Monday, December 31, 2007

Freeway Light

Freeway Light
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
I have seen the Sun over the mountains of Reykjavik. I have seen the dusk in the Scandinavian Ridge. I have seen the Aurora Borealis in the Bothnic Bay, and an enormous firestorm over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

But, even though this cameraphone photo doesn't do it justice, I have never seen the light quite so unreal as it is on the Tallinn-Tartu road, on the last Sunday of December, doing 120km/h straight into a 3pm sunset.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Do Want!

UPDATE: Bump - new stuff added.

Mostly as a reminder to myself, but also as a tip for anyone attending a birthday of mine or some other such event - a list of stuff I want but can't be bothered to buy myself (to be updated as appropriate, in no particular order):

1) Transformers - Super God Masterforce DVD set

2) Don Johnson Big Band - Don Johnson Big Band

3) Don Johnson Big Band - Breaking Daylight

4) Don Johnson Big Band Original Burn Black T-shirt (XL)

5) Top Gear Nurburgring Nipple T-shirt (XXL, black)

6) Stroopwaffels 12x8-pack (or any large quantity come to think of it)

7) Bionic Jive - Armageddon Through Your Speaker

8) E-type Loud Pipes Tour or Metal Tour T-shirt (XXL; I have both, but wouldn't mind more!)

9) Independent MC Support T-shirt (XXL; not exactly sure how to go about buying it!)

10)Tom Bihn Empire Builder shoulder bag, in Black/Black/Steel, with an Absolute Shoulder Strap and size 4 Horizontal Brain Cell

11) Ze Frank League of Awesomeness Black on Black T-shirt (XXL)

12) Evil for Evil (by K.J. Parker)

13) Dynomighty Bandoleer Bracelet (with Extras set)

14) Unicomp Customizer 105 Raven Black keyboard

15) Sony Ericsson W950i phone

16) Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard (yes, it's the second keyboard on the list; the first one is for my desk, this one is for my couch.)

17) MagnoGrip magnetic wristband

18) Room-sized RC helicopter, damage-proof (rubber body, apparently).

19) Kenwood SD101 retro barmixer, red. (Perfect gift: too expensive and impractical for me to justify buying it, but it's enormously awesome and I really want it.)

20) Philips Cucina 3-in-1 combination sandwich/waffle/meat grill.

21) Genius LuxeMate 810 Media Cruiser keyboard (cheaper than the DiNovo and far more badass)

22) Lemon press. Ingenious, and a solution to a problem I've properly been having (i.e. laziness).

23) Sun Jar. Obscurely useful and intrinsically cool.

24) Self-irony. I wantz it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The AnTyx Fix: Education

Wrote about education a few weeks ago, and of course somebody asked me what we're supposed to do about it. Which is a very good point; it's my job as a blogger to suggest the proper way to do things which I think are broken.

There was a news blurb in the papers yesterday: apparently there is something called an IT Council, and they recommended that the national school-graduation exams include mathematics as a mandatory test. This would produce a lot more youths with aptitude in mathematics, solve Estonia's labour shortage, and generally save the dolphins.

Well, that's a silly idea. It would be valid in India or China, but it's inappropriate for what we are trying to do here. Making maths mandatory is going to produce a large number of people with just enough math knowledge to pass the test, and they will be expected to go into IT, and we will have a workforce of semi-competent code monkeys that are far more expensive than semi-competent code monkeys in Bangalore, and nobody will have any use for them.

Estonia needs to be a knowledge economy. Our marketable skill is competence, and the ability to design and implement the optimal solutions to a problem. Solutions which are remarkably useful, and I mean remarkably - so good that you can't help but remark on it. To sustain this, we need to give our people the opportunity to become really good at what they do, and we can't do that by forcing all of them to learn Java.

Now, I've seen something recently which made me think about these things. It was a list of things you have to do when you're poor. It had really sad and hard-hitting lines like "Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw". It made me think of my own family, back in the early 90s, when often enough my dad would simply not get his salary; he'd do the work, but there would be no money to give him. We were properly poor back then. But these days - I'm not rich, but I've fooled some people. I'm comfortably middle-class, with enough disposable income for a moderate selection of toys. So's the rest of my family. So are my friends, including the ones I grew up with.

And it occured to me that the biggest external contributing factor - other than the fact that I'm just naturally good at something that I've managed to earn money doing - was education. More importantly, the fact that I could go to the best university in the country and pay no tuition at all. I worked through most of my uni days, and my parents helped out, and I took out student loans some of the time (secured by the state - the interest is actually less than inflation now), but I couldn't have done it if I had to pay tuition as well. And yes, I have a BA in English, which is about the most practically useless degree one can have (second only to semiotics and philosophy), but it's still helped to find a good job. It has also given me an excuse to move away from my parents, and get the confidence of being able to take care of myself.

So how do we scale that experience? Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is to create a steady stream of intelligent, well-trained and highly competent specialists? I don't have a guaranteed solution, but I have an idea on where to start.

1) Money. Estonia's free-market ideology means that the government does not own the companies that provide a government-regulated service. The national universities (like hospitals) are commercial enterprises; and every year, the government calculates how many specialists in a certain field it will be able to use 3 to 5 years down the line. Based on that, it signs a contract with a university, paying it to train the specialists. The university has a certain, significant but limited, number of tuition-free spots, which are assigned to applicants based on academic achievement. Usually, those who didn't make it will have a chance to get a paid spot - a thousand Euro per semester or so. Same curriculum.

Obviously we end up with more specialists than the state ordered. The state is limited by its budget, and relies on the commercial spots and all-private universities to make up the shortfall. The problem is that the all-private universities are generally crap (I think Tallinn's EBS business school might be the only exception). More money for more free spots would allow a concentration of students to the better institutions. We'd be fine with a University of Tartu and a University of Tallinn, and their colleges in Pärnu, Narva, Haapsalu... I have no faith in places like Mainor or Euroülikool.

More opportunities for free tuition will attract more students to the universities that can provide good education. Education from a good university is a useful thing even if the student ends up with a job that has nothing to do with his degree - as a lot of people do.

2) Exams. Currently, there is a single set of exams for high school graduation, and the results of these are used by the universities to generate an average passing grade. The results of all applicants are averaged out, and those who have a grade higher than the threshold, get the free spot.

The problem with this is that the exams cater to the lowest common denominator. Not all the kids who leave high school will go to university. Not all universities are the same in the level of education they offer, and thus the level of student knowledge they require.

The universities need to re-introduce their own entrance exams. This will allow the good colleges to accept good students; or rather, because they will be the ones with an abundance of free-tuition spots, it will motivate more students to study hard and bone up on the subject matter. It should also intrinsically limit the number of kids applying for a major with a low entrance barrier that they have no long-term interest in - just to get that student status.

3) Support. Estonia's tertiary education system has been criticized for mostly being inferior to universities abroad, but that is the wrong approach. Obviously it is not possible for a country of 1.3 million to build up a talent pool as comprehensive, diverse and advanced as a country with thirty or fourty times the population. Fortunately, we don't have to! The fact that it is so easy for our kids to go and study in Oxbridge or the Sorbonne is an advantage, a very significant resource bestowed on us by EU membership, and one that we would be fools to ignore. By the very nature of the Estonian people, they will not stay away forever; even those with an education and a career in the confederacy or further off will still return sooner or later, because of the fundamental Estonian sense of home. EU's best universities should be exploited by Estonia in the same way that EU funds are used to renovate our infrastructure.

Of course any application for EU funds is accompanied by a mandatory self-financing component. The same point applies. The Estonian government needs to dedicate resources - financial, administrative and political - to supporting those of its youths who choose to go abroad and study at the best colleges in Europe, or indeed the world. In the same way that the state secures student loans at a low interest rate, pays for tuition, and ensures discounts on vital goods and services (I'm still convinced that there is a state tender for the 1.90 EEK packets of ramen in the shops near Tartu's dorm cluster), there needs to be an extensive government program of supporting kids that study abroad. Something similar exists in a basic state - you can get your student loans written off if you work for a government agency after graduation - but it needs to be greatly expanded.

So, what do you think? Does any of this make sense?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Expect Trouble

Something big is going down in Narva.

For some time now, the city council has been fighting the Kreenholm factory over some disputed utility bills. The Kreenholm textile factory is one of Estonia's biggest manufacturing enterprises, contributing a serious chunk to the country's exports. It is also an extremely important employer in the troubled Ida-Virumaa region.

Tomorrow Kreenholm will lay off 900 employees.

From what I gather, Narva's municipal water company has raised prices sharply. According to Kreenholm management, the amount that the factory is being charged is 14 times above cost; as Narva Vesi is the monopoly, this does appear extremely fishy. Kreenholm, which consumes some two hundred million kroons' worth of power and water annually, challenged the price hike and took it all the way to the Law Chancellor (a high-ranking civil servant, used as a nonpartisan arbiter), who demanded an explanation from the city. The arbitration court has not yet ruled on the lawsuit of Narva Vesi against Kreenholm, claiming 20 million kroons in unpaid fees.

The Narva city council, which has been backing the water company aggressively, has arrested Kreenholm's bank accounts on December 4th. With no way to pay suppliers, or its employees, Kreenholm has cut its losses. The factory employs some 2400 people total, after an earlier layoff of 500. Another nine hundred jobs lost will in itself be devastating for Narva's economy; more could follow. The factory's Swedish owners say they will not close it down completely, but by next Christmas it will hardly employ more than a thousand people.

It's been a bad day for Estonian business. Skype, the darling of the Estonian IT sector, has been in trouble. Its owner, eBay, which paid $2.6 bln for the company and then announced it had overvalued the business massively, has not been able to develop the service in any significant way. The former owners, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, have quit to pursue other projects. And today, around 30 Skype employees suddenly found themselves out of a job.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Author, in Need of a Haircut

Yours Truly
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Now everyone can see what Giustino meant. :)

I am very rarely happy with pictures of myself, and this is that rare occasion. In fact I wanted to download the picture right away, and as I fumbled with the big DSLR, I knocked my phone off the desk. It's a Motorola V500, a clamshell, and it was open; it landed face-down and broke the hinge. No worries; it was three years old, almost to the day, and I have been looking for an excuse to get rid of it.

So now I have a Nokia 6500 Classic. Over two years ago, I wrote about the lack of killer features in mobile phones these days. To be entirely honest, I'm still not convinced; the camera and Bluetooth were the last technical innovations that I thought were really desirable. GPS might be the next one, but it's not mainstream yet. Other than that, in three years there has been almost no progress in handset design. The one thing that's relatively common in phones today, but wasn't when I bought my V500, are sensor buttons, and they suck. I've never kept a phone as long as I kept the V500, and that's because there was no phone meanwhile that I really wanted.

I've never liked Nokias, either. They're decent phones, but extremely default-choice; I've always thought Nokias are bought by people with no imaginations. I've never owned a Nokia, in fact. I've had various Motorolas (including a T191 which was actually an Acer), Siemenses, Ericssons - before they were bought by Sony - but never a Nokia.

But I do like the 6500c. It's thin, it's metal, it's got an amazing screen (although my V500 had a really good one as well), and it looks awesome. And for once in my life, I get to use all the gigantic infrastructure that Nokia's market penetration has created. Long before the iPod got an entourage of third parties manufacturing accessories in translucent white plastic, Nokia allowed people to customize their phones with ringtones and wallpapers and games, and absolutely everything exciting to do with mobile phones came out on a Nokia first. Now, I get to enjoy that.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Estonian Education in "Not Completely Shit" Shocker

So, this is old news, but it's worth mentioning.

Apparently there was a test of science proficiency among 15-year-old schoolkids, and Estonia scored quite well. Fifth place overall, second place in general achievement (how good the entire student body is on average). The test was conducted by the OECD, which is a fairly credible organization, and nearly 5000 kids from Estonia took part, so it's representative.

Which is nice. I've been asked about education in the comments to a previous post, and I genuinely believe it is the most important long-term issue for the country. We have some natural resources we can use in a clever way (the timber, and the shale), and there's always the tourist industry, but first and foremost Estonia is a knowledge economy. We have great software developers, we have a great biotech scene, and we have great engineers coming up with stuff like ultra-smart fabrics for skiing jackets. That's what will keep us going and make us rich in Europe. Estonia has been such a success story because we got to start from scratch in 1991, but it's not just that: everyone east of Vienna started from scratch in 1991. We were simply very clever about it. That cleverness, the ability to find the best solution and implement it, ignoring all the reasons why it probably won't work, is what makes this country great.

To keep it up, we need lots of highly skilled specialists, and therefore lots of very good education. We already have completely tuition-free university education for the top performers, but we need to expand on that. I don't have a well thought-out Antyx Fix for you right now, but my first thought is to give the University of Tartu more money to take in more kids, and let it reinstitute entrance exams, so the faculty can have more control over the quality of students they accept. (Right now university entrance is based on a bell curve number calculated from high school graduation exams.) So yeah, let's keep up the good work.

But there is an interesting point here. Russophone kids scored demonstrably worse in the OECD test than the ones in Estonian-speaking schools. This is ever so slightly counter-intuitive. Back when I was in high school - which wasn't all that long ago, after all! - we still used Soviet textbooks for a lot of the science courses. This is fine; the laws of the universe don't really change over time, and the superiority of physics & chemistry education in the Soviet curriculum was unassailable. The SU really did teach kids a lot more science than the West did.

You would think that the Russian books and especially the Russian teachers, trained in the old Soviet system, would produce quite good results. And yet, they don't.

The Education Minister, Tõnis Lukas, suggests that this happened because the Estonian teachers have had more opportunity for further training and raising their own skill levels. Teachers from Russian schools, who don't speak Estonian all that well, would not have the same opportunities. But hold on, this is science; surely all the training materials would be in English anyway? And in that case there shouldn't be a difference?

Maybe there is. Maybe the older teachers, the ones who learned their trade in the Soviet days, the ones who have been teaching physics for thirty years - they can't learn English any more than they learn Estonian. Can't or won't. Maybe the general sense of pessimism has gotten the better of them, and they really can't be bothered making an effort any more. Maybe.

In any case, it does rather put a new twist on the old Russian-schools issue. We're told that the kids would have too hard a time learning science in Estonian, with confusing terminology and such. But if they're doing badly learning it in their native tongue, and the gap clearly correlates with language, don't we owe it to the future generations to make sure they get the best education - in Estonian - they possibly can?

Friday, November 30, 2007


The nice folks retrieving the grand fir that will be Tartu's central Christmas tree this year... well, let's just say, they can has fail.

(Original image from Postimees.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thursday nights in Tartu...

Plugging a mate's band - but hey, I'll be there myself. ;) Still, scary memories of Thursday night drinking. Last time I did that seriously, it was the week before Summer Solstice. A British friend had some of his friends over for the celebrations. One of them had apparently just had a streak of very good luck with his business, and appeased the gods by going to the ATM, punching a random button and insisting that he would spend all the money the machine gave him on vodka & Red Bull for everyone that night. Silly limey got 5000 EEK (£200 and change). After a long pub crawl involving Kissing Students, Rasputin (which refused to serve us any food except gherkins, so we just had more vodka), the Atlantis nightclub ("...but you don't understand - men like cheap sluts!" - a fine justification to present to one's girlfriend) and invariably Zavood, I got home around 4am, woke up at 8 and made a brave attempt to walk to work. I made it as far as the petrol station next to my house, where I proceeded to imbibe a large quantity of Nestea green tea and wait for a cab. Normally I take pride in being able to maintain some level of functionality with a hangover, but this was too much for me. I crashed onto the couch in the office and slept until 3pm. I respectfully posit to you, sir, that it was not the drinking that did me in, but the lack of a full night's rest.

Mind you, the last Helena Nova gig in Tartu started with half a liter of vodka's worth of Screwdrivers and ended in Krooks. But that wasn't a Thursday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Economy Redux

Oh all right then. I really didn't want to talk about the devaluation scare, because it's just too mind-bogglingly stupid, a cringe-inducing example of lemming behavioral patterns. But if you insist...

Here's what happened:

Back in early November, someone at an Estonian Russophone messageboard posted a game scenario where the Estonian government announced a snap devaluation of the kroon, and asked the regulars to suggest their actions.

Because the disclaimer was in fine print, some people didn't notice it, and thought it was an actual information leak. So they started converting their assets to Euro and calling all their friends to warn them. This apparently caused a wave of vague rumors: nobody knew where they were coming from, but everybody was talking about an imminent devaluation, and people were scared.

A few days ago, the original messageboard post got picked up by someone from the Night Watch, who posted it on their website. This sparked a mass panic among the Russian population: if Night Watch says it, it must be true. The information spread so pervasively that even those who didn't care about Night Watch were convinced by all their friends. Since the text said that the devaluation would happen on Monday morning, Sunday saw a run on currency exchange companies: people were buying up Euros, Swedish kronor, British pounds, even gold (but curiously, not dollars). Tallinn's big independent currency exchange company, Tavid, actually ran out of foreign cash.

This run was almost entirely confined to the Russophone population. The Estonians had gotten wind of the original rumors, but never panicked. They had good reason not to: devaluation of the Estonian kroon is extremely unlikely, for multiple very good reasons.

First of all, the law. The kroon is pegged to the Euro by legislation; removing the peg would require a new bill, and a bill can only be passed if it has gone through no less than two readings in parliament, with no less than two weeks between them. The Bank of Estonia can only vary the peg rate by 3% (0.47 EEK). In theory it is possible for the BoE board to hold a continuous series of sessions through the night, adjusting the rate by 3% every time, but I will dare you to find a politician who could pull that off and not get lynched by an angry mob the next morning. Otherwise, a devaluation with forewarning is entirely pointless. The idea of devaluation is to remove excess wealth from the economy, wealth which defeats motivation to try harder. If everyone just converts their savings to Euros and back again, you've lost a lot of voter confidence with no benefit at all. Say what you will about the Estonian government, but they know a bit about economy theory.

Second, the kroon is secure. Estonia operates on a currency board system, whereby the BoE only issues kroons in return for foreign currency. Every kroon in circulation is backed by a dollar, Euro, pound, yen or dinar sitting somewhere deep in the vaults under Estonia Puiestee. While the total worth of these reserves does naturally vary, overall the BoE is capable of redeeming all the money out there at the peg rate. The sort of concentrated market effort that would drive the value of the kroon down enough that the BoE reserves would be depleted is not possible due to the rules of international banking. So the kroon isn't going to crash on its own; it can only be devalued by the government.

Third, there is simply no reason to do it. The kroon has been in far worse trouble than today. It wasn't devalued then (when it was still pegged to the Deutschmark) and it won't be devalued now. There is simply nobody who would benefit from it. The banks need their Euro-denominated mortgages paid back, and don't want the general population to suddenly lose a big chunk of its purchasing power. The businesses don't want it, because the devaluation only benefits industrial exports, which are a minor factor in the Estonian economy. Estonia's main economic force is its skilled labour, and that has shown willingness to go abroad in search of higher pay. To retain their workforce, the employers would have to recalculate salaries in Euros, which they can do with relative ease because they sell their products for Euros anyway. So devaluation is pointless.

But why did the currency run happen, then? The scare is rooted in the general sense of pessimism that has arisen in the wake of the economic slowdown. We seem to be heading for the soft landing rather than the hard crash, but people have come to expect wild growth and are discouraged when they don't find it. Accession to the Eurozone was our next grand project, after EU and NATO membership, and now that looks unlikely for at least a decade. Consciously or subconsciously, people want their government to jumpstart the economy, initiate another period of massive growth. Without a deep understanding of economic processes, based simply on hearsay and Delfi editorials, they expect that the government would do something like this - trade off a momentary lapse against future growth. And besides, who in Estonia has savings anyway?

The reason that the scare was prevalent among the Russophones is that - and I know I'll be called all sorts of bad things again for this - the majority of them are working-class immigrants without the education or the curiosity to try and figure out what is happening, exactly. Their pervasive distrust of the government, a reflex applied through surviving the Perestroika, coupled with a nagging suspicion that Andrus Ansip personally hates each and every one of them, makes them susceptible to such rumours.

People are mostly lemmings. There isn't much we can do about that. In this case nobody got hurt very much, although people will indeed lose money on the exchange rate. Far from being critical, the situation is simply embarassing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It's the Economy, St00pid

Our neighbours aside, the thing that is supposed to kill Estonia is an economic implosion. Ostensibly fueled by cheap lending from the Scandinavian-owned banks, it has resulted in very high inflation and a very high current-account deficit. The harbinger of doom, they say, is the crash of the real estate market.

Now, certainly things are not as rosy as they've been in the past. But is the sky really falling?

Inflation is the first boogeyman. A year ago we were desperately trying to stuff it that last bit under 3%, so we could join the Euro. Now it's around 8%, year-on-year. Horrible, isn't it? The EEK is losing value fast!

Except it's not, because it's pegged to the Euro. All sorts of analysts have been calling on the Bank of Estonia to float the currency, but they don't seem about to do it. Pegging to the Euro makes sense because most of the Estonian economy is tied into the Eurozone. People pay their mortgages in Euros, and they get paid by companies that sell their wares for Euros. So as long as the kroon stays pegged, and stays freely exchangeable, it's losing value at the same rate as the Euro - which isn't much at all. You can go to Paris today and buy as much stuff with the same amount of kroons as you could a year ago.

What's happening isn't that the currency is losing value, but that the cost of living is going up. Prices in Estonia are going up; in fact they're inching ever closer to the Central European ones. But the economy is growing much faster than the Eurozone's - and despite a noticeable slowdown, it's still growing faster than inflation! So we are still getting more wealthy, just at a slower rate than before. As long as this keeps up, it's not an economic crisis - it's just part of the process of catching up to the European living standard. Oh, did you think you'd end up getting European salaries without European prices? Silly rabbit.

The current account deficit is a nebulous economic term: to put it very simply, it's the difference between the worth of stuff that Estonians own abroad, and the worth of stuff that foreigners own in Estonia. So we owe them more than they owe us, which is why we have the deficit.

The problem with this number is that people tend to assume it means something different; they think it's the amount of money we owe to somebody. Which is not the case. The current account deficit is the result of the specifics of the Estonian economy, which has been successful by attracting lots of foreign investment. Our favourable tax code has resulted in lots of companies using local labour to produce goods or services, but not actually selling anything here. So the Estonian subsidiary, a locally registered company, sells its product to the mother company for exactly enough to cover costs - wages of the employees, office rent, equipment purchase, etc. This makes sense because the company has no profit left over at the end of the year - everything is being reinvested. So the company doesn't pay any tax on that profit. (The government gets income tax from the individual employees' salaries.)

But the subsidiary still has revenue, and capital assets, and those do keep growing. So the foreign company's worth of stuff they own in Estonia goes up. And the current account deficit increases. Mind you, there's still money coming into the pockets of both Estonian employees and the Estonian government. But because this money is on the books as cost, it doesn't get included in the current account calculations.

Now, the current account deficit is still a bad thing for the economy, because we'd rather own stuff than be salaried employees. There are a few big movers in the right direction, like Tallink, an Estonian company which is now the biggest ferry operator on the Baltic. But a current account deficit is by no means a sign of imminent economic crash. In fact, it means that our economy is secured by the stability of established European markets. Which is nice.

The third, final and most overhyped issue is the real estate crash. The banks have been giving out lots of loans in Euros, with low interest. People have been taking advantage of that to buy lots of apartments. Because the number of people with the money to buy a home is growing, and the supply of apartments is limited, their prices skyrocketed. Because old Soviet apartment blocks are rather unpleasant, people were willing to pay more for new apartments. Because the market prices for apartments were insanely above the costs, lots of companies scampered to start developing residential properties.

This cycle continued for a while, until the end of 2006 or so, and then it hit a wall. Prices got too high, the inflation rose, the economy started to slow down, people started losing faith. The first victims were the speculators, who were trying to buy up properties still in development and sell them for a profit when they were completed. Because the bank loan rules are fairly strict, they had to turn their money around quickly. When the demand dried up, they had to get out of their investments quick. But this had a relatively minor effect on the market. There weren't very many of these guys, and what they were doing was kind of assholey, so fuck 'em.

The market ground to a halt. The number of sales fell dramatically. Prices also fell, but curiously, not all that much. There are people like this guy, and Postimees staff writers, who keep bringing up massive discounts in apartment prices as proof of a meltdown in progress. But the important thing that a lot of folks don't notice is that all these grand discounts come not from owners - but from developers.

There's an important difference. An owner of an apartment is getting back the money he paid for the apartment when he got it. With any new building, the sell price is going to be only slightly higher than the price the owner paid for it. A wave of massive discounts on the secondary real estate market would mean that people are actually losing money. But interestingly enough, this is not happening.

The 200 million kroons of total discount on apartments that this dude talks about is money that never existed. Nobody ever paid those 200 million kroons and then couldn't get them back. All of that money is developers' discounts; profits that they hoped to get by putting new properties on the market for improbably high prices at the peak of the boom, when they actually had some chance in hell of getting that sort of money. Now the peak has passed, the market is not willing to pay improbably high prices, and they're having to lower them. But - they're not lowering them past the level of cost. With the exception of tiny, one-shot development ventures that ran out of cheap loans before they could finish their properties (probably due to the lack of construction labour - all the workers went abroad for better pay), everyone is still getting a profit. Just not as much of one as they'd hoped.

One point that has been brought up is the number of evictions. Year-on-year, it has increased tenfold. What the sensationalist articles are slow to point out is that the absolute numbers are still very low. And we don't know how many of those evictions were speculators, who only lost tiny down payments. There were some very dodgy deals available at the height of the lending spree, but most people who buy apartments to keep, have to adhere to the mortgage rules: down payments of 10-15% or more, and the monthly payment cannot exceed 30-40% of the household net income (and that percentage includes all repayments, including car loans and credit card debt). And you have to be able to afford the mortgage when you buy the apartment; any raise or additional income you get afterwards eases the pressure.

Even for the poor buggers who bought at the peak of the price rally, there are some good news. Most mortgages in Estonia are issued in Euros at EURIBOR + the bank's margin, and the margin is usually pretty low (less than 1%). EURIBOR has now stopped growing, and might even fall - the European Central Bank has to do this to keep the world financial markets running. And as long as the economy growth stays even a little ahead of inflation, salaries in absolute EEK numbers continue to grow, and the EEK stays pegged to the Euro, the effective repayment level will only shrink. Because everyone here will be getting more kroons, but while they won't be able to buy that much more milk with them, they will be able to buy more Euros.

To conclude: yes, the Estonian economy has problems. But they're not unsolvable, and they're not grave. So could the journalists and the lemmings please stop being apocalyptic about it?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


A letter to the managing director of a Siberian coal mining company, from the local office of United Russia. It reads:

I consider your refusal to provide financial assistance to the regional branch of the United Russia party for the campaign of the upcoming parliamentary elections as a refusal of support for President Putin and his formative course.

I consider it my duty to notify the Presidential Administration and the Governor of Kemerovo oblast about this.

From the Secretary of the Political Council of the local UR branch.

Are you scared yet?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Last of the Soviets

For all my European posturing (for I am neither convincingly Estonian, convincingly Russian, nor convincingly Jewish) - there is that part of me, the part established in the first seven years of my life in the Evil Empire's Switzerland and the confusing, irrational mess of a society it turned into in the early 90s, that will remain Soviet. Hell, I even got to wear a school uniform for a few months in 1st grade!

And the reason I'm saying it is, I've been eating mandarins. English-speakers will know them as tangerines, but for the purpose of this discussion, they're mandarins. And I've been thinking that the Soviet legacy will finally die with the last person on Earth who subconsciously, inevitably equates the taste of mandarins with New Year's Eve.

It's an aspect of the economy of the Soviet Union: citrus, like most other fruits you couldn't grow locally on your allotment, was a rarity. Oranges were even more rare than mandarins, because there were more places in the SU where mandarins could be grown industrially. You couldn't go to a shop at any time of the year and buy some citrus. Such things were sold only occasionally, in batches.

People could get rarities through their jobs, though. The big corporations tried to instill loyalty in their workers by sending out raiding parties, scouring the warehouses and various shady connections for deliciousness. On major holidays, you would get a package from work, with things for your kids.*

And mandarins were one of those things: you'd get them in the packages, and you'd get them in the shops, just before New Year - the technically secular form of the pagan Winter Solstice and imperialist Christmas. Something exotic, and very un-wintery, to put on the celebratory table. Then you'd sit there, watch the Blue Flame show on TV (baby blue was the predominant color of Soviet New Year, for some reason) and wait for the coming of the Näärivana (or Father Frost, if you'd like) - a theatrical school student hired by the trade union that your parents belonged to.** You had to recite a poem for him before he'd give you your present.

The scarcity of the Soviet time, the deficit - which I never really felt in its worst form, because in the late 80s Estonia was a much better place to be than the rest of the Soviet Union - served to curb the consumeristic impulses, to an extent. Western tradition of Christmas involves a pile of stuff under the tree, lots and lots of presents. But for me, it's always been one gift; that one thing, which was usually not so much expensive as unattainable, that I could wait for and finally get, just past midnight. Then I'd go out with my father, and we'd set off the fireworks; actually fireworks are a much later thing, in the Soviet days it was bangers - cardboard tubes with a rope that you'd pull, and it would set off a small powder charge inside, spraying confetti all over, and maybe even a little present that you'd have to search for in the snow.

That said, at least there were a lot of holidays to get one present for. New Year's was the main one, but there were also two Christmases. The Catholic Christmas (as it was always referred to in Russian, despite Estonia being a Lutheran country - for what it's worth) was celebrated along with the rest of the country. This was the true pagan holiday, the Winter Solstice, a time of quiet joy with the family, irrespective of your religious affiliation. Then there was the Russian Christmas; the Orthodox church still used the Julian calendar, where everything was offset by two weeks compared to the official Gregorian one, so Christmas fell on January 7th. And then there was the final triumph of holiday spirit over reason and logic: Old New Year, celebrated on January 14th. All these were worth a present, though not all of the presents were equal. But it's the very fact of a present that counts.

All these holidays were so draining on the population, that they were referred to as simply "the New Year holidays". It was common knowledge that any business transactions, any negotiations or requests, had to be delayed until the end of January. During the New Year holidays, the Soviet Union just stopped.

*This is one of those improbably strong Soviet traditions that is still going on, in Nordic, Western Estonia after nearly two decades. My employer - big enough to actually be a faceless corporation - still distributes gift bags of Kalev candy to employees' children at Christmas time. Along with the informal celebration of March 8th as International Women's Day, and the fact that the Latvian border guards in Valga will still address you in Russian and not English, it's proof positive that the regular people are deep down both willing and able to let go of the insults and injuries of the past, and keep the positive bits.

**It was a lucrative, sought-after job. My former boss told me about his exploits as a Jõuluvana, doing some door-to-door promotions, long after the SU had burned in flames. It was the duty of nearly every head of family to offer him a shot of vodka, and he had no moral right to refuse.

Monday, November 12, 2007

300th Post!


I sincerely hope there's nobody anal enough to count them, because Blogger's dashboard might actually also count the ones that are still in draft stage, in which case this is not the 300th post published on AnTyx. But let's just pretend it is, anyway.

Days like today is why I own a car in Tartu. I live alone, and I'm within half an hour's walking distance of my downtown office, which is doable even in the freezing winter months. I'm now much more conveniently serviced by public transport than at my previous rental apartment. It would definitely be cheaper to take the bus than drive around, usually alone, in my relatively enormous '93 Mazda 626 liftback, which consumes about 15l/100km in Tartu urban driving, because I only do about 70km on my tiny commute, in traffic, and it always runs cold. I now need to buy winter tires for it, then find out what I need to fix up for the MoT coming in December, and insurance runs out in early January (when I'll have owned the same car for a full year - OMG!). It's a really expensive proposition.

But on days like today, when it's snowing with a cold wind, and it's dark, and slippery, and generally unpleasant - it is an indescribable pleasure to scrape the ice off your windshield (takes longer than the actual drive home), get inside, put the heater on full, turn on the stereo, and carefully inch along the treacherous streets to the wail of the over-revving engine and the cricket staccato of the ABS brakes, driving past the poor, miserable bastards waiting for the bus.

Worth every penny.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Politically Conscious

Politically Conscious
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
My commenters say the best thing Estonia can do is open up trade with Georgia. Well, I'm doing my part. :)

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Võru

South Estonia, especially Võru county, is a place hiding many interesting things - and many interesting people. There is a Barclay Hotel in Tartu, named after Barclay de Tolli, the Russian army general from the Napoleon wars. It is located in the building which, in the Soviet days, used to house the headquarters of the South Estonian Military District. The presidential suite of the hotel used to be the office of the district commander - one Djohar Dudaev, later on the first president of rebellious Chechnya.

There's also an urban legend about nukes in Võru. I thought it was improbable, myself - strategic munitions so close to the Western border - even though the Raadi airfield near Tartu was designated as an emergency strip for Soviet nuclear bombers. But stranger things have happened. Below is an account by a friend who grew up in Võru county.

There were as many as eight Soviet military objects in Võru county: a surveillance station in Meremäe, a communications unit in Mõniste, missile bases in Sänna and Nursi, firing ranges in Nursi and Kubija, an airport in Ridali and another missile base in Palometsa.

Nursi and Sänna were the nuclear missile sites. In Sänna, at least one of the cupolas of the underground launching silos should still be there, although access to the base is restricted now. Both bases stored intermediate-range ballistic missiles - R-12/SS-4 - targeted to cities in Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Norway. The R-12 Dvina missiles were exactly like the ones deployed to Cuba in 1962.

A missile was actually fired to Novaya Zemlya once from the Sänna base, without the nuclear warhead, supposedly, but this fact has nevertheless a highly gasp-inducing factor.

The missiles were removed from Sänna and Nursi around 1988-89, although yeah, there are all sorts of stories about how some of them were left behind, hidden away with other weaponry. Around 1999 people became sort of paranoid about some supposed secret storage facilities...

When the missiles were gone, most of the Russians living at the bases quietly left as well, and local farmers couldn't have been happier. They explored the sites and brought all kinds of stuff home with them and used it in their households. Some barracks were never restored either, and roughly about 6-7 years ago, some local schoolboys went to Nursipalu and brought with them a huge glass jar filled with mercury, which was stored under a layer of petroleum. The word is that those glass jars were in abundance there. I wonder what these were used for.

Another interesting fact is that although the nuclear parts of the warheads were removed a long time ago (some warheads still remained, but without the radioactive stuff - some local farmers have made use of these as bee-hives, actually), they are still conducting radioactivity surveys regularly, the last one was apparently in 2001-2002.

As far as the urban legends go, people do talk about the high incidence of leukemia in Nursi.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Georgia WTF

The pictures of riots in Georgia, being supressed by the police, cannot help but bring up comparisons with the Bronze Night in Tallinn. While our own April riots had a sequence of events building up to them, events that most TV viewers were not aware of, there was at least one cause that the anchors could mention: the unrest followed the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial.

The Tbilisi riots are far more enigmatic. The official news sources could not quote anything except the opposition's general dissatisfaction with president Saakashvili and his political party. While my esteemed colleague has forfeited attempts to figure out what the hell is going on there, I have the advantage of speaking Russian. As usual with such things, LiveJournal is a good source of perspectives and links to relevant articles. Here's what I've got so far.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected as president in January of 2004, following the Rose Revolution. Following a long reign of ex-Soviet bigwig Eduard Shevarnadze, he was a welcome Western-minded alternative. He had the support of the people, and some very important allies - the US took a particular interest in Georgia, since its location makes it a useful platform to project power into the Middle East and Central Asia.

The presidential elections were followed by parliamentary elections, which Saakashvili's coalition promptly won. Georgian law states that the President is elected for five years, and the Parliament for four. So Saakashvili's first term would've run out in the winter of 2009, and the cabinet's in the spring of 2008, in other words Any Day Now.

At the end of last year, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment rescheduling the elections. The government was reluctant to hold a campaign at the same time as Russia, which is having an election season extending into next spring as well. It was thought - not unreasonably - that Georgia would be used as a propaganda cause, and it would be a great temptation for the Kremlin to try and destabilize the small country, like it's done before by supporting the separatists in the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are still under the control of Russian peacekeepers. So the amendments, which were found to be legitimate, but iffy by the Council of Europe's constitutional monitoring authority, extended the term of the Parliament by six months. This would allow the elections to be held long after Russia had made its decisions, for better or for worse. Saakashvili bought this extra time by voluntarily giving up three months of his own term, thus having the Georgian parliamentary and presidential elections at the same time.

This is what pissed off the opposition. As it stands, Georgia's political system is fairly heavily tilted in favour of the President, and the rescheduling is also an obvious attempt to use Saakashvili's personal popularity to strengthen the position of his supporting coalition*. With a popular incumbent president currently supported by a loyal parliamentary majority, the opposition is completely out of the loop. It doesn't help that the opposition leaders appear to include the sons of Georgia's first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia*.

But the opposition alone couldn't make the riots happen. Why are the common people on the streets? Different sources put the number of protesters as high as 150,000 people, and in a country about twice the size of Estonia with almost three times the population, that's still a huge number. (To compare: the marauding crowds in Tallinn on the Bronze Night are estimated at being up to 3,000 strong, by the wildest counts.) What's got them all so riled up?

Georgia was one of the first Soviet republics to make a serious attempt at independence, and the only one except for the Baltics that is not a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a mostly pointless virtual union established after the fall of the USSR to alleviate exposure shock in countries with little experience in self-rule). At the same time, its history has been infinitely more tragic. The early 90s were marred by extensive Balkans-style bloodshed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the corrupt government of Shevarnadze impeded the country's economic growth. Saakashvili was supposed to change all that. But Georgians are, for most intents and purposes, Mediterraneans. The country has a long history stretching back to the pre-Roman times - it's known to have been a trading partner of Ancient Greece, and it can be argued that it is part of the same civilization. As Mediterraneans often are, the Georgians are impulsive and impatient. In two and a half years of effective rule, Saakashvili has failed to produce an improvement in living standards as drastic as was expected of him. For all its new foreign markets - you can now buy genuine Georgian wines in Tartu, and they're quite good - the country remains relatively poor. When the people are disgruntled, they blame the leader.

So, this week the protesters took to the streets, and the situation rapidly dissolved into a riot. Police used water cannons and tear gas; in an unfortunate coincidence, the worst of the clashes took place in the same boulevard where the Soviet authorities once harshly suppressed a demonstration of Georgian independence activists, and people can't help but make the painful connection. The president declared a state of emergency, which included an information blockade: foreign TV channels were shut off, the local press was confined to quarters. That is finished now, and it seems that it might have had a point: given a bit of time to catch their breath without having to worry about the media, the government and opposition leaders were able to meet and agree on terms.

Stunned by the riots, Saakashvili has gathered up his bravery and gone all-in. He has proposed a shotgun election in January of 2008, less than two months away. Ideologically, the opposition has lost its footing: they cannot accuse Saakashvili of being a corrupt, power-hungry politician if he is volunteering to cut his own term by a full year to give the people a chance to express their distrust of their leader. At the same time, the president is effectively counteracting claims that the police suppression of the riots signalled an end of democracy in Georgia - in the wake of the crisis, he's doing the most democratic, absolutely textbook thing possible, by effectively resigning. Such a short campaign also leaves the Kremlin with precious little time to influence the elections, especially as the opposition has definitively proven its incompetence by failing to turn a 150,000-strong crowd into any sort of real political advantage.

At the end of the day, despite the sheer amount of balls it took Saakashvili to call an early election, it seems to be a safe move: for all the popular disillusionment with the supposed wonder boy, there does not seem to be any other Georgian politician with a viable chance to get the popular vote. Saakashvili will most likely be re-elected, in a free and democratic poll monitored by European observers and the US advisors already in the country, and the opposition will be silenced.

Most of this analysis is based on the conversations in Georgians' LiveJournals, as well as Russian news sources, including anti-Kremlin ones. I've tried to arrange the information and pick out the scenarios that seemed most plausible to me. We'll see what happens.

Now for the Western perspective. The US seems very interested in having Georgia as a satellite nation; it is at once fervently anti-Islam, having a very strong Orthodox tradition (in fact along with Armenia it is one of the oldest consistently Christian countries in existence), but it is also fervently anti-Russia. For the US's interests in the region, Georgia shows a potential of loyalty second only to Israel. America might be a bit busy with other things in the Middle East/Central Asia region right now, but Georgia would definitely be a very good ally to have. Which is why the Georgian army is re-tooling with US equipment and training with US military instructors, and the government lends an ear to US advisors. There is even persistent talk of Georgia getting NATO membership. If Estonia could join NATO without a border treaty with Russia, Georgia can join NATO without resolving the issue of its breakaway provinces - as long as the US wants it bad enough.

For the EU, Georgia is a sweet piece of property as well, and you only need to look at the map to see why. With the last round of expansion, Europe has the use of Bulgarian and Romanian ports on the western shore of the Black Sea; with Georgian ports on the eastern shore, the EU is only one short skip away from having access to the Kaspian oil reserves - completely bypassing Russia. Hell, if they can extend the pipework to Turkmenistan, it would render Nord Stream redundant!

At the same time, Georgia is a far easier mark than Turkey. The EU is more or less done in the north and its own immediate vicinity; like all the major powers today, it is most interested in Central Asia. If it has a serious interest in access to the Caspian - and it damn well has to - it will have a far easier time integrating little old Georgia, than the enormous, barely secular mess that is the former Ottoman Empire. If the Georgian people's main complaint with the Western-minded Saakashvili is that he's not making the economy grow quickly enough, well, that's easy. The EU has more than enough experience in pulling up destitute post-Soviet economies by the ears. Hell, let's not forget that Mart Laar held an official rank as Saakashvili's advisor!

Estonia could really use a new project, something to make us feel good about ourselves, make us feel relevant as a part of a single Europe, and also make us be seen as relevant, as a useful European force. For about a microsecond there, Estonia had an internal meme of becoming a world expert on Russia, the West's go-to guys on how to deal with our eastern neighbours. That didn't turn out well, but we can still become the world authority on rehabilitating downtrodden small countries, like we've done with ourselves. Estonia is in a good position for taking the lead on a project that has the attention and backing of the entire EU, proving our expertise and establishing ourselves as something more than just the homeland of Skype and cheap beer.

Georgia has a long way to go, but it's still on the right track. Let's see what happens.

*There's a parallel to be drawn here with Putin and United Russia, or indeed Andrus Ansip and the Reform party. The key difference in the former case is that Putin is directly leading the candidate list for UR - in fact he is the party's only name in a traditionally three-strong federal component, the three candidates that the entire enormous country gets to elect, supplementing the individual lists in each constituency. Saakashvili is not being quite as obvious about it, it's more in the style of George Bush's personal popularity in 2004 helping out the Republicans in the simultaneous Senate/Congress elections. The difference in the latter case is that Ansip is a creature of the party; for all his personal vote record, he ran in a safe constituency, and people who agree with the platform tend to just vote for the top name in the Reform party list. Ansip may have personal ambitions, but he doesn't have the credentials or charisma to drag a party into parliament in the same way that Mart Laar or Marek Strandberg can.

*The opposition leaders seem to include Tzotneh and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, who seem to be brothers; there have been leaks of their phone conversations with Russian foreign intelligence officers. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's biographies mention that he had three sons, but I haven't found one that lists their names. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

So Much For Appeasement

It's November 7th, 2007, the 90th anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia.

News of the day:

1) Russia is demanding that Latvia make Russian a state language. Anyone still admiring the Latvians' ratification of the border treaty and generally playing nice with Moscow recently? This is a particularly excellent statement to make right now, when the country's economy is suspect and the government is on unsure footing. There's definitely someone in the Kremlin looking to repeat history and arrange for Russian military assistance to help maintain the peace in an embattled Latvia (for the next however many decades).

2) Russia is unilaterally pulling out of the European common arms limitation treaty. Now, one cool trick my high school history teacher showed us was to take a look at the orders of battle before the start of WWII, and then use that data to deduce which countries were actually intending to go to war. (Hint: it wasn't France.) A particularly cute statement is the head of the Army general staff going on record saying that Moscow is worried about a build-up of arms in the Baltic states.

Given that the chance of the Baltic Batallion invading Russia is fairly negligible, I come back to my theory that the Russian authorities aren't even bothering to lie any more - you just have to listen to what they're actually saying. They're not worried that the Baltics are a threat to Russia's security, they're worried that the Baltics might have a more formidable defense than they would like.

Scared yet?

Monday, November 05, 2007

The English Estonian Blog Scene

Man, first thing I'll do when I become president of Russia? Sergei Ivanov is going to get a pink slip. "Dude, you're fired! You suck!
Giustino, some time after midnight on Saturday night, in Zavood, after about five A. Le Coqs.

Thursday, October 25, 2007 which Flasher turns into a chauvinistic pig

Cute, no? (Click image for full gallery.)

That, my dear readers, is one Anna-Maria Galojan, the Reform party's project to create a positive role model of a Russian politician. Blonde, sexy and confident, her election posters in Tallinn were a welcome change from the faces of Klenski, Savisaar and a bunch of other ugly old men. She had no accomplishments at all prior to becoming a billboard babe, but then that's hardly ever stopped anyone.

In the months since the election, Anna-Maria (having failed to get into Parliament) has found herself in control of the Estonian European Movement. She's in the news today for being promptly ejected from that particular easy chair, due to having embezzled around 600,000 EEK (just under 40,000 Euro) of the foundation's money. Apparently spending it on clothes, jewelry, and a flash lifestyle.

In my flame wars, I often get asked why there are no Russians in prominent political positions in Estonia. My standard reply is that there are no people to fill the positions; nobody the people would like and trust. Miss Galojan here was the party-in-power's attempt to create such a figure from scratch, and yet having just done a round of profiles and interviews in the local Russian papers on being a person of principle, she goes and does (or, well, gets caught doing) something like this. With all the good will in the world, where the hell are we supposed to get enough decent Russians to put into government?

Which is not to say that Estonian politicians don't embezzle. But this is Estonia, and any Russian that wishes to be a credible politician with a mainstream party is held to a higher standard. It's not even an issue of distrust on the part of the Estonians. The local Russian-speakers are quite disenfranchised, but the slice of the electorate which is up for grabs is intelligent enough to be disgusted by Savisaar and Zarenkov. Whereas Estonians will tolerate a bit of modest nepotism and self-serving from their politicians as long as the rest of the country is in good shape - on the principle that if they were in power themselves, they'd surely do the same - the unclaimed Russians are far more careful with their trust. They feel betrayed and unrepresented, and suspicious of any advances by Reform or IRL to begin with. It's commendable that the coalition is trying to bring these guys back into the fold, involve them in the political process, but it's not easy winning their trust.

It's not a Russian Kristiina Ojuland that we need, it's a Russian Marek Strandberg.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Are you scared yet? 'Cause I am.

Mid-October saw an event in Russia that has probably gone mostly unnoticed outside, but I think it's significant. President Putin has reached an agreement with the big retail chains and the agricultural unions to freeze food prices ahead of the parliamentary elections.

It's been a bit of a topic in Russia recently, I understand. For all the money coming into the country, there's still a massive welfare divide, and a lot of people are still quite poor. At the same time, the rise in spending naturally leads to inflation* and rising prices. So when the price of milk increases by 10% in a month, people are pissed.

Remember how I said that Putin's plans - whatever they may be - depend on his personal popularity? To stay in the people's good graces, he needed to curb the price growth. The method that he chose, however, is at once very Russian and very disturbing. He went to the people who sell the food, and he asked them nicely to not raise the prices any more, no matter what capitalist theory suggests.

When the President of Russia, especially one such as Putin, asks you nicely - you know you'd better fucking comply.

The reason this scares me is because it's an indication of a mindset. For all his westerly aspirations, Putin is prepared to revert to the old Soviet scheme of keeping the people happy, no matter what the cost. The firehose of oil revenue still has enough pressure, and it's not implausible that it is being applied here somewhere - owners of retail chains quietly getting lucrative consessions on the side. That would actually be the slightly more preferable option. A corrupt capitalist country is at least predictable; there are rules which it follows, and you can use those rules to build up a strategy. Lots of people got rich in the ostensibly lawless 90s by understanding the rules.

The worse option is that Putin got the retailers and producers to freeze prices at an essentially arbitrary level or else. This would mean that Russian history is beginning to repeat itself. Since I live a hundred miles from the border, Russian history repeating itself scares me shitless.

In the context of the end of Putin's second term, and the inevitable tectonic shift in the Russian status quo, I can't help thinking about the true motivation for a lot of Estonia's foreign policy. Again, this is one of those things that people don't say aloud, because it makes them look bad, but everyone's thinking it. Though it may seem improbable and alarmist, we're always weary of the chance that Russia will pull another "cooperation pact", and the least we can do is to make the fallacy of any spin about Russian soldiers welcomed as liberators obvious.

Call me a coward, but come next spring, I'm keeping my gas tank filled up, and seeing if Tallink will sell me an open ticket to Stockholm.

*Inflation has been a buzzword in Estonia - last year we were making an effort to push it that last bit down under 3%, so that we could join the Eurozone, this year it's spiked to as much as 7%. The newspapers are running scary articles. The word is deceiving though: the EEK is still pegged to the Euro, so the value of the money isn't decreasing (any more than the Euro is), but the cost of life in Estonia is rising. Which is kind of to be expected: you didn't really think we'd keep Eastern European prices while inching closer to Central European earnings, did you?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

This place needs a chill pill.

The reason the blog has been silent recently was because I've been in a bad mood. I'm just too annoyed by human stupidity. I guess at least partially it's a result of autumn in Estonia - predictably drizzly and depressing. But beyond that, it's been a silly time.

The big story in Estonian ethnic relations is a 7th grade textbook, which references a collection of kids' folklore published back in 1992. It references three books in fact, one of which is listed as homework, and the other two are at the teacher's discretion. And one of those, the one that contains jokes that kids sent in some 15 years ago, includes a bunch of properly irreverent and politically incorrect ones. About a lot of population groups, not just ethnic. But of course, it's the Russians who had to make a grand fuss.

The newspapers are playing to their audience by coming out with headlines like "7th Grade Textbook Promotes Racism against Russians", which is factually untrue (there's nothing objectionable in the actual textbook). The LiveJournal bloggers have taken up the cause, naturally.

Now, yes, the jokes may very well be insulting, and it was a goof on the part of the textbook's author to not check her sources. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that before the April riots, this wouldn't have been nearly as big a deal, and the textbook isn't all that recent. And whether any of us want it or not, little kids will continue to make jokes like "What animals are most common in Estonia? - Russians". So yes, it was a bad move. But for the love of God, can these people please stop trying to start another round of pin-the-tail-on-the-Ansip every time they stumble upon a perceived insult? Please?

On the other side, the newspapers are still publishing editorials on integration, why (and whether) it failed, what should be done about it, etc. This is getting quite old now as well, mainly because nobody's making particularly interesting points. Much like my manifesto* was an attempt to publicly state the truth that nobody wants to admit, none of the current commentators dare say what they all know: integration is a pretty, but meaningless word. The program has always been a mix of assimilation for the willing, and giving the unwilling ID cards so they can move to Barking and become Gordon Brown's headache instead of hours. There will never be a Russian cultural autonomy in Estonia, and there will never be a Russian PM. But this is far too drastic for most commentators - I've seen a few approach the point, though. Still, the riots and Russia's continuous assholeyness is a good topic to talk about.

To paraphrase Holden McNeil: Delfi has given everyone in Estonia a voice, and everyone in Estonia has chosen to use that voice to bitch about integration.

And it's getting really annoying. In the immortal words of Will Smith: Why don't you exercise your right to shut the fuck up?

* What? I couldn't let Giustino get away with stealing my Estlander schtick. ;)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ice? Really?

October 11th - first day this fall when I had to scrape my car clean of ice in the morning.

I need to steal Mutton's winter tires.

No politics today - generally disgusted with human stupidity. It'll pass.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

New Spires

New Spires
Originally uploaded by Flasher T

Saturday, October 06, 2007

As Good a Version as Any

Chanced upon this article (in Russian) by one Dmitri Furman, a history professor with the Russian Academy of Sciences. The man has credentials.

He also has a good point to make. He starts out by reminding us all that there's a very good chance we've only seen part of Putin's eventual plan, and that we can well expect reality to turn out completely different from what any of us expect at this point. Having recently boasted of my predictions coming true, I would like to take a moment to wholeheartedly endorse this point. Don't take my ESP for granted. :)

Dr. Furman then goes on to speculate why Putin chose the path of formal legality to remain in power. It's a good question; his recent actions have stupefied observers far more than an all-out power grab would have. Putin chose not to modify the Constitution and proclaim himself President for life, but make no mistake - he could have. A direct quote from the article:
In an imitation democracy, adhering to a Constitution that acts as a facade can result in the destabilization of the true power system. Putin's retirement in the name of sticking to the Constitution is, in this sense, a very dangerous and risky move.
So why did he do it? Why didn't he take the option that the leaders of so many former Soviet republics took, the option that the postsoviet political evolution presents so temptingly?

Furman suggests that the difference between Russia and Kazakhstan is historic pride. The countries that now have absolute rulers do not have a history of statehood, at least not in reasonably modern times. For them, the opportunity to have a nation of their own is inherently satisfying; compared to that, democracy is a nice idea that they might want to consider at some future point, once things calm down a bit.

Russia, on the other hand, has been a European superpower even before the Cold War. Ever since Peter the Great, Russia has fancied itself a civilized, modern country, perhaps with a few kinks here and there in the way they do things, but essentially part of what is now the First World. One of the hallmarks of Western civilization is democracy; turning to an obvious autocracy would be an admission of fundamental inferiority. Not only are the Russian people unwilling to be a Third World country, but Putin himself is unwilling to be the ruler of a Third World country. A power grab would render him the equal of Chavez or Mugabe, not Brown or Sarkozy.

The upshot? Putin is retaining and enforcing the framework for regime change. A Russia without an evident master is an unstable Russia, but by establishing a precedent of respect for the Constitution - no matter how flawed the hyper-presidential Constitution may be - Putin is creating the opportunity for a soft landing once he himself is out of politics.

A token effort to keep up European appearances is a token chance to invoke a European process.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

US, France to PM Putin: "You wanna run that by me again?!"

France's Foreign Affairs minister Bernard Kouchner has joined Condolleezza (strike redundant letters by preference) Rice in expressing dismay at the Prime Minister Putin scenario. The AFP blurb mentions how he's actually breaking ranks, with the EU generally saying it's Russia's internal business.

Most relevant point: Germany is currently defining EU foreign policy, but we know for a fact that Britain under Gordon Brown isn't very happy with Putin, and now France is taking a position as well. Italy and Spain haven't been heard from; Poland is strictly anti-Russian. With Germany trying to keep Nord Stream alive (although there's reason to believe Angela Merkel isn't entirely enamoured by Putin), Brussels is going to be an interesting place quite soon.

Tangential point: Never in the history of Russia has a leader stepped down as long as he could help it. Tzars ruled for life, or abdicated, but not of their own free will. Khruschev and Yeltzin retired, but both were elderly and in poor health by that time. Gorbachov was still kicking, but his entire country disappeared from under him. Putin is still relatively young, and full of energy.

However, Russia has rarely been in such good shape at the moment of a significant power struggle. The flow of oil money has resulted in a booming economy, even as Moscow has become the world's most expensive city (bypassing Tokyo). While civil rights aren't in the best of shape and a lot of things are stil significantly broken, street crime doesn't seem quite as rampant, and people are feeling the economic benefits.

The upshot is that Putin probably still couldn't change the Constitution on a whim, that sort of martial law would require a crisis - and Putin's popularity rests on the country's stability and prosperity. At the same time, as long as he keeps up a semblance of legality, the electorate that naturally attributes the resurgence to Putin's rule, will welcome him back as an ascended President when the puppet Zubkov abdicates for health reasons.

As I said in the comments, this is starting to look sickeningly like 1939, down to the tenuous Russo-German alliance. Except it's Putin that has now raised a country from ruin to prosperity in a matter of years.

I'm getting somewhat uncomfortable here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Fiction is taking a walk

Um, OK. This was beyond even my powers of prediction, mostly because it's so brazen as to be inconceivable.

President Putin is running for parliament.

He's Number One in the incumbent party's election list, with the intention of taking the prime minister's spot once his second presidential term runs out next spring.

I honestly don't know how to comment this. It's a move that I'd expect to see in Central America, or maybe a small Asian country like Nepal or Bangladesh (turns out Bangladesh is a republic, with 150 million people; holy shit). I'd said that they don't even seem to be bothering to lie any more, not even to keep up appearances. I didn't expect this, though.


EE Healthcare in "Not Completely Shit" Shocker

Just got a link to this article (Thanks J.!), from the International Herald Tribune, mentioning a study of EU-and-affiliates' healthcare systems. While Austria placed first overall and Latvia placed last (which is predictably satisfying), Estonia was actually first in terms of value for money. Admittedly Estonians don't like to go to the doctor - this is where Giustino would say they just treat all illnesses with vodka and jellied meat - but it's a surprising factoid in any case.

The Estonian healthcare system is a source of much criticism among the people. Some years ago it was reformed to a Swedish model, with every person assigned to a GP that then refers them on to specialists. There's some sort of trick to the financing where supposedly the GP actually loses money by making these references, and the system has resulted in long wait times in some cases. I haven't really noticed this, as I stayed with my old doc back in Tallinn - the same pediatrician who treated me since I was born - and by the time I finally could be bothered to get a GP in Tartu, I just went to the university clinic where a team of half a dozen GPs pools resources: I get the first available time slot from any of them. Combine that with registered nurses who actually have some measure of authority, and a reasonably effective walk-in ER, and I haven't had cause to complain. To overseas readers not familiar with the state of affairs, healthcare is free in Estonia: hospitals are commercial enterprises (though subject to significant government regulation), but the bills are paid by the state insurance agency, which is financed through taxes.

Estonians like to complain about stuff, especially about public services, and there's a sort of general permeating sense of the Estonian healthcare system being complete crap. Most Estonians don't come into contact with doctors often enough to build up an opinion to the contrary. So it's a bit strange to see an authoritative source claiming that the system isn't all it's fucked up to be.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gold & Green

Gold & Green
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Taken just outside my house this afternoon.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

It's September 22nd; not only is it the Day of Atonement, but also the day when Soviet forces entered Tallinn back in 1944. The day when shit is expected to hit the fan. Things seem to be quiet in Tallinn - the WWII veterans, along with Russian and Belorussian embassy officials attended a somber flower-laying ceremony at the military cemetery where the Bronze Soldier is now located. Ahead of today, Klenski was officially banned from - well, breathing, really. There's another Nashi protest in Moscow, but that's not news.

In a celebration of today's utter un-newsworthiness, here's a post about something completely apolitical.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, has a famous essay describing to Americans the proper way to make tea. Here's the article, if you haven't read it or don't remember it well. Master Adams makes a few very good points, the central of which is that people who don't think tea is a wonderful drink have simply not had a good cup of tea. However, he makes use of several cornerstones of the British understanding of tea which are utterly misguided and impede the proper enjoyment of the noble drink.

Earl Gray. It's very British - it is, after all, named after an earl - but it is not tea proper. Earl Gray is flavoured, the tea mixed with an aromatic oil. As the oil is natural, the result of some dignitary's experimentation centuries ago, Earl Gray is not treated with the same contempt as modern flavoured tea bags that come in caramel, strawberry, and other utterly chemical varieties. It is still a ruse, though.

Tea bags. The British like them, and have spent a lot of engineering effort (that would be better spent on a new Jaguar) making them behave in a particular manner. So far they have failed. My British friends have attempted to convince me using the finest of these contraptions, a vaguely pyramidal thing that comes in boxes (and isn't flat-packed), but even that deteriorates the taste far too much. Tea bags are convenient and I use them sometimes in the office, but if you're going for really good tea, they simply won't do.

Milk. If you only have enough gumption to challenge one aspect of British tea, challenge milk. While some people actually like the taste of Earl Gray (though I find it vile), and tea bags have the justification of convenience, putting milk in tea is absolutely inexcusable. A lot of milk in tea will produce a specific flavour, that you might find intriguing and worth a try at least, but that is not proper tea. A little milk, the way the Brits do it, completely strips away the flavour of tea, and you end up drinking something murky-brown. Tea with milk is liquefied cardboard.

There is a better way to make tea. If your intention is to sample the full flavour of the drink itself, unleash the sensation of the plant, then you will need what my father makes, that which is singularly responsible for my appreciation of the art: Russian tea.

The beauty of Russian tea is its purity; it carries exactly one unorthodox step, and otherwise sticks to the absolute basics. It thoroughly encompasses the nature of tea as a social drink, a stimulant, and a savoury treat.

Russian tea requires the following tableware:
  • A kettle*
  • A pot
  • Teacups** and teaspoons
  • A sugar basin
  • A small tray.

It also requires the proper kind of tea. There are two aspects here. First, it has to be free leaf. This is non-negotiable. But don't just grab something that doesn't come in bags! You might end up with crushed tea, and that's horrid. Crushed/broken/granulated tea is worse than even tea bags. It's a homogenous mass that has gone through pulverizing equipment, and this means that the tea leaves are cut with stems - if you're lucky - or with random biomass like wood chippings. The stems do actually have the same compounds as the rest of the plant, so crushed tea provides the strength and the color, and it's cheap. But it doesn't provide the taste, or the aroma. Be absolutely sure that what you have is actual free leaf tea. It has to have large, long, dry chunks, and be a bit crunchy.

The second aspect is what kind of tea to use. Black tea, obviously, and not Earl Gray. But even black tea has varieties. The simple answer is it doesn't matter: they all come from the same plant, it's just a matter of processing. Just grab a decent brand - Dilmah is a safe choice for a newbie. Your keywords otherwise are Darjeeling or Orange Pekoe. The latter doesn't have bits of oranges in it, that's just a reference to the color it has in TV commercials. Both these types are actually pure, unflavoured black tea - exactly what you want. Don't use English Breakfast Tea! It's black and unflavoured, but it's a cheap mixture designed to be drunk at the time of day when your sensory receptors haven't recalbrated to the physical universe yet.

Now, next up is the tricky part, that which makes the tea Russian. Whereas normally you would make all of the tea in a pot, then pour into a cup and drink, the right way here is to use the pot for zavarka - the concentrate. You mix your own tea in your own cup: put in a bit of the concentrate and add water by preference. This does not deteriorate the taste of the tea, because it's still drawn out of the leaves by boiling hot water right there and then; but it allows you to vary the strength of it. This is where the social aspect comes in. A pot of zavarka, along with a kettle, lets each person have the tea at the strength they enjoy most.

The ratio of free tea leaves to water for zavarka is the same as the ratio of coffee powder to water for regular drinking coffee. Remember, you're going to be diluting the tea a lot! Plus, I'm talking about dry volume: dried tea leaves have a lot of volume but little weight and density. Use teaspoons. If you use 4 tablespoons of coffee for a half-pint (quarter-liter) mug, put 4 tablespoons of tea in the pot and pour a half-pint of boiling water over them. (Use this ratio - 4 teaspoons of leaves per 250ml of water - as your default.)

An important point, one that Mr. Adams got right: the water has to be boiling when it hits the leaves. It's not just a matter of temperature; boiling is a process whereby bits of water turn to vapour, and this really helps to draw out the tea from the leaves. You can pre-warm the pot to make sure the water still boils for a few seconds once it's in; using a clay/china pot helps immensely. It's also useful to keep the water boiling in the kettle for a little bit before pouring. Go and put your kettle on: can you hear bubbling noises for about 5-10 seconds after it switches off? Excellent, that'll do.

(Note: you have to let the zavarka pot stand for a few minutes. This lets it become strong enough. In the meantime you can refill the kettle to have a lot of hot water for everyone, and call them to the table. The beauty of Russian tea is that you can drink it for a long time: the zavarka keeps the proper taste for a couple of hours, and as long as you have hot water on the table - not necessarily boiling - it still tastes good.)

Now you can go ahead and drink the tea. Experiment with the ratio of zavarka to water; start with 50/50 and adjust. (50/50 is actually a strong mixture, but you're doing this to fully feel the taste.)

Obviously you can't add milk to Russian tea, but you can add lemon. The canonical way is to cut a circular slice (use a half-circle if a full one doesn't fit in your cup, but really half-circles are for tequila), put it in the cup, and pour tea over it. Just like Mr. Adams with his milk - of course you can't scald lemon, but the pouring of strong, hot zavarka will draw our the juices better. Once you've put in the zavarka and water, feel free to poke the lemon with your spoon, press it against the bottom of the cup, crushing the individual cells. This is - again like Mr. Adams - socially unacceptable, but I learned about good tea from my parents when I was little, and I still like doing it. You can also take the butt end of a lemon and squeeze it over the cup. It doesn't have an adverse effect on the tea. In fact, when I get the flu, one of the best medicines I know is a nice, hot mug of tea with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it.

Actual lemons are best, of course, but I've had acceptable results from cooking-spec lemon juice. Not the sweetened drinkable stuff, and not the concentrate used for baking - just organic squeezed juice. I use it for convenience, along with my tea-making set: a kettle, and a glass pot that has a leaf-holder in the middle. The pot sits on a hotplate that keeps it from cooling down, and can be used to pre-heat it. That makes up slightly for it not being china.

If you just use a regular clay pot, you'll probably get a few loose leaves in your cup. There are devices to avoid this - little net things that clip onto the spout - but don't bother: it's part of the experience. Otherwise, add a bit of sugar if you want it, and you're ready to drink!

* The more culturally curious of readers may be vaguely aware of the samovar, a massive copper keg with a place to start a small fire, and a spout at the bottom. There were electric samovars in the Soviet days, even. They're impressive-looking, but have very little to do with the taste of tea, so don't worry about it.

** Another classic Russian thing is to pour your tea into the saucer, then sip it from that. It's a way to cool down the tea quickly, since there's a lot of surface area to the water. Please don't try and do this. It's only for professionals, and rudimentary anyway. As far as I can tell, it's an artefact from the samovar, where water could actually end up superheated. For the full experience, you should still use fairly small clay cups with saucers. Or, to be exceedingly Russian, use a glass mug in a silver holder. You can find them in most Russian souvenier shops, just between the five-in-one dolls and the figurines of bears swigging vodka.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gas Pipe Redux

Nord Stream's reaction so far has been, "we're taking our toys and going back to Finland". Good riddance. Any crap they dig up from the bay floor is still going to do damage to Estonia, but at least now it's Big Brother's job to sort out the mess, and deal with the Russkies. That lot's been in the EU for ages, they use the Euro for heaven's sakes; let them handle it.

Giustino asked a few questions in the comments to the previous article, and the answer is long enough for a separate post:
Didn't Edgar also come out against this?

Do you buy the Laar partners with Savikas, facilitates Ansip's downfall, don't let the door hit you on the way out, Andrus, concept?

I do feel that Ansip is a bit like Tony Blair post-Iraq War invasion. Ie. he can stay in office for no matter how long, but the honeymoon (if there ever was one) is long over.

AND, why are the Sotsid so not front and center here? Not worth their time/political capital?
1) Edgar is irrelevant, to the extent that I don't think anybody bothered to ask him. It's a government decision, and even Edgar can't play Loyal Opposition with a straight face at this point.

2) I do buy the concept, since I'm getting the distinct feeling that Andrus won't last. I'll put a sixpack of Tõmmu Hiid on Laar getting the PM seat before the next elections, and there are three ways of doing it.

One, my perfect option - a coup in KERA, new blood signing a pact with the fuzzy-cheeked devil to preserve some credibility for the party. Unlikely simply because Edgar will not fade quietly into the night, he'll let go of the party about five minutes after he's dead.

Two, Edgar sees the light, comes crawling to Laar, accepts a high-level ministership in return for a coalition spot. The local elections aren't that far away, and his alcohol law hasn't exactly ingratiated him with the Tallinn population. Once he loses control of City Hall, he's done. As much as people are disgusted with Ansip, Edgar is actually hated and despised; for what it's worth, generating that attitude in a large swathe of the Estonian population is a commendable effort.

Three, Reform whips toss Ansip (he's never really been in charge of the party, hence his ploy for a massive personal vote of confidence), and for lack of a convincing figurehead, give Laar the PM seat in return for some truly heinous favours. From their POV, it's justifiable because it puts Laar in the position of having to sort out the mess Ansip left. As I've said before, Laar seems the only person capable of doing that properly, and if he does, there's a very good probability he'll be our next President, after THI's eight years are up.

3) The difference is that Estonian politics thrive on kicking the PM in the nuts. Ansip is in power until his first major goof, providing that either Edgar or the Reform bosses kiss and make up with Laar.

4) To be honest, I'm not sure. SDE has had less coverage than the Greens or the farmers throughout all this. They've just been sitting there, waiting for the consensus. They did well in the elections as the default bourgeois nonconformist choice, but half their leadership is in Brussels and I suppose whoever's left feel out of their depth.

Then again, this has been an utter Reform vs. IRL affair. The Greens made a statement because they really couldn't not bite, but SDE may just be biding their time and not getting sullied by the media circus: they have no obvious stake, and for them inaction may very well be the optimal course.

Steinbock House to Nord Stream: Stick That In Your Pipe and Smoke It

(UPD: Apologies for the bleeding obvious pun.)

So, the government has denied permission to Nord Stream AG to conduct exploration of the Baltic seabed, which was a prerequisite for laying down the Russian-German gas pipe. The official excuse is that such work would uncover information about the natural resources in Estonian economic and territorial waters, and the feasibility of their usage. As the government doesn't want that information public, the exploration is not allowed.

This was somewhat predictable. Ahead of today's decision, Reform was the only party saying it might be a good idea to let them dig - it seems that the whips are finally waking up to the idea that Ansip's bid to politicize the party's image is not in its best interests, long-term. IRL was decidedly against the permission, so were the Greens (obviously), and the Social Democrats seemed to have no obvious preference.

It's still a bit too early to tell what this decision means for the pipe - I'll report once something interesting comes up - but there's a significant point here for internal politics. Ever since the April riots, IRL has been on the sideline, mostly letting Ansip's gang take the heat (with the exception of Defense Minister Aaviksoo, whose domain was directly responsible for the monument). But this vote was the first time in recent memory when Estonia had an opportunity to actually poke the Kremlin in a way that would properly hurt - and neither Berlin nor Brussels could do anything about it.
Yesterday, Postimees published excerpts from reports by Finnish government agencies, saying that the pipework would disturb the silt that had absorbed lots of highly toxic stuff over the years (the Baltic is really an extremely dirty sea), and the construction is likely to result in massive environmental damage. This alone was an unassailable excuse for Estonia to deny permission, but even that was not necessary.
And the loudest voice was that of Mart Laar, who heads the IRL party, but has no position in the government. He's now seen as the driving force behind this jab at Putin, an active bit of foreign policy, and so far, a resounding success.

I keep saying he's in line for the PM job, and this only makes it that much more likely.


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