Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Estonica: Wordplay

Silly season indeed. As both frontrunners and hopefuls scramble for those last few percentage points, the election season in Estonia generates some proper howlers.

Exhibit A: The Centrist party, which is going after the Russian vote (for lack of any credible Russian parties) and is affiliated with the Putin Racing Team over eastwards, is making noises about backing down on the border treaty.

A bit of backstory for those just joining us. Ever since 1991 and the restoration of independence, Estonia's border with Russia has been tentative. Officially Estonia maintains that the correct border line is that of the Tartu Peace Accord of 1920, which ended the Liberation War (which Estonia won and Soviet Russia lost). This is the border of the first Republic, the one which was valid from 1920 to the events of WWII and the occupation. On the other hand, the de facto border is the one that was set as the administrative border of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic; the struggle for independence in the late 1980s placed a significance on the administrative borders. The difference is in Russia's favor, a bit of land on the other side of the Narva river (which we don't fancy anyway) and a sizeable chunk down south, where a tiny people called the Setu live. Setu are closely related to Estonians, the languages are in the same family, etc.

Some time ago, the Estonian and Russian foreign ministries finally drew up a border treaty, that would make the current de-facto border also the legal one. There were protests at home, but the overall sentiment was that the treaty was more important: the Setu could have Estonian citizenship anyway (as descendants of citizens of the first Republic). Yes, it was unfortunate, but that's life. So the treaty was drawn up, and signed by foreign ministers. There was a gentlemen's agreement that the treaty would be expedited and ratified without further posturing.

But unlike Russia, Estonia's parliament is actually an independent body with significant opposition, and coalition backbenchers who don't mind putting one over the party bosses when the opportunity presents itself. The treaty was actually ratified, but the bill that signed it into law was passed with a minor amendment - a preface that mentioned the Tartu Peace Accord (which is a cornerstone document of the Estonian nationhood, mentioned in the Constitution, etc.). This was an internal document with no international significance, the treaty itself was not modified in any way, and anyway the preface is not the same as the body of the law. From a legal standpoint, the border was finalized.

However, Russia really hates admitting defeat, especially from poor little Estonia, and any mention of the Tartu settlement sends the Kremlin into fits of hysteria. So the Russian foreign ministry actually recalled its signature of the treaty. It grew into an international mess, and the EU backed Estonia: it's all kosher, and what we do in our internal legislation is none of Russia's business. But the treaty remained unsigned.

In yesterday's evening news, Team Savisaar's figureheads were talking about having the parliament denounce the preface. This would almost certainly satisfy the Russians, but it's a point of principle and the only way the Centrists could pull it off was to get an absolute majority in the upcoming elections - and even then, they'd be chased out of town on a rail. This is either an all-or-nothing effort by the Centrists to get the irregular vote, or an escape plan to keep face with their Putinite allies, with the prospect of four years in opposition.

But more important than all of that, is the way Edgar's boys were talking about it. I've argued with Russians endlessly about the treaty, and the internal propaganda there promotes a completely un-factual understanding of the issue: most people in Russia think that the text of the treaty itself was changed. This is, of course, a lie. But the Centrist interviews were carefully constructed to maintain this impression. This sort of pandering to Russian foreign policy is a new low even for Savisaar.

Exhibit B: A new "brought to you by" ad from IRL. The party's other figurehead is Jaak Aaviksoo, the former head of the University of Tartu, and a fairly prominent personality, even if he is terminally dull. There was an ad earlier with him playing Morpheus in the white background, sliding display-case scene from the Matrix movie. The display-case in that ad featured computers and books and stuff, to play up Aaviksoo's educational connotation. Which was fair enough.

Now, they have the similar scene with Mart Laar, but instead of display-cases what you get is the backdrop of the Unknown Soldier memorial, with Soviet symbology in place of the Pronksmees - a red five-point star, a hammer and sickle, and... a K-kohuke wrapper.

Backstory again, in the municipal elections the Centrist party tried to circumvent the ban on election advertising in public spaces by having a friendly dairy owner release a line of milky treats in a wrapper that closely mimicked the Savisaar logo and trademark green. This was a massive scandal, but the courts found the campaign to be legitimate - and the upshot is that now, everyone can take the piss out of K-kohuke without the Centrists being able to complain to the regulatory bodies, and the public knows well enough what the point is.

In the TV ad, Mart Laar was properly angry. Very unlike him, but maybe it's an image augmentation that he needs.

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