Brussels itself is boring. Belgium has a fully lit motorway network, so the night-time scenery as you're landing is fantastic, but the city just feels uninspired. The hotel (with traces of grandeur, but a bit of a shithole these days) was in the vicinity of the train station, which is never good, but I stayed in the Termini region in Rome and that was far more interesting. The European Parliament building is, apparently, copyright under Belgian law - one is not allowed to reprint its likeness without paying the architect a licensee fee (and Tony Robinson, the spokesman for the Socialist group, claimed to have paid 400 Euro for the right to post on his blog a picture of the EP compound that he'd taken himself in 1983). I'd say the impression I got from the city was that the Belgians are sufficiently organized and orderly to keep it all running, but don't care enough to make it sparkle.
That sort of criticism cannot be levied on the conference itself, however. As sceptical as I am about the supposed power of the blogosphere - and even more so about the storyworthiness of the European Parliament - the gathered crowd made it an awesome experience. The organizers from the European Journalism Center were genuinely enthusiastic, and did a stupefying amount of work to bring together nearly 90 people from every member state in the EU. I now understand why people go to events such as PAX or SXSW: not necessarily for the cause and impact, but for the sheer buzz of being around so many interesting people. Some of these were bloggers, a lot were journalism students and various other activists who made an effort to get into the competition. It's difficult to describe the joy of being in a room full of individuals, where absolutely every person is guaranteed to be worth your time and attention; the ones I spent a bit more time talking to were downright fascinating.
The project will go public on Sunday, when the Th!nk About It website will begin to publish contributions. In the meantime you can check out the EJC's BloggingPortal, an aggregator of stuff on European politics with a far wider catchment area. Or you can click on the new badge in the sidebar.
Russian news sources report of a soldier from the Russian army positions in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia deserting his post and escaping to Georgia proper. He is apparently seeking asylum, citing horrid conditions in the army - lack of food and bathing facilities and physical abuse.
The latter is interesting because the soldier in question, Aleksander Glukhov, was due to end his stint in the spring. (Incidentally, the NewsRu report talks about the Russian MoD's initial claim that the expeditionary force in South Ossetia and Abkhasia is completely made up of contract soldiers; even though the law forbids sending conscripts like Glukhov into a war zone abroad, they were indeed used in the Georgian conflict, which the MoD eventually had to admit - after long denials.) It is known that the Russian national service has a highly abusive hierarchy, where conscripts move up depending on how much time they've served, and then use violence against their juniors. Glukhov, a young man from the Udmurtia region of Russia, was ostensibly at the top of the food chain, with less than six months before his discharge - and still chose to desert his army and his country.
Reuters caught up with Glukhov in Tbilisi, and their reporter seems to be satisfied that the soldier is in good health and is not being kept against his will. The Russian authorities obviously beg to differ, saying that Glukhov was captured by Georgian special forces, and is being forced to say all these things under psychological pressure and threat of torture. Yet the Georgian authorities have apparently allowed Glukhov to phone his parents, and has invited them to come to Georgia and meet with their son.
Georgian TV channel Rustavi2 has a report on Glukhov, with a video of the man himself (starts at 1.30, in Russian, translation below):
My unit was moved to Tskhinval in June. My superiors said... officers, commanders... that you are going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people against Georgia. In June we started to dig trenches, firing positions. Also, the combat alerts started. We moved out to our positions. Stayed there for a week, returned - turned out they were drills. Then, after that, I was in Leningori - Akhalgori, on December 1st. Served there for a month, month and a half.
There are no normal conditions there. My relationship with the batallion commander, Major Fyodorov, became bad. Bad conditions. No washing facilities. The food situation is bad - we're fed very little. We also have combat vehicles - tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery units, aimed at Georgian villages... so I am asking the president of Georgia to leave me in Thbilisi.
Estonia is undoubtedly well served by having a voice as prominent as Edward Lucas speaking for us, but that doesn't mean the Economist's Eastern European correspondent is infallible, or insightful without exception. I may be a blogger, but the one thing I have always tried to avoid being is a pundit; a professional voice representing a particular set of beliefs or causes. The problem with pundits is that they are of very limited value to the everyday functioning of a society. They tend to manhandle any event or factor into their unified theory of reality, and that makes their conclusions and their advice flawed. Worse still, their neverending search for controversy and hardship can have a very negative effect on the general mindset. Master Lucas is entirely guilty of this, even if he is our bastard.
Submitted as evidence, his review of Detsembrikuumus. Nevermind his odd misreading of the plot (he writes that "only quick thinking and bravery by the protagonist (...) save the six-year-old Estonian republic from disaster", whereas the protagonist is in no way the heroic figure, nor all that central to the defeat of the coup). Nor will I dwell for long on the notion that "as the events of April 2007 showed, a cyber-attack can have roughly the same effect [as capturing a country's telegraph and post office in the 20s] without firing a shot", which shows a misunderstanding of the attack's nature that is shameful for anyone undertaking to draw such wide-ranging conclusions so publically.
I take far more offense to the assertion that "economic hardship has discredited the idea of independence in the eyes of many". Lucas admits elsewhere in the article that the 1924 attempt was executed (if not planned) by "idealists hoping to build a workers’ paradise" who are not to be found these days. So why does he, or anyone, seriously think that the economic crisis will be a test of Estonia's national spirit? We may become disillusioned with Europe - although on any significant scale, that's highly unlikely - but why would we become disillusioned with our country, a free and democratic state? Latvians and Lithuanians may throw rocks at their parliament buildings, but the petitions to foreign powers are still no more than a postmodernist comment (and besides, Estonia already got the principal benefits of such a union by placing the responsibility on the Swedish taxpayer to bail out our banking system).
Yes, we may be disgusted by our politicians, but that's what elections are for. I am disappointed that master Lucas has fallen victim to the fallacy that a government is tantamount to the state. The Republic of Estonia is a country where the ultimate power rests with its people. And as a people, we may be malcontent and reluctant to celebrate - or even recognize - our achievements. But we can do that, because in the heart of an Estonian lies the unshakeable belief that this is our land, and it is preposterous to even suggest that independence relies on prosperity, and that economic hardship might somehow challenge it.
Estonia has been frequently conquered, but it has never been crushed. Edward Lucas, please stop filling the minds of Economist readers (and Estonian emo kids) with this nonsense. Just stop.
You'll have noticed the slight changes to the template, including the big logo to the right. That's something called "Th!nk About It", a blogging competition centered around the Europarliament elections. I got invited to participate, so they're flying me (and a bunch of other people, I think including Peteris Cedrins from Latvia, but nobody else I've heard of) to Brussels. We'll have a bunch of Eurocrats talk at us, and get a tour of the EP compound.
So, my question: what should I look out for? What should I ask about? What do you, the readers of AnTyx, want to know about the EU government apparatus and particularly the Europarliament, other than the obvious "what's the point of it and why should I care"?
This year we have two sets of elections: Europarliament, and then municipal. The former are only marginally relevant, the latter far more so.
The Center Party, displaying a fundamental lack of constructive criticism or, indeed, any actual thought at all, launched the first ad campaign, plastering Tallinn with ads saying that the policies of IRL and Reform have led to inflation and increases in the cost of living.
Somebody, and nobody has admitted it yet, put stickers over the KERA posters saying "this shit cost 1.5 million kroons". Which is hilarious.
KERA now claims the actual cost was half that. Missing the point completely.
This election season is going to be fun.
UPDATE: Postimess has called my attention to the fact that Savisaar has replied to an invitation by Mart Laar, leader of IRL and the architect of Estonia's economic system, to an open debate.
Edgar starts out by pointing out the humour of two supposed historians talking about economics. Well damn, Edgar, both of you are former Prime Ministers, and both of you want to run this country - I'd damn well expect both of you to have an understanding of economy!
He then goes on to say that a blog is no place to throw down the gauntlet; that it is a private diary, meant for only a few close friends. Tell me, Edgar you decrepid fart, why is your blog hosted on the Keskerakond website and linked prominently from its home page?
It gets even more interesting: "I understand why Laar wants to debate, but why should I do it? Who is Mart Laar right now? He's not the leader of the coalition, he isn't even a minister in the coalition. Whether I like it or not, my debate partner in this governing union is Ansip, not Laar."
To which the inevitable response is, who the fuck are you, Edgar? You're not even an MP. You're a mayor, and the chairman of a party that has a bunch of parliament seats. We don't have an official opposition in this country; nobody owes you anything. What you are, however, is a politician in an election year; and Laar is another politician, who is fairly prominent and guaranteed to have news coverage. You should be loving the attention of a public debate with the person you've criticized so continuously (your 750,000 EEK poster campaign was targeted at Laar's IRL party as well). Are you really so devoid of any point or platform that you would pass up such an excellent opportunity for publicity?
Do you really have nothing to say, to Laar or to the Estonian voters?
So the Estonian courts have found Klenski, Linter, Reva and Sirõk not guilty of organizing the April riots.
A lot of public figures, as well as pro-Estonian commenters, have called it a travesty and voiced their disappointment quite loudly. It was, they said, necessary to punish these four, to send a message that this kind of activity would not be tolerated.
In truth, it will be, and the country will be all the healthier for it. Those responsible for the damage and destruction - the local equivalent of white trash - have long since gotten their convictions and minor sentences. Some of them, who imagined themselves political figureheads in the making, tried to appeal and go all the way to Brussels, where nobody cared to listen to them. Which is as it ought to be.
As for these four, they are only of any interest to anyone as martyrs. There is nothing we (and I mean we as a society) could have done to destroy and humiliate them more than to provide a well-reasoned and impartial judiciary ruling of their utter irrelevance. They were on trial for organizing the most politically significant action to ever be carried out by Estonia's Russian community, or indeed by any opposition fraction whatsoever. And the court found them not credibly competent enough to have pulled it off.
We can afford to be magnanimous. We have nothing to gain from putting these men in jail. But we have certainly gained a lot from releasing them.
I do not make a habit of feeding the trolls outside a controlled environment, but observing them in the wild produces valuable insight. The court ruling produced a stunned reaction in the most hysterical corners of the Russian Internet. Oh, they still played their roles, but even those who kept regurgitating accusations of fascism on autopilot could not help but remark that such insolence against authority would never be so tolerated in the Motherland. The cognitive dissonance incurred by witnessing an application of impartial justice in what they still consider part of their mindscape was much-needed, though rare.
Of course, for the desired effect to be attained, all parties involved had to stick to their script. The fury and indignation of the coalition ensured that the court's ruling carried the necessary force. Still, I wish our politicians spent more time thinking about what they say.