Friday, August 29, 2008
The most significant item in Tasku's assortment is not the cinema, although that is very welcome indeed; it is the New Yorker clothes store. A chain that I have not seen in Estonia before, it occupies one of the largest spaces and differs in important ways from the Seppäläs that it ostensibly competes against.
It seems to be aimed predominantly at teenagers, which I suppose is a wise move, but also carries sizes and styles fit for an older crowd. The key to its appeal - and you will have to infer the extent of this appeal from the fact that I am writing about clothes in the first place - is a combination of very reasonable prices and fashions which are just a little bit more distinctive than what you would find elsewhere. It seems to commoditize an overall boutique aesthetic, but at a basic-casual price point. It's not entirely without competition, I've been shopping at Cartini for years, but it's new, different, and big. I walked into New Yorker after work today, and came out with a winter jacket. It's fake leather, but it's close enough, looks good on me, and cost about a fifth of what the real deal would have been even at a cheap place like Cartini. Since the only truly practical aspect of a leather jacket - the fact that it'll protect your skin if you fall of a Harley - is somewhat lost on me, I am prepared to take a chance and eating the price.
Furthermore, New Yorker brings a few new and very commendable touches to the shopping experience. I was annoyed at first to see a shortage of cashiers, but somehow the two blonde girls at the single checkout desk were managing to keep the Friday-evening crowd moving along at an acceptable clip - which is little short of stupefying for one with experiences of Hullud Päevad combat. Their shopping bags are free, and far more pleasing at a tactile level than the plastic ones at Kaubamaja; they try to avoid the expense by stressing environmental concerns, making the point that their bags are actually valuable and they would be very grateful if you brought it back for recycling the next time you stopped by Tasku. Whether that'll happen often enough is beside the point: I applaud a stimulation of that sort of mentality. And the most pleasant innovation is something no Estonian store has ever been known to do: New Yorker has a no-quips, 14-day return policy. If the garment is as-new, they'll actually give you your money back.
With the opening of this new store, Tasku and Tartu seem to have become the entry point for something which is long-overdue in this land: civilized retail.
I hate to say "I told you so", but I've mentioned on multiple occasions that in all the time since the restoration of independence, no Estonian government has ever served a full term, from one election to the next. The current cabinet may have come together around a PM with a massive vote of confidence, but that didn't exactly last - and now the coalition is creaking at the seams, again.
The bone of contention is tax reform. The ruling party has accumulated a lot of goodwill with their tax reduction policy: over several years, personal income tax would drop from 26% to 18%. At the same time, the tax-free minimum would keep growing (this is the base earnings amount per month that does not incur any income tax at all). The upshot is that everybody in Estonia would get more money in their pockets in January than they did in December, without begging their employer for a raise. The electorate has really appreciated it, and the Reform Party has been a member of every coalition in memory.
Of course, we're now in the middle of an economic crisis. The upshot for the government is that they are not getting as much tax as they planned to, and the budget falls short. Which it absolutely cannot do: by law, the government is not allowed to have a budget deficit. The shortfall in the 2008 tax revenue has prompted budget cuts in various branches of government, some layoffs, and a lot of shit-slinging between ministries controlled by different coalition parties.
Now the government is preparing the 2009 budget, which it has to submit to the parliament for approval by the end of September. While the Bank of Estonia says we're past the worst of it and the economy will start to bounce back next year, it still won't be a return to happy days, and the government needs to figure out a way to cut spending, or increase revenue, or (preferably) both.
And so the coalition's second-biggest party, the right-wing IRL, is pushing the PM to freeze the tax cuts. Leaving the income tax rates at this year's levels is supposed to bring in an extra 2,5 billion kroons over the original calculations.
At first the Prime Minister was against the idea - naturally; but now it seems as if he is coming around. Ansip has tried to strong-arm the coalition before, and it has never worked out well for him. He kept Mart Laar out of the Foreign Minister's chair because Laar had more popular approval than the PM - and bore the blame of the April riots, leaving Laar in the wings and blameless. He tried to push through some suspect legislation to the benefit of a particular company - and the rest of the coalition promptly supported a rival's unpopular bill to restrict the sales of alcohol. This is a representative democracy at work: with a true multiparty system, even the big dog can't afford to get too arrogant.
So now Ansip is talking about maybe stopping further tax cuts. But is it a good move?
Estonia's economic miracle is largely attributed to two things: a balanced budget, and the lack of any corporate taxes. The former is now under threat. The latter has been a subject of much discussion for the last couple of years, not least because the other EU states are a bit miffed: it's a strong disbalance in the common market, giving Estonia a competitive advantage that the other member states will struggle to match. The government has had to fight hard against EU officials to retain the no-corporate-tax rule. An odd case of the government actually making a proper effort to not get more money.
The income tax cuts, on the other hand, are far less critical to the overall economic health of the country. Estonia needs foreign capital. Personal income tax cuts are of no consequence to the investors, and on the other hand, they are not that much help to the population at large. Businesspeople with stock portfolios and significant financial interests will certainly get a significant bonus if their tax falls by another percentage point - but to the majority of the voters, January's raise comes down to a couple of hundreds of kroons, maybe. It's certainly a very nice thing to have, but it's not critical. If the extra revenue from freezing further tax cuts will balance the budget, save the social services from further layoffs, and keep the economy healthy, then it is entirely reasonable for the state to ask its people to make that sacrifice.
And if it does work, what a boon for Ansip! His once-high approval ratings have been tumbling ever since his failed attempt to be a politician. It is now high time for the Reform Party whips to stop the madness and return to their true purpose in the Republic of Estonia: that of the quietly competent economy buffs, secure in their coalition spot because they are the ones who know how to keep the money rolling in. Freezing the tax cuts is a small price to pay to relieve the crisis; if the government pulls it off, and Reform takes the credit, it will go a long way to undoing the damage done by three years of Ansip's misguided shenanigans.
With pressure from IRL and the rest of the coalition, it now seems almost inevitable that Ansip will take the plunge and drop the tax cuts. The only question is whether it will be enough.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
The verdict from ambling around it with the crowds on my lunch hour: meh. Unlike most malls, designed to let you shop for absolutely anything, Tasku is almost entirely a collection of clothes shops. Officially they call it a fashion and recreation center; there is no general store, no electronics stores (except for the Apple outlet, complete with bowls of fresh apples and trays of apple crumble for the opening day visitors). I vaguely remember something about a Rimi back when they first started construction on the new mall, but it's not there. A smattering of eateries at least makes Tasku useful as a lunch destination.
There are two things in Tasku designed to draw in a crowd at least somewhat different from the teenagers that will gravitate to the mid-market ragshops: the Rahva Raamat bookstore and the Cinamon multi-screen cinema. The cinema is a very welcome addition to Tartu, but there is a potential problem: while Tasku does have a decent-sized parking structure attached to it, you will definitely not be able to park long enough to go in and see a movie without paying for it. That is definitely a competitive advantage that the old two-screen Ekraan theater has over the flashy new Cinamon.
The Rahva Raamat is big and impressive, but in terms relevant to me and the readers of AnTyx, pointless. Their selection of English-language literature is woeful, barely matching that of the Apollo bookstore in Kaubamaja. Maybe they will expand it, but for now it looks like a stunningly bad move. I refuse to believe that in a city like Tartu, between its expats and students, there is no market for English books. (There isn't much native-Estonian literature that I am interested in, and I absolutely cannot read translations, it's a professional hazard.)
Tasku will certainly serve a useful purpose, but it was supposed to be the end-all be-all mall. Which it isn't. It's just another link in the inevitable Kaubahall-to-Zeppelin axis of consumption that is downtown Tartu.
Friday, August 22, 2008
At ridiculous costs. The device itself is actually quite cheap for what it does - from 1500 to 4000 EEK - but that's with a two-year plan at 550 or 890 EEK per month. While I do actually know people who spend as much on their phonecalls each month, let's look at what the plan gives you: 100 or 250 each of minutes within the EMT network, SMSes, and megabytes of traffic. Nevermind that for a device designed to show full-fat websites at 3G speeds, 250 megabytes per month is nothing. Fortunately EMT hasn't gone completely American-moronic, because they do log calls by the second instead of rounding them up to the nearest minute - which is the mindfuck behind plans with enormous numbers of "free minutes" in them - but the first time you call a non-EMT number, you're paying extra, above and beyond your already really expensive plan. At least the extra pricing is relatively cheap: 1.75 EEK per minute for calls, and 2.50 EEK per megabyte.
Because you can actually terminate the contract early, it's possible to calculate the actual cost of the device, purchased legally from EMT: 10,5 thousand kroons for the 16GB model. Over a thousand dollars.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Five days after the start of the war, it seems to have run its course - let's hope - and my prevailing feeling is not one I am especially proud of: At least it happened over there, not here. At least maybe, since we're NATO and EU members, and the first strike that shook the West happened thousands of miles away, we will be spared. Maybe in what Edward Lucas was the first one to publically call the New Cold War, Estonia will be like Finland in the old one: having played Russia to a mutually unsatisfactory stalemate in the propaganda war, we can remain out of reach, the line that the Kremlin will not cross. Maybe.
The West did not come to Georgia's aid when she needed it, and perhaps, in hindsight, it couldn't have. But let's make sure the conscience of Western leaders resonates. This is a test of Europe's feasibility far more important than any treaty referendum. There is still so much we can do in Georgia. Recognize that the Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are occupiers. Flood Georgia proper with international peacekeepers, to make the Kremlin's bullshit just that little bit less aerodynamic.
Andres asked me if I had anything to say about Estonia's Russians and their reaction to the war. It's pretty much what you would expect: at best, apathy and wholesale condemnation of everyone involved, at worst, blind support of anything Russia does without the slightest hint of a clue about the history of the region or the conflict.
After the April riots, it was maybe six months until I started talking to my Russian friends again; it took that long for people to learn to mask their true opinions. Like then, today I have to pick a side to stand on - and it's not really any sort of choice. But if I lose my friends, so be it.
Today, I am Georgian.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Parliament is about to go into an emergency session to draft a joint statement on Georgia. An emergency session can be called with support from no less than a fifth of the Riigikogu (21 members). The session has been endorsed by all represented parties, except for Keskerakond. Vilja Savisaar's official statement to the press was, let's wait and see and gather information and not rush into things. Wouldn't do to piss off the Russians.
UPDATE 1: Meanwhile, Ansip is trying to get to Georgia. Might just be PR for now, but if he does show up in Thbilisi, that'll be a great move on his part. Compensating for political ineptitude with personal bravery; could be worse, and he's doing the right thing when it counts. A commenter on Postimees: "When the Russians came here, did anybody help out?" That is exactly why we need to be involved in Georgia.
UPDATE 2: There is a humanitarian aid flight being put together by Estonian Air, the Red Cross and various other local relief agencies. The Estonian Reserve Officers' Association is apparently putting together a team of 90 volunteers that will be on the flight and will distribute the humanitarian aid, as well as help out relief efforts on the ground. The email that I saw specifically mentioned that the group would absolutely not be involved in combat, but otherwise should be prepared for anything, including hostile fire. The email also says that perhaps the presense of Estonian reservist volunteers in Georgia will serve as inspiration to NATO. I haven't really heard of the group before, but it is certainly a good sentiment.
The war in Georgia hasn't had any conclusive developments. Militarily, the key to the conflict is the Roki tunnel, the only road between Russia and South Ossetia capable of carrying battle vehicles. Without heavy armor, Russia would be unable to do anything substantial in Georgia: dropping bombs on Georgian towns is not the same thing as having troops on the ground.
There has been one interesting moment, which was also the only real help Georgia has had so far from any of its friends and allies. Men-of-war from Russia's Black Sea Fleet were spotted in the ports of Abkhazia and off the Georgian cost, presumably there to enforce a naval blockade of Georgia. However, Russia does not have any serviceable military ports on the Black Sea, and the fleet actually operates out of a naval base in Sevastopol; Crimea. Ukraine said that if a naval blockade is initiated, it will deny the Black Sea Fleet ships a return to harbor within Ukrainian territory. Unlike vague statements of support and threats of diminishing relations from the apparently impotent West, Putin and Medvedev apparently felt like Ukraine bloody well meant it, so the missile cruiser Moscow and its battle group have retreated to Novorossiysk.
Kiev Bravo. For the rest of the West - this is Sudetenland. If you don't protect your friends today, you won't have friends tomorrow. First they came for the Georgians, etc.
Friday, August 08, 2008
We're still in the middle of the three-hour window that the Georgians said they would allow for the evacuation of civilians, so the reports might not even be true; but if they are, it does seem like Russia will no longer have any way of pretending it is not a clear and present threat to Georgia, as opposed to an international peacekeeping observer.
Could be a failure by the Georgian military. Could be the successful result of a planned provocation designed to expose Russia's true role in the events. In any case, it is certainly a smart move on Georgia's part to avoid engaging the Russian army.
The question is, are these volunteers, or actual Russian regular forces; and if the latter, was their deployment a kneejerk reaction by one of the theater commanders, or did it come direct from Putin/Medvedev?
UPDATE: RIA Novosti, the official Kremlin newswire, reports that the Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed that regular army forces have been sent into South Ossetia, ostensibly to relieve the peacekeeping forces (which was not allowed under the terms of the original ceasefire).
UPDATE 2: Latest news say Russian tanks from the 58th Army are now in direct engagement with retreating Georgian forces.
Saw some info on the orders of battle. The South Osettians themselves have a decent quantity of armor, but apart from that they are very definitely the weakest force in the conflict. The Georgian military is considered to be the best-trained and best-armed in the entire former Soviet Union, with American training, some American armor and aircraft, and a lot of state-of-the-art battlefield equipment from Israel and other suppliers; but they are not very big in numbers, only approximately 30 thousand regulars with 100 thousand trained reservists. Russia's North Caucusus Military District is about a hundred thousand regular troops, with more armor and equipment than the Georgians.
Georgia has restarted fighting in South Ossetia, a breakaway republic discreetly backed by Russia. At the time of writing, based on reports in the Russian news media, the rebel capital of Tskhinvali has been captured... and levelled. Georgian forces have announced an imminent three-hour ceasefire to allow refugees to leave the warzone through a safe corridor.
Georgia's casus belli, as far as I can tell, is the bombing of Georgian towns by military aircraft originating in South Ossetia. It and Abkhazia have been a source of provocation for Georgia for months now, and there has been some convincing evidence that the Russian military was actively involved. (A Georgian aerial drone was shot down by a MiG-29, and neither the Abkhaz forces nor the Russian peacekeepers within Abkhazia proper have that type of aircraft.) Georgia itself has been the object of much of Russia's ire in the last couple of years, including an economic blocade and persecution of ethnic Georgians living in Russia.
There has been a scarily plausible opinion going around that as the Beijing Olympics kick off and the world's attention is elsewhere, Russia would make a move. Georgia was visibly spooked by the lack of support from the West, including Germany's block of NATO membership for the country.
It seems that Georgia has considered a military aggression on the part of Russia and/or its rebel allies inevitable, and has decided to make the first move.
I've got a problem, and I need your help. I've got three weeks' vacation coming up, from mid-September. Hey, I didn't ask for it; I've got way too much vacation time accumulated and my boss bullied me into muttering some random date. Late September seemed as good as any other time, on the assumption that it would still be decent weather, but off-season, so travel should be cheaper.
The point is that I almost never know what I want to do with my vacations. I went to Rome purely because Estonian Air was having a sale on tickets back in the early spring. I've got the time, and I've got some kind of budget, but I am absolutely out of ideas.
I know what I do not want to do: spend a week or two lying on the beach. That automatically discards the vast majority of offerings from Estonian travel agencies, which come down to Turkey, Egypt, or the Canary Islands. Nor will my budget stretch to anything very remarkable - I'd love to go to Japan, but the only tour I've seen so far was 30k, and that's decidedly outside my price range. It would also pretty much have to be a package tour, since I like to use people I know when travelling independently; I'm out of friends in places I haven't been, at least in Europe. I've already been to Iceland and Israel, so that's two exotic locations out.
One good idea has been Georgia, but a) it looks like it's about to get really fucking messy (though not all that disconcerting to me, I was in Israel during the Lebanon war), and b) the package tours seem ridiculously expensive. 18k for a week's holiday in Georgia? No way.
Could do Prague, which I've been avoiding so far because it's just so fucking default. There are approximately 1.3 million people in Estonia, and of them, I am the last one that has not been to Prague. Gotta admit though, there are a lot of good connection opportunities via CSA.
Maybe I should go and get a US tourist visa? I understand they're issued for a year or so, not for a particular date. I already had a B1/B2 class visa issued years ago, too, so they ought to let me in. I've actually been talking about going to visit some friends in NYC and around, once Michael Chertoff muscled Estonia's visa waiver through Congress. But visa aside, travelling to the US seems like such a fucking hastle - what with the ETA, laptop searches, etc.
Canada? Visa-free, and I know people in the Greater Toronto area, but nobody I could expect to accompany me on some serious travels. Besides, too much of the budget would be spent on tickets just to get there, and after Rome I definitely don't want to stay in one place.
If all fails, I suppose I could just jump in the Mazda and do something I've been thinking about for a long time now... One Lap of the Baltic.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Ever since independence, when foreign capital started flowing into the country and Estonians began to try their luck abroad once more, there has been a Holy Grail: working for a foreign company and getting Western European/American pay, but staying here with Estonian living expenses. There is a limit to the efficiency of telecommuting, but expats who are here for the long haul do tend to be freelancers of some ilk. Vello says that the ratio of effort to reward that he gets from freelance work makes fulltime employment very unattractive by comparison, and I guess that makes sense.
But then, even Vello himself confessed that he was missing the warm and fuzzy feeling that you get from a steady paycheck. The problem is that the jobs he was offered did not pay very well. Fine, staff journalists get peanuts in Estonia (unless you work for one of the big foreign-owned sheets Postimees or Ekspress, or maybe even then), which is why I'm a technical writer with an ego trip and a Baltlantis press card rather than a reputable reporter or columnist. And yes, ten grand for an Editor-in-Chief of anything is pitiful, moreso in Tallinn.
Part of the problem is expectations. There is a guy on one of my forums, an American software developer who wanted to move to Europe for a long time. He finally convinced his wife, and started job-hunting. He had little trouble setting up interviews with big names in IT; his skillset was in vogue, his credentials were unassailable and his abilities impressive. Any code shop in big European IT hubs such as Dublin or Prague would have been lucky to have him; however, he found that they all paid far too little. His intention was to improve or at least retain his US lifestyle, and he just could not see how he could do that on a Prague salary.
Another part is the difference between an expat and a consultant. Expats are not coming here because somebody thought their expertise was worth a lot of money. They happen to be here, for whatever life reasons, and so they are actually competing against locals, for the same jobs. Who's going to hire a guy who isn't fluent in Estonian? (And trust me, you're not fluent. I was born here and I'm not as fluent as I'd like to be. Vello is pretty damn good, but even then people have to re-adjust their brains to parse his Estonian. Giustino... makes a really, really good effort.) Do I really need to repeat how much the Estonian mentality is based on the language? Add to that a reasonable availability of competitive skills due to all the Estonians who went to study and work abroad, and an expat looking for a fulltime job is at a great disadvantage before he sets out.
Let's go back to Vello's words: Estonian employers benefit greatly from the transitional status of the nation’s young professionals: many are still living with mom and dad, or have only recently moved out on their own. The population-at-large doesn’t carry first-world financial burdens which will drive up salaries and, versus their western counterparts, they’re able to live on a lot less money.
What kind of financial burdens? Support for elderly family members? Estonian pensions are far smaller in comparison to salaries than almost any First World welfare state. Mortgages? The real estate boom has driven up prices so far that even after the cooldown, the average Estonian can still buy far fewer square meters with a year's pay than the average European. And still real estate here is ridiculously cheap by First World standards: I know a couple of British boys who took a long-term contract to work in Tartu. They were getting far less money than they could at home, but it was well compensated by the fact that they didn't have to pay London rents.
And that's the odd thing. When I was buying my apartment - at the age of 22 - my online friends from the First World kept commenting with "are you, like, rich or something?". I'm not. I'm in IT, and so I get paid fairly nicely by Estonian standards, and I supplement my income with freelance translation and documentation work, but the money I earn is by no means fantastic. And yet, if I ever do go and live abroad, it will not be for the money, and it will not be forever. The simple truth is that with my Estonian salary, I can afford a mortgage, a car, nice holidays, and general stuff. I've had a look at this. Almost anywhere else in the world, doing what I do now and getting the local salary for it, my living standard would be lower.
The life of an expat is expensive. There might be a few places in South-East Asia where a Westerner can achieve subsistence level as a roving reporter for the Lakewood Herald, but that does not apply to Eastern Europe, not for a long time now. It certainly doesn't apply to Estonia, which has always claimed to be Nordic rather than Eastern. And being immersed in a foreign environment means overpaying for everyday stuff - because you want comfort food from Stockmann, or because you don't know the tricks that are self-evident to locals, like never buy anything from K-Arvutisalong. Yet expats from the First World - especially ones that are not propelled to Estonia by roots or marriage - inevitably do it to feel like colonial masters out to impress the natives. This attitude is not confined to Wolverhampton stag parties. But the price of a pint is not what it used to be, and all the blondes in Estonian nightclubs are no longer impressed solely by your accent - they expect you to buy them expensive drinks.
It's not really the Estonian salary that is the problem.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
There was one bit of furniture that I was missing until yesterday. I had been using a ghetto arrangement of boxes and trays in its stead, because I just couldn't find anything worthwhile in my price range. With a bit of disposable income from a freelance job, I finally fixed that. So, since I've talked about customer service recently, I figure it's worth actually praising the companies that deliver remarkably good service.
The item of furniture itself was bought from ON24, one of many online furniture shops in Estonia. It is distinguished by a special marketing trick: if you register an account, you start accumulating a small credit - something like 25 EEK per month, and occasionally they have campaigns where you'll get a bigger chunk of credit as a one-time deal, for signing up to a newsletter or something. This credit can then be used for up to a quarter of the price of an item you're buying from the store. The point is that you sign up long before you actually start buying anything, and they get to send you targeted ads. They might sell emails to a spam list as well - I didn't check the T&Cs, and since I gave them my spam-catching email, I didn't particularly care either.
Anyway, they had the exact item I wanted. I got to save a very decent chunk of money thanks to the credit. The website said the item would be delivered within six weeks, which I more or less expected, since it was from a small Estonian manufacturer of designer furniture and it seemed logical that they would make these things to order. In the event, I got a call from them saying they got the item a month early, and could deliver it ASAP. Which was nice. Good work, ON24. Recommended.
My other recommendation is the delivery outfit, SmartPOST. These guys are setting up a country-wide network of drop boxes in malls and shopping centers. I'm guessing they are targeting e-commerce websites who are not being trusted with people's addresses, or intend to do discreet shipments. The idea is that the seller leaves a package in one of these postbox affairs, and sends you an access code by SMS. You come to the mall at your leisure, punch in the code, and the box containing your item opens up. The obvious gag here is that the service will be of particular convenience to drug dealers (you can even leave a mail-order package in the box and the customer will use his credit card to pay a set amount before the goods are released), but actually it does solve an important issue - that of delivery times.
Estonians love to shop online, that goes without saying. There are a number of home delivery services, and they are affordable enough. The problem is that they have the same business hours as anyone else. You can order your stuff to be delivered to your office, but there are any number of legitimate reasons why you might not want to do that; say, it's a bulky item that you do not want to be dragging home afterwards, or you've just ordered an inflatable dildo from eBay. Otherwise, you have to wait for the courier to call you, then rush home to pick up the package. I've done that many times, but I live in Tartu, and can get from work to home in five minutes. What if you live in Lasnamäe and work in Kopli?
Anyway, the post box network is not quite online yet, so in the meanwhile SmartPOST is acting as a regular delivery outfit. Except they're better than the competition, such as ELS or DPD. When my package arrived at their central sorting, I got an email with a link to a web form, where I could select from multiple days, and then choose whether I wanted the package in the morning, afternoon or evening. Or I could leave a plaintext message for them, explaining what time would be convenient for me. In the event I selected Monday evening, and was told the package would arrive at my home at 18:11 +- 30 minutes. Actually the courier was twenty minutes early, but waited for me to get there. And whatever the size of the package, SmartPOST will deliver it to your home - literally. Other delivery services I've used only included delivery to the front door, if you wanted help getting your couch or grand piano or whatever up the stairs you had to pay extra. These guys will, apropos of nothing, set the couch down in the room where you want to keep it.
I am not in any way affiliated with either of these companies, but they did provide remarkable customer service: good enough that I am remarking upon it. ON24: excellent response to customer inquiries (fast and to the point), and a genuinely useful customer loyalty program.
SmartPOST: rilly klevur, akshully.
Monday, August 04, 2008
This is an odd sort of situation, and as far as I can tell, it stems from the fact that there is no private land ownership in Russia; even if you own property in central Moscow, you do not own the land under it (like you would in Estonia, or most places around the world). The typical scheme is for the developer to bribe the city authorities so the building is officially declared to be irreparably dilapidated. The developer can then tear down the house and build something new in its place. Because Russia is a welfare state, the developer is obliged to give the people living in the old house new accomodations, but the market value of these is not considered; so folks are usually sent to tower block apartments a few hours away from downtown.
It's tragic, and it got me thinking about what is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of Estonian restoration after 1991: restitution.
Because the Republic of Estonia continued its legal existence after 1940, all legal relationships were still valid, including property ownership. When the country became independent once again, people who could prove that they owned real estate before the Soviets got it back - and for people who had died in the meantime, the property was returned to their heirs. Sounds fair enough - except to the people who were already living there.
In the Soviet days - before my birth - my family used to live in a house in Kadriorg, the park on the edge of downtown Tallinn, and one of the city's most expensive residential areas. My grandfather was the head engineer at a factory - the clever Jew actually running the place while a loyal party man was nominally in charge, a Soviet stereotype. Grandfather, whom I never met, had a decent enough living standard, and under Soviet law, the house belonged to him. At some point - I'm guessing after my father got married and moved out - they part-exchanged the house in Kadriorg and moved to an apartment in one of the brand-new tower blocks in award-winning Blossom Hills.
My father took me to see the old place in Kadriorg once - he knew the people who ended up living there - and sure, it would have been far nicer than our own Lasnamäe dwelling; but the exchange had been a stroke of luck. Because the tower blocks were not there before 1940. They couldn't possibly be returned to anyone; even if someone claimed ownership of the marshlands where the bedroom communities sprang up, the state would simply refund their purchase price, in 1940s money. Only property that still existed in a recognizable shape could be returned - for the rest, compensation was paid by the Republic of Estonia out of today's taxpayers' money. I like to think that some of the compensation was financed by the hard currency that we (allegedly!) got from Chechen rebels, who paid over market rates for our spare pile of Soviet roubles. It would have been poetic justice.
So after '91, each side of my family took its privatization bonds, an equal share of the presumed value of all the Soviet state property that was distributed to the population (the Communist ideal of "taking everything and splitting it up equally" finding a hilariously ironic implementation), and bought out its apartments, summer houses, etc. Had we stayed in Kadriorg, we would have still gotten the bonds, but we could not have used them for the house. It was older than 1940; it was roughly in the same shape; it used to belong to someone, and that someone's children would get it back. If we stayed there until 1991, we would have become part of arguably the most miserable groups in Estonian society: forced tennants.
This is the problem with restitution. For all its fierce free-marketry, Estonia retains a fair amount of social security. The term "forced tennant" does not mean that the tennant is forced to do anything; it means the tennant is forced upon the owner. If you got a house back in '91, and someone was already living there - given the place by the Soviet authorities - then you could not just tell them to leave. They were now renting the place from you, and there were protections in place for what you could or could not do to them.
Some of the restored owners were families of fugitives, who moved back to Estonia and decided to live in their ancestral homes - people like Aarne. Others figured it made more sense to develop and/or sell the property. Valuable old buildings started to change hands, complete with forced tennants, whose rental agreements were ironclad: three years from the point of restitution, then extended twice again, for five years each time, by an act of law. Forced tennants could only be evicted for a gross breach of the boilerplate rental contract, or if they chose to leave. This was the middle of the 90s, a turbulent time when, for a moment, Estonia became the world's number one exporter of rare-earth metals (I'll leave you to ponder the factoid, suffice it to say that Estonia has no significant natural metal reserves of its own and didn't appear to import much). Unscrupulous developers quickly learned the methods for making a tennant choose to leave.
The injustice of forced tennants is possibly the biggest chink in the armor of Estonian self-righteousness. Almost everyone* was given a place to live by the Soviet authorities; most people managed to privatize their homes after independence, but some did not, and there was no good reason for it. The bulk of Tallinn's forced tennants come from Pelgulinn, not just the gateway to Kopli but a seaside community of timber homes that were considered uncomfortable in the Soviet times - so they were inhabited by low-paid workers, people who would have trouble with buying a place to live for cash. The state made efforts to improve their lot; former forced tennants are entitled to municipally-owned apartments with nominal rents**. Privatization bonds could be traded, but at far below nominal value - they were only useful if you were occupying a Soviet-built property and were the first to claim it for yourself. There were not particularly many forced tennants, but they were vocal, and they were genuinely wronged.
Normally this is where I would explain how restitution should have been implemented instead. But I just don't know. Should the state have compensated former owners and let the tennants privatize? It worked for most things, but... There are still living people out there who fled on the fishing boats in '44. At least one of them reads this blog - I hope he'll comment. They lived through decades abroad, congregating into societies, going to great lengths to find a bakery that would do black rye bread, and all that time they were holding on to old photographs of their farmsteads, back in the motherland. Though they lived full lives in the West, they told their children that their home was always here. And if the home in question, the actual building, still exists - how could we possibly justify letting someone else have it? The exiles did not abandon Estonia, and when they finally returned, how could Estonia abandon them?
What would you have done?