Friday, January 26, 2007

Temporarily Fucked

It looks like the Blogger people broke something important. AnTyx is stuck between old Blogger and new Blogger, I'm not getting the new sort of template (with collapsible archives and automatic feed links, etc). Hopefully it's a consequence of them taking their sweet time migrating all users to the new thingie, and it will get sorted. It is a preposterous mistake on their part though, so I'm taking suggestions on alternative blogging platforms.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

SEB's Stockmann Strategy

SEB is a Scandinavian banking corporation that owns the second largest consumer bank in Estonia. (The first largest is owned by a different Scandinavian banking corporation.) SEB has been playing catch-up quite usefully, undercutting the top dog on most of the important services. Their newest customer drive, very worthy of E-stonia, is the pildikaart - the ability to get a debit or credit card with your very own picture on it. You go to the SEB website, upload a digital image file, use a simple little applet to arrange it, and they'll print a shiny new Visa Electron, Visa Classic or Mastercard for you. The face of the card will still have the payment system logo, chip, and a thin strip of signature SEB green on the bottom, but it's still very cool.

The cost of this to SEB is negligible, while the boost to usage of their cards will likely be significant. This is a simple, ingenious move on their part, reminiscent of the Stockmann Christmas special.

Stockmann is another Scandinavian corporation, this time a chain of department stores. The Stockmann store in Tallinn has been around not quite as long as I can remember, but for a very long time indeed. It was one of the first places in postsoviet Tallinn that had an escalator, which impressed me hugely as a kid. It's still in the same building, though expanded and now covering five floors, with a massive parking annex.

Stockmann is an upmarket store, slightly more expensive than rivals. Its successful promotions include the regular Crazy Days sales, which are a proportional equivalent of Black Friday shopping sprees; and the fact that the Stockmann loyalty card gives you 90 minutes of free parking downtown. (As I once discovered, this is actually a clever ruse on their part to force their lady shoppers to make decisions in a hurry.) But the most awesome thing about Stockmann is that for many, many years it ran a Christmas promotion: during the month of December, the store provided free, professional giftwrapping services.

Chief rival Kaubamaja attempted to emulate Stockmann's signature attractions, with its own big sale at the same time as Stockmann's one, and eventually, free giftwrapping too. But by that time Stockmann had the advantage of word-of-mouth and consumer awareness. This means that the default, first choice holiday shopping location was always Stockmann.

Like all true genius, this was incredibly simple. Getting to design your own bank card is also a very simple idea. And that's why it's awesome.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Snowed In

So, I bought a car... 

First one to guess the make & model right, gets everlasting glory.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Improbably awesome

Completely breathtaking pictures of Estonia.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Estonica: Rowan Ring

Just discovered Justin Petrone's excellent Itching for Eestimaa, and upon reading the comments, realized there was a recent event that may be of interest to those who participate in these conversations. One of the reasons I started AnTyx was to present an interior perspective on Estonian affairs to an external audience. So here's something that, while not groundbreaking, is quite curious.

In Runet, the Russian-speaking segment of the Web, the predominant blogging platform is LiveJournal. Whereas in the US it is the stomping ground of 14-year-old Goth girls, in Russia its first-mover advantage gave it a massive user base, which then turned into a perpetuum mobile; people prefer LiveJournal over more powerful, easier-to-use platforms because it comes with a built-in audience. The upshot of this is that anything you post is liable to generate a massive grassroots response in the predominantly Russian population of net rats led by propaganda puppetmasters; Живой Журнал may be popular because the author of the Night Watch books runs a blog there, but as with any sufficiently large community, most of it is lemmings.

LJ user Rowan-ring is a young woman of Russian mother tongue, living in Estonia. Not long ago, she posted a particularly annoyed commentary on the behaviour of Russian tourists that have flooded to Tallinn for the year switch holidays. Apparently she had been in line at a particularly charming coffee shop just off Town Hall Square (I know the place; it really is very charming) behind a Russian tourist lady, very obviously the trophy wife of some businessman; an objectionable sort at the best of circumstances. In the event, the fur-coated, cowboy-booted tourist was offended by the salesgirl's failure to comprehend Russian; she turned to Rowan-ring and commanded her to translate in an exceptionally bitchy way. To which our heroine reacted by stomping the domestic equivalent of a Doc Marten very satisfyingly into a cowboy boot, and storming out before she was done considering the pros and cons of shoving a broken latte glass down the trophy wife's throat.

The post itself is only mildly interesting - it is nothing new to locals, who are much too familiar with both tourists being assholes, and the appalling standard of Estonian service. What is significant, is the subsequent flashmob of Russians in Rowan-ring's comments section, denouncing her for daring to criticize the Russian woman. I will not list details - you're welcome to look up the post if you know enough Russian - but suffice it to say, the outrage was as preposterous as the best Internet flame wars, and extended to the lofty upper ranks of LJ users, opinion-makers with thousands of subscribers. The entire force of Russian supremacist thinking, in an environment where the most massive bullshit may be expressed without fear of immediately being punched in the face for being a moron, came down on Rowan-ring (who, I must say, handled it admirably).

So, the first point is that Russians will respond vigorously and violently to any criticism that can be taken, by however big a stretch of credibility, as a slam of Russianness. The lemmings' objection was that the trophy wife was entitled to any amount of ass-kissing, because she was the one with the money; and if Rowan-ring objected, it was only because she was jealous, and by logical extension fat, ugly and worthless.

The second point is this: why was Rowan-ring sufficiently put out by the episode to write a seething blog entry? Tallinners are supposed to have developed an immunity to such things by a decade-long exposure to Finnish vodka tourists getting absolutely plastered on cheap local booze and misbehaving - and that's before the advent of direct easyJet flights from Stansted, when Old Town bars started hanging signs in their windows saying "No stag parties".

The answer is that the fucked-up attitude of Russians is a lot more annoying to people like Rowan-ring, and myself; people who live in Estonia and consider it their homeland, and yet cannot hope to pass for ethnic Estonians. (As mr. Petrone rightly pointed out, it is very difficult indeed to fake being an Estonian.) We've got the moral right to be offended by bitches in fur coats a lot more than anyone else, because we have to live here.

I am a birthright citizen of Estonia; my ancestors on both sides have lived here, for all I know, since the times of Kalevipoeg. Yet biologically I am half-Russian and half-Jewish; I speak Estonian with an accent; and every single Siberian oil tycoon's trophy wife is one more bad experience that I have to deal with after the tourist season is over.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Estonica: Parliamentary

In the entire recent history of Estonian independence, since 1991, there has never been a government that lasted from one parliamentary election to the next. They have inevitably crumbled.

An election is now upcoming. Though held in March, it has already been the catalyst for the sort of ugly infighting and baffling stupidity that you can expect from politicians. In fact it started with the presidential selection a few months ago, a show of force between the two main camps.

A peculiarity of Small Country politics is the unorthodox divide. We do not have clearly defined Left and Right wings; we do not have any credible contenders too far from the center on either side. The general idea is set: a combination of laissez-faire economy with a fairly extensive social system. Nobody with a chance in hell of coming to power will be particularly displeased by this, so the choice of vote is one of details.

At this time, the two biggest players are the Centrist and Reform parties, with smaller ones clustered around them. I'll list them below, in order of significance:

Reform: also known as the bankers' party. The party of current prime-minister Andrus Ansip, despite having less than half of the coalition votes. Consists of business buffs; people who know how to make money. Seems to be rather effective at making money for the country and everyone in it, which gives a lot of brownie points with the voters. Such points have recently been spent on an ugly rumble concerning the statue of the Unknown Soldier, which the Reform-led government wishes to move. The statue is an eyesore because it is used as a symbol by the Russian supremacists. With no actual platform for the elections except "I'm gonna make you all rich", the PM has decided to ignore the disease and treat the symptoms, comprehensively embarassing himself in the process. Election slogan is to make Estonia one of Europe's five richest nations within 15 years; Ansip has his work cut out for him, but with 12% annual economic growth and less than 2% unemployment, people are actually starting to fancy his chances.

Centrist: the one-man party, Estonia's very own personality cult. Part of the current coalition, more MPs than Reform, but only a few ministerial seats. Led by Edgar Savisaar, the Grand Old Bastard of Estonian politics; he was in charge in '91 when the country became independent, and has wanted to be PM again ever since. Will do anything for power, which is why he's not getting the top job: all the other parties will gladly put aside their differences to keep him the fuck out. A force to be reckoned with through personal recognition - a familiar face that many vote for by default. Proportional representation means the husband & wife team of Edgar and Vilja Savisaar get enough votes between them to drag lots of objectionable but loyal creatures into the parliament (and the Tallinn city council, installing a preposterous 28-year-old mayor). Officially affiliated with Russia's pro-Putin party, gives handouts to pensioners and jobs to the boys. Takes credit for all the good things that have happened since the last election. Election slogan is a vague "rich country, good salary".

IRL: a fusion of two once-great forces now individually reduced to insignificance. The union of Isamaa (Pro Patria) and Res Publica; largest single force in the current parliament*, but still far short of the 51 votes needed to control the 101-seat chamber. Res Publica is the former PM's party, massive grassroots success in the previous round of municipal & parliamentary elections, touted itself as the "uncorruptable" party of young guns, unspoiled by insider apathy. Turned out to be equally unspoiled by competence. Pro Patria is the Estonian nationalist party; leader is Mart Laar, distinguished doubly by being both the only person in postsoviet history to hold the top job twice, and by receiving the Milton Friedman award in 2006 for a KISS approach to taxes. IRL is what passes for the right wing around here. Started off the election campaign with a slogan of "money is not happiness", to which a million cynical voices replied, "but its absense sure is misery". Their platform, unveiled today, is for the government to give every high school graduate a new laptop, and cover the interest payments on home loans for young families. Ho hum.

Social Democrats: much as you'd expect - the trade unions' party. Last anyone heard of them, they were suggesting that Tallinn's public transport be made free. Election platform is essentially "spend all the money that the Reform boffins are making". Ostensibly the clear left-wing. Pulled off a great coup earlier this year, installing Toomas Hendrik Ilves into the presidency; he's withdrawn his party affiliation, but isn't fooling anyone. Social Democrats are the Coldplay of Estonian politics: popular by being non-objectionable. In an election where choices have dwindled compared to previous occasions, and the big players all seem like the same old mess, this lot is the reluctant choice of a disgruntled electorate that can't find a particularly good reason not to vote for them.

People's Union: the farmers' party, originally. Their great coup was Arnold Rüütel, the compromise candidate in the 2001 presidency race, voted in by an electoral college of county councils. In bed with the Centrists, but corruption scandals have erased any trace of credibility. Widely expected to flop.

My best guess for the outcome is, another "anyone but Savisaar" block, with IRL and the Social Democrats setting aside their differences (whatever those may be) and rallying around Reform. Centrists and the farmers will stay in a narrow parliamentary minority, waiting for the coalition's inevitable Charlie Foxtrot. The rehash will be more interesting, though the current parliament has 11 independents (over 10%!), and if something like that happens again, these unaffiliated votes will act as the tiebreaker.

In other words, business as usual.


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