the next prime minister (after the next one)

The Estonian Social Democratic Party (Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond) selected a new leader last week. Sven Mikser, 36, a former defense minister, has now pledged to lead his party to victory and take his rightful place as prime minister in Stenbock House. In 2015.

Mikser’s political pedigree is a bit like SDE’s itself. For the first half of his public life, he belonged to Edgar Savisaar’s Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond). Then, in 2005, he left the “green monster” for SDE, where he quickly became one of the party’s top candidates.

Several SDE leaders have a similar background. Both Centre and SDE emerged from the Estonian Popular Front in the early nineties, but SDE has been more able to form a coalition with right-wing parties, most recently one in 2007 which lasted until the party was expelled from the government in 2009. The main obstacle to reconciliation between the more politically similar Centre and SDE has been the leadership style of Centre’s Savisaar. Following the municipal elections last year, former SDE leader Jüri Pihl led the party into a coalition with Centre in Tallinn.

Pihl stood again for the party leadership last week but was ousted by those supporting Mikser. It is now his unenviable duty to return the party to its ideological roots, steering it away from its negative image as a “poodle” for the conservative and liberal parties, while dealing with the 800-pound gorilla of Savisaar’s Centre Party.

The Estonian electorate tends to favor the conservative and liberal parties in parliamentary elections. One reason for this is that they have mostly been in power since 1991. That gives them the advantage of experience and the ability to take credit for everything Estonia has achieved. But with high unemployment, Estonians are also edgier than they were during the boom years. And with most of Europe still climbing out of recession, the ability to just head to the UK for work isn’t there anymore.

The appearance of a candidate like Mikser who has the experience of conservative or liberal politician but who speaks to their economic interests might convince voters who have traditionally voted Reform or Isamaa to choose SDE, and it might sway some younger Centre voters to ditch their candidate for someone fresher.

But it is an uphill battle. Most Estonian voters I have encountered are pretty uninformed when it comes to left-wing politics. They refer to social democrats as “socialists,” which, in their mind, might as well be communists or anarcho-syndicalists. This is why SDE’s website has for months, if not years, been playing a clip that lists Tony Blair, Tarja Halonen, and Olof Palme (not Daniel Ortega, Fidel Castro, and Lê Duẩn) as social democrats.

Will Mikser realize his goal of becoming prime minister in 2015? It could happen. On one hand, he lacks the experience of the Ansips and Laars and Savisaars and Pihls of Estonian politics, but, on the other hand, he doesn’t have their baggage either. He also happens to have an impressive command of the English language.

who is running europe?

When you are into geopolitics, you may catch yourself feeling like a nerd with an odd hobby.

When other people get together, they argue about sports. When you get together with your friends, you argue about undersea gas pipelines.

Fortunately, there are other geopolitics junkies among us. Stratfor, the US-based global intelligence firm, is one of many that gives us our badly needed fix. A recent piece by Marko Papic, entitled “NATO’s lack of strategic concept” delivers.

The central thesis of the report is common knowledge. The NATO alliance is internally divided over its future. The “Atlanticists” want to focus on so-called “soft security” threats: terrorism, cybersecurity. “Core Europe,” defined in the piece as Germany and France, wants to trim down the alliance and seek consultations with Russia and the UN. The “Intermarum” countries, which run from the Baltic to Black Seas, would like to see NATO as a European territorial defense force, a security guarantee against Russia.

Who is strongest? According to Papic, the odds favor Core Europe, and especially Germany, the continent’s “political leader.” The emergence of Berlin as the most powerful capital in Europe was the “logical result of the Cold War’s end and of German reunification, though it took 20 years for Berlin to digest East Germany and be presented with the opportunity to exert its power,” Papic writes. “Europe’s fate in May 2010 amid the Greek sovereign debt crisis hinged not on what the EU bureaucracy would do, or even on what the leaders of most powerful EU countries would collectively agree on, but rather what direction came from Berlin. This has now sunk in for the rest of Europe.”

Berlin now wants to use the current crisis to “reshape the European Union in its own image,” Papic writes. Meanwhile, Paris wants to “manage Berlin’s rise and preserve a key role for France in the leadership of the European Union.” Atlanticist countries, traditional wary of a strong Germany like Denmark and the UK, are strengthening their ties to the US, perhaps in light of this.

Where does Estonia fall in this scheme? Papic has the country pegged as an Intermarum state, but I would say Estonia also behaves like an Atlanticist country. While Estonia is very keen to see a NATO able to fulfill its Article 5 obligations, Tallinn does host the alliance’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence. Estonia is also committed to the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where its troops serve alongside British and Danish and American ones in some of those countries’ most dangerous territories.

What are the reasons for this ardent Atlanticism? One could certainly point out that the president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was educated in the US as an example of close ties between the countries. But Estonia has deep historical links to traditionally Atlanticist countries. America’s non-recognition policy kept the country alive on paper for close to 50 years. Denmark and Iceland were the first countries to recognize that restored independence, and I always conceptualized Estonia’s membership in NATO as being similar to Denmark or Norway or Iceland’s membership in the alliance.

So Estonia is partially Atlanticist. It has a cyberdefense center and troops outside of NATO’s original theater of operations. But does this even matter when Germany is intent on reshaping the EU in its “own image”? One has to wonder what this even means. For Estonia certainly has drawn close to Berlin since it reemerged as a free country on the map of Europe. When Estonian lawmakers were given in the early 1990s the choice between adopting old civil law, which was based on tsarist law, or to make new laws, they voted to copy much of their civil code from one country, Germany. When they introduced their new currency, the kroon, they pegged it to the deutschmark, and later the euro. In a few months, Estonia will share the same currency with Germany, and 16 other states.

One can go on and on like this, selecting choice details to construct the image of a post-1989 Germany that was bent on dismantling Yugoslavia and digesting it piece by piece and turning the Baltic Sea into an inner lake of Europe, two geopolitical goals that were shared by earlier German statesmen, by the way. Average Germans will fervently deny that their state is bent on continental domination, but if that is the case, how did their state come to dominate the continent?

Estonians similarly would protest that their accession to European and transatlantic organizations had little to do with Germany. But Germany is at the heart of most organizations they have struggled to join. It’s also among most recent in a line of great powers to have designs for the Baltic region. And the genius of Germany’s rise, when you think about it, is that no one even sees it. So try flipping it around. Imagine an Estonia in a military alliance with the Russian Federation, a member an economic and political union with the Russian Federation, a part of a free travel area with the Russian Federation. It sounds ominous to our ears, in part because of history, in part because we have now become accustomed to the opposite.

Estonians and other countries in the Intermarum are always cautious about German-Russian deals. But Estonia is in the same military alliance as Berlin, it is the same economic and political union with Berlin, and it soon will have the same currency as Berlin. This begs the question: has there already been a deal?

furious anger

Coming from New York, I usually give The New York Times a pass. Compared to the wildly popular (and yellow) tabloids like The New York Post or the New York Daily News, or even the The Wall Street Journal‘s preachy editorial page, it retains a semblance of clarity.

Unfortunately, the Times’ recent coverage of the Baltic region continues to disappoint. At first I excused it as the fault of having a correspondent cover the Baltics from Moscow. But excuses have turned to disappointment, which has led to disgust and finally anger. Particularly worrisome is a article that appeared this week on Latvian parliamentary elections.

It’s not that the writer, Michael Schwirtz, has his angle wrong: Latvia’s economic woes have made Harmony Center, a party with ties to Putin’s United Russia, more popular. I won’t argue with that. But the language in which he coaches his account of Latvian politics since 1991 is suspect.

First, Latvia is tiny. “Unable to physically uproot the country from its tiny plot next to Russia, they sought to integrate as deeply as possible with the West.” The dimunutive size of the Baltic countries, particularly when compared to Russia, the largest country in the world, is an attribute that is constantly recited by American journalists. Why? I think it is because by explaining away Latvia’s smallness, American readers don’t have to feel responsible for knowing where it is. But would The New York Times call Denmark tiny? How about the Netherlands? They are both smaller than Latvia. And Latvia is three times larger than Israel, something to think about when you consider that miniscule country’s, um, tiny territorial conflicts.

Second, the article presents the foil of the West as something to which Latvia does not exactly belong. “The crisis, which hit harder here than anywhere else in Europe, shattered Latvians’ illusions of the West as a bastion of easy wealth and eternal prosperity.” The West suffers a significant economic crash and Latvia suffers a tremendous economic meltdown, but they are not one and the same? Swedish banks bail out Iceland and Latvia in the same year under similar conditions, but somehow the crisis that is most similar to Latvia’s doesn’t even merit mention in the article. And, wouldn’t you know it, but Iceland’s crisis brought a left-leaning constellation of parties to power. It’s not even fodder for an article: that’s a whole goddamn PhD dissertation right there. But The New York Times doesn’t connect the dots.

Third, the localization of history. “Despite Soviet and many modern Russian claims to the contrary, it is a period that the local populations consider an occupation.” On June 18, 1940, Mr. Schwirtz’s own paper’s headline read: “Red Forces Speed into Baltic States; Push Occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.” The lead was, “Soviet Russia, which won important military concessions from Finland by war, was rushing troops and tanks tonight to new Baltic bases seized from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania by ultimatum.” Ooh, occupation, troops, tanks, seized by ultimatum? There are no weasel words in there, are there?

How is it possible that The New York Times can ignore its own reporting from the time in question? It took me three minutes to pull that from the online archive. And it’s not like the United States government doesn’t take a stance on the matter. This July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Welles declaration. “This milestone document supported the Baltic States as independent republics at a critical moment to ensure their international recognition and facilitate the continued operation of their diplomatic missions during 50 years of occupation,” Clinton stated.

Then there’s the rehashing of Latvia’s citizenship laws. “When they gained independence, the new Baltic governments enacted policies that alienated and oppressed the Russian-speaking population.” This is just terrible. It’s like he lifted it from a Russia Today or ITAR-TASS article, or maybe just a Russian foreign ministry press release. First of all, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all have different policies regarding citizenship, not to mention minority rights. But look at the highly subjective language Schwirtz uses: “alienated”, “oppressed.” If he wanted to be taken seriously at all, he would have qualified it: “some say that Latvia enacted policies that have left them feeling alienated and oppressed.” Then he would merely be reporting, which is his job, instead of editorializing.

Finally, a return to the script: “Latvia’s president, Valdis Zatlers, who has the power to appoint the prime minister, has vowed to ignore the candidacy of any politician who does not plan to continue Latvia’s Western course” paired with these final words of wisdom, contained in a quote: “We need to work with [Russia] in economy and culture. They have everything; they have gas and they have oil.”

To me, it appears that The New York Times has taken the Ukrainian story and tried to apply it to Latvia. It’s the dreaded “post-Soviet” line, where all off the former Soviet republics eventually fall under the control of Moscow. I think this is actually comforting to some Western journalists, because it allows them to excuse their laziness with grand ideas that they don’t actually understand. The decoy of the Soviet Union or Russia as an anchor of regional stability is from a historical perspective quite laughable, but Western journalists keep falling for it, because it allows them to extricate themselves from tricky debates over Crimea or South Ossetia or Latvian citizenship laws, “quarrels in far-away countries between people of whom we know nothing,” to borrow a line from one British prime minister. Better to leave it to the Russians. I mean, they have everything: both gas and oil.

Interestingly, Latvia managed to deviate from the script this week. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’s center-right coalition was reelected. As Schwirtz wrote about Harmony Center yesterday, “the party appeared to make some gains on Saturday, but its hopes of a big win and a reversal of Latvia’s Westward tilt were dashed.”

Read more:

In Search of Jackboots” by Scott Diel (ERR)
Foggy at the Bottom” by Edward Lucas (The Economist)
Watching Clifford Levy” by Vello Vikerkaar
Tiny Post-Soviet Journalism” by Kris Rikken (Blue, Black, and White Alert)