“Hey buddy, spare a few extra krooni, I’m awfully thirsty.”
What to do? Everywhere I go in Tallinn’s capital, I’m assaulted by posters for the Estonian Centre Party. Kes siis veel! Kes siis veel! The slogans are laughable and yet work. The Reform Party will cut your pensions. The Reform Party will increase unemployment. The Reform Party cuts money for kindergartens. The Reform Party practices human sacrifice.
“It’s a demonstration of power,” says a colleague. “Centre wants to show they have the most money. So they have to put a sign on every garbage bin in the city.”
You can’t take a leak in Tallinn without coming face to face with Edgar or one of his apprentices. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Where does Centre get its money? Who knows? Estonian parties aren’t ones for transparency. But I have a suspicion that Centre’s strategic partners in Moscow, United Russia, might be lubricating their Tallinn counterparts’ local election campaign with petrodollars.
I know that Centre leader and Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar recently returned from meeting United Russia leaders Boris Gryzlov and Konstantin Kosachev in Moscow. Boris and Kostja have even given Centre their blessing. Edgar & Co. are the only ones, in Moscow’s minds, who can heal the riff between these two proud states. Even if I am not Estonian, I found it embarrassing to watch the Centre’s delegation to Russia. How could they ever say no to their benefactors? If they were to get into power, what would it mean for Estonian sovereignty?
In light of my disgust, you’d think I’d find my natural home with the right-wing parties. We could sit around, and dance to the day when Laidoner is king. Except, in many cases, they are just as annoying. This constant battle over the interpretation of history, the obsession with the wounds of the Soviet era, the nearly religious genuflection to economic liberalism. I hear about 1940 so much, you’d think it was 1940. I get it already, my Estonian brothers. I get it. But what’s next?
There is this odd rift in Estonian political life. Neither of the political forces can truly unify the country. It’s either Ansip or Savisaar. ‘Pragmatic’ relations with Moscow or ardent Atlanticism. Sorry Jaan Kaplinski but, right now, there is no third way.
Which is a shame. I listened to a young woman from Jõhvi last night become emotional as she described her relationship with the state.
“My father is an engineer in a mining company. He’s lived in Jõhvi almost all his life. And the Estonians tell him it’s not his home. How can it not be his home?”
My question is, what Estonians told her that? Didn’t President Ilves go to Narva as soon as he took office and tell a classroom of Estonian Russian students that they were Estonia’s compatriots and the country couldn’t make it with out them? Didn’t he go to Kohtla-Järve and tell the miners that they were the backbone of Ida Virumaa? Wasn’t Population Affairs Minister Urve Palo out there, before Andrus Ansip canned her, scarf on head, making nice with MEIE venelased?
From what pungent sewer does Estonia’s ethnic strife spring?
“Everyone knows that you can’t be the boss unless you are Estonian,” she opines.
“It’s not true!” I protest. “Savisaar is half Russian. It’s literally his mother tongue.”
“But this is Estonia,” she waves me away. “Everyone has a Russian in their family tree.”
The Estonian Russian hates Ansip. She’s like a cartoon character, almost as bad as those rural Estonians who haven’t seen a Russian in years and keep complaining about kuradi tiblad. Except she’s human. And friendly.
“We didn’t think he was so bad. Then he took that statue down.”
“He had to do it. There were two-right wing parties running, and he wanted to win. Once he won, of course, he had to do it.”
She pauses for a second to contemplate how all that nonsense two years ago might have been just about politics. Not history. Not principles. Just politics.
“But he was stupid. He lost the support of all Estonian Russian voters.”
“Maybe it was a short-term gain,” I shrug. “Long-term loss.”
Politics, politics, politics, politics. It’s the foulest thing in this town. Tallinn looks great. I don’t think it’s ever looked better. When I came here for the first time in 2002, Tallinn did not look like this. Where there now stand shiny hotels and business centers once stood vacant lots and ruined buildings. Nearly every street in the center has benefited from a face lift.
I’m proud of how well this city looks. I am proud that international conferences can be held here, and people are surprised by how well things function. “You can get Internet everywhere,” says a colleague from San Diego. “Even in a public park!”
A public park? You can get wireless outside the metalworks in Obinitsa on the border with Russia. I’ve sent mails from there, crouched down in the dirt with my laptop on my, well, my lap. One time the wireless was down in the restaurant where I was eating and I was waiting for an important mail. So I went out to the parking lot and linked up to another signal instead. Sure it was in the middle of a January snowstorm, but, impressive, no?
It feels good because a lot of people think Estonia is stuck in some 1991 vortex. They think that they might have to wait on a breadline to get a bite to eat, or get stuck up by thieves in the street. Dastardly eastern Europeans who prey on naive Western tourists. And the people who think these things come from places like London or San Francisco, where there really are aggressive street people, although, I’ll admit, some of those thieves do probably come from Estonia. But that’s a hidden benefit of EU enlargement — eastern Europeans got to export their most successful criminals to Frankfurt or London or Paris.
So Tallinn looks good. The people do too. They are so fashionable with their scarves and sunglasses and exotic dogs. Maybe too fashionable for a city of 400,000 perched on the Baltic Sea. The Swedes expect another post-commie bottle depository and they go away thinking that it might be time to give Stockholm an upgrade. And during the conference they all got to watch the masses jog by for the sügisjooks — the fall marathon. It was sunny the whole weekend. Everything was perfect. The city glowed with goodness. Tallinn to them must have seemed ideal.
It feels great to be in a situation like that because you have no idea how often I have dreaded sharing my biography with strangers. I would tense up when I let slip in front of strangers that I had a relationship with a place called ‘Estonia.’ There were times when I would just say Finland, or the all-encompassing ‘Scandinavia’ instead. Anything to avert the horrid line of questioning (‘Do they have indoor plumbing there?’) As the conference attendees discovered after serial cocktail hours, indeed, they do.
Politics, politics, politics, politics. Obama’s decided to scuttle the planned missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. It’s always been controversial, partially because this part of the continent, like most parts of it, actually, have been gutted by war for centuries, and the idea of any change in the ‘balance of power’ makes people uneasy. It’s also been controversial because of the Russians’ incessant whining about, well, everything. And wouldn’t you know that after Obama and his advisors dropped the plan, Russia said it didn’t owe America anything and continued to wag it’s finger at the Western allies like a certain Austrian.
The Russians. They keep playing the same old song. It’s irritating. But even the most irritating songs disappear from the radio for awhile to be replaced by other irritating songs. With a Putin return to the presidency possible, we could be hearing his tune for decades to come. It would be as if Brit singer James Blunt’s detour in sappiness “You’re Beautiful” (I saw your face/in a crowded place/and I don’t know what to do) stayed at the top of the pops forever. If that’s not a reason to jump out a window, I don’t know what is.
“Things have never been good between Estonia and Russia,” a friend shakes her head. “Why do you think we have our guys in Afghanistan? It’s the best training they can get. Because they know it’s not a matter of ‘if’, it’s a matter of ‘when’.”
Her father’s in the army. So’s her brother. Maybe she knows what she’s talking about. Or maybe she’s just indulging us in the invasion myth. It stretches back through the generations. It’s replayed itself over and over again, from the Northern Crusades to the Second World War. It’s in every Estonian. “They’re coming.” Pack your bags. Hoist the sails. Run to the hills. “THEY’RE COMING!”‘
Every Estonian has nightmares about the hordes of evil ransacking the country, raping and burning and murdering and torturing their way back and forth across the soil of Eestimaa, like a fine comb, back and forth, until every tree is charred black with the agony of death, every field flooded with blood and the anguish of geopolitics.
You watch Savisaar seated with Boris and Kostja and it looks like a tunafish supping tea with a pair of great white sharks. You wonder how terrible Russia’s leadership is inside. I mean Stalin and Molotov also played nice with their Estonian colleagues before they sucked the country like an egg through a straw and informed the hostages that their nationality was destined to vanish and blend into the great Soviet people.
But those were evil men. They were different. Look what happened to Comrades Zinoviev and Kamenev and Trotsky. And Mihhail Khodorkovsky is only in jail indefinitely. Why, that’s like a slap on the wrist. Putin and Medvedev are different. They’re pussy cats. As Finnish President Tarja Halonen says, ‘we’ve never had it so good.’ Putin and Medvedev want to look respectable at the G20 summit. So we would like to believe.