Monday, February 28, 2011

Elections 2011

The Estonian parliamentary elections are this Sunday (and electronic voting has been going on for the best part of a week), and I suppose I really ought to write something about them.

I've been avoiding it, for a number of reasons. For one, there doesn't seem to be very much invasion of the real world with these elections. Political street advertising is banned, and I don't watch TV*, so the only real exposure I've had is the news articles and debates. Maybe the coverage is more pervasive in Tallinn. I've gotten some paper spam in the last few days, but nowhere near as much as I remember from previous election cycles, including Europarliament and local elections.

The other reason is that there is very little intrigue in the run-up to these elections. I've said before that the incumbent Reform Party was likely to do well, thanks to the successful Euro adoption and its general reputation as the party of economic administrators at a time when the economy is the most important issue. I'd hoped that Ansip would be forced to leave, on the general principle that having the same person in charge for so long is not healthy; but I'm pretty sure I'll be losing that bet. At this stage, the biggest question about the elections on March 6th is whether Andrus Ansip's Reform Party will get 51 seats, giving them a single-party majority, or if they will simply end up with somewhere north of 40, forced to grab one of the lesser parties into a coalition.

The Center Party will almost inevitably get some parliamentary seats, but will stay in opposition; it's also likely to lose seats compared to the current election. Not only is it suffering still from the effects of Savisaar's Kremlin money scandal, but it still doesn't have anything to actually offer, other than the idea of a progressive income tax. Anger among the disenfranchised means the Centrists are not out for the count, but their platform is unacceptable to Estonian voters with actual ambition or hope.

IRL has been getting surprising amounts of support, based on the chatter I hear. It is turning into a sink for all the mainstream voters who dislike Reform for their apparent elitism and blame them for the economic troubles, but are not ready to turn to Savisaar. The problem with IRL is that its best people are not being used to good effect. I'm starting to suspect that Mart Laar is disillusioned with the party as it exists today, and the actual RL part of it - Juhan Parts, Tõnis Luukas, and the other remnants of the pre-Ansip cabinet - are disliked by pretty much everyone, including Reform themselves. (In the media hurricane that followed the Savisaar scandal, there was an interesting claim - that the original press leak came from senior IRL officials, as a way of distracting the political establishment from Reform's planned ouster of Parts. That may or may not be the case, but it's clear that Res Publica people have been annoying in their statements and behavior.) Ideologically, IRL seems to be positioning itself as the catch-all center-right party: if Reform is taking care of the economic conservative side of things, then IRL wants the rest of the generic conservative platform. There is some strategic sense behind it, as Europe is generally shifting to the right, and IRL might get support from Old Europe's Christian Democrats and other conservative forces - but the problem is that Estonia is not a natural home for conservative socialism. So IRL is combining populistic promises about education, pensions, welfare benefits etc. with US-style family values. Estonia's political landscape does not need Tõnis Lukas's homophobic outbursts.

The Social Democrats are up in the air right now, and their performance in the elections is the one thing that is both interesting and uncertain. The party's image has suffered with the meltdown of their previous leadership and getting kicked out of Ansip's cabinet, but they seem to have successfully purged the old guard. Their current leader is Sven Mikser, a defector from the Center Party (where he served as Defense Minister in the Ansip-Savisaar coalition, despite never having even served as a conscript - though the latter is not necessarily a bad thing). Mikser is relatively young, but he's an established persona, and oddly enough his change of parties actually makes him look like a man of principle (as much as applicable to a politician, anyway, particularly in a country with poorly differentiated parties). That said, the absolute worst thing that could happen to SDE right now is for the electorate to take them seriously, as an actual Social Democratic party, rather than a safe vote sink that will keep the major players in check. In the same way that Estonia needs to embrace European values more closely before it can properly process IRL's social conservatism, the country needs to build up its economic base and labor efficiency before it can afford SDE's social liberalism. The Scandinavian welfare model is something Estonia will probably end up with, but not for a few decades: we need to be able to afford it without running up massive public debt, and we need a generational change to establish the samhälle, the sense of social unity and responsibility which is the bedrock of Scandinavian society.

Unfortunately, that's more or less it. Only these four parties are guaranteed to be represented in the next Riigikogu. The Greens have blown their chance and do not appeal to anyone - even Epp Petrone, arguably Estonia's most prominent and fervent environmentalist, refused to run as a Green in the last local elections. The leadership crisis of Rahvaliit, the farmers' party, makes SDE's clustermess look as elegant, amicable and coordinated as a Tour de France lead cyclist exchange.

Personally, I ended up voting (electronically) for whoever happened to be the lead of my constituency's Reform list, much as expected. I am by no means happy with the Reform Party's performance, current state and future prospects, but unlike the others, Reform still leaves the impression that they intend to base their leadership style on the economy: if we all make money, the other problems will resolve themselves somehow. That's a flawed strategy, but on some level it appeals to my thinking in that one must solve one's own problems, not hope for external assistance; and it's also less damaging in the long run than IRL's stated program of adding massive new social spending to the budget, without any idea of where the extra money will come from. Estonia's tiny budget deficit and near-nonexistent public debt is still a Good Thing(tm), and we should not give them up. SDE suffers from the same problem, and I guess they're actually less offensive under new leadership than IRL - the same sort of welfare policies without IRL's conservative intolerance - but I neither believe nor support any of their promises.

As for the Centrists, I suppose my main objection against Savisaar and his clique is that they do not appear to act in the country's long-term best interest. However objectionable I find the coalition parties, SDE, or Strandberg's Greens, all of them seem to be acting under the assumption that they and their children and grandchildren will be living in Estonia for a long time to come, and while they use their power to their own advantage as much as they can, they still understand that building a prosperous and stable society in Estonia (at the cost of painful decisions today) is in their own best interest. What I'm seeing in Savisaar is the attitude that nothing matters more than his own personal well-being

*Really not trying to be a hipster douche here. I watch a bunch of TV shows, listen to podcasts, etc.; I consume popular culture. Broadcast television is just a really inefficient way of content delivery. I don't even have a cable subscription any more, and my DVR's been offline for months.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Saw the original photo here, and it reminded me of something.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Mossad sharks are the least of their problems

A Facebook acquaintance mentioned how it's pretty miserable that the West has refused to take a firm stand on Egypt.

What would we have the West do, though? The worst thing we could possibly do is send in troops or something like that. A declaration of unequivocal support for the protesters would certainly be a great gesture, but there is the obvious problem that a)unlike Tunisia, the old leadership has not actually been driven out of the country, and b)it does not seem like the protesters have an organized leadership structure of their own that the West can recognize.

Economic sanctions against Mubarak's regime - like the Lukashenko travel ban and asset seizure - are probably the most viable active measures Europe can take at the moment.

The consideration that the Mubarak regime is more or less secular and the protesters' emergent ringleaders are fervent Muslims is not necessarily a deterrent for European support. It would be useful for Europe to show that it stands not against Islam, but against fundamentalism, zealotry and oppression; that it is willing to back a moderate, progressive force that uses Islam as its uniting ideology. Such a force, backed by Europe and therefore forced to adopt a large chunk of European values, would certainly be a great (additional) precedent in the region.

More than anything else, though - and I'm saying this as a New European from the Baltics - Egypt needs to complete its revolution without outside interference. Without either the West or the rest of the Middle East getting involved. However flawed the next regime is, however much of an improvement or a regression it may turn out to be, the people of Egypt need to own it. They need to see that they can affect their own destiny, so that even if they get it wrong this time, they will be inspired to try again.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Comedy Estonia is doing its regular monthly standup show in Tallinn on March 9th, and on that night, I'm flying back to Tartu. I've been taking the last coach of the night, leaving at 11pm and arriving at 01.30 - unpleasant, but beats staying at my dad's place and catching the 7am express to make it to my day job on time. I'm losing the same number of hours of sleep, but I get to be in my own bed, and get to the office within half an hour of taking a shower and putting on fresh clothes - as opposed to three hours with the early coach. I've spent enough time on that one in my college days, especially the first year, when I lived in a dilapidated dorm building just before it was completely gutted and renovated. Tartu University mostly doesn't schedule classes on Fridays, so I'd get the 7pm coach to Tallinn on Thursday night and the 7am one back on Monday morning - in time for the 10am class. (I think they briefly tried to schedule a class for 8am on Monday morning in later years, but the prof rapidly switched the slots, to the students' great relief and approval.)

The Tallinn-Tartu flights are designed to hook into Tallinn Airport's schedule, which in itself is built around the idea of delivering people to major European hubs in time for connecting intercontinental flights (or work, especially in the case of the Brussels Special). So the plane gets into Tallinn early in the morning, and leaves late at night - 23.45, in fact, getting into Tartu Airport at 00.30. With the time to get out of the plane and take the shuttle into the center of town, I won't be saving much time over the coach, and the ticket is about 18 euro more expensive; but it'll be a fun experience, anyway. And I get to hang out at Drink a bit more after the show.

Curiously, this will be the third regular flight out of Tallinn Airport to destinations within Estonia (after the island towns of Kuressaare and Kärdla), and I believe all three of those are actually longer than Tallinn's busiest air link - the one to Helsinki. It's 80km over water, but Vantaa Airport is further inland. Can't be bothered right now to figure out if Kärdla is closer.

The island routes are operated by a small independent company, but the Tartu link is Estonian Air, operated by one of their little Saab turboprops. I've actually flown on one of those, a couple of years ago, Tallinn to Stockholm. It was officially called an Estonian Air Regional flight, and there was some administrative difference - it was run separately from the strict guidelines of SAS, the Scandinavian conglomerate that used to own EA. This meant that, ironically, the little local-service Saabs would actually serve sandwiches to their passengers for free - while the Boeings of EA proper charged you for a glass of water.

Those Boeings are being gradually retired with the long-overdue and much-celebrated arrival of brand spanking new Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft from Canada. I've flown on an older-gen CRJ before, a Lufthansa plane from Frankfurt to Tallinn. Compared to the ubiquitous 737s, they've got a funny behavior. They fly just as high and just as fast, but they're a lot smaller and lighter; so while the big Boeings just sort of glide down out of the sky, the little CRJs and Embraers and the rest of them actually point their noses down for a steep descent. Disconcerting, when you don't expect it.

Estonian Air is running a contest right now to name the two new planes (a third one will be arriving later). The contest is here, on Facebook. At the time of writing, the most popular options is Tartu, which I voted for. Number two is Põhjatäht, which means Northern Star and would be a fine name, except that non-Estonians would have a hell of a time pronouncing all those funny vowels. Third place is Sinilind, Bluebird - this seems to be the overall nicknames of airplanes in the flag carrier's livery. Go and vote for your favorite! (A history major friend of mine suggested Sigtuna Gate - that would be popular on the Stockholm route!)


| More