shepherded by the "financial experts."

I expect this group of parties will do well in the European parliamentary elections and the municipal ones in the fall. Moreover, it creates the opportunity for the first time since 1991 for Estonia to form a "red-green" coalition. And, interestingly, this coalition will have resulted from today's sacking. Things are not well between Reform and SDE. I don't envision the riff healing anytime soon.

The conventional wisdom is that SDE preferred to form governments with Reform and IRL because of their distaste for the Centrists. It's probably true. SDE and the Centrists also compete for the same votes. Meantime, the Estonian media generally favors the conservative parties; even though Reform is rumored to run a state-capture enterprise as successful as Savisaar's, it is less publicized.

Most nordic countries, nay, most European countries have red-green coalitions. One has just taken power in Iceland, for instance. If anything, Estonia's cast of revolving coalitions over the past two decades have been anomalies from a political perspective. Liberals, conservatives, and social democrats in the same coalition? Sounds odd, right? It is. From my perspective, both teams have their unsavory qualities. The bottom line is that I don't expect the political constellations of the past decades to hold. Too many people now have a motive to kill the status quo.

kolmapäev, mai 20, 2009


Stockholm. I have been to this city more times than I can count -- ok, this is my fourth time -- and I still can't figure these people out.

They live in gigantic inoffensively colored apartment blocks that look like they were built by the Norse gods. Their men look hopelessly preoccupied; their women look clinical; on sunny days more jovial, on rainy days a bit evil. Still, if you ask them a question in Swedish, they might give you an odd look, but they will answer you politely and tell you to go rätt från someplace.

By default, the Swedes are the Estonians' favorite conquerors. The Russians came and killed everybody, several times. The conniving Germans managed to keep their self-serving feudal system intact into the 19th century and then tried to revert back to it in the 20th. The unlucky Poles brought Jesuit priests, but were unsuccessful. That leaves the Swedes, responsible for the vana hea rootsi aeg, the good old Swedish times, when everybody was Lutheran and the köttbullar were plentiful.

Not like today's Swedes would know anything about that. Generations of modernity have severed all links to the past. The best they can come up with are open-air museums. Besides, Stockholm feels so immense that Estonia indeed does seem far away, even if Tallinn is the closest foreign capital.

Lost in the T-Bana, I wonder who runs this country. Who has built this magnificently strong city that looks like it could withstand anything? Who has designed these meticulous parks? Is it the government? So I am told. But if the state is so invincible, how come Fredrik Reinfeldt's face isn't plastered on every wall? There is an engineer driving this train. It's just that nobody's ever seen him before.

Two things I like about Sweden are the Pressbyråns and the language. Pressbyrån is a chain of convenience stores, similar to R-Kiosk in Finland and Estonia, that sell lottery tickets and chocolate and womens magazines and, by far the most important, kanelbulle and vaniljbulle -- warm inviting pastries that fill the air with Scandinavian goodness. They also sell chokladmjölk, which just begs to be consumed together with vaniljbullar. Grab yourself a free Metro newspaper, find a seat on the train, and you are all set.

The Swedish language is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing of the Germanic languages. I wish I could speak it, and I can muster a few sentences and understand some of what those busy crowds in T-Centralen are saying, but it just seems impossible, because every Swede sounds like they have a meatball stuck in their throat. It's written biljett (ticket), but it's pronounced "bee-yett." It's written Alvsjö (a train stop) but it's pronounced "Alfhuh," the last impossible syllable resting somewhere in the back of the throat. The letter "G," though, makes a pleasant "Y/J" sound. Bergman is prounounced "Berryman," and Mariatorget is "Mariatoryet."

They say the Estonians from the West Coast and those who have spent time in exile in Stockholm speak with the same soft lilting accent. Maybe I should try to emulate them.

laupäev, mai 16, 2009

under pressure

My daughter and I got two seats to see Queen: the Doors of Time, a musical jukebox ballet based on the work of the British rock group.

Headlined by Broadway star Tony Vincent (Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar), the show opened at the Vanemuine Theater in Tartu tonight. I had no idea what to expect, but I was entertained by the ladies in conical braziers and gentlemen in G-strings. The music was excellent, I felt as if Brian May was in the orchestra pit. The choreography was good too.

We were a bit late, so we sat in the seats in the aisle reserved for the ushers. My daughter asked me important questions, such as "Are those dancers boys or girls?" and I tried to answer them to the best of my ability. After intermission, we made our way to our proper seats. And then I saw someone who looked familiar. Too familiar. Why, I swore I had seen his face before somewhere, on multiple occasions. And when he sat down beside us, I realized I knew the identity of our fellow theater goer: it was Andrus Ansip, prime minister of Estonia, captain of the ship of state.

He was there like me with his family, and I decided not to whisper any suggestions on how better to run the country in his ear. Instead, I respected his privacy. But as Tony Vincent et al. began their resurrection of the Queen songbook, I began to wonder how Prime Minister Ansip might relate to the band's lyrics.

Take "Under Pressure." The current coalition government is running into the kinds of problems that result when social democrats and liberals try to deal with labor laws. To cut spending or raise taxes? That is the question. Things are so bad that Ansip's Reform Party is prepared to talk with the People's Union to cut the Sotsid out of the equation. In other words, Ansip is under pressure, the kind of pressure that burns a building down. It's terror of knowing what this world is about, of watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out.'

Ansip is straining from his troubled relationship with Finance Minister Ivari Padar. He feels so tied down he even authored a 'private' letter that went public expressing his dissatisfaction with Padar's suggestions. Ansip, you see, wants to break free. He yearns to be free from the Sots' lies. They're so self-satisfied, anyway; he doesn't need them. He's got to break free.

I felt guilty stitching together what I had read in the papers with the man sitting beside me. Who was I to use Queen's lyrics to set his political life to music? I decided to revert my attention to the singers and dancers on stage, and to making sure that my daughter didn't accidentally sneeze on the prime minister and cause some kind of international incident. And so I ignored the prime minister for the rest of the show, even when we stomped our feet and clapped our hands to "We Will Rock You."

I wondered how many other people like me had ignored him in the past. I wondered if a prime minister of Estonia could ever return to civilian life and start up conversations with strangers in dark theaters watching men and women in G-strings writhe on the stage floor to songs with titles like "Innuendo." At that moment, to me, Ansip was like an invisible man. It was almost as if I could see right through him.

reede, mai 15, 2009

svetlana, i want those boots

What to think about Eurovision? It's an annual gathering of obnoxious go-go dancers and mind-numbing pop balladeers from across the continent, and yet it is one of the few occasions where these people called "Europeans" gather together within the same room.

This year's contest takes place in Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation. In another year it would be a great way to show off the country's stability and economic growth, and yet Russia is now hurting like the rest of us. But wars, shriveling GDP numbers, and troublesome Georgians don't exist within the walls of this song contest: no, what exists is flag waving, comical hosts with outrageous accents, and experimental hair cuts.

Watching the Russia-hosted contest is interesting for me because I have never been to Russia. Yet the cultural differences are readily apparent. A choir of male singers in military uniform singing "Kalinka" and then backing faux lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u., in "Not Gonna Get Us"? Sword-fighting ballerinas? Parading polar bears? Break-dancing cossacks? What kind of country is this?

A country of silly people, at least. For example, the female host complimented the Ukrainian pop diva after her performance by telling her, "Svetlana, I want those boots." There are a lot of boots for eastern European ladies to choose from on the program. The Romanians, the Albanians, the Hungarians, the Azerbaijanis ... even the Finns brought flexible backing singers to the party.

Estonia's delegation to Moscow is led by Urban Symphony singing "Rändajad." The Estonian language is well suited for ethnopop with its preponderance of vowels and rolling 'r's. Urban Symphony pairs this haunting melody authored by local songsmith Sven Lõhmus with strings and an electronic rhythm section. In some ways, I think that Estonia should always send entries in the national language. It distinguishes the country and maybe it is one of the reasons that Estonia finally advanced to the finals this year. So don't be ashamed of your Baltic-Finnic tongue, wannabe Eurovision entries. Flaunt it.

esmaspäev, mai 11, 2009

the long slow death of a narrative

May 9 in Tartu is a splendid day because it's just like any other day. From your laptop you can watch the hysterics of Tallinn light up the pages of Postimees or Eesti Päevaleht, and yet it seems so far away.

In Moscow, though, it's the major national holiday and I have come to see the Russian rulers' saber-rattling Victory Day speeches less as aimed at troublesome neighboring nations, but for internal consumption.

Russia is like most post-communist states, Germany included, in that it had to rewrite its history to serve redefined national purposes after 1991. In salvaging pieces of the past to serve the new regime, Putin revived Victory Day to recall some of his favorite themes: encirclement by hostile nations; personal sacrifice to benevolent despots; the moral imperative of intervention abroad; and the fusion of material and metaphysical faith in one person, the national leader, namely himself.

Now it is Dmitri "Jesus Kerensky" Medvedev who stands to command Russia's armies of tanks, missiles, and goosestepping soldiers, and his party, United Russia, is about to serve up some post-Soviet identity-building desserts, a new law that will ban criticism of its victory in the Second World War.

From my perspective, as an American, a law signed by Medvedev will make him look especially unlike the hard rock-loving Gazpromite we all wanted him to be. In my 9th grade social studies class, we debated the merits of dropping those bombs on Japan and, perhaps, internalized a degree of national guilt. Reflection on the manner in which the victory was achieved was part of the curriculum. But I shouldn't worry too much about myself, because Russia's new law isn't aimed at me. It is aimed at states existing on the former territory of the USSR.

From where Moscow derives the authority to prosecute Ukrainians but not Poles or Finns is beyond me. But it is not like the bill is anything but arbitrary. The law will "criminalize statements and acts that deny the Soviets won World War II, or claim it used poor tactics in battle or did not liberate Eastern Europe." So, basically, if you are from Estonia and they do not like you, you could face a fine of up to around $9,200 or up to three years in prison.

Ostensibly, this is just another arrow in Moscow's quiver to reduce the status of politicians in neighboring countries who it sees as not espousing views in line with its interests. Of course, the most NATO-friendly politicians are the ones who are most keen to develop a culture of resistance within their home countries. But there is another reason why Moscow can only target former citizens of the USSR: under the terms of the law, few modern Western historians or journalists who have written about the Second World War could enter the Russian Federation without fear of arrest or fine.

For example, I hold before me Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, a bestseller called "superb" and "magnificent" by British media. In his book, he details the widespread rape of women in former Axis territory on the Eastern Front by the Red Army in 1945. He notes that the Baltic countries were "occupied three times" between 1940 and 1945. Would this esteemed Western author be eligible for a fine or imprisonment at the hands of Russian authorities if the draft law is passed? Yes, but only if he were not British, but a citizen of one of the "newly independent" states.

While such circumstances are depressing and foolish, ultimately, the dilemma is Russia's, not ours in the West. As their economy slips and Putin and Medvedev's approval ratings decline -- a trend that is understandable when Putin has held power now for almost a decade -- they have to put battle armor on their ideology to protect it, unless such questions spread to Russia proper, and it seems they already have.

According to Time, the catalyst for the new law supposedly came not from Tallinn's relocated Bronze Soldier or Ukrainian endeavors to resurrect the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but after Russian television channel NTV broadcast a documentary about the Battles of Rzhev. The documentary exposed the number of Soviet soldiers killed, around a million compared to around 500,000 on the Nazi side, and presented a "negative interpretation of Soviet tactics by, for example, showing how shocked German soldiers who had fought in the battles were at the way Soviet troops were thrown into the fight with little regard for their lives."

So, the nature of the questions are actually less about ideology and more about reform. Then, as now, Russia's military is in desperate need of modernization. Questions about its performance in the sacred victory against Nazi Germany dredge up questions about equipment and training and even respect for the lives of average Russian soldiers.

Russia lost around 25 million soldiers and civilians in the Second World War. The question naturally follows, did the casualty rate have to be so high? Or were so many lives lost due to Soviet-style mismanagement of the armed forces? Does such mismanagement continue to this day? Is it wise to trust the national leader with your life? Such questions are no doubt bad for morale in the Russian military, and dangerous for a regime that wishes to maintain its access to power for as long as possible.

Tuulepealne Maa

Meantime, the Estonian narrative continues to devolve occasionally into mindless squabbling and invocation of symbols that now seem comical rather than shocking. Swastika? Hammer and sickle? Each now carries the political weight of the sign at the local McDonalds.

Just years ago the monument at Tõnismägi was considered sacred to some. Now its image is about as sacred as a golden calf, or at least a paper mache replica painted gold by a local artist. The false idol was erected briefly on the grassy knoll by the national library, but quickly removed by the politsei.

Outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn's Old Town local Estonian nationalists picketed with dreadfully predictable signs and slogans. The sign above reads "Occupants out and down with collaborators!" But who are these collaborators? On closer inspection, it appears to be Social Democrat Urve Palo, Minister of Population and Ethnic Affairs, and Tallinn Mayor and Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar.

While the Estonian nationalists outside the Russian embassy are afforded the same level of respect in mainstream national discourse as fellows like Johan Bäckman or Dmitri Linter (with the obvious discrepancy that Tiit Madisson, author of Holocaust: the 20th Century's Most Depressing Zionist Lie, actually went to jail while the latter didn't), their digs at other Estonians are somewhat representative of the status of Estonia's current postwar discussion on WWII.

It's gone from blaming outsiders to thinking about the roles of Estonians in the services of foreign states, be it the USSR or Nazi Germany. I noticed that in the recent television series, Tuulepealne Maa, which aired last fall, most of the "bad guys" -- Reds during the war of independence, Soviets in 1940 and '41 -- were Estonians. When one of the main female characters was violated and murdered at the end of the series, it wasn't Germans or Russians who did it; it was Estonians in the local destruction battalions.

What to make of the "collaborator/resister" meme in domestic Estonian politics? Unfortunately, it is all too common an undercurrent in contemporary European politics. People try to turn one continental crisis into a Biblical story containing universal messages. It's history as religion, and it's actually quite scary. Good thing I don't believe.

esmaspäev, mai 04, 2009


In one month's time, Estonia has gone from a dull, gray post-winter abyss to a sunlit patchwork of inviting forests and sunny cities. Once again, I find myself in Tartu's many playgrounds because that's the best place to let wild children out to pasture.

When I am "at the playground" -- mänguväljakul -- I have the difficult task of making sure both of my daughters don't hurt themselves. One might be hanging upside down from a swing, while the other is preparing to launch herself off the slide. But while I am spotting each, I also notice things around me, I notice how the kids relate to each other, and occasionally arise at some thoughts resembling general observations.

Observation number 1. The Estonian name generation gap is huge. As another American traveler to these parts once remarked, "in Estonia, if you forget the name of any man over the age of 55, there is an 89% chance his name is Rein."

But what about the young men under the age of 5? Not a chance. On the playground, you will find no Tiits, Reins, Marts, or any other moniker of the middle aged. But just yell out the name Martin or Oliver, and the little heads will turn. I don't even want to ask the names of nearby children, because I already know what they are. The well of Tiits in Estonia has run dry.

Observation number 2. The division of Estonians by linguistic group is unconvincing. You read so many articles about "Estonians" and "non-Estonians" or "Russophones" and "Estophones," but when you sit on a playground and watch a group of kids play in Estonian AND Russian, such metrics lose their potency.

I watched at a playground in Supilinn as eight children, none of them older than 10, covered the playground like furious ants, playing bilingual games. For the life of me, I could not distinguish who spoke Estonian or Russian as a native language. The nexus of this group was a lanky girl with long red hair who would switch languages on a dime. They played "rock, paper, scissors" in Russian and "hide and go seek" in Estonian. So much for language-based identity.

Observation number 3. Tartu is a child-friendly city. Within walking distance of our house are several playgrounds, and no matter where we are in the city, it seems that there is one within walking distance. Some of them are really high quality, and laid out in a manner that makes it easy for adults to let their kids play for several hours at a time. This may be Estonia's second-largest city, but the playgrounds resemble anything but a crowded urban environment. Having access to these kinds of resources makes it easier for me to be a parent. Thanks Tartu.