No more twisting in the wind …

Geopolitically, Estonia is an odd duck. It’s officially one of the Baltic trio, but it also finds itself coordinating with its glazed-over Northern neighbors while continuing to talk about Belarus with the Lithuanians.

That’s because its national interests also intersect with Sweden and Finland and a prime example of this common interest is in the plan of Germany and Russia to lay the Nord Stream pipeline connecting the vast gas reserves of “Russia” (also known as Turkmenistan) with “Europe” (also known as Germany).

This project generated a sense of inevitability when it was first announced and an even greater sense of inevitability when Gerhard Schroeder officially became involved in the project. But Schroeder’s decision to join up with Gazprom raised questions about the legitimacy of the project itself which is saying that it will be built by 2010, no matter what, even if they have to buy the Baltic Sea.

Estonia recently rejected Gazprom’s request to survey its sea bottom, seeing the request as tantamount to giving the Schroeder bunch the green light to lay pipe in Estonia’s territorial waters. Estonia was originally portrayed as a stubborn little pimple on the backside of Europe, but it stuck to its guns and began lobbying other Baltic Sea countries to ask Gazprom to evaluate a continental pipe, similar to Yamal, which runs through Poland.

But it seems that others have decided that Estonia has a point. Or maybe Estonia was just the first part of a broader Baltic Sea strategy for dealing with Nord Stream. Either way, Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren (above) said this week that Sweden is now taking a similar approach to Estonia’s towards Nord Stream.

‘In the information the company provided, it appears as if a more eastern laying would better avoid environmental problems and risks. It is now up to the company to show which other routes are possible from an environmental and risk point of view, and why it has chosen this particular route,’ he added.

It is a good question as to why they would want to lay the pipe on the bottom of a sea rather than over land. Supposedly, it’s those nasty Polish transit fees they are trying to avoid. Or maybe it’s the threat from Polish environmentalists who could try to blow up the Nord Stream pipe should it go through the heart of the land of Kościuszko. Or maybe because they agreed to lay the pipe in the sea and … it’s just inevitable that they will do it, because Gerhard Schroeder is involved and he’s a wealthy and powerful German guy.

Who knows? All we know is that Estonia is no longer standing alone in this debate and that Germany and Russia can no longer wave their fingers at the troublesome New Europeans for stalling their project. Sweden is now on board too. Everyone wants to know why they have to build it in the sea for more money and more possible damage to the environment, when they can just lay it over land for less.

Hartelius! Hartelius?

So I voted for Dag Hartelius last night during Tantsud Tähtedega. Actually, I voted for him three times. My vote(s), perhaps, led to the elimination of Kristiina Ojuland and her partner Aleksandr Makarov, who were pretty good, one of the better pairs in my opinion.

Should I be ashamed of my votes? Maybe, maybe not. I mean people voted for Luisa Vark and Andrus Varnik — neither of whom I found interesting. I think I’d rather have Katrin Karisma back. Her Mrs. Robinson pairing with Veiko Ratas was somewhat more intriguing.

But what about Dag? Is he really a good dancer? Technically no, but he does have charisma. He smiles and looks like he’s having a good time. Doesn’t that count in our books even if it doesn’t count for conservative judges like Jüri Nael? And what’s up with the host Mart Sander? If he makes any more ironic facial expressions I might start to believe he’s actually being serious.

Today though I feel confused.

Päeva komm

Things have wound down here on the political front since the days of Rene van der Linden’s bungled trip from Tallinn to Vilnius. There’s the usual hysteria in Tallinn over the BS, but what else is new?

The only thing really scandal worthy is the continuing back and forth between Robert Närska, a Tartu city official affiliated with Eestimaa Rahvaliit, and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, the former mayor of Tartu and the leader of Tartu (and Estonia’s) most popular party, Reformierakond.

The scandal got a full airing in the last issue of the weekly Eesti Ekspress. The issue is related to Ansip’s days as a thirty-ish Soviet local government official in February 1988, when police dogs were used to disperse a pro-independence student rally in Tartu.

Närska, then also a local official, says that he met Ansip on the day of the demonstration, and that Ansip said the police should have used the dogs more aggressively to scare off the students. Ansip says he had nothing to do with that decision and that he wasn’t even around Tartu on that day, nearly 20 years ago. Närska says that Ansip is lying.

What’s this all about? It’s about trying to weaken popular support for Andrus Ansip. But I think the timing of the scandal has been poorly judged. Ansip right now is the leader of the status quo, and the status quo for most Estonians is pretty good. So unless some bumpier economic forces intervene, this kind of back and forth is mostly useless.

Everybody knows Ansip is a politician. So that “you’re lying, no I’m not” back and forth between Närska and Ansip is starting to take on flavors of the Vanhanen-Korhonen affair up in Helsinki. It’s a distracting political soap opera, with little real impact on current national politics. It could only get worse if more people come forward and accuse Ansip of lying. By then I am sure Russia will have done something obnoxious again to make us forget all about Robert Närska and 1988.

As a side note, I just finished reading Northern Shores by Alan Palmer (2005). It’s a historical overview of the Baltic sea region from the Viking era to present day. Some of the parts of the book are more interesting than others, especially his discussion of Swedish and Russian royal politics. I had no idea, for example, that Catherine the Great of Russia was a Baltic German.

What struck me though is that Palmer’s description of World War II is pretty much the same as the official Estonian version. He singles out the fact that Estonians were not sympathetic to the Nazi German cause and that efforts to recruit Estonians to join the German army in 1943 were a failure. He describes how the Germans evacuated their leadership from Tallinn before the Soviets arrived in 1944, and the context in which the Otto Tief government was formed.

He is not overly sympathetic to the Baltic cause though. He details in quite chilling language how ethnic tensions in Latvia and especially Lithuania, where Jews formed larger proportions of the population during the independence period and first Soviet occupation years, contributed to the mass killings that occurred during the Nazi German occupation. So, it’s no rosy, pro-Baltic detour down the avenues of 20th century regional history.

Nevertheless, it reaffirms that the Estonian interpretation of their role in World War II is mostly accurate. This raises a question for all of us in the West who love good historical non-fiction. When people like President Vladimir Putin call the Estonian historical interpretation ‘revisionism’, aren’t they really calling Alan Palmer, let alone Winston Churchill — whose six volume The Second World War (1948-1953) similarly describes events in the Baltic — revisionists?

And if Putin is to call Churchill a revisionist, why are we so hesitant to tell him he is wrong and that he needs a refresher course in European history? Or do we just think that he is too dense to benefit from such ‘fresh’ information? My rubles are on the latter.

Kaplinski Mesi

The skies over Tartu the past few days have been a milky gray, sort of the way your tea looks right after the billows of milk fill up the glass after hitting bottom. Tea is on the mind, for besides being under this gray weather, we are under other kinds of weather — each of us a bit low.

I could tell the naine was a bit ill this morning as I descended the staircase because the odor of freshly chopped garlic was in the air. This creates an odd kinship between her and I. She isn’t fond of tomato-base sauces, but we both appreciate küüslauk. And when she gets sick she has it around her at all times, as if sickness were a vampire come to drain her energy.

When we visited Laulasmaa spa earlier in the year we were similarly ill. Epp actually had a small plate of chopped garlic positioned near our pillows so that the cleansing fumes could fight the disease through the night while she got her rest. When I was cleaning out the room, I had to scan the sheets for individual slices of garlic that had fallen from the plate. It’s just an Estonian thing, I am told.

Another companion is the aforementioned teas. In the United States, the local apteek is not stocked with medicinal teas with such exotic names as Icelandic tea, which brings to mind images of lichens scraped from the continental divide. Usually we reach for over the counter bottles of yummy fluorescent goo with names like Robitussin and Triaminic. We use that stuff sometimes here too, but with plenty of teas and, of course, mesi or honey.

The honey we have is in a huge jar and was made at the farm of prominent Estonian author Jaan Kaplinski. How did we get such honey without actually knowing the author?

Two reasons. First, Estland is a small country, and Southern Estland is especially small. Everyone knows everyone. Second, Kaplinski makes a lot of honey and is desperately trying to get rid of it so that his cellar isn’t filled with jars. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kaplinski stood on the side of the road where he lives handing the stuff out to motorists on their way to Võrumaa.

So I am eating Kaplinski mesi right now to stay healthy. Memm memm.

Unless, of course, the horse, the horse …

So it’s been six months since the April riots, the “Bronze night”, and what have we really learned about Estonia? What have we learned about the integration process? What have we learned from all those broken glass windows and images of uncouth youths burning flags and yelling ‘fascisti’ for the Russian TV cameras?

I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. I like Kaubamaja, that’s what I have learned.

A lot of people don’t like the overly geometric building on the corner of Riia and Turu Streets in Tartu. But I like it there. There is something so refreshingly 1980s about the escalators and all the teenagers gathering around at the foot of them: as if it was still cool to hang out at the mall.

And you know what Estonian kids, I have been watching you at Kaubamaja. See you thought I was just standing at the cash machine getting a few Koidulas and Jakobsons to buy some Regatt and Muretaigen for the naine and lapsed. But I have been keeping tabs on you eestlased, and I can see that you like Kaubamaja too.

I can see that regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of where your grandparents came from, and regardless of the fact that 63 years ago men stood on opposite sides of the river Emajõgi blowing the buildings that formerly stood on the site of Kaubamaja to smithereens, it really doesn’t matter that much when someone just sent you an urgent text message and you must, absolutely must, text them back, maybe with an emoticon to let them know your message contains sarcasm and/or humor.

Today I had to suffer through another op-ed about integration in Estonia. Apparently, if we make a movie and show it to all the kids with shaved heads and bad attitudes in Tallinn, it will magically make them understand the history of the small piece of Earth upon which they tread. But in reality, it won’t.

Why not? Because they’ve been spoiled by the Kaubamajas of Estonia. They take for granted the fact that their capital city doesn’t look as much like a post-Communist shithole as it used to, and that’s why they were quite content to smash windows. Because the ultra-wealthy government would pay for it anyway. So who cares when you’re having fun, right?

No, they didn’t respect the Kaubamajas of Estonia that night. But they didn’t go home that night and vow to vote Arnold Meri into office at the next opportunity possible. And they also didn’t heed the call to join the Kolevan Army and establish a Russian-speaking republic in Estonia. Instead they went to Kaubamaja the next week to buy a new puffy jacket — discount price in the off season — and continued to live their blessed life of fun times and Hesburger consumption.

Indeed, what I have learned from all this rioting followed by shopping is that 1940s were a long time ago. Mick Jagger was a toddler; we are talking ancient history. Yeah, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, alright. But we don’t have the push the envelope anymore. Every country on Earth knows that, except Russia, and their country is run by morons. But that doesn’t concern us, because we don’t live there and have about as much impact on their politics as their own people.

But there’s more. Not only were the 1940s a long time ago, but so were the 1980s. Yes, there used to be a Soviet military installation on the outside of Tartu. These days though it’s a used car market. I have been there. I almost bought a car there. Time moves forward. This year people will turn 30 that couldn’t even shave in 1991, let alone get called up for duty in the Soviet Army.

Sometimes, mean people at the Guardian online say Estonia used to be part of the Russian empire. So did Alaska. What’s it to you? Why aren’t you defending your Alaskan compatriots? You want to know why? Because it’s over. It’s dead and it’s not coming back no matter how many DoS attacks you launch against a bank. Why? Because their programmers really are smarter than you. Being part of the liberal West allows wealthy Swedish-owned banks to employ superior IT brain power. So there.

And that’s sort of the beauty of the Estonian Republic, founded in 1918. Doesn’t it all lead back to that moment? Beneath its ethnic overtones of a Finnic state, there is the reality that at every turn the Russian empire kept Estonia in the dark. Serfdom wasn’t abolished here until 1816/1819! The Russian empire was a gigantic ball to which Estonia was chained for two hundred years. And look how far the country managed to run after it split the giant. The Kaubamajas, Selvers, Hell, even the Maximas speak for themselves. Mind numbing liberal democracy. Arguments over inflation and currency adoption. It’s all so boring, and yet so beautiful.

Estonia is a boring Nordic country. I invite you, please, come to watch a youth concert in Suure-Jaani. How about sleigh riding in Tõrva? Bicycling in Kärdla? Sunbathing in Toila? Please come. Enjoy Estonia’s dull rhythm of life and mouth watering Kalevi chocolate. Try one of the local beers — Saaremaa, I think, is the most alcoholic of the bunch.

And don’t ask me any more questions about statues or integration. Statues are made of metal or stone. Integration takes time and patience. But Kaubamaja? It’s open daily from 9-21. The toidumailm stays open an hour later, in case you need to grab some meekook on the way home.

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* The title is in response to Flasher T’s post which likened discussion of Estonia’s problems with Russia to beating a dead horse. The photo is of Mr. Ed playing chess with his owner, Wilbur Post. The horse, of course, died in 1970. Wilbur though is still very much alive.

If one twin loses an election, does the other one feel it?

Where were you on the day you found out that Poland would be led by two men, the twin co-stars of the 1962 film The Two Who Stole the Moon, also known as Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski?

I don’t recall where I was, but I knew that it was something totally awesome, something I just had to tell every human being in New York whose last name ended with ‘-ski.’

“Do you know that the president and prime minister of Poland are twin brothers?,” I would ask.

“No, I did not know that,” so and so Blahblahski would reply, usually giving me a weird look.

Well, friends, the era of the Polish Mary-Kate and Ashley has come to a close. Their ‘Truth and Justice’ party was trounced in the elections by the feel-good Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk, who does not have a twin.

Europe, meanwhile, has been breathing a sigh of relief. Unlike some countries, Poland is actually a country in the European Union that matters. When the Poles say nie, the Germans are known to make uncomfortable facial expressions in response, and I mean uncomfortable facial expressions that are different from their regular uncomfortable facial expressions.

But is it true what they say about twins? That they have some kind of deep psychic connection? I recall from watching GI Joe as a kid, that when Cobra’s Tomax got hit, his evil twin brother Xamot often felt it.

We’ll leave such metaphysical questions to the quacks and experts, but I have a feeling that when PM Jaroslaw’s party lost the election, President Lech — who will be in office until 2010 — definitely felt it, psychic connection or not.

Curtains for Kalvītis?

Never before have Latvian politics seemed so interesting. Last week Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks resigned over the government’s dismissal of Aleksejs Loskutovs, Latvia’s anti-corruption chief. Regional Affairs Minister Aigars Stokenbergs was also dismissed related to that case.

But it seems a bit odd that the dismissal of one person could lead to the resignation of Pabriks, who is fairly well known outside of Latvia, as well as the throngs of protesters who called for Prime Minister Kalvītis to step down.

The Kalvītis government has been the most stable of Latvia’s post-1991 governments. In the past five years, Latvia has had four prime ministers. Kalvītis has been the most successful. Come this December he will have been in office for three years.

A central plank of his government has been devoted to improving ties with Russia, casting Estonia as the more obstinate of the two in the border treaty issue, and making sure to smile for the camera in meetings like the one above. In fact, Kalvītis this week attempted to play the Moscow card in his attempt to stay in office despite calls for his resignation.

Underlying that improvement in relations with Russia has been allegations of corruption — related to the Loskutovs affair — as well as frustration with the government over dealing with Latvia’s high level of inflation (11 percent). The selection of President Valdis Zatlers, an orthopedic surgeon, over the popular favorite Aivars Endziņš, also didn’t help endear the Kalvītis government to its constituents.

It’s odd that Latvia, though as close to Tartu as Tallinn, seems to figure minimally in Estonian domestic politics. I mean Latvia has been going through this period of rapprochement with Moscow at the same time that Estonian-Russian relations have sunk to a new low. I also don’t see internal political changes in Latvia affecting Estonian politics.

Estonia is basically stuck with the coalition it has. The only room for maneuver would be for the Reform Party to dump its problematic partners in Isamaa-Res Publica Liit and re-ally with the Center Party. In this set up, Ansip would remain prime minister. Or Keskerakond could somehow attract SDE to form a left-wing coalition with the Greens and the People’s Union. But that coalition would only have 51 seats — not doable. Or Keskerakond could manipulate the rules of logic and ally with Isamaa and SDE.

Anyway you slice it, you come away understanding that Ansip’s victory in March was pretty solid and he, or at least the Reform Party, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Meaning that the Kalvītis show will be a purely Latvian matter for the time being.

Ode to Estlanders

I was reading Elu24 where model Beatrice and Eduard Korotin (above) argued that the reason people didn’t vote for them in last week’s “Tantsud Tähtega”(Dancing with the Stars) program was because they aren’t Estonians.

This came as a bit of a shock to me because up until that moment, I had always thought that Beatrice was as Estonian as Ester Tuiksoo. She seemed to turn up at so many Kroonika events that I assumed that she was on staff. She at least seemed as Estonian as Stella K. Wadowsky.

I was then informed by others that Beatrice is actually a venelane. She apparently has a slight accent which is hard to detect because she is a model and is usually made available to others visually, not via audio. For example, I saw a photo of Beatrice on a billboard advertising Playboy at the Maxima supermarket today. She didn’t say a word.

I don’t know how else to say it, and I hate to be rude, but if you are born in Estonia and you speak Estonian, even with an accent, then you’re tied to this country. You might have spoken Tagalog at home and be very active in your Filipino youth group, but something sets you apart from the other Filipinos … you live in Estonia and speak the national language. You are one of the few, the brave, the sinine, must, ja valge.

For example, my friend in college grew up speaking Persian. His mother was from Iran. Except he spoke Persian in New York and had dreadlocks, smoked the ganj, and listened to Bob Marley. That is my friend was a New Yorker, not an Iranian, even if English was spoken in school rather than at home.

The problem with Estonia though is that these interesting mitte-eestlased have no names for themselves. The Ministry of Population Affairs is desperately seeking a term for them that is unique. I offer up Estlanders — eestimaalased. Some people don’t like this term because it is what the Baltic German nobility of the province of Estonia called themselves.

But I think that it is because of this history that it makes the most sense. Estlanders were not so much German — there were also landowners of Swedish, Danish, Polish, and Russian origin. Instead they were people whose lives were tied to Estonia who were not indigenous to that territory. Estlanders. The name says it all.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that Beatrice lost not because she is an eestimaalane, but because she didn’t look like she was having a good time. Dag Hartelius and Katrin Karisma both looked like they were ready to suck down a few martinis and dance the night away. And nobody cared that Peep Vain’s dancing partner is named Olga Kosmina because they kicked so much ass. But Beatrice looked a bit spooked, and in the end they were eliminated from the competition. The 272 comments on the website seem to agree with this interpretation.

Maxima ei ole minu sõber

Today I went shopping for food. I had just visited Aura Keskus to go for a swim, and so the most logical place to buy food was Maxima, right across the parking lot in the Zeppelin shopping center — which is named after the German luftballoon, not the British rock group.

I have shopped at Maxima numerous times and somehow did not feel at ease. This is odd because it’s layout and offerings are not too different from other large Estonian supermarkets, like Selver or Kaubamaja.

But what was it about Maxima that rubbed me the wrong way? I decided to look a bit closer and figure out why Maxima was putting me off. I realized after compiling my list of critiques that the main reason I did not like Maxima is because it is run by foreigners. And that was problem number one.

1. It’s Owned by Lithuanians

In Maxima, my favorite Estonian brands were placed side by side with ones containing strange letters such as Ų and Č, text that looked like the author had his morning Maxima kool-aid spiked with acid. Who wanted to buy such things with names like vyšnia or obuolys? I wanted kirss ja õun.

2. Lack of Local Necessities

Because Maxima is owned by Baltic tribesmen, it is stocked aplenty with foodstuffs that they prefer, such as large blocks of generic “Maxima” cheese and all different varieties of pelmeenid. But when it comes to local products, they cannot be found. The Lithuanians think that if they only put a few different kinds of Wõro or Rakvere sausages out, they will meet the demand of provincial Estonians. But I wanted Wõro Grillsibula, not Metsavenna. The Metsavenna variety are too oily, the Grillsibula are just right. Moreover, important products, such as küüslaugu leivad (garlic bread, a must with beer) are hidden along side the Lithuanian products with the strange names. This faux pas leaves the Estonian shopper running for the nearest Selver.

3. Bad Disco

This is really the clincher. Every time I am in Maxima I am assaulted by loud techno music. The combination of my kid screaming for ice cream, a bunch of old ladies gathering in the center of the aisle to determine where they can find the nearest küüslaugu leiva, and the bad techno music is extremely deleterious to my shopping experience.

In a store based on Estonian capital, like Selver, I can expect to be serenaded by an orchestral version of Apelsin’s 1981 hit “Aeg Ei Peatu”. I can disappear into the frozen foods section and ponder whether I should buy Regatt ice cream or something else. I can weigh the difference between buying muretaigen and liivataigen(different kinds of dough). In Maxima they don’t even sell muretaignas or Regatt! And they play bad disco.

Now I don’t just want to insult Maxima. Their bakery is very good, they have excellent donuts, and they do carry a large variety of beer, wine, and hard liquor that is displayed in a very handy way — right next to the checkout counters. Today I bought some more Staropramen. I think I am going to go crack one open right now …