Saddam’s Death = John-John Squared

Remember the 1990s? We lost two of our most beloved celebrities, John F. Kennedy, Jr., the genetic embodiment of America’s post-war high, and Princess Diana, who made anyone anywhere want to listen to Bananarama and go water skiing. Women drooled over steamy photos of JFK Jr. bearing his bare chest and men sheepishly peeked at Di’s bikini in any number of tabloid photographs. And then they were both dead – John John took not only his life but his wife’s and her sisters in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard. Di died in a car crash in Paris. And we all partied on like it was 1 9 9 9.

But these are the Oh Ohs, dear souls. These are the times that try men’s souls. Is it a decade of catastrophe? I am not sure. So many are not here that were here before. But it is a decade for scratching your head. In 1999, the film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was released. Saddam played a central role. Today, he was hanged. He exists no longer. And, as a bonus, the Iraqis got it on tape. And, suddenly, those old jokes aren’t quite as funny anymore.

A big wave comes and carries away thousands after thousands of lives. A big storm comes and sinks one of America’s most culturally significant cities. And, so long ago, two planes came and topple two of New York’s most prominent office buildings. None of it made any sense. Everywhere are corpses, but sanity? It’s nowhere to be found.

Inside ourselves we used to feel, at least, a modicum of stability. But now, if they told you that 2+2 = 5, you might start to believe them. Up *could* be down if the right people told you so. Dreaming *could* be awakening. All I have are the same pictures and text you are looking at. Change it to say, “Saddam’s death sentence commuted” and show some photos of him alive and he’d still be alive to most people.

How am I supposed to feel about this? What am I supposed to think. The only honest answer I can come back with is nothing. Saddam was a murderer, but his execution doesn’t change that, nor does it bring justice. It’s just another heavy noose in history. They hung the gang that assassinated Lincoln too, but it couldn’t bring back Lincoln. Oswald was shot in Dallas, but it couldn’t bring back Kennedy. They hung the criminals of the Nazi regime but it didn’t bring back 12 million people. Lavrenti Beria died a Trotskyite death, but his victims sat rotting in unmarked graves. No matter how hard we try, we cannot bring them back, dear readers. Eye for eye isn’t a fair trade, it just means two guys are missing eyes instead of one. I am not a religious man, but sometimes I wonder what God would say about all of this. Most times I think he would just shrug his shoulders.

Murder Begets Execution

It’s been nearly three years since Saddam Hussein was captured by American forces. Now, apparently, the time left for the deposed Iraqi dictator can be measured more in hours than in days. The judge presiding over the case says that his death sentence will be carried out no later than Saturday, ie: tomorrow.

A lot of people died at the order of Saddam. Women, children, Kurdish, Sunni, Shiite — it didn’t matter. But a lot of people have also died since Hussein was captured, and again, brutality does not discriminate. So, while Saddam’s death will have symbolic importance, most realists believe his execution will produce very little. Some call an execution justice, but I don’t think it is. Regardless of whether or not he hangs or rots, all the people that Saddam killed are dead and will remain dead. “Justice” is a compelling concept, but when you are dealing with mass graves in Iraq, it becomes impossible to administer. So, in my opinion, Saddam’s impending death will just add an extra digit to the death toll in Iraq.

***UPDATE***

Saddam is gone. Now don’t we all feel better.

TNR Goes to Estonia and Finds it Stimulating

In the latest issue of The New Republic, Tom Bissell goes to Estonia to find out what all of the ‘e-Stonia’ buzz is about, and oh, how he finds it.

The best parts of his piece are definitely his first hand experiences in Tallinn, but my personal favorites are his glowing reaction to Estonian womanhood. “Tallinn boasted what I can say were–without fear of hyperbole–the most jaw-droppingly beautiful women I have ever seen in my life,” he writes. When he loses his bank card and has to go to Hansapank to pick it up, “a six-foot-two-inch Estonian Amazon so glowingly blonde she appeared to be irradiated” retrieves his new card for him.

Bissell also reacts warmly to the wife of Scott Diel, who is editor of The City Paper. “Diel’s biggest impetus for staying in Estonia, he told me, other than his predictably lovely Estonian wife, was ‘lifestyle’,” Bissell notes.

There’s a lot more meat to the story than Bissell’s admiration for the exotic Estonian female. But I like it the best. It reminds me of when I was younger and single and sitting in a cafe in Oslo going, “Oh my God.” And yes, there are some beauties in Estonia and I do recall at least one time going to the desk at Hansapank and completely forgetting what I was doing there or perhaps, what my name was. So here’s a big “terviseks” to Bissell for so honestly portraying his experience. It is of benefit to us all. So read the piece. He is equally smitten with Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

IKEA – a Christmas Oasis for Väliseestlased

Where can an Estonian in America go, when Christmas means lots of stuff wrapped in boxes and piparkooki is a foreign afterthought? IKEA, of course.

Last night, with minu kallis naine Epp in the humdrums over the lack of genuine Christmas cheer in our lives, hungry for gingerbread and glögi and all the stuff an Estonian can comfortably buy in their neighborhood shop, we searched for an answer that could provide some measure of kodumaa to drive away her Yultide blues.

The answer came in the Swedish royal colors of blue and yellow — IKEA, located on Route 107 in Hicksville on Long Island. Surely Ingvar Kamprad and Anders Dahlvig, the blue-eyed Rootslased that run IKEA must feel for their northern European compatriots abroad and would have made sure that every Icelander, Norwegian, Swede, Finn, Dane, Estonian, and whoever else drinks glögi at Christmas, had access to much needed gingerbread and mulled wine at this time of year.

And so we went to IKEA, in search of Estonian Christmas spirit. “Yes!” I thought. “We’ll go to IKEA and there will be rosy-cheeked Scandinavians willing to indulge us in affordable Jõulu products!” But when I got there and asked for glögi, the Mexican guy behind the counter pointed to a case of sparkling pear wines. And when I went hunting for old-fashioned piparkook, all I could find was a box of capuccino-flavored Anna’s gingerbread thins. All the while, a sign in the store market encouraged us to “take a taste of Sweden home.” Yeah, right.

Cutting our losses, we decided that we’ll make glögi on our own and we took a box of capuccino-flavored Anna’s piparkooki thins, because piparkooki is piparkooki, even if tastes like Italian coffee. We also managed to buy several jars of Lingonberry jam, which was interestingly titled “Lingon sylt” and Epp also found cloudberry jam or “Hjoltron sylt” –something that Estonians know well, but that is unknown here in New York.

So although it didn’t all work out as planned, we didn’t go home empty handed. And at least we had some “sylt” in our basket.

Estonian Christmas Customs

Estonians have some pretty interesting culinary treats, including herring cooked every which way, sült (meat jelly), kartulisalat (always with diced ham), and tatrahelbed – a salted porridge.

But it is during Christmas time, or jõuleaeg, that they break out the really “good shit,” starting with the ubiquitous blood sausage or verivorst. I have tasted this Estonian Christmas treat with mixed results. Sometimes it tastes so foul, I feel like I might as well just go to a field of cows, pick one, and stick a straw in its jugular. Other times it is loaded with barley, and when salted and covered in sour cream, it is palatable.

That’s why when it comes to Estonian Christmas food, I’ll be the one at the table loading up on pork, sauerkraut, and potatoes with plenty of kangesinep (strong mustard). The added benefit of the mustard is that it makes you thirsty, which means you have to drink more really alcoholic beer, which means you have a better time.

Estonians typically celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve. “Like in other Nordic states,” writes Estonia’s foreign ministry, “Estonia’s celebration of Christmas mostly falls on Christmas Eve, however, Christmas season starts from Advent with people buying Advent calendars or lighting Advent candles. Each year on December 24, the President of Estonia declares Christmas Peace, which is a 350-year-old tradition in Estonia.”

There is also the tradition of putting out candles for departed love ones, especially by visiting their graves and placing candles there. At Christmas, whole cemeteries are illuminated. It’s actually quite beautiful.

It’s hard to tell what is ancient custom in Estonia and what is borrowed from neighboring countries. According to the Estonian foreign ministry, an old custom was to bring Christmas straw into the house and to make Christmas crowns resembling church chandeliers, particularly in northern and western Estonia. More recently, you can see some incarnation of this tradition in St. Lucia processions.

Anyway, since Estonians don’t seem to mind borrowing traditions from their neighbors, one thing they should do is steal the tradition of Christmas beers from the Danes. Every year, Tuborg releases its special Julebryg Christmas beer, wishing you a “glaedelig jul” and plenty of drunken merriment. I don’t know how many of those I could drink. They are really good.

Londongrad, Here We Come!

Well this is good news for the unemployed of Ida-Virumaa county, the ones that Amnesty International is worried about. Today, the Council of the European Union has decided to permit non-citizen residents of Latvia and Estonia to travel in the EU without visas.

The decision, approved by the EU’s 25 agriculture ministers yesterday at the advice of the European Parliament and EU justice ministers, opens the Union’s doors to more than 500,000 “resident aliens” of mainly Russian origin.

I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again. The reason there is higher unemployment in Ida Virumaa is because Soviet population transfer policies created an unsustainable demographic situation, where thousands of people were enticed to live in a region that cannot, in the long-term, support them.

For example in Kohtla Järve, the population went from 20,000 in 1959 to 80,000 in 1989. That’s crazy. Hopefully those newcomers that couldn’t make it in Estonia can press their luck elsewhere.

The Logic of Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s panties are still in a bunch over the idea that Estonia would pass a law outlawing violence-inspiring symbols of former occupation regimes.

Russia will oppose the heroisation of fascism in its contacts with Estonia’s leadership and in the international arena, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

“We considerate it sacrilegious and dangerous to put an equality sign between liberators and occupants. At present, this is happening in Estonia,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.

He added that Russia “will continue work in contacts with Estonian leadership and in the international arena to avert a revival of fascism and its heroisation”.

Let me walk you through this. Estonia has a provisional law – yet to be passed – that would ban the use of both the swastika and the hammer & sickle in public settings that could lead to disruptive activity. But the Russian foreign ministry sees this ban as a “heroisation” of fascism. Do you understand that? Because I just can’t grasp how outlawing the symbol of fascism makes one part of a fascist revival.

Anyway, if Lavrov wants to see fascism he need not look in Estonia’s backyard. Kremlin Inc. resembles more and more each day the regime that has come to define fascism for generations, that of Benito Mussolini’s Italy. Is the Russian Federation of today so different from fascist Italy in the 1920s — where the middle class endorsed corporatism in the face of chaotic laissez faire capitalism and reactionary bolshevism?

As long as the upper classes were pleased with Mussolini, he was given a free hand to convert post-war Italy into a police state. But when Italy lost the war, we all know what happened to Benito Mussolini. Word to the wise.

The Economist Slams Amnesty International

And by The Economist, I mean Edward Lucas … In his [very free] blog, Lucas is the first to look at the report and use the dreaded ‘d’ word, no … not ‘dipshit’ – deportation. It’s a gutsy move to remind other Europeans of what they once did when circumstances placed them in similar situations:

Since regaining independence in 1991 Estonia has become the reform star of the post-communist world. Its booming economy, law-based state and robust democracy are all the more impressive given their starting point: a country struggling with the huge forced migration of the Soviet era. The collapse of the evil empire left Estonia with hundreds of thousands of resentful, stranded ex-colonists, citizens of a country that no longer existed.

Some countries might have deported them. That was the remedy adopted in much of eastern Europe after the second world war. Germans and Hungarians—regardless of their citizenship or politics—were sent “home” in conditions of great brutality.

Instead, Estonia, like Latvia next door, decided to give these uninvited guests a free choice. They could go back to Russia. They could stay but adopt Russian citizenship. They could take local citizenship (assuming they were prepared to learn the language). Or they could stay on as non-citizens, able to work but not to vote.

I am very pleased to hear Edward Lucas, and by Mr. Lucas I also mean The Economist, smack down the Amnesty Report. I don’t think the report is as bad it seems from the title, but I do get a little sick of the sensitivity with which some people approach the topic – yearning not to offend. It’s nice to see someone call a spade a spade for a change. I personally know a German that was sent “home” from Poland to West Germany after World War II, so the comparison is not lost on me.

These are real things. We live in a real world of living history. Congrats to Edward Lucas for giving us a quick, in-your-face history lesson in response to a report from an NGO that really should be working on something more important. Is there room for improvement in Estonia? Always. Is it worth Amnesty’s time while it works on reports about Sudan and Afghanistan? I am not so sure about that.

Sweden and Estonia Forge EU Partnership

Taking a break away from flag burning in Russia, let’s discuss something that actually matters for the future, shall we?

I was asked recently on Radio Free Finland what Estonia’s feelings toward the European Union were, and I basically said that Estonia’s accession was very much in the interest of its largest economic and political partners, Finland and Sweden, which also have a considerable presence in Estonian media ownership.

Over the past few weeks though, two events have presented themselves of how Estonia will function within the EU, and I think they both point towards members of a Nordic voting block coordinated by Sweden – which seems to be the only northern European country, other than Estonia, that is constantly throwing out ideas in the European Union and hoping some of them stick.

For example, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and his Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet published an editorial in Die Welt aguing for closer ties between the EU and Turkey at a time when Germany and France appear hesitant to further engagement with Ankara:

The strategic decisions on enlargement to be taken by European leaders in the coming days are about the kind of Europe we want to create. Is it a static Union turned inwards focusing on its own integration capacity? Or is a Europe looking outwards to the rest of the world ready to take on global challenges and global competition? Does the EU see the merits in building a wider community of stable, prosperous democracies or will we keep our neighbours at arms length?

And apparently Bildt and Paet are continuing their united front on the Turkey issue:

At Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers, Sweden and Estonia reportedly signalled to fellow EU members that they were prepared to open up representative bureaus in Northern Cyprus, and begin offering direct flights to the northern part of the island.

***

At the 8 hour meeting of EU foreign ministers, South Cyprus met with a tough front after requesting that a higher number of Turkey’s EU accession topics be shelved, and that Turkey be forced to open its air and sea ports unconditionally. Both Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt asserted that Turkey’s new efforts on Cyprus should be taken into account, reminding fellow EU foreign ministers of the promises made to Turkey in 2004 that isolationary measures against Northern Cyprus would be lifted.

While Estonia is a small player on the international stage, its addition to the EU debate backs up Sweden’s policies and gives its argument extra gravitas with talk of “the success of EU enlargement” in Estonia and Estonia’s ability to reform based on the “opportunity of EU enlargement.”

You can clearly see now why politically, as well as economically, the addition of Estonia to the EU has paid off for the Swedes.

Estonia’s Slavs Get Screwed by Moscow

Just when they thought the Language Inspectorate was fear incarnate, Estonia’s Slavic residents have woken up to a new menace – their cousins in Moscow. Today a group of young Muscovites, most of whom we can assume have never been to Estonia, organized a protest in front of the Estonian embassy in Moscow burning Estonian flags decorated with swastika designs on them.

The actions of the group, called “Young Russia,” come just a week after a bill was submitted to the Estonian parliament that would ban the use of the swastika as well as the Soviet hammer & sickle in public places where the display could cause a public disturbance. Let me repeat that – Estonia wants to ban the use of the swastika too, but the “Young Russians” painted one anyway on their mock Estonian flag that was burned during the demonstration.

The demonstration also happened shortly after Amnesty International issued a report suggesting ways that Estonia could improve its integration policies. At a time when Estonia’s Slavic residents could be enjoying a genuine debate about integration law reform, they have been ambushed by a loud, hateful protest in the streets of Moscow that arouses the displeasure, if not the fear, of genocidal Russian nationalism.

If Russians interested in Estonia wanted to do the local residents any favors they would a) shut up and let Estonia’s Slavs speak for themselves; and b) actually read Estonia’s laws. Sadly, the Russian audience is fed information by state-owned media that is hostile to Estonia. I wish I could somehow change the situation, but I often fear that I can’t. There are too few antidotes for ignorance.