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.


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