Calling All Experts and Academics

Are any of you more than just armchair Baltic and Nordic thought leaders? Do any of you teach or regularly comment on Northern affairs? If so please privately e-mail me. I am working on a personal project that requires your assistance.

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Did Mart Laar Sell Guns to Georgia?

Things are heating up over in Georgia. It’s hard to know when the Russians are playing hardball and when they are just screwing around with their neighbors. It’s also difficult to fully grasp the issues the Georgians are addressing – Georgia is a little known entity in the US and Europe. We have a hard enough time finding Estonia on the map, let alone South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov on Friday accused Georgia of seeking a military solution to end frozen conflicts in its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia aand South Ossetia.

Ivanov also said several new members of NATO were fueling current tensions by supplying Soviet-bought arms to the Georgian government.

Remember to take this all in the context of possible NATO expansion to Georgia and the big meeting in Latvia in November. Also, I have heard that Ivanov is a contender for the Russian presidency in 2008. Funny how he is the one doing most of the talking here.

But don’t worry, there’s more, lots more:

The Russian defence chief also lashed out at the “younger generation” of NATO nations which he said were delivering Soviet-era weapons to Tblisi.

Some new NATO nations had violated an international system of end-user certificates by supplying old Soviet-produced arms and ammunitions to Georgia, he said.

These young NATO nations were in breach of “world practice” on arms deliveries, said Ivanov, adding that “serious members of NATO” agreed with his analysis.

Ivanov refused to name the countries involved in the arms trade, saying people could “come to their own conclusion.”

Hmm. Former communist country, new to NATO, selling arms to Georgia, who could it be???

Mart Laar, 45, a former Estonian prime minister credited with turning around his country’s fortunes after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been working since May this year as a special adviser to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Laar was hired for a year to coordinate economic reforms and offer wider transition advice.

It seems almost too perfect to put Laar, guns, and Gruusia together, though. I also wonder if Estonia a) has the leftover Soviet weaponry to sell, b) has the capacity to transport arms shipments to Georgia in the first place, c) sees it in its interest to sell off its own vital military resources when it has so little to begin with.

Given that Russia enjoys singling out the Baltics as the archvillains of the universe, something tells me that the arms didn’t come out of Tallinn or Riga, and came from a more sensitive and formidable new NATO member, perhaps Poland or Hungary. Russia wouldn’t be able to resist publicly shaming Estonia.

I’d place my bets on whomever has the secret CIA prisons in Europe. Because whoever had the resources to transport people to and from southwest Asia, certainly has the ability to transport weaponry.

Mõnus Pilt

Yeah, now that that’s over it’s probably high-time we got back to learning some Estonian.

Let’s try out some new words I learned this summer.

1. Rauk – translation “geezer” – Marguse isa on üks tõeline rauk. Ta on nelikümmend aastat vana!

2. Kaitsema – translation “to defend” – Keskerakond kaitseb teie õigusi.

3. Nõudma – translation “to claim/to call into question” – Mõned eesti poliitikud nõuab hüvitist venemaalt.

4. Väitma – translation “to argue/to allege” – Tarmo väidas et Pauli uus pruut on tegelikult mees.

5. Ametniku – translation “clerk” – Elo töötab linnaametnikuna.

and finally

6. Ilves – translation “lynx” – Kas sina oled kuulnud? Üks hirmus ja vihane ilves sõi Villu hobust ära.

Latvia is Just Alright with Me

The woman who cuts my hair is a Latvian. She’s really nice, and, I have to say – her country gets a raw deal. For starters, Latvia consistently polls as the greatest enemy of the Russian Federation. Estonia came in fourth after Georgia. We’ve been lucky to have things work out ok here at my blog, but things can get downright dirty at Aleks’ place – www.allaboutlatvia.com.

And if sneering former colonial masters weren’t enough, Latvia gets broadsided by its Baltic brothers on a frequent basis. The Latvians are often the butt of jokes. In Estonia, if you are stupid, you are loll nagu lätlane (as stupid as a Latvian). I have also sensed that Lithuanians regard their northern neighbor as sort of a foolish country.

But compared to Estonians, all the Latvians – not that many, but how many do you need for a big, fat American-style generalization? – I have met have been softer, more pleasant people. Estonians are so puzzling that its hard to tell what emotion they are having, if they are having an emotion at that moment. They are like a nation of poker players, if you get what I mean.

Plus, if things have been hard for Estonia, Latvia’s always gotten it just a little bit shittier. For some reason, even though most countries in the world could care less about some boggy land of Lettish people, Russia and Germany both have been so enthused about occupying and colonizing said land that they were willing to expend thousands of lives and considerable amounts of hard currency – not to mention effort – to try and do so. And yet Latvia survives, limping along here and there, but still running.

So to all Latvians, today I’d like to say Prieka!

Welcome to Kadriorg

I would like to think I am a reasonable man. I may not be, but that still doesn’t help me from trying to be as unbiased as I can. Call it my nervous journalist’s tick.

But before I was a journalist, I had a love of politics. And, let me tell you, the last ten years have not been the best in the US. If you grew up supporting the Democratic Party in the US, it’s been ten long years of disappointment since Clinton won the second time – and even that wasn’t that thrilling. So, let me just say that I am used to being very disappointed with the outcome of elections.

I therefore awoke this morning early believing in my gut that Villu Reiljan and Edgar Savisaar’s political effort to get Rüütel reinstated another five years had paid off. That everything had gone according to their plan, and that even though most Estonians favored one candidate, the valimiskogu would do as their party leaders told them and choose another.

Today, though I was pleasantly surprised to see that the members of the valimiskogu made the decision as individuals and not as party loyalists, and that the kind of democratic freakshow that played out on August 28 – where parliamentarians refused to even vote on a presidential nominee – was not repeated.

I have heard bad things about Toomas Ilves and good things too. But whatever some may think of him, I do think that he really cares about his country and I do think that he really wants to be president.

Now he has that opportunity.

One Future, Like it Or Not

This is my official election eve post, and I’ll try to sum up a lot of big thoughts in a few modest paragraphs. Such is the Estonian way.

When I think of Arnold Rüütel, the first word that comes to mind is not ‘president’, and it’s not ‘ex-communist’, and it’s not ‘old’ – it’s ‘midwife’. The presidency of Lennart Meri – though I was not paying attention at the time – seemed to prevent a clear break with the past. But coupled with NATO accession, EU accession, and citizenship and language reform, the years since 2001 have necessitated a figure like Rüütel, that is popular among the havenots and – to an extent – accepted by the haves. Rüütel has, in this way, played the part of a mediator in society, cooling the passions of warring factions with the finesse of the ex-communist bureaucrat.

The question before the valimiskogu is now whether Estonia needs five more years of that, or if it needs a bold, new, more European direction. In Toomas Hendrik Ilves they will no longer have a president that knows Russia in any personal capacity. Ilves does not speak Russian, and is unique among Estonians of his generation in this way. It seems trivial, but considering that an increasing number of young Estonians – the post-Soviet generation now entering the workforce – are in Ilves camp, Russia is as foreign to them as it is to him, he may ultimately wind up making – sooner or later – a better figurehead for independent Estonia than Rüütel could.

As the metaphor implies, Rüütel is the midwife, coaxing the new Estonia into existence. The questions is whether or not Ilves’ direction is the baby everybody wants.

Opinion polls suggest that they do, and the fact that a political majority echoes those polls – uniting the far right of Isamaa with the Euroliberals of Reform and the Social Democrats – plus the fact that the Center Party and People’s Party forbid their own electors to vote in parliament – reveals that this emerging direction is not the Soviet-style top-down, do-as-I-say model. Instead, it has genuine grassroots support, and a diversity of economic support – The Economist basically endorsed Ilves in its recent issue.

The central figure in this is the party unity of Keskerakond and the personal aspirations of Edgar Savisaar. Savisaar has shown himself as someone who is capable of speaking to Russia in a language they understand, of well-known political acumen (some call it trickery), and most of all of uniting Estonia’s large and diverse Russian-speaking minority under an Estonian party led by one of the leaders of the reinstatement of independence, rather than separatist Russian people’s parties.

While it can be said that Savisaar represents some Russian business interests, I think it would be wise to accept that he is not the enemy of the Estonian republic. In any fight, he is a man who you would want on your side. And his patriotic rhetoric shows that even though he coddles Russian interests, he acknowledges that none of his efforts will bear fruit unless he speaks to the national Estonian interest.

So Estonians who despise Savikas and Reiljan must know this – in any new Estonian order that emerges from the election, Savisaar will be present, no matter what.

Still, the problem with his model is that it is top-down, rather than bottom-up. What that means is that eventually his model will breakdown, because political movements in a democratic society – or any society – cannot be sustainable if they are top-down.

From that viewpoint, those who support Rüütel, and by association Savisaar, must accept that the coalition backing Ilves would find another point man if he wasn’t there, because their coalition is one of ideas, not just based around a personality. The polls and parties show that Estonia is a Northern European state that looks West. That’s where its capital comes from, that’s where its TV shows come from, that’s where its intellectual ideas come from (the modern tax system is based on ideas promoted by Americans, for example).

Like it or not, these two movements in Estonia must eventually embrace one another. While they duke it out in the political arena, the reality is that Estonians have consistently chosen their direction since they were given the choice in the mid-80s. They chose independence, they chose Mart Laar’s government in 1992, they chose the EU and NATO in 2004, and it is likely that, whether tomorrow or in 2011, they will choose Ilves, or someone like him to lead them.

Estonia clearly has shown it has one future, like it or not.

Learning about the Baltics

I recently borrowed three books through interlibrary loan about our beloved Baltic countries and I am have been tucking into them on my rides to and fro NYC via the Subway system. It’s a nice change from the previous books I read this summer, which is sadly over. Over the summer I read a lot of Stephen King books – Bag of Bones, From a Buick 8, The Gunslinger, and (the most eerie) ‘Salem’s Lot. I also managed to finish a book by Sir Ernest Shackleton called South! about a group of Britisher explorers trapped on an ice flow in Antarctica.

But now it’s back to the real books. Most were written in the post-1991 period and, I have to say, it’s sad to see how few books have been published since on the Baltics. They seem trapped, in the Western reader’s mind, in 1991, unless of course you are familiar with NATO and EU accession. The best books by far deal with the formation of the Baltics. What’s cute is that even when the definition is narrowed to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, they can’t manage to neatly clump these three countries together into a common narrative.

Despite the intentions to promote a common pan-Baltic history, Lithuania is nevertheless fished out of the mix from the start. Latvia and Estonia were both fiefdoms of the Teutonic Knights, and so it’s easier to deal with their individual responses to common conditions in chapters, while separate sections must be devoted to explaining the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the great king of all Lithuanians Mindaugus. Lithuania really does seem like it is a central European country, not just because of its Polish connections, but because of the interest that France had in the region via the Franco-Polish alliance of 1918. In Lithuania, unlike Latvia and Estonia, the elite were Jewish, Polish, and Russians – not Germans.

The formation of Latvia is really interesting because it was more industrialized so there was a greater connection to Bolshevism. They also seemed to have more of an anti-German edge following the 1905 revolution- I guess the Baltic German elite was especially harsh towards the Latvian people during their rule. There are also documents supporting the grotesque plans of the Reich to colonize Latvia with Germans. And this was in the 1910s, when Hitler was an art student! It has echoes of Stalinist population transfer, especially in Kaliningrad.

At the same time Latvia was also the most important for the Bolshevik Russians and their Soviet government. From what I have read, it was their hope to retain Latvia as a Soviet country in 1918 so they could set it up as a model Western Soviet country and then export their ideology to Germany and Scandinavia. Lenin doesn’t come across as an arch villain in the formation of the Baltic either, when compared to the Germans. He seems to have viewed them as a way of exporting Bolshevik ideals through Western conduits – a sort of ideological electrical adapter, before they had such things.

From this, you can see why Latvia is still seen as somehow “betraying” Russia in its current independence and Western orientation. [In current opinion polls, Latvia is seen as the greatest enemy of modern Russia]. Because there was genuine support for Bolshevism in Latvia and the Latvian Red Riflemen played a prominent role in the October Revolution, Latvia was seen in Moscow as a kindred nation. Latvia’s current Western reorientation then, in the eyes of current Russia, is a total rebuff to their great civilization. It shows that they are suffering from intellectually bankruptcy. Ouch. You can see why the Russians are bitter about Latvia these days.

The big player that these books omit is Finland, which should be included as much as Lithuania should be included. So many Estonian decisions were based on Finnish decisions – the decision, for example, to pursue full independence rather than national autonomy – is attributed to the Finnish decisions to do the same.

So the books wind up discussing Finnish internal politics at length even though they categorically try to separate them for the sake of it being a “Baltic”-focused history. The biggest douche bag in the history books though is Konstantin Päts. Unlike some would claim he wasn’t your garden variety fascist. He was more of a presidential despot. And he made some huge mistakes which cost Estonians their independence in 1940. He foolishly attempted to deny the Vaps – the paramilitary force active in the 30s – a seat at the table. He actively suppressed strong Estonian nationalists, like Jaan Tõnisson. And the Constitution of 1938 only prolongued the denial of democratic forces in the country.

If Päts had been wise enough to include his political adversaries in government, even at his own personal expense, then Estonia may have been strong enough to stand against Stalinist Russia. It just goes to show you that many heads are always better than one.

Kind of interesting.

Four Days of Freedom

There is a reason the memory of World War II is so alive in these first years of the 21st Century. And that reason is that very soon, the adult memory of that era will be wiped from the planet by mortality. Soldiers of age 20 in 1945 are 81 years old today. Every day more and more disappear. What we are left with are the memories of children who suffered across the globe through an adult world in complete chaos. When people look back at the Second World War, all adults – from Michigan to Moscow – should feel shame. We are charged with protecting our children from danger and ensuring our children a peaceful and safe upbringing. But the promise of a happy and sane life was not enough to keep Germans from marching on Paris, Japanese from marching on China, or Russians from marching on Tallinn. It’s perhaps one of the most embarassing moments in humanity.

In those terrifying moments though, there were the attempts of men to do the right thing. And on September 18 in Estonia, one such attempt was made by Jüri Uluots to save his country and preserve the rule of law before Stalinist Russia took it back four days later. As www.okupatsioon.ee explains –

On September 18, 1944, as Nazi occupation forces started to evacuate the remaining Estonian territory that they held, and Red Army troops were closing on Tallinn, Jüri Uluots, as the Prime Minister acting as provisional President, appointed a new Government headed by Otto Tief [pictured], the Deputy Prime Minister acting as Prime Minister, who was also Minister of the Interior.

The Government also included Johan Holberg (Minister of Defense), Hugo Pärtelpoeg (Finance Minister), Johannes Pikkov (Minister of Transportation), Rudolf Penno (Minister of Commerce and Industry), August Rei (Foreign Minister), Juhan Kaarlimäe (Minister without portfolio), Arnold Susi (Minister of Education), Kaarel Liidak (Minister of Agriculture), Voldemar Sumberg (Social Minister) and Johannes Klesment (Minister of Justice). In addition, Oskar Gustavson was named State Comptroller; Helmut Maandi, Secretary of State (Head of the Chancellery); Endel Inglist, Deputy Secretary of State; Jaan Maide, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces; and Juhan Reigo, Head of Internal Defense. Two issues of the State Gazette and a governmental declaration were issued in the name of the Government of Otto Tief. Soviet troops conquered Tallinn on September 22, 1944.

And what happened to Estonia’s government after it had been ‘liberated’ on Sept 22, 1944 by The Soviets?

Rudolf Penno and August Rei had left Estonia by the time they were appointed to the Tief Government. Johan Holberg, Johannes Klesment and Helmut Maandi succeeded in escaping from Estonia. Kaarel Liidak went underground in southern Estonia in April 1944, managed to evade detection by both the SD as well as the NKGB, and died in 1945. The NKGB and counterintelligence operatives of the Leningrad Front of the Red Army imprisoned the rest of the members of the Tief Government. Jaan Maide, Juhan Reigo and Endel Inglist were sentenced to death and executed in 1945; Oskar Gustavson was killed while trying to escape from interrogation in 1945; in most cases the rest were sentenced to prison for 10 year terms. Otto Tief (died 1976), Arnold Susi (died 1968), Juhan Kaarlimäe (died 1977) and Richard Övel managed to return to Estonia; but the others all died in Russia. Voldemar Sumberg was freed from prison camp in 1960 and remained in the Kemerovo oblast in Russia, where he died. In 1969, Juhan Kaarlimäe was arrested again for some time. The other government members who returned to Estonian were kept under surveillance by the Soviet secret police.

Tomorrow, there may be some commotion over these events. Some individuals, residents and citizens of Estonia, will attempt to lay flowers in commemoration of the fall of the Estonian government on September 22. Others may carry around an Estonian flag and beat their chests to remind people that Estonia was occupied in 1944. What may be forgotten during these events is what actually happened for four days in Estonia in 1944. The Estonian flag flew from Pikk Hermann, just as it does now, and a few grown-ups tried to restore some type of normality to their country before it was overrun by deportations, executions, and terror.

Humanity doesn’t have the greatest track record, but it’s nice to know that once in awhile we try.

An Estonian Statue of Liberty

Just in case anyone forgot that the hero of the Estonian national epic was the son of Kalev, or Kalevipoeg, Jüri Ratas and the rest of the gang in Tallinn want to make sure that very tourist is reminded each time they enter and exit Tallinn harbor, from the Baltic Times, subscription only.

TALLINN – Tallinn will hold an international competition to design a giant statute of the mythical hero Kalevipoeg in the city’s bay. The statue will be a striking landmark, located 100 meters from the coastline with a height of 21 meters. The Tallinn City Council, which has commissioned the statue, hopes it will join a list of internationally famous landmarks, such as Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer and New York’s Statue of Liberty.

I have never read Kalevipoeg and have some doubts about his heroism because typical hardass Estonians have told me it’s all fake and stolen from Karelian mythology. Through my contact with Estonians I am aware of the existence of other old Gods like Taara and Uku, as well as real folk heroes like Lembitu, but Kalevipoeg didn’t come up too often. Plus he cut his legs off with his own sword in the end. I hope that’s not a metaphor for the Estonian nation.

The peculiar predicament of Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Imagine you were a foreigner not in one country, but in two countries, and maybe then you can begin to understand the peculiar predicament of presidential aspirant Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

One of the chief criticisms of Ilves is that he is a foreigner. He is not ‘really’ Estonian – ie. he did not spend his entire life there. That much is true. He was born in Sweden to Estonian refugees. There are thousands of these *Estonians around the world, from Australia to Canada. Most of them left, raised families in their adopted homes, and never looked back except for a vacation. In this way they are no different than any immigrant community.

But on the other side of the equation, many, like Ilves have returned. And those on the outside did work extremely hard to maintain Estonian visibility during the Soviet period. And when the wall came down, they came back. He came back. And he now lives in Viljandimaa. He renounced his American citizenship in the early 90s, and went onto serve the Estonian state.

Yet when he speaks English he speaks as an American. And his mannerisms and demeanor seem out of whack compared to the less-animated posture of the young person that is a product of the Estonian school system. He is Estonian, yes, this much is true. But when he looks into the camera, he smiles. When was the last time you saw Edgar Savisaar muster a big grin? Even Rüütel is incapable of the full-figured expression of joy. Rüütel is capable of looking happy or bemused, but that big dopey smile Ilves let slip every now and then? That’s pure America.

But as American as Ilves is, he really isn’t an American. Could Ilves pass as an American with his eurocratic style in any town in the USA? How many real Americans are fluent in a tongue other than English? How many of them would be willing to give up their citizenship to return to the lands of their ancestors? How many have served as the foreign ministers of a small European country thousands of miles across the ocean? How many of them have a foreign wife and foreign child and sit in Brussels and worry about Estonia all the time? Not many. There may be some in Washington, DC or Boston or elsewhere. But are these people genuinely American, or are they of that strange international breed of humanity which knows no true nationality? My money is on the latter.

And so Ilves sit on the way station of nationalities. His parents were Estonians. His wife is an Estonian and his child is an Estonian. But he, he in the eyes of *some*, is not an Estonian. He is not American. He is something else.