Monday, March 31, 2008

Geniuses in aviation

People don't call customer support if they're happy with a service. Right? If everything is going as planned, they're getting what they need done, they're not gonna call someone up. Especially not in Estonia, a country infamous for its dearth of social interaction.

So it takes a very special person to put a recording at the start of every support call to Estonian Air, saying "We're having a Good Service month! Please call this number and tell them about the good service you've received from us!"

Now, when you're calling to find out if you're due any compensation for a flight delayed by FIVE FUCKING HOURS - a flight from Stockholm, which only takes about 50 minutes each way - it takes all your patience not to hurl the handset across the room.

I was at Stockholm Arlanda nice and early, too; I checked the flight status at the Arlanda Express office in the downtown train station (good tip if you're flying - it's convenient because it shows the terminal you need to go to), and I was at the ticket agent's as soon as they opened. The nice lady who worked for a company contracted to represent about a dozen minor airlines (as opposed to using the fucking SAS agent, who obviously have a massive base of operations in Stockholm - but since SAS only owns half of Estonian Air, that would have made too much sense) spent fifteen minutes on hold with EA's internal support, then about twenty seconds to receive a flat-out "no" to rerouting me through Helsinki, which would have cost me maybe half an hour from the original flight plan.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Am I happy with their service today? What do you think?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Land Tax Considered Hilarious

Feel like Estonian politics has gotten boring again? That's about to change.

We're almost a year away from the Europarliament elections and a year and a half away from local ones, but it's starting up already.

I said last year that Savisaar was probably damaged beyond repair by his actions in the wake of the April riots; Reform and Isamaa would never let him live it down. It's a bit too early for them to drag out their biggest buckets of filth, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the government will do KERA no favours at all.

Alex has mentioned that property tax in Estonia is essentially zero. It's not really property tax; the property is taxed at the moment of purchase. This is land tax, something that is collected by the local council for administration purposes. (Most of the local council's budget comes from income tax, which is why the council is pretty much the only entity that gives two shits about the population register.) Alex pays 756 kroons a year on his farmland in Põltsamaa. I pay a proportional share of some tiny percentage of the assessed value of the land under my apartment building (the market value of the apartments is irrelevant), and it comes out to 22 kroons per year. Two dollars. I'm sure the postage, bank costs and administration overhead for the council are more than that sum.

There is a certain leeway in the land tax assessment for local councils. Each council can establish the size of the tax, between 0.1% and 2.5% of the assessed value. The rate in Tartu is 1%, and has been such since 2002; there is also compensation for pensioners who own plots up to 1000m2 (which is a decent chunk of land for a private residence).

The rate in Tallinn used to be 0.6%... but as of this year, it has grown to 1.5%. Retirees on a fixed income, who are now faced with a massive tax bill, are naturally livid, and the press is jumping on the story. This is where the Centrists' complete control of the Tallinn municipal government is coming to bite them in the ass, because there is no way for them to shift the blame. If Tartu (historically a Reform stronghold) and other towns can get by without raising land tax, it would be disingenuous for Savisaar to claim rising costs.

Predictably, the coalition parties are not rushing to the Centrists' aid. Harri Paabo, the chairman of the Tartu Homeowners Union, dismisses the issue as one irrelevant in the second largest city, and doesn't bother being too subtle about it: "The land tax is not a heavy burden on Tartu homeowners because we don't have Edgar Savisaar for a mayor."

The national homeowners union and its international counterpart have responded by suggesting a waiver on land tax for homeowners to begin with. The point of land tax is that land is a finite resource, and should not be hogged. If you buy land and don't do anything useful with it - such as farming, construction or other development - it becomes too expensive. Under this logic, there is certainly a valid point to be made that homeowners are not misusing land; they are doing the best thing they can with it, given local zoning regulations and the good of society in general.

A homeowners tax waiver would have to be passed as a national law. The Finance Ministry (controlled by the Social Democrats, who ought to be protecting the interests of the pensioners) is stalling, saying they haven't really considered it - this was never an issue until the 2008 tax notifications started arriving in the last few weeks. The press then turned to the Prime Minister.

Ansip, in his typical style when annoyed by what he feels is a stupid question, was unsubtle to the point of being politically incorrect: It's your own fault, dumbass. The population of Tallinn elected Edgar Savisaar's party to the municipal government, and now it is reaping the benefits. Sure, the government could interfere and block the massive tax hike, but this is going to reflect poorly on Savisaar alone, and there's no way in Hell that the Reform or IRL are going near this mess. Even the prospect of getting to say "we made sure the land tax wouldn't rise" come election time is not appealing enough. No, the coalition wants people to get hit where it hurts - in the wallet - and to hate Savisaar for it.

From the safety of Tartu, this is going to be entertaining.

Bonus story: the domain names and have apparently been squatted by one Virgo Kruve, a Centrist party member who publishes the Pärnu municipal newsletter (Pärnu's mayor is KERA), the town's KERA propaganda sheet, and also owns the, .net, .org and .info domains (all of those lead to the party's official website). The Isamaa domains however are more naughty: one was redirecting to an anal porn website (and not the relatively innocuous landing page either, but to a full compliment of genitalia) and the other was a mock advertisement for a Tallinn brothel that got shut down a couple of years ago - though not before Isamaa's Jüri Mõis got caught there and had to resign from the position of Tallinn mayor.

When quizzed by Eesti Ekspress, Virgo Kruve commented that the redirects were social commentary on the state of Estonia under Isamaa leadership.

Like I say, entertaining.

Still Do Want... but which?

Asus eee PC 9-inch: $600-ish, 1gb RAM, 12gb SSD, Intel CPU, multi-finger touchpad, Bluetooth. Likely touchscreen, possibly GPS. Linux or XP.

HP 2133: also $600-ish for 1gb RAM, 120gb HDD (what did I say, Asus?), VIA CPU. Presumably Bluetooth. Far prettier, probably a better screen.

What I'm not convinced by is the HP's ability to run Vista, even the Basic model, to any satisfaction. There are more expensive versions of the HP with twice the RAM and a bigger battery, but Vista Business (which technically has a downgrade provision in its license). I wonder if HP will release XP drivers for it? Not likely.

Still leaning towards the HP, to be honest, but I'll have to see how Vista works out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Memories of a Postsoviet Childhood

Chiquita. Not the bananas themselves - the stickers. You couldn't really get bananas in the Soviet Union (a fact made all the more ironic by their cheap ubiquity today), so when you got a hold of one, you treasured it. Eat it slowly, and completely, chewing the tasteless flesh off the inside of the skin, and then peel off the Chiquita sticker and put it on your desk or some other prominent piece of bedroom furniture, to remind yourself and others that you are a happening frood with access to bananas.

At about the same time, a bit later maybe, empty drink cans were all the rage. It was ages until you could get soft drinks in cans in Estonia, in the first years of independence the only thing that came in cans was beer - and then it was expensive imported beer. I don't think my parents have ever been beer drinkers anyway, but even for other kids my age, colorful cans were an awesome thing to possess.

It must have been '88 or '89, when my dad went to Sweden, and brought back a whole bunch of bananas. They were still green, and were left to ripen in the kitchen cupboard. Dad's return really was better than Christmas. A pencil sharpener in the shape of a cartoon car for me, a remarkably tiny electronic calculator for my sister, and - gasp! - a twin-deck Siemens stereo cassette player. Its recording capacity, built-in microphone, and the ability to copy tapes directly was truly remarkable.

I'm only 23, but the world around me has changed unbelievably.

Postsoviet - because Estonia in the late 80s was not entirely Soviet any more.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Easter Weekend

Will be in Tallinn this weekend. Any capital bloggers fancy a pint?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Diene at it againe...

Postimees gloats that Doudou Diène, the UN's racism envoy, has presented his long-awaited report on Estonia today, at a UN session in Geneva.

In his report, mr. Diene, remembered for coming to Estonia last year, accusing us of racial discrimination and telling us to make Russian a state language, recognizes the great work of Estonia's political leadership and government institutions in promoting tolerance and human rights.

His report apparently recognizes the controversial nature of the Soviet legacy in Estonia, and urges us to resolve the issues through a consistent integration policy and social dialogue. The report also calls for a solution to the problem of stateless persons.

The official UN press release is not quite as celebratory, obviously (Ctrl+F and search for 'Estonia'). I wonder what the actual report states.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Ad for a free WiFi network - "available here!" - on the back of the toilet cubicle door in the hotel Olümpia's conference center.

Got a minute all to yourself? Why not surf the Net!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rules & Opportunities

There's an old and not particularly funny joke, about a wealthy man that comes to a high-end travel agency and asks for something special. The salesmen show him all their prospectuses, but he's already done everything they can offer. So the salesmen get on the Internet, call all their colleagues and people they met at trade shows, call in all sorts of favours to find the most exotic, unconventional, remarkable destinations and activities imaginable. The wealthy man still complains that he's done it all before. Finally, exasperated, they give him a globe and tell him to point to any place on it, and they'll arrange a trip for him to that exact spot, and find something interesting to do.

The man studies the globe for ten careful minutes, then looks up and says, "I'm terribly sorry, I really am - but would you happen to have a different globe?"

I am reminded of this joke every time I hear someone say that they are not going to bother voting in elections.

Monday, March 10, 2008


It is unlikely that Medvedev is entirely Putin’s creature, or will remain so for long. Yes, Putin is not quite letting go, and there is a legal loophole that would allow him to run for President again in 2008, but even in a situation as unprecedented as the one we have now, it would be disingenuous to suppose that a leader of Russia will give up the power willingly. The top job is not one fit for a puppet, and Dmitri Medvedev is decidedly not a fool.

Full text at Baltlantis.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Victim of Advertising

Around this time last year I blogged about summer vacations, and how I bought tickets to London and from Berlin, two weeks apart. Here's what came of it.

Today, I was browsing the Postimees website and clicked on a banner for Estonian Air. Long story short - got tickets to Rome and back, for a week in July. Suggestions for sightseeing and cheap accomodation? I'm tempted to take the train out to Florence and Venice...

Also, two and a half years on - I'm going back to Bollnäs! Also an Estonian Air thing this time, the Tallink ferry is both slow and really fucking expensive. It's cheaper to get a hotel package - one night in Stockholm - than a cruise, never mind individual tickets. So it's a whirlwind round trip this time, a day and a half away from Estonia in total.

Got a big article, but I'm letting Baltlantis get a crack at it first, so stay tuned...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

They're at it again.

Fancy a bit of light KERA-bashing this afternoon?

Postimees reports that Centrist big wig Lauri Laasi has gotten his way with some property in the posh Nõmme suburb. It's an area of private houses, and has a statute whereby new buildings cannot be built on plots of less than 1200 m2 (13 000 sq ft for the metrically impaired). Laasi wanted a plot of his split into two, and zoned for a new house on each half. The head of the suburb's council, also a KERA man, suggested an exception be made in this case on the grounds that the street is already ruined by ugly terraced houses.

The council's planning commission technically has a right to overrule the statute, but chose not to in this case - but the planning was still approved by Savisaar's City Hall.

Full disclosure: Lauri Laasi is married to someone I used to go to school with, so this is more fun for me than taking pleasure in the misfortunes of a complete stranger would be.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Local Warming

Just as the first spring month begins, Estonia has finally gotten to the point of winter. It's a few degrees below zero, with a nice coating of powder to cover up most of the sludge - at least here in continental Tartu; I understand it's less pleasant on the coasts. We've managed to go through the entire winter of 2007/2008 without a single proper frost, with the exception of an odd cold snap in November and a few days of -15C in January - which, compared to the experience of standing in the middle of a field waiting for the bus in -30C and a Holy Shit chill factor, is nothing. The sort of weather where Icelanders start debating whether they should put on a sweater.*

It's difficult to get Estonians excited about any cause, and despite obvious exceptions, environmentalism has an especially tough fight ahead of it - climate change has been decidedly changing Estonian weather for the better. Although there is a väliseestlane in my inbox gloating about +14C in the Toronto area. Bastard.

Also in my inbox is some Orkut spam on behalf of Marek Strandberg, calling for a public outcry over the plans to build a nuclear power station in Estonia. Strandberg has been an odd duck since the parliamentary elections, and I'm afraid the Green party's reserve of voter enthusiasm is going the way of Res Publica very quickly. They're not in the coalition, and thus they are more or less by default in bed with Savisaar (and I apologize for the mental image). They have singularly failed to get anything useful done, but I've seen the tabloids have a go at them for living posh at the taxpayer's expense - the yellow press defaults to MPs' company cars on a slow news day.

Never mind his suspect claims that the power station would be of an outdated type - Finland's building one now, a completely new design, safest one ever constructed, and it seems pretty self-evident that we'd get one of those - or the fact that a nuclear power station in Estonia proper is a spacey last resort, an idea bounced around if we are muscled out of both the Ignalina reconstruction in Lithuania and Finland's continuing nuke construction. Oy, Marek - if it really comes down to that, do you really suggest we keep mining shale or running the Narva plants on fossil fuels instead of nukes? Very funny, Mr. Environmentalist. Now pull the other one.

I didn't vote for Strandberg, but I enjoyed the idea of him, so I'm sorry to see him overcome by the KERA influence and resorting to shameless populist agendas. This entire sordid business has a faint green afterglow, and I don't like the look of it.

* You think I'm joking, but I've been to Iceland. At the rotten shark farm the local dude gave us a 20-minute lecture about the curing process, in a wet Arctic blizzard, wearing sandals and a fleece.


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