Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cyberwar Explained

An excellent article in the NY Times about the attacks on Estonian networks. Commendable primarily because it is one of the first such treatments I've seen in a non-specialist outlet that doesn't present a horrifying level of techical illiteracy.

Monday, May 28, 2007

This Post Will Save Your Life

My boss is not only a natural speedreader (which is really annoying), but also has a strange capacity for reading absolutely anything. He is a literary omnivore, consuming vast quantities of unremarkable unicorn fantasy as a way to spend a weekend.

I, on the other hand, like to read, but I'm picky about the material. I suppose it comes down to the fact that when I read, I open my mind to the book; I'm determined to control what sort of propaganda I expose myself to, and I'm easily disgusted by intellectual folly. Add to this the woeful state of jacket reviews, and you'll understand why I struggle even in large bookstores.

Recently I've noticed something else. I've become a literary sexist; I don't trust female writers. There's a voice inside my head that tells me things written by a woman will be either pink fluff, depressing relationship treatments, or dreary postmodernist philosophy. I'm sure it's wrong to think so, but there you go.

So it was largely by accident that I bought A.M. Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life in Stockholm a few weeks ago. The name is not obviously feminine, you see. But I'm glad I did: I enjoyed the book tremendously. Even though it does contain both relationships and postmodernism. Ignore the plot description on the back cover, done by an idiot intern who only read the first two chapters. This is the story of a person that has hidden himself away in a coccoon of success, eliminated all the things that would threaten his wellbeing - but found no wellbeing in it. It is the story of a person that has tried living without stress, and then made a conscious decision to let stress back into his life. Furthermore, it is the story of all the people around him - people he rescues figuratively or literally, people whose lives he's ruined and people whose lives he's improved. It is a sugar-free story of optimism.

It probably won't save your life, but it's a book worth reading. That is not a recommendation I give out lightly.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

David Triumphant

Estonian foreign policy is inevitably a David & Goliath affair. From our position in the EU we do work with small countries that - well, want to be us, basically. But most of the really important things our diplomats do are relations with our allies, usually the US and the big EU countries, and the enemy-apparent, Russia.

Giustino mentions an idea which I think should be embraced - an Estonian version of the British Council or Goethe Institute or such; tasked not so much with promoting language study or cultural exports, but with generating public goodwill towards our country. There is already a tradition of Estonian Houses as community centres. If Hemingway was right, and indeed in every port in the world you will find an Estonian, the resource is ready to be called into public service.

Estonia would very much like to be like Switzerland - just friendly enough with its neighbors to not be involved in any of their conflicts, otherwise left alone; "we'll take your money, but please don't move here". Of course objectively this is impossible - Estonia will always and inevitably be aligned with some major force, and all it gets to do is choose the one it fancies more. Exporting counterpropaganda and actively developing goodwill around the world is an important task.

However, and in conjunction with the Russia crisis, I think people tend to underestimate the Estonian government's ability to manipulate others. The way to make Europe care about Estonia's security is to make Europe worry about Russia's aggression. Take the border treaty debacle: with the benefit of hindsight, we might come to the conclusion that it was a great diplomatic victory for Estonia, provoking Russia into a hysterical, unreasonable response. And it's the same with the Bronze Soldier mess: if we give in to the conspiracy theory, logical analysis suggests that Estonia pulled off a major coup, forcing Russia into a move necessitated by internal issues, which in turn left the EU with no choice but to call the Kremlin on it.

Estonian politics are small country politics; small countries cannot afford ideals. They have goals and purposes, and their primary purpose is preserving the nation. Ideals are something you sacrifice a lot of human lives to defend. In Estonian foreign policy, the ultimate goal of ensuring the security and prosperity of the country must be pursued by the sneakiest of means. The fact that Estonia is not a significant military power or economic contributor to the EU budget does not mean that Estonia's diplomats and policy chiefs are not successful. They just go about things in a slightly different way.

Russia is in the habit of making threats from a position of weakness; we must convince the EU and NATO that Russia must never be allowed to come into a position of strength.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday afternoon

Yesterday's post was once again brought to you courtesy of the Chinese pub, which has closed its non-smoking floor in favor of the summer terrace (which has no power outlets for my laptop); although the smoking floor was full of people not smoking, so that worked out fine.

Today I'm at a bakery, which has a weaker signal and less outlets, but makes up for it in having Nerva paintings on the walls. I still don't have a network connection at home, so on weekends I go to cafes and pretend I'm in Paris. Although I suspect most cafes in Paris don't actually have free WiFi.

I've been exploring the area around my apartment, and tried a new supermarket. Whereas the one I normally use is posh and opened a few days before I moved in, this one is a bit cheaper, but it's in a run-down building and caters mostly to residents of Tartu's own Soviet tower block ghetto. For some reason, I found it viscerally depressing. I've always been a bit of a snob.

I like to go into grocery stores when I travel - it's one of those places that is by definition not touristy, isn't putting on a show. It's all business. Stockholm on a summer day will be a clean, pretty, impressive place, but go into the groceries section of Ahlens City and you're exposed to the inner workings of it, the things tourists don't see.

I'm bored. Need more things to do and people to do them with. *yawn*

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Temple

For Jens, by special request. :)

Giustino reports snarkily on the opening of a synagogue in Tallinn - Shimon Perez was there for the ceremony, and the President of Israel had come earlier to lay down the cornerstone. (Construction is quick in Estonia today.)

At a Tartu blogger love-in a few weeks back, I was asked about my background; when I replied that I was (half) Yiddish, the others were surprised. Yiddish is a term for Eastern European Jews; I use it because it is a more specific definition. It is difficult to explain to foreigners the uniqueness of a post-Soviet Jewish identity, because it does not necessarily have anything to do with the two widely-known pillars of judaica: religion and Zionism.

All the mythology and conspiracy theories aside, Zionism comes down to a single imperative: Jews must live in Israel. It is partially because of dogma - the return of all displaced Jews to the Holy Land is supposed to be a prerequisite for the coming of the Messiah - but I guess mostly it's because Jews want a homeland, a place where they would not be persecuted. The Zionist movement dates from the 19th century, far predating the Holocaust, but then Jews had been persecuted in Europe before.

As I explained to my fellow Esto-themed bloggers, the Holocaust has given rise to a specific sentiment among people with at least some Jewish self-identification: the 'never again' which refers not to the evil of others, but to the complacency of ourselves. The most disappointing thing is not that so many people died - it's that so many people didn't resist. This cannot be allowed to happen in the future, and so I unquestionably support the existence of Israel, as a Jewish state and as a significant military force; I am sorry for all the suffering Arabs, but Israel acting like a psycho nutter bastard is my own personal guarantee that if a new Hitler emerges, he will get a late-night visit from Mr Craig long before he ever gets to any sort of threatening position.

And yet I have no intention or desire to move to Israel. It was an interesting country to visit, if I get a chance to go back I'll probably take it; but it's not somewhere I would want to live. My home is elsewhere.

The other thing, religion - I'm a militant atheist. Under equal circumstances I'd prefer Judaism to other mainstream religions, because it's mostly based on interpretation by rabbis - authoritative, but fallible; and because unlike others, it includes a loophole for outsiders. The Noahide Laws, which essentially come down to "don't be a dick", will guarantee a non-Jew passage into Heaven. Dogma influences mentality, so having a rule like this buys a religion a lot of credit in my book.

So I'm quite sure I won't be attending the new Temple in Tallinn; I might stop by for a look when I'm in town, but that's about it. Still, I'm very happy it's there.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dump It


Dump It
Originally uploaded by Flasher T.
Street at on the riverbank in Tartu.

There was another good one, just over the Riia/Narva bridge (I'm sure there's a proper name for it), on the Fortuuna parking lot side, that said "Venelased, tundke end nagu kodus!" ("Russians, feel right at home!"). That's been painted over now, though.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

True Believer

New single out.

Gets better every time I listen to it. First impression was that it was a bit too commercial, but I guess after Universal let E-Type do whatever he wanted with Loud Pipes Save Lives, he owes them a hit. ;) LPSL was an outstanding album, easily in the same league as The Explorer and quite possibly his best, but it never got much commercial success. Paradise was big because of Eurovision, and then there was Olympia, but the later double single wasn't really noticed.

New album in August.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Spring Song

It's 4 am on a Friday night (or rather Saturday morning). I am walking along the damp, cold streets of Tartu, heading home after a heavy night out - Priit's birthday party, followed by hipster night at the Rock Club (Godber is right - the most infuriating thing about indie music is that songs start out really well, but instantly turn into the same boring three-chord background to a whiny vocal) and concluding at Trehv. After wine, vodka-cranberry, two pints of vodka & energy drink, and a glass of Bacardi Razz & ginger ale (brilliant combo, try it) I am neither sleepy nor miserably drunk; in fact I am pleased with myself, and with the realization that I am in fact the sort of person that stays out with friends until 4 am. I just turned 23, for some reason I care about such things.

And as I make my way through a mix of old wooden houses, Soviet apartment blocks and shiny new concrete & glass buildings, with my breath curling in the air in front of me, what do I hear?

Birdsong.

Beautiful, man. Bloody beautiful.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Leaders Past and Future, Part II

The Tallinn riots and subsequent settling of the population of Estonia into distinct camps has seen the activity of two major political figures: the PM, Ansip, and the Tallinn mayor, Savisaar.

Savisaar is a political corpse: he gambled on the Russian vote and couldn't bring himself to cut his losses on April 27th, so now his credibility among the majority is lost forever. The Centrist Party never had a cohesive platform or ideology, it ran on the strength of Savisaar's personal charisma, the voters assured the Edgar himself is getting things done for their benefit. But now Savisaar is seen not just as a self-serving, nepotistic bastard, but as a collaborator, an agent of influence for the Kremlin. He's done in Estonian politics. The only hope for the Centrists is to disavow Savisaar and establish themselves as the mainstream left-wing force in the country.

Ansip has shown himself to be exactly what people suspected him to be before the elections: a competent manager, but a shite politician. Currently he is riding the wave of support, but it won't last; as soon as criticism of Ansip will cease to stink of bending to Moscow's will, the classic adage about an Estonian's favourite food being another Estonian will come into play. Ansip does not have the same stance within the Reform Party as Savisaar in his own sandbox, and since Reform are likely to want to retain their image of economy specialists (they can't out-patriot Isamaa, after all), Ansip will be pulled. He may not quite be done in politics - if Juhan Parts managed to sneak back into government, I imagine further reshuffles might see Ansip in the Finance Ministry or similar - but he's not going to be the first Estonian PM to serve a full term.

Which leaves Mart Laar. If the current government will crumble 2,5 years after the elections, as is the custom, the makeup of the parliament will make things very interesting indeed. For the Centrists to get into the coalition, they'd have to pull a move worthy of a contortionist on acid. Just being a major force in parliament isn't nearly enough, as Isamaa and Res Publica showed before the last general vote. By the same token, a coalition with a parliamentary majority can be lead by a minority PM: Ansip himself rose to the top job while his party had less seats than their coalition partner.

At the same time, Laar is the man to put the mess right. His anti-Russian credentials are unquestionable. He's an infinitely better statesman than Ansip. Between his own personal relationships with world leaders and Ilves's, Estonian foreign policy would thrive. When Ansip refused to give him the Foreign Minister post, Laar showed genius insight by stepping aside; throughout the riots and subsequent fallout in Estonian-Russian elections, he had no formal affiliation with the ruling government; he didn't even go "I told you so!" much.

Laar has the capacity and the credit to restore the country's relations with Russia - especially a post-Putin Russia, if it doesn't go entirely totalitarian - and we can hope that he has the insight to do it, too.

--------

An interesting question is how exactly he could pull it off. A coalition reshuffle is possible, but I don't think Reform will give up the top job that easily. However, if the young guns in the Centrist party really do dethrone Edgar, a deal is not entirely implausible. Between them the Centrists and IRL have only 48 votes, but the farmers still have their 6 seats, and a traditional loyalty to Team Savisaar. A Laar-led coalition could certainly entice the Social Democrats, and the Greens appear to still have a standing offer of joining anyone who makes Marek Strandberg the Environmental Minister. It would be very typical of Estonian politics in general for the party that won the parliamentary elections to end up in opposition four years down the line.

Of Leaders Past and Future, Part I

May 7th wasn't just my birthday, it was significant for something else: marking the third anniversary of Putin's inauguration for his final term. This time next year, Russia is going to be ruled by someone else.

If we are to predict events, we must understand the mechanics and motivation behind them - this is what I've been trying to do with the political side of AnTyx. To understand the current political crisis between Russia and Estonia, you need to understand that it was severely escalated by Russian internal propaganda, which also affects a large part of the disenfranchised Russian-speakers in Estonia, who only watch Russian TV and read Russian newspapers. The myth of Estonia as a revisionist Nazi state was created by Team Putin for domestic consumption, just like earlier crises with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus... The Kremlin has been using foreign policy as a tool of home politics.

The reason why this is happening is because Putin is preparing his exit strategy. On New Year's Eve 1999, Boris Yeltzin announced his resignation, naming Putin as his official successor. Until gaining Yeltzin's favour, Putin was a political non-entity, whose most outstanding achievement was the dashing rescue of his boss and mentor, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoli Sobchak. When Sobchak was hounded by federal prosecutors for corruption charges (in Yeltzin's Russia, a convenient standby that never really needed to be fabricated), his health was giving out, and Putin risked his own career by helping Sobchak leave the country. This impressed Yeltzin, who may have been an authoritarian drunk, but undeniably had a sense of nobility and a conceptual appreciation of loyalty.

Yeltzin also wasn't a fool. Putin as a political figure was created by Yeltzin's team, including Boris Berezovski, now residing in England - there's a warrant out for his arrest in Russia. Yeltzin's early resignation, and the virtually guaranteed success of Putin in the 2000 elections, was part of a deal that guaranteed security for Yeltzin himself and his core advisors, who at the time were colloquially known as the Family. Berezovski's feud with Putin is based on the fact that in this specific case, Putin did not honor the agreement. Berezovski and later Khodorkovski were made into an example, so that Russia's other oligarchs - most famously Roman Abramovich - would fall in line and not challenge the central government.

The upshot is that among people of power in Russia, there is a significant amount of resentment towards Putin. He does manage to keep a very high rate of popular approval, on the back of ensuring stability in post-Yeltzin Russia at the cost of some of the more ethereal civil liberties (like freedom of speech, or local elections for the heads of federal republics). But Russia has gone too far down the democratic path for Putin to be able to pull of a coup and remain in power past the end of his second term. This isn't Belarus.

So with the presidential elections looming, Putin needs an exit plan. You don't get to be leader of Russia without accumulating enemies; Putin's personal security depends on the state remaining stable, with a strong central government that is willing and able to protect him. This requires an official successor, a crown prince loyal to Putin himself. Inevitably this has to be someone ambitious, tough, but with no capability to succeed politically on his own merit. The man has to be lifted into the presidency by sheer power of Putin's endorsement.

And this requires utter, unquestioning support for Putin in the eyes of the people.

Hence the domestic propaganda, the preposterously clumsy handling of the Bronze Soldier debacle from a diplomatic perspective. Russia's involvement and escalation has done nothing to improve the position of Russian-speakers in Estonia, as it has turned a local minority issue into a battle against an external enemy. But it plays on Russian megalomania, inherited from WWII; any suggestion that the Soviet Union may not have been entirely in the right every step of the way generates a pavlovian response. The ghost of Russia's newfound greatness as an energy bully (overrated because Europe can get its fuel elsewhere, albeit at a higher price; Russia needs the money more than Gazprom clients need the gas) along with the ghost of enemies at the gates, will ensure that the majority of the electorate will do exactly as Putin says.

The upshot is that a few months from now, Estonia will have outlived its usefulness as a scary place where blond youths clad in SS uniforms walk the streets and poke old Russian veterans with cattle prods.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Film Review Express

Spider-Man 3, in four and a half words:

Emo Spidey Is an Asshole!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Estonica: Still Standing

I'm still around. I haven't been stabbed by rioters, arrested by the police, or even deported to Russia. :)

What I have been doing is dealing with the fallout of something I did on Saturday. With no network connection at the new apartment, I was having suffering from serious information deprivation. Getting online via a Chinese pub's WiFi and reading the news, and particularly the comments on LiveJournal, I became so incredibly angry that I sat down, and wrote a long text about The Truth.

This is a text that spells out the reality of Russians' position in Estonia, all the things that nobody ever really wanted to say out loud. The problem is that this is the time of reckoning, the time to choose a side. And I've chosen. I've been criticized because of the text, called a fascist, a nazi and a kike; I've lost friends over it, because some people could not comprehend the things I wrote about, or accept them. But I've also found support. Before the text spread through word of mouth, when it was only visible to locals, I received dozens of comments supporting me, saying that what I wrote was right.

Below is the translation of that text.

---

My name is Andrei. I was born and raised in Estonia. My ancestors on both sides of the family lived in the first Estonian Republic. Even though I am a citizen of Estonia by birth, I have no Estonian blood in me. Biologically I am half Russian and half Jewish. When I am asked about my nationality, I reply: I am an Estlander.

And I support the relocation of the Bronze Soldier.

A few days ago, if you were to ask my private opinion about the monument, you would have gotten a different answer. I would have said that moving memorials is wrong in principle; that a healthy society must develop the capability to look at the figure of a solider in a Red Army uniform, with a stone halo in the shape of the Order of the Patriotic War, and see foremost a part of that society's history. I thought that the memorial should stay in place, and schools must explain to children what it is about. Because the tragedy of Estonia in World War II and the consequent decades of Soviet rule are a part of the country's history. And while the Bronze Soldier is standing on Tõnismägi, Estonians and Estlanders will remember what happened.

At the same time, I knew that there is something much more important than the fate of the monument. This is the right of Estonia's population to decide the fate for themselves. For a small country that only recently escaped from the rule of a gigantic neighbor - and a neighbor with a fundamentally different worldview at that - the sense of independence is primary. Estonians are a careful, restrained nation, capable of doing business even with a partner that they personally dislike; but if Estonians are slow to take offense, they are not quick to forget it. No business interests, no threats of sanctions can make Estonians admit the right of Russia to meddle in their internal affairs.

So let us forget philosophical deliberations of the insult of relocating soldiers' remains from a concrete slab to a military cemetary, and the idiotic myths of Estonian fascists. Let us talk about the sort of things that are not usually said out loud.

Despite the presense of many peoples on its territory, Estonia is a nation state, made by Estonians, of Estonians and for Estonians. This is exactly what is not understood by those local Russian-speakers who predict Ansip's resignation after the events in Tallinn on the night of April 26th, and call the riots a victory. They honestly think that the government will back down now; that they were simply not heard, or not taken seriously.

However, they base their opinion on the mistaken assumption that in a democratic Estonia, living according to Paragraph Twelve of its constitution, rioters shouting "Rossija! Rossija!" and throwing stones at policemen have the same right to the state as Estonians themselves. My parents, who have lived most of their lives in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, explained to me in my early childhood the fundamental principle of democracy: your freedom ends a millimeter from the tip of my nose. Freedom is not anarchy, and democracy does not intend to satisfy each and every member of society. Estonian democracy serves first and foremost the interests of Estonians.

Russians live in Estonia only because Estonians allow them to.

And local Russians understand this. Which is why most Russian-speaking Estlanders have considered all the pros and cons, and decided to stay here. In return for the right to use the conveniences of life in Estonia, they follow the rules that Estonians have established for themselves. This includes knowledge of Estonian, and behavioral norms...

Whatever Moscow media and anonymous russian Delfi commentators say, after 1991 Estonians did well by Soviet immigrants. Getting citizenship requires only minimal knowledge of the language and an elementary test on the Constitution; I have not had need to do the exams, but many of my friends have gotten citizenship through naturalization, and not one considered the demands to be daunting. At the same time, Estonian national exams (recognized for citizenship applications) are done by all those who graduate from a Russian-language high school. In the democratic, free, civilized countries of old Europe - like France - public schools in a non-state language are unthinkable.

The only thing Estonians have asked of the foreigners forced upon them by Soviet rule was respect for the local custom; an understanding that however long these people live in Estonia, they remain guests. This is why a citizen of Estonia by birth and one by choice is only distinguished in one aspect. The former cannot be stripped of citizenship under any circumstances. The latter can. Because when a family member is behaving badly, he is calmed down. When an uninvited guest does the same, he is thrown out.

The events in Tallinn are the fault of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, whose actions against the memorial were overly harsh and obvious, and also Russia's authorities, who used the Russian media to spin the hysteria surrounding the monument to the stage where the relocation of the Bronze Soldier was inevitable. Ahead of the parliamentary elections, the Reform leader needed a political platform, as his party had the image of a team of managers, not statesmen. In the battle of Estonia's two large political parties, the local ally of "United Russia" Edgar Savisaar unambiguously came out in favor of keeping the memorial, and so Ansip came out against. The President's veto did not allow the fate of the memorial to be decided before the elections, and they effectively turned into a referendum; people who voted Reform may not have wanted Alyosha's relocation, but they did not particularly care either. Winning the elections with an unpredicted majority, and setting the record for votes cast for a single candidate, Ansip was forced to continue the relocation process. Backing down at that point would have firstly shown him incapable of delivering his own political projects, and secondly would have destroyed the electorate's trust in the party, which already suffered from "vote Reform, get Savisaar" jokes because of the previous coalition. In the context of Estonian politics, this is terminal.

Under no circumstances could Ansip yield to the Kremlin. At the same time, the pressure from Estonian residents came from non-citizens, or citizens that did not vote; therefore their opinion was predictably ignored. The Estlanders that agreed to play by the rules voted for Savisaar - and lost; the democratic majority voted vor the relocation of the memorial, or at least not against it.

When the police, unprepared for the invasion of the agressive mob, gave downtown Tallinn over to be looted by drunk Russian youths (a third of the looters were Estonians! some scream; and who were the other two thirds? After the relocation of the monument to the German soldier in Lihula, Estonians did not smash shop windows), it was not a victory for Russia, and it was definitely not a victory for the local protectors of the monument. Among my Estonian friends, the disapproval of Ansip's behavior does not lead to demands for resignation, and the only call to hang someone that I've heard on April 27th referred to Edgar Savisaar, who ran to Russian TV to apologize. Two thousand drunk youths in Tallinn and Jõhvi will not scare a million Estonians; conversations overheard in a crowd of Tartu students came down to local Russians mostly being decent guys, and the riots being not a national confrontations, but rather the work of fuckups of all kinds. No matter how much the kids riled up by Night Watch and Delfi riot, the right of Estonians to move the Soldier as they see fit cannot be taken away any more.

At the same time, the authorities' failure to prepare for the riot, senseless and merciless to street kiosks, and the lack of a crowd of Estonian antiprotectors on Tallinn streets, does not indicate readiness to take more disturbances. As the famous Tallinn writer Mihhail Weller wrote, Estonians are not short of steam - they just have a bad whistle. A little more, and detained non-citizen marauders may start to be taken out past the Narva border crossing and left there. In my eyes, as a half-Russian, half-Jewish grandson of people who fought in the Second World War on the side of the USSR, they have already earned the suitcase-train station-Russia treatment.

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