Monday, November 30, 2009

Europe's Choice: Switzerland or Serbia?

Julien Frisch is very upset about the Swiss referendum banning minarets.

I disagree.

Julien says that a ban on minarets goes against the values of liberty, democracy and Europe. Now, I've said this before on AnTyx, but I'll say it again: as someone born in the Soviet Union, grown up in 90s Eastern Europe and now living in the EU, I think I can speak about democracy and freedom with some degree of authority. And there is an absolute, fundamental, irrefutable tenet of freedom:

Your freedom stops at the tip of my nose.

Switzerland did not ban Islam. Switzerland did not ban mosques. (And though I won't dwell on it, let's not forget that neither minarets nor even mosques are vital to the practice of Islam, that is a big part of why it's managed to thrive.) A minaret by its very intention is a thing that imposes itself on its surroundings. Not just architecturally, but socially: it exists as a platform for a cleric to call people to prayer. Five times a day, it saturates the neighborhood with sound that is unequivocally dogmatic. On that fact alone, a ban on minarets is entirely in line with European values of tolerance and coexistence. A secular state, particularly a European state, is obligated to protect its citizens from imposition of religion against their will.

I could leave it at that, but I won't. If there's a central message to everything I write on AnTyx, it is that you must know both cause and pretense; that you must not get bogged down in disingenuous arguments adopted by all sides because they are not willing to admit - often to themselves - what exactly it is that drives them.

I've done a Google search on Julien's blog for articles on Lithuania, and have found no mention of the country's deplorable anti-gay legislation. That's just one major issue I came up with, off the top of my head, simply because it's in my neighborhood. (Full disclosure: yes, Estonia isn't much better in this regard; I signed the recent petition in support of legal recognition of same-sex marriages, but I don't think it had any effect. But at least we don't have laws making it illegal to talk about LGBT in a positive light.) Another big issue that I can think of without really doing any research is the half of Cyprus that is currently occupied by Turkey. My point being: there are a lot of areas that threaten European values far more immediately than a non-EU country with a history of vehement direct democracy adopting a policy that can just as easily be implemented with a few administrative guidelines discreetly issued by whichever ministry oversees the urban planning commissions.

No, the reason why everyone suddenly cares about the Swiss referendum is because of the context, the discourse of Islam in Europe that is being actively promoted by the same caliber of activist that would torch cars and throw rocks at shop windows over a newspaper cartoon. Muslim punditry is, by far and away, the squeakiest wheel in Europe, and I dare Julien to prove me wrong.

Here is the question that critics of the Swiss ban have to ask themselves: Would you want these guys in your back yard?

European constitutions include, and European values are generally thought to contain, the protection of minorities against discrimination. I am continually astounded by how this is tragically misunderstood (and occasionally, criminally misconstrued). Democracy does not serve the interest of every citizen unequivocally. Democracy is the art of resolving conflicting interests, and it very rarely manages this to the satisfaction of all parties.

When the interest of the minority is so fundamentally at odds with the interest of the majority, the minority will simply have to be disappointed. (And when the interest of the minority is literally shouting religious propaganda from the rooftops, the minority really ought not be so surprised.)

And what is the alternative, exactly? When the double majority of the population is against something, enough to go and vote, then is it really the best course of action to condemn the un-European, discriminating bastards? Is it really so in line with the values of 21st century European civilization to force people to subdue their dislike of an ideology imposed by an aggressive minority? Do we take a nation where every adult male is legally required to own an assault rifle, and force them to live alongside the Muslims they want nothing to do with?

Because that happened, right here in Europe, less than two decades ago - and we've still got a bunch of judges in Strasbourg trying to figure out what happened.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Reverse Nimby

I was looking through a bit of junk mail the other day, and saw a piece of really good translation in the Maxima supermarket chain's circular. Accurate, idiomatic, native - something this type of publication never seems to boast. For a while, I thought I might actually be starting to get my faith in humanity back. Obviously that didn't last.

Someone commented on a recent post that I am at my blogging best when I'm angry. Well, buckle up, cause you're in for a treat.

I first heard about the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland from the Keith and the Girl podcast. I didn't pay too much attention to it, although I was a bit surprised at the fact that the French Foreign and Culture Ministers saw fit to publicly decry the US-requested arrest, and that representatives of the Swiss film community in effect said they were ashamed of the behaviour of their government. As the story made its way around the news sites and opinions started to come in, I became ever more astounded.

You can get the details elsewhere, but briefly, the facts of the case are these: in 1977, Roman Polansky, then in his mid-40s, was doing a photoshoot of a 13-year-old girl for a magazine. He gave her alcohol and drugs, and raped her. He was arrested, and pleaded guilty. After the conviction, but before the sentencing hearing, he left the US and went to France, which would not extradite him.

Now, a bunch of filmmakers have signed a petition against his extradition. And their argument is that he should not made to serve his sentence, because... he's such a great filmmaker.

Now, we already knew Woody Allen was a pervert. But other people are defending Polansky as well. Including people I know; people for whom I had a lot more respect before today.

It is a subset of a phenomenon I've seen before, the reverse of the Not In My Back Yard syndrome. Let me give you an example. A few years ago I was hanging out at the local Honda forum, and there was a thread about a particularly bad car crash. The party at fault had been pretty clear from the news reports, a forum member who had been driving extremely stupidly. The posters were all saying how much of an idiot he was... until one of them got offended, saying he was the driver's close friend. And to my utter dismay, the others apologized.

I've seen the same behaviour in other places, too - while growing up in Lasnamäe. No matter how evil someone had been, it was unacceptable to say anything to the effect of "he got what he deserved" or "I hope they put him in jail" in the presence of someone who'd been close friends with the bastard. You don't talk shit about my friend. The classic NIMBY is the desire for something particular to happen, but somewhere else, not in the vicinity of the subject himself, where it would have a chance of inconveniencing him. And the reverse NIMBY is the sort of mentality where justice and morals suddenly become relative, and mercy or consideration needs to be applied exceptionally, simply because the accused is someone you like.

Or someone whose movies you like.

Yes, Polansky does not appear to be an actual pedophile (there was no report of sexual abuse on his behalf before the incident or since). And yes, his wife was murdered by a serial killer while pregnant with their baby. And yes, the girl in question was someone who'd been in the adult world at the time, and was probably already sexually active, and her mother was a malevolent stage parent type who put her in harm's way. And yes, Polansky fled the country after he'd learned that he would probably be going to jail, instead of the psychiatric treatment and probation he expected to get. And yes, he'd been an Auschwitz prisoner. And yes, he made some great films.

But this was not statutory rape; this was not overreaction by the parents of an early-bloomer sixteen-year-old who was fooling around with her nineteen-year-old steady boyfriend. This was a 44-year-old man drugging a 13-year-old girl and violently raping her while she was begging him to stop. And if you can, in your heart, find any crumb of justification or excuse for Roman Polansky's actions, then you fail as a human being.

Roman Polansky must be extradited to the US, sentenced in court, and forced to serve a real jail sentence, and to suffer through whatever happens in jail to men who rape thirteen-year-olds. And if he dies in jail, I will not shed a tear. Because maybe all that will mean that some years from now, the threat and inevitability of punishment, even for someone with money, connections and public admiration, will serve to prevent another monstrous lapse of judgement, and another little girl's life will not be shattered.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Self-Made?

From a forum discussion... I reaffirmed my long-held belief that while there are aspects of a society that must be managed centrally and provided universally - such as healthcare, education etc. - the state's involvement should be limited to safety nets, ensuring minimum sustenance, but certainly not a comfortable living standard. Society is not obligated to support those who choose not to contribute, and highly developed welfare states do tend to produce that type of mentality, at least in some parts of the population.

The inevitable and, I'll admit, reasonable response to that was, Hardly surprising that an economically self sufficient 20-something with a high disposable income thinks that, is it?

Uh-huh, but I grew up as the child of a newspaper editor in a postsoviet economy. I'm not a trustafarian, so I get to say things like that.

Wow, you really don't have any idea how privileged you are, do you? You actually earned everything you have on your own accord?

I was lucky enough to be born in a country that became part of the Western world within my lifetime. Other than that - my education was paid for by the state (which is why I consistently say that education should be state-sponsored), and my healthcare costs were covered by the state as well (and I absolutely believe that universal healthcare is a non-negotiable human right).

My parents supported me in university, but didn't completely pay my way - I worked starting from the second semester until I graduated. I have never claimed any sort of unemployment benefit from the state. I got a state-sponsored cheap student loan, which is a system that I like and recommend, but it wasn't vital. I got my job by putting up a CV on a website, it had nothing to do with family connections or university old-boy networking (but, I suppose, everything to do with living in a country whose government found a way to attract massive amounts of foreign direct investment). My apartment was bought using inheritance as a down payment, but I'm covering the mortgage.

So - a question to both regular readers and people who know me in real life - exactly how hypocritical am I?

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stop that. Right now.

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.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Oh, I suppose I need to talk about it.

So the Estonian courts have found Klenski, Linter, Reva and Sirõk not guilty of organizing the April riots.

Good riddance.

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.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Direct democracy FTW?

The Estonian parliament has passed a bill that makes it possible for people to vote using their mobile phones. The law, which comes into force in 2011, equates national ID cards with secure, certified SIM cards.

The reason that online voting hasn't been very popular yet is that ID cards need several things to be used for the sort of authentication that the government IT network needs. You need a physical reader - which are cheap and available in any electronics store, as well as built into some new laptops - and you need certificates, which can be obtained online through a fairly quick and simple procedure. But the biggest problem is that you need to have your set of PIN numbers for the ID card. There's one short number for authentication, and a longer one used to sign documents digitally. You get these numbers in an envelope along with your ID card, just like you get your bank PIN.

The difference is that you use your bank card all the time, and with Chip&PIN authentication, you type in the number all the time, whether at a cash machine or in a shop. The ID card's PIN you don't use every day. In fact the only time you'll have to enter it, is when you are confirming your identity online. With the exception of people exchanging important, signed documents, and people regularly transferring large amounts of money (you can't send online bank transfers over 5000 EEK - a little over 300 Euro - without secure authentication), you just don't need the ID card's PIN in everyday life.

And the upshot is, interestingly, the same as what I said about SMS spam: the inconvenience is easy to eliminate, but most people aren't bothered enough to eliminate it. (You can get new PINs at any bank branch; but how often do Estonians walk into a brick & mortar bank branch these days?)

Now, with Mobile ID, that could change. I don't use Mobile ID myself (I don't think Tele2 supports it yet), but if the PIN is the same as your phone, and you don't need a separate reader - if the authentication is done purely on the handset - then we can actually expect the vast majority of eligible voters to have the ability to cast their ballots early and often.

The important thing is that the cost of running a vote is decreased significantly. It would be technologically feasible to transfer more and more decisions to a referendum. Estonia would approach that theoretical ideal of government: the direct democracy, where decisions would be made not by representatives, but by citizens themselves.

Your question for today: would that be a Good Thing?

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Heights in Social Awkwardness

The unwillingness of Estonians to make eye contact and generally acknowledge each other's existence in common everyday interactions is a matter of lore. But some bastions of humanity remain, in the form of supermarket sampler counters. You get a little plastic bowl of salad or a toothpick with a piece of meat or cheese on it, and the counter is staffed by people who restock the selection. These are generally sociable and extrovert people who will happily prattle at you, praising the merchandise, inviting you to come over and try, and then telling you where to find the stuff on the shelves if you decide you liked it.

Went into Selver today, and there was a sampler counter with a whole bunch of tiny salad bowls on it, but no attendants. The management had decided to spare people the discomfort of acknowledging a human being when they're getting their free stuff, so instead they put up a suggestion box and a stack of paper slips where you could write if you liked the new kind of salad or not.

Wow.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Isamaa Veteran Rescues Nightwatch Martyr

This is how amusing historical footnotes happen.

Comments on BL, please. Would you have done the same?

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Leadership: Ur Doin It Wrong

This summer, a couple friends came over from London, and I took them around Estonia. Showed them Russia from across the Narva river, etc. At one point we ended up in front of the Riigikogu building, and they asked if we could go in and look around. I figured it would need some sort of pre-registration, but actually the guard just gave me the number of the parliament's PR service and a very nice man came down to give us the tour. We were required to show ID... except one of my friends didn't have his passport with him. So they just asked him to write out his name on a piece of paper so they'd have the correct spelling.

This amused the Londoners greatly, but actually I find it a sign of a functional society. Nobody in Estonian government gets an armoured car. (The security service finally got one, for visiting dignitaries, after a decade of borrowing them from the Finns whenever necessary.) The President's motorcade is his stock Audi A8, with an SUV as a chase car - and maybe a police cruiser for special occasions. You may occasionally find the Prime Minister strolling down the quiet street that his Tartu house is on.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that apparently in America now, you cannot get into the White House unless you have a letter from your congressman - not even for the guided tour. And that's disfunctional. If you are a nation's leader and you need to be protected from that nation - ur doin it wrong.

Ah! I hear you say. But what if there is a nutjob out there who gets off on killing high-profile figures?

The answer is: this is the same misguided logic that leads to headscarves and burkhas in fundamentalist Islamic societies. And as a percentage of the population, I imagine there are far more nutjobs out there who get off on raping women.

If you want to kill a president because it gets you off, you are insane and most likely unable to function in society, so odds are you will have been caught long before you actually pull the trigger. If you want to kill the president because he is destroying the country, well, you shouldn't, but I still want the president to be worried about you. I want that possibility to influence the president's decisions.

But isn't a "good" leader to some, a "bad" leader to others?

No. That's not a good leader; that's a good ideologue. An enormous and vital part of a leader's job is doing things which are unpopular, but necessary. A measure of a good leader is not getting assassinated over it.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gumbo

A philosophical interlude, if you will indulge me. There is an old science fiction trope about immortality, that it can be achieved by recording a mindstate, either at the moment of death or before, and unpacking it into a new body if the original dies. The implication is that the new body would of course be in excellent physical condition, and the process could be repeated indefinitely (or the body is a robot of some sort that does not age).

The earliest example of this idea that I have encountered was in a Roger Zhelazny novel, which I read long ago, in translation, and do not remember the name of. It has also served as a significant world-building element for Tad Williams’ Otherland, John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades, and I’m sure many others; the most recent one I have read is Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward.

All SF novels that use this idea inevitably concern themselves with a case of two instances of the same identity existing, and interacting. But that was never as interesting to me as the question of whether it is, in fact, immortality.

The problem is a lack of continuity. Ghost Brigades is the second book in a trilogy, and in the establishing work, Scalzi comprehensively evaded the issue by declaring that in his world, a consciousness could only be transferred directly into a clone (albeit a heavily modified one). The mind was never copied, it was transferred, and the original body died, even if physically it was still perfectly viable.

In Otherland, the advocate of the technology, developed specifically for immortality, expounds that it does actually involve copying a mindstate and storing the copy inside a computer. The advents are encouraged to kill their physical bodies and minds at the moment of the transfer; not because the technology necessitates or results in it, but because the two consciousnesses would continue to exist, in parallel, and would diverge due to unsynchronized experiences.

In Look to Windward, mindstate backups are commonplace and accepted as a form of immortality; a restored creature is considered still the same one, just missing a few days or months. The society of the world takes great care to ensure that no two identical constructs are walking about the universe at the same time, but there is no natural barrier to that, and it does occasionally happen.

To me, this does not constitute immortality, because I am not convinced that the reconstituted entity can be equated to the original (except in circumstances carefully contrived to show that it is, such as Scalzi’s original interpretation – a masterful cauterization of a nagging question that was irrelevant to his story and only served to explain how a 75-year-old wreck of a human could be quickly turned into a supersoldier). If a copy is taken of me, my personality, thought patterns and memories, and stipulating that the copy is perfect in the context of the argument, then that copy could be used to create another iteration of me that would be indistinguishable to other people. For anyone grieving upon my demise, it would certainly be an acceptable resolution. But I continue to exist beyond the backup point, and when I die, what happens to the self-aware me? To suggest, as Banks and Zhelazny do, that the dead me simply wakes up somewhere else with a case of amnesia, is entirely unsatisfactory. Me-2 is the same person in the regard of everyone else, except me.

This bothers me, because it is the absolute biblical definition of soul. The line of reasoning presumes that there is some absolutely unique focus for my personality, inextricably linked to this body, and that if a copy of me is created with the exact same memories and thought patterns, a sentient, self-aware creature that is indistinguishable from me either biologically or behaviourally, passing any Turing-style test, then it will still not possess my soul. Atheism precludes me from accepting the idea of a soul, but then I am not entirely limited to perception – I can conceive that there are forces at work in our physical universe that cannot be perceived by current technology. An atheist should be willing to consider any falsifiable idea, and perhaps there is some mechanism whereby two copies of a consciousness cannot exist; where a restored backup is no more than a vessel that then draws in the departed soul. This would actually be a decent premise for an SF novel, though I believe it has been done at least partially.

But until such a mechanism is discovered and made to work, let’s get back to a world without souls. The question remains: is the death of a personality that was then restored to an earlier backup an actual death? For practical purposes it isn’t, the question is purely subjective, since it is a given in this scenario that the backup is indistinguishable from the original, minus the memories between the points of backup and death.

If it is indeed death, if an expiration of a sentient consciousness is a permanent loss despite the creation of identical one, then where is the line drawn? I know, in this scenario, that when I die, someone will wake up later who will be convinced he is me. In this case, is short-term amnesia effectively death? Remember, soul does not enter into it. Do I die if my streak of continuous self-awareness and experience of the surrounding world is broken, even temporarily? If the answer is yes, then do I die every time I fall asleep?

If it is not death, then what is the value of human life, and how much effort should we really put into sustaining it? The history of our society proves that in the short term at least, no suffering is unendurable; for every tragedy, there is an example of someone who got through it, and if everyone was sure that they will wake up in a week/month/year in a new, healthy body, without any memory of the pain, why wouldn’t you take the ultimate decision whenever faced with anything greater than an inconvenience? And not just physical pain, either. Had your heart broken? Kill yourself and leave a note asking to be restored to a version from before you met her/him. Sidestepping tragedy becomes simply a question of leaving enough assets behind to cover the cost of restoring yourself. And it might just be covered by your health insurance: with economies of scale, restoration could just prove cheaper than treatment.

But if you have no soul, then why restore? In our existing society, a single human life is worth more than anything except another human life. Yet a lot of lives, lived to their natural extent, turn out to have been inconsequential. The value of human life is therefore not only a recognition of infinite, invaluable potential in every human being, but also a safeguard against human lives in general being treated lightly; our history has taught us that this is one slippery slope that cannot be tread upon.

But if mortality ceases to be a certainty and becomes a choice, then how easy will the choice be? Certainly it should be in each person’s power to decide if they will be restored or simply left alone. If a merciful society gives everyone the ability for immortality, then a thinking person will inevitably have to make the crucial self-assessment: is my life worthwhile? Do I deserve the effort and energy it would take to put me back on this Earth? Do I actually matter?

This is the hardest philosophical question of all, but it occurs to me that irrespective of technology or faith, everyone needs to ask it.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

No, It Really Is Your Fault

There is an old saying: every people end up with the leader they deserve. In Russian, it is the basis for a moderately clever wordplay, making the point that every people get buggered by their leader.

As the West's prime ideologue for the New Cold War, Edward Lucas is the natural pointman for Europe's backlash over the Georgia war. On his blog this weekend is a ready reckoner for the powers-that-be to express their disapproval. I draw your attention to point six:
Stop talking about "Russia" (except where journalistic convention demands it). These guys aren't Russia. They are criminal gang of bullies, crooks and murderers who have hijacked Russia.
This is a widely held opinion. It is also absolutely, inexcusably wrong. This assertion is so wrong, in fact, that it is past misguided - it is actively harmful.

I've said this before: the Russian mentality does not include a sense of immediate responsibility. The Western model of society is founded on the concept of citizens delegating their power to representatives; there is an implied obligation by the citizen to watch whom he hands over his power to. This is a very basic idea, and the entire philosophy of democracy and civil liberty is no more than guidelines to applying it in typical situations. And yes, this idea is applicable to Russia, because it is a country with a strong and proud revolutionary history. Russians have proven that when they are propery unhappy with their rulers, the rulers are going down.

Many Russians feel uncomfortable with the actions of their state, and they excuse themselves by imploring others not to equate the Russian people with the Russian government. I am disappointed in Edward Lucas for perpetuating this intellectual farce. They would have us believe that all the evil and injustice of Russia is down to the Chekists, or the Bolsheviks, or the Jews. But the bastards are only in the Kremlin because the common Russian people put them there. Every bullet through the brain of a journalist, every conscript beaten into a bloody pulp by his sergeant, every mortar round fired at a North Caucasus village, is the responsibility of every single Russian who did not march on Red Square and stay there until the thugs were hauled out of the government offices by the scruffs of their necks.

Only when individual Russians learn to take personal responsibility for actions taken on their behalf will Russia be a country that can be approached with Western terms.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Too Late, but Maybe Just Enough

Can't find this story on any of the Western newswires, but according to Lenta.ru, the Secretary General of NATO has expressed certainty that Georgia will one day become a member of NATO.

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.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Restitution

As Tartu is being drenched and cars begin to stall out at the Riia-Turu junction, where ongoing roadworks have stripped the top layer of asphalt and left the surface below drainage level, I am watching a TV show that I found in my RSS feed. It is a TV documentary, supposedly banned by the channel that paid for it, about real estate development in Moscow. If you know some Russian, go and have a look. The point is that centuries-old buildings in central Moscow are being torn down, to build shiny new steel-and-glass offices. People who lived in the old buildings are being thrown out and sent off to the suburbs.

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?

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In Which Flasher Does a James May Impression

(First of all, I would like to offer an official, on-the-record apology to Dana Gonzalez. I'm sorry for calling you an unreasonable American. By comparison, you are Kofi Annan.)

I seem to be coming across topics that stir up emotion a lot recently. One thing that is guaranteed to get an opinion out of everyone in Estonia, but especially expats, is consumer protection.

The short story is that there isn't any. Legally, it is nearly impossible to return a faulty product to the store and get your cash back. If you convince them that it is faulty, they send it off for an expert assessment, and if the expert says the problem is not subject to the warranty, you're done. The assessment can take months. You can pay to get a second opinion, but at that point you are likely to exceed the value of the item you are trying to get refunded.

Much like the whole swim trunks thing, this tends to bother foreigners a lot more than Estonians, who have just learned to deal with it. Mingus is angry about it at the moment, and I can't really say I blame him; what he says is true enough. I myself have had some horrible experiences with customer services in Estonia. I once bought a pair of fancy Salamander shoes that fell apart after a week; I took them back to the shop, which sent them off to the expert, and they returned with a generic verdict of "user error". A lot of money wasted, and faith in fancy brands ruined. Next pair of footwear I bought was a set of paratrooper combat boots from an Israeli army surplus store, and they've been awesome.

Yes, it's common wisdom that a lot of the builders do crap work; this is why I was not particularly bothered by the construction industry imploding: in a buyer's market builders will have to compete on merit, which is an unassailably good thing. And yes, it's true that Estonian service personnel is quite unlikely to be nice to you: Estonians consider politeness to be overrated. Actually, these days if a salesgirl smiles at me, it confuses me a bit - something is wrong with this picture.

But honestly, it's not a big deal. While the law is not very consumer-oriented, there is compensation by decent shops that want to preserve a reputation. I bought a pair of extremely nice mittens at Kaubamaja at the beginning of the previous winter - made out of individual scraps of fur, turned inside out and sewn together; they had visible seams on the outside, which I thought looked interesting, and natural fur on the inside, which made them very warm and soft and nice in the cold, dry climate that normally has me going through tubes of Neutrogena hand cream at an alarming rate. Unfortunately the stitching on the seams wasn't up to standards, and the bits of fur scrap started to come apart. I brought the mittens back to Kaubamaja, and a couple weeks later got a call from them - they gave me a full, cash refund. They didn't have to; maybe it was because they pulled up my loyalty card records and saw that I've given them a fair bit of business over the years; in any case, that behaviour has endeared Kaubamaja to me, and I continue to shop there as much as I can.

Same with construction. My apartment, in a brand new building, is some 15 months old now. The factory warranty is two years; at the end of the first year they asked me to email any issues I might have had with the flat, then sent over a team of workmen to go over the apartment and fix all the niggly bits, like re-seal the corners with fresh silicon, saw down the bathroom door frame so the door doesn't droop down (didn't affect it opening or closing, just looked nasty), replace the bits holding the pipework to the wall inside the water meter cabinet, etc. They even left a few tins of paint for me to use, because my apartment has a custom color scheme - they had to mix up those shades for the corner sealant jobs, and wouldn't be using them anywhere else in the building. Overall I was actually extremely happy with the warranty work that the building's developer did not strictly have to do.

Honestly, it's not like America is the land of consumer satisfaction. So yes, Estonia has problems with consumer rights, but it's not that bad. You just have to exercise some common sense; caveat emptor. Also, part of the Estonian mentality is that the customer is, indeed, not the king. A retail purchase is a business transaction; both sides have rights and obligations, and both sides can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Just because you're giving someone some money for their merchandise does not mean you are entitled to any special treatment. Customer service staff does is not obliged to deal with your bullshit.

This is not meant to be unduly harsh on Mingus. Like I said, he's not wrong. However, his post did draw some odd comments, particularly from one James Graff.

Honestly, I urge you to go and read his comment on Mingus's article. Not only is it hilariously inaccurate (at this point there is very little price difference between most items in Estonia and elsewhere in Europe; differences with the US for electronics and other specific items are not unique to Estonia, but a result of manufacturers' market segmentation - which is why Amazon or Newegg are legally prohibited from shipping such items outside North America), but it is infuriatingly idiotic. When I went off on a rant about the Baltlantis swim shorts article, this is the sort of ignorant twat I was aiming for. The sort of xenophobic cretin that Vello Vikerkaar was talking about in his seminal work of Esto-American cultural anthropology, Are You an Expat Loser?. And it's not just the bitchfest on Mingus's blog, either - he's got more!

I've spent enough time on the Internet to understand that this James Graff character (Blogger.com profile: Long haired singer/songwriter, lead guitarist, keyboard player, saxy saxyphonist...mainly over the hill LOSER!! (La - hoo - za - her)!! Ivy league, Wharton Business School/Moore School of Engineering Management and Technology BURNTOUT-DROPOUT!! ("I wouldn't work if you paid me!!" and "The only thing I learned in business school is that I don't want to "work" a day in my life...I want to "play" and get paid for it!!!") is almost certainly a troll, but what the hell, I'll bite.

I think that man is a danger, frankly. If there's one thing I can't stand it's long-haired, sanctimonious, patronising Americans in tartan trousers coming to Estonia and trying to persuade us to turn it into Lakewood, New Jersey. He wants Tartu full of sandal-wearing hippies pushing wheel-barrows full of amaranth grain, and he wants Tallinners to be Manhattan wannabes with Macbooks and guido stock brokers - "mornin' Jimmy, I've just bought some mortgage-backed securities, alright". I say, James, if you're reading... okay, you won't be reading obviously, because I'm not talking about indie rock bands or organic produce or Sarbanes Oxley, but if you happen to have looked in by mistake...

We're not interested in the views of stupid Americans who come over with their big video cameras saying "Gee I love your country, but it's just so wrong".

FUCK OFF!

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Intermission: Oh for fuck's sake, just deal with it.

Looked at the front page of Baltlantis today, and saw this hapless jeremiad. This has been such a staple of American bitching stereotypes that it's not even amusing any more, just annoying.

(The following is best read to a background of German outfit H-Blockx's seminal punk anthem, "This is not America".)

Water parks in Estonia, like pretty much everywhere in Europe, frown upon swimming shorts. There are, historically, some valid reasons for it. Swimming shorts seem to have been designed in California, with the express purpose of wearing them as swimmable outerwear; you get out of the ocean, they dry out very quickly, and you can be on your way. I have a pair that I got at an Orange County Target a few years ago. They have both external pockets, big enough to fit, say, a wallet, and a conveniently secure inner pocket, which can store, say, a car key. By their very design, swimming shorts encourage being worn about town, to the drinks vendor, to the corner shop, etc. In the summer - and yes, Estonian summers do get hot enough to warrant this, however briefly and occasionally - it is not unreasonable to expect people to get out of their apartments in swim shorts and a T-shirt (or not), walk down to the beach or pool, and have a dip. If we're talking about Anne Kanal here, it's a perfectly legitimate and pleasant passtime.

This, however, has gotten some of the more sun-soaked European countries riled up about possible hygiene issues. The thinking is that shorts worn on the street are likely to bring bacteria or other contaminants into the swimming pools (especially ones less enthusiastic with the chlorine than Kalev). There is also the chance that you will forget some keys or coins in the pockets of your shirts, and they will end up fucking with the pumps and filters. So while I'm not sure if there is an actual EU directive proscribing swimming shorts, there is certainly a prevailing opinion.

For what it's worth, I've worn my Target shorts to the Aura swimming pool in Tartu and have never seen anyone take up issue with them; not for me, not for my friends, not for the stable minority of swimmers who choose to come to Aura in non-speedo gear. I'm fairly sure though that I would be stopped if I wore the shorts to the actual water park bit of it, the bit with the slides. People have been given a legitimate, sensible reason for this limitation: swimming shorts often have metal rivets, almost always have exposed seams, and without fail have loose legs. All of these could potentially generate friction and/or snagging on a water slide; however small the chance, the water park does not want the liability, and that's their right.

What's really annoying though is Mrs. Gonzalez's proud, militant, American ignorance. First of all, there is nothing wrong with Speedos: they are a superior choice for swimming, because they provide far less resistance than flappy shorts - the reason why even in genitalia-shy America, they are the choice of professional athletes. The assertion that she is unduly stressed by the vague outlines of male reproductive organs is, frankly, ludicrous. She mentions a husband in the article, so being married, presumably she has indeed seen what a penis looks like and what it can do. Dear Dana: this is not Utah. It is Estonia, a country with a sauna culture, where children grow up knowing that it is perfectly possible for people of opposite sexes to be naked in the same room without an orgy ensuing. Oh, and our age of consent is 14. Doesn't that just shock you?

We are human males, Mrs. Gonzalez. Near enough all of us do indeed possess both penises and testicles. Even, believe it or not, the President of America. If you can't stand the wienerfest, get out of the water.

And for fuck's sake, stop complaining about pool staff doing their jobs. Oh, you say they should rummage through your bags and/or require you to present swimming gear at the counter? How about, instead, and this is just a thought, you follow the fucking rules that you are perfectly well aware of, and stop expecting people to accomodate you just because you're American?

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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.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Belgrade

Obvious parallels...

Russian and Serbian are related, but all I can make out there is an ironic "Hero of the demonstrations".



Link via Estland.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Estonia Syndrome

...here.

Links/plugs/feedback welcome.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Wall is Down

Not that wall, but it will do.

I don't need to reiterate my positions, I think, so let's look at this from the exegesis perspective. The images of people rushing over the wall are powerful, and most Western observers cannot help but compare them to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there is a very important aspect of that event which is not intrinsically present here.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was about reunification. It was about a country divided by an external force - literally a force; not an ideology, though there may have been committed communists in the DDR. And after the wall fell, it was the sacred responsibility of West Germans to take care of their unfortunate siblings. It was not easy, and it sure as hell was not cheap, but it was inevitable. The wall came down, and the DDR was now part of Germany.

The wall came down in Palestine, and it's a wall between two Arab communities. Consider that in the weeks since the border between Gaza and Egypt has been open, there has been a suicide bomber attack in Israel, an attack that killed civilians. For the first time in a very long time! Causality would seem to suggest that walls in Gaza and the West Bank are effective at stopping terrorists, and these particular terrorists are said to have crossed into Egypt and back into Israel over the Sinai border (which is far less well-guarded - tourists at Egypt's Red Sea resorts are offered daytrips to Jerusalem).

Is there really any doubt in anyone's mind that if it wanted, Israel could have sealed up the wall? The terrorist attack is a sufficient pretense for the IDF to move in. Gaza is currently controlled by Hamas, which would undoubtedly react, but Rafah is not south Lebanon. With their backs to the sea and the fortified borders, Hamas would have no room for guerilla tactics, and in a direct urban shootout the Israeli army would rip them to shreds. Hezbollah would certainly make a move at the same time, but exactly because they could not avoid doing so, it would give Israel the opportunity to prepare and take advantage of another war started by the Arabs to pummel them into the dust. There must be plenty of IDF brass insulted by the Summer War debacle in 2006.

It could be that Israel is simply not ready to fight another war on two fronts simultaneously. Gaza and Lebanon are tough targets; after the remarkably poorly reported Israeli raid on a Syrian nuclear research facility some months ago, Syria could have ideas of revenge and reconquest of Golan, especially when backed by a pissed-off Iran. It's certainly a big factor that should not be discounted; Israel knows that if it moves into Gaza again, it would cause another war, and they would have a tough time with it.

But let's consider another aspect. One of the questions eternally posed in the blame-slinging of the Middle East crisis, and never answered to satisfaction, is why the Palestinian Arabs are not just taken in by the Arab countries. The combined population of Gaza and the West Bank is some 4 million; not inconsiderable, but between the Muslim states, not unmanageable either. Why don't Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. take in the refugees, give them jobs and homes? The world is full of refugees; losing your homeland is terrible, but it's not the end of the world. More people than that have gone through it in the 20th century, and built happy new lives for themselves in a friendly country.

The wall has come down; it is widely reported, with videos and photographs and blogs. And Westerners cannot help but ascribe the same significance to it as Berlin. The prison of poor Arabs has been broken, and the victims are spilling out into the land of the better-off Arabs for all the simple things they never had. The Egyptian military is just standing there, with no intention of impeding the human flow.

The longer Israel allows this to continue, the more people in the West will think of it as a reunification, and expect Egypt to take responsibility for the management of Gaza. It is entirely in Egypt's power to make Gaza a viable Palestinian home, an autonomous district relying on Cairo for security, utilities and economic assistance (much as it relies on Israel now). Would this solution be acceptable to Hamas? Unlikely. But to regular Gazans? Why the hell not? Nothing has shown itself to be as effective at disarming hostility as prosperity.

It's not a solution Egypt has been entirely comfortable with, but at this point they seem to be in a position where they can't really say no without alienating the bleeding-heart portion of the West. Israel is demonized for not allowing food and medicine packages into Gaza, but Israel has learned to live with the hatred. If Egypt seals the border and deports the Gazans, it will be made into a villain of startling proportion; and furthermore, a traitor to its own people. And Egypt is a Western-oriented state, which can ill-afford a boycott by all the German vacationers.

If this solution can be made to stick, it will be an enormous step forward. Israel will have found a viable long-term solution for Gaza, and the West Bank - far larger, more self-sufficient and calm - could either be given independence or turned over to Jordan in the same way.

The best thing about the scenario I have outlined is that it is not just my dream; it is a likely and logical evolution of recent events. It could very much happen. If this arrangement can be made to stick, the next generation of Palestinians will be working in Sharm el Sheikh hotels, and will only be annoyed by agitators calling for a holy war. Inshallah.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Movie Challenge

A game we're doing at the office right now.

Name a movie that does not involve death, sex, or love. Cannot be a documentary, cannot be a cartoon/children's film.

Deaths not on screen but central to the plot disqualify the film, e.g. you cannot use the Blair Witch Project even though nobody actually dies in it.

It's also bad form to use films which are outside our cultural space (e.g. Asian films intended for the domestic market). The idea of the game is to see if it is possible to make a movie for ourselves as an audience that does not involve sex, love or death.

I came up with a couple eventually, but it wasn't easy. One was a fairly well-known and mainstream film, but from a few decades back; the other was more recent, but obscure.

Any takers?

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Only You Can Be Free

A man's life got took away in the city today, they say
But never tell how many's been born
Inform us of a top notch surgeon's mistake
But not the many lives he's saved before
Show us starving kids through expensive lenses
On a far and distant shore
Of which, when sold, could feed a good few
Hey mister rich - Why don't you help the poor

Bad news, sad news, never no good news
S'all they print and beam
Make a child believe that there ain't no love
Well hey, love lives on my street.


A man giddily calls up his friends and gives them a link to a TV clip where one host admonishes the others for spending 15 minutes talking about the death of Heath Ledger, but not about the 28 soldiers that had died in Iraq that month. Nobody knows the names of those soldiers, the indignant presenter says.

The man sending the link to his friends giggles: way to go! Stick it to the media! The question I ask is, does he know the names of those soldiers? Did he go and look them up after watching the clip?

The media is the scapegoat of the day. The immoral, ratings-hungry media, they say, is dumbing down the nation and destroying society. If only the media had a little more integrity, a little more desire to really change the world for the better... If only we could have a CNN full of Jon Stewarts, and a Fox News full of Keith Olbermanns. Americans are having a hard time believing why, if their country is so fucked up and it's so self-evident, nobody is doing anything to change it. The evil Republicans are in power, and the inept Democrats have the Congress, the Senate, and probably the next presidency one way or the other; and yet nobody actually seems to believe anything will change for the better. Not just an American thing, of course, but America does enough cultural projection that it's the most convenient example. You'll all understand what I'm talking about.

There's a quote that's been thrown around a lot after 9/11, roughly this: People who would sacrifice their essential liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither liberty, nor security. It is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who, although he was never actually the President of the USA, is these days remembered mostly as a statesman and author of some of the principles of modern democracy. And herein lies a big problem: the assumption that both liberty and security are the domain of statesmanship.

The security of its people is the responsibility of a state.

Their freedom is not.


One of the better ways to reach a useful truth is to ignore the perversions that have tainted a presumably good idea over decades and centuries of implementation, and look at what the point was in the first place. A state is an infrastructure, fundamentally not alike the sewer system or the electrical grid; established by consensus with a particular purpose. The purpose of a state is the centralized management of interests which are common to nearly all of the population, but cannot be efficiently managed on an individual basis. Among these interests is security. One of the main purposes of a state is to ensure the security of its members, both from external threats, and from ones that exist inside the community (note how the state and the community are different things).

This is where the concepts of security and freedom begin to be interlinked, and what's worse, juxtaposed. It is a perverted understanding of freedom, bred by childish impatience and a sense of entitlement, that considers the restrictions of a state's security infrastructure to be a violation of freedom.

(There is this romantic myth of the outlaw as a free man; a man that is not bound by the shackles of society. The wimpy version of this is the non-conformist, from hippies to goths. The truth is, you can only be free from society if you go live on a deserted island. Anyone making an effort to publicly flaunt the rules of society places himself under far greater restriction; and the biggest degree of exercisable freedom is available to the person that embraces the state, and understands its system of restrictions.

Of course by embracing the state's restrictions, you gain the opportunity to avoid them far more than any outlaw. I never drink and drive, in fact I'm over-cautious in this regard; I always wear my seatbelt and have my insurance in order. I even have the right winter tires. Because of all this, I can break the speed limit, knowing that I probably won't be stopped - and if I will, I'll only get a relatively minor fine. For the self-evidently loyal citizen of the state, there is a far higher tolerance of formal infractions. This understanding of the relative importance of laws and the skill of selectively ignoring them is what I have referred to here in the past as not being an asshole

The outlaw might think that just because he has a gun and I don't, he is stronger than me. The truth is, he is only as strong as his one gun; I am as strong as my state's entire police force and army.)

The state's purpose is to provide for the security of its members. The state has no tools to provide for their freedom, because it was never designed to do that; because it is presumed, by the designers of the modern, democratic, free state, that people are free by default. People's freedom can be restricted by sheer force, as in a dictatorship, but any dictator relies on the loyalty of the executioners of his power; and so any dictatorship is organic, and exists exactly up to the point that the people are willing to tolerate it. (Revolutions are an integral part of the workings of human society. Now the idea has been introduced and proven that a revolution does not necessarily need to limit itself to replacing a bad dictator with a slightly better one. It is indeed possible for a people to govern itself, by consensus and majority decision.)

Because people are inherently free, they will not tolerate a dictatorship or an injustice beyond a certain level. This mechanism is assumed to work without fail; and so, the state does not have to concern itself with the provision of freedom. The state, being an organism comprising living parts, is subject to analysis; its actions are sometimes difficult to predict, but they are not beyond the boundaries of causality. The organism is indeed flawed, but it is fit for purpose (the purpose being provision of security); any time that the exercise of purpose creates an undue restriction of freedom, it is up to its constituent parts to come in and repair the damage.

So here, finally, is the point: your freedom can only ever be in your own hands. You, the common person, are individually responsible for maintaining the workings of the state. You will never find yourself in a situation or a state completely devoid of wrongs; it is simply a matter of how many and which wrongs you can live with. When you do not act explicitly to right a wrong, it means the wrong is not wrong enough.

So if you don't know the names of the soldiers that died in Iraq this January, then shut the fuck up.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The AnTyx Fix: Education

Wrote about education a few weeks ago, and of course somebody asked me what we're supposed to do about it. Which is a very good point; it's my job as a blogger to suggest the proper way to do things which I think are broken.

There was a news blurb in the papers yesterday: apparently there is something called an IT Council, and they recommended that the national school-graduation exams include mathematics as a mandatory test. This would produce a lot more youths with aptitude in mathematics, solve Estonia's labour shortage, and generally save the dolphins.

Well, that's a silly idea. It would be valid in India or China, but it's inappropriate for what we are trying to do here. Making maths mandatory is going to produce a large number of people with just enough math knowledge to pass the test, and they will be expected to go into IT, and we will have a workforce of semi-competent code monkeys that are far more expensive than semi-competent code monkeys in Bangalore, and nobody will have any use for them.

Estonia needs to be a knowledge economy. Our marketable skill is competence, and the ability to design and implement the optimal solutions to a problem. Solutions which are remarkably useful, and I mean remarkably - so good that you can't help but remark on it. To sustain this, we need to give our people the opportunity to become really good at what they do, and we can't do that by forcing all of them to learn Java.

Now, I've seen something recently which made me think about these things. It was a list of things you have to do when you're poor. It had really sad and hard-hitting lines like "Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw". It made me think of my own family, back in the early 90s, when often enough my dad would simply not get his salary; he'd do the work, but there would be no money to give him. We were properly poor back then. But these days - I'm not rich, but I've fooled some people. I'm comfortably middle-class, with enough disposable income for a moderate selection of toys. So's the rest of my family. So are my friends, including the ones I grew up with.

And it occured to me that the biggest external contributing factor - other than the fact that I'm just naturally good at something that I've managed to earn money doing - was education. More importantly, the fact that I could go to the best university in the country and pay no tuition at all. I worked through most of my uni days, and my parents helped out, and I took out student loans some of the time (secured by the state - the interest is actually less than inflation now), but I couldn't have done it if I had to pay tuition as well. And yes, I have a BA in English, which is about the most practically useless degree one can have (second only to semiotics and philosophy), but it's still helped to find a good job. It has also given me an excuse to move away from my parents, and get the confidence of being able to take care of myself.

So how do we scale that experience? Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is to create a steady stream of intelligent, well-trained and highly competent specialists? I don't have a guaranteed solution, but I have an idea on where to start.

1) Money. Estonia's free-market ideology means that the government does not own the companies that provide a government-regulated service. The national universities (like hospitals) are commercial enterprises; and every year, the government calculates how many specialists in a certain field it will be able to use 3 to 5 years down the line. Based on that, it signs a contract with a university, paying it to train the specialists. The university has a certain, significant but limited, number of tuition-free spots, which are assigned to applicants based on academic achievement. Usually, those who didn't make it will have a chance to get a paid spot - a thousand Euro per semester or so. Same curriculum.

Obviously we end up with more specialists than the state ordered. The state is limited by its budget, and relies on the commercial spots and all-private universities to make up the shortfall. The problem is that the all-private universities are generally crap (I think Tallinn's EBS business school might be the only exception). More money for more free spots would allow a concentration of students to the better institutions. We'd be fine with a University of Tartu and a University of Tallinn, and their colleges in Pärnu, Narva, Haapsalu... I have no faith in places like Mainor or Euroülikool.

More opportunities for free tuition will attract more students to the universities that can provide good education. Education from a good university is a useful thing even if the student ends up with a job that has nothing to do with his degree - as a lot of people do.

2) Exams. Currently, there is a single set of exams for high school graduation, and the results of these are used by the universities to generate an average passing grade. The results of all applicants are averaged out, and those who have a grade higher than the threshold, get the free spot.

The problem with this is that the exams cater to the lowest common denominator. Not all the kids who leave high school will go to university. Not all universities are the same in the level of education they offer, and thus the level of student knowledge they require.

The universities need to re-introduce their own entrance exams. This will allow the good colleges to accept good students; or rather, because they will be the ones with an abundance of free-tuition spots, it will motivate more students to study hard and bone up on the subject matter. It should also intrinsically limit the number of kids applying for a major with a low entrance barrier that they have no long-term interest in - just to get that student status.

3) Support. Estonia's tertiary education system has been criticized for mostly being inferior to universities abroad, but that is the wrong approach. Obviously it is not possible for a country of 1.3 million to build up a talent pool as comprehensive, diverse and advanced as a country with thirty or fourty times the population. Fortunately, we don't have to! The fact that it is so easy for our kids to go and study in Oxbridge or the Sorbonne is an advantage, a very significant resource bestowed on us by EU membership, and one that we would be fools to ignore. By the very nature of the Estonian people, they will not stay away forever; even those with an education and a career in the confederacy or further off will still return sooner or later, because of the fundamental Estonian sense of home. EU's best universities should be exploited by Estonia in the same way that EU funds are used to renovate our infrastructure.

Of course any application for EU funds is accompanied by a mandatory self-financing component. The same point applies. The Estonian government needs to dedicate resources - financial, administrative and political - to supporting those of its youths who choose to go abroad and study at the best colleges in Europe, or indeed the world. In the same way that the state secures student loans at a low interest rate, pays for tuition, and ensures discounts on vital goods and services (I'm still convinced that there is a state tender for the 1.90 EEK packets of ramen in the shops near Tartu's dorm cluster), there needs to be an extensive government program of supporting kids that study abroad. Something similar exists in a basic state - you can get your student loans written off if you work for a government agency after graduation - but it needs to be greatly expanded.

So, what do you think? Does any of this make sense?

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Economy Redux

Oh all right then. I really didn't want to talk about the devaluation scare, because it's just too mind-bogglingly stupid, a cringe-inducing example of lemming behavioral patterns. But if you insist...

Here's what happened:

Back in early November, someone at an Estonian Russophone messageboard posted a game scenario where the Estonian government announced a snap devaluation of the kroon, and asked the regulars to suggest their actions.

Because the disclaimer was in fine print, some people didn't notice it, and thought it was an actual information leak. So they started converting their assets to Euro and calling all their friends to warn them. This apparently caused a wave of vague rumors: nobody knew where they were coming from, but everybody was talking about an imminent devaluation, and people were scared.

A few days ago, the original messageboard post got picked up by someone from the Night Watch, who posted it on their website. This sparked a mass panic among the Russian population: if Night Watch says it, it must be true. The information spread so pervasively that even those who didn't care about Night Watch were convinced by all their friends. Since the text said that the devaluation would happen on Monday morning, Sunday saw a run on currency exchange companies: people were buying up Euros, Swedish kronor, British pounds, even gold (but curiously, not dollars). Tallinn's big independent currency exchange company, Tavid, actually ran out of foreign cash.

This run was almost entirely confined to the Russophone population. The Estonians had gotten wind of the original rumors, but never panicked. They had good reason not to: devaluation of the Estonian kroon is extremely unlikely, for multiple very good reasons.

First of all, the law. The kroon is pegged to the Euro by legislation; removing the peg would require a new bill, and a bill can only be passed if it has gone through no less than two readings in parliament, with no less than two weeks between them. The Bank of Estonia can only vary the peg rate by 3% (0.47 EEK). In theory it is possible for the BoE board to hold a continuous series of sessions through the night, adjusting the rate by 3% every time, but I will dare you to find a politician who could pull that off and not get lynched by an angry mob the next morning. Otherwise, a devaluation with forewarning is entirely pointless. The idea of devaluation is to remove excess wealth from the economy, wealth which defeats motivation to try harder. If everyone just converts their savings to Euros and back again, you've lost a lot of voter confidence with no benefit at all. Say what you will about the Estonian government, but they know a bit about economy theory.

Second, the kroon is secure. Estonia operates on a currency board system, whereby the BoE only issues kroons in return for foreign currency. Every kroon in circulation is backed by a dollar, Euro, pound, yen or dinar sitting somewhere deep in the vaults under Estonia Puiestee. While the total worth of these reserves does naturally vary, overall the BoE is capable of redeeming all the money out there at the peg rate. The sort of concentrated market effort that would drive the value of the kroon down enough that the BoE reserves would be depleted is not possible due to the rules of international banking. So the kroon isn't going to crash on its own; it can only be devalued by the government.

Third, there is simply no reason to do it. The kroon has been in far worse trouble than today. It wasn't devalued then (when it was still pegged to the Deutschmark) and it won't be devalued now. There is simply nobody who would benefit from it. The banks need their Euro-denominated mortgages paid back, and don't want the general population to suddenly lose a big chunk of its purchasing power. The businesses don't want it, because the devaluation only benefits industrial exports, which are a minor factor in the Estonian economy. Estonia's main economic force is its skilled labour, and that has shown willingness to go abroad in search of higher pay. To retain their workforce, the employers would have to recalculate salaries in Euros, which they can do with relative ease because they sell their products for Euros anyway. So devaluation is pointless.

But why did the currency run happen, then? The scare is rooted in the general sense of pessimism that has arisen in the wake of the economic slowdown. We seem to be heading for the soft landing rather than the hard crash, but people have come to expect wild growth and are discouraged when they don't find it. Accession to the Eurozone was our next grand project, after EU and NATO membership, and now that looks unlikely for at least a decade. Consciously or subconsciously, people want their government to jumpstart the economy, initiate another period of massive growth. Without a deep understanding of economic processes, based simply on hearsay and Delfi editorials, they expect that the government would do something like this - trade off a momentary lapse against future growth. And besides, who in Estonia has savings anyway?

The reason that the scare was prevalent among the Russophones is that - and I know I'll be called all sorts of bad things again for this - the majority of them are working-class immigrants without the education or the curiosity to try and figure out what is happening, exactly. Their pervasive distrust of the government, a reflex applied through surviving the Perestroika, coupled with a nagging suspicion that Andrus Ansip personally hates each and every one of them, makes them susceptible to such rumours.

People are mostly lemmings. There isn't much we can do about that. In this case nobody got hurt very much, although people will indeed lose money on the exchange rate. Far from being critical, the situation is simply embarassing.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

...in 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.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Intentionally Outrageous

From a forum.

When people say to immigrant minorities, "I don't want you to be white", I don't understand this hedge.

You, Black Jack, moved to White England from your native country of Jackimbe. You did so because you thought you'd have a better life here. That this country is doing better than yours.

Now, the reason this country is doing better is because the people here are white. They think white and they act white. By acting white for the last hundred years or so, they've built up a massive industry and a very healthy economy.

If you're coming to this country because you like it better here, then it makes sense you should act white, because being white is why this country is good. If you're coming to this country to stay black, but still enjoy the union jobs, public healthcare and Dr. Who on terrestrial television, then you're an asshole and you're going to be treated like an asshole.

Of course, by "white" I mean mentality, not biology.

In mental terms, most established, latter-generation minorities are white Europeans. They believe in fundamental white concepts - the superiority of personal freedom, the government's prime obligation to provide security and prosperity for its citizens, and individual responsibility for one's fate.

White ideology isn't limited geographically to Europe, of course. It works in Australia, it works in Japan, it works in Brazil, it even works in Botswana.

Juxtaposed to this is the Asian ideology, where the state is more important than the society; the group is not just an efficient way to act in the interests of individuals, but rather individuals are called upon to act for the good of the group. Where European ideology may exceptionally request personal sacrifice, and that is given as a personal choice and accepted with heavy heart, Asian ideology demands personal sacrifice to begin with, and it is an everyday occurrence. Whether you are tolerating abuse, corruption and limitation of personal freedom for the glory of Allah or for the glory of Mother Russia, it is still an ideology that diminishes the value of the individual, where European ideology idolizes it.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

There's life in the old horse yet

So might as well keep beating it.

Giustino presents talking points for arguing with Russian nationalists. By coincidence, I have spent all morning reading more LiveJournal stuff on Estonia and Russia, and I have a couple points to make.

1) As pointed out in the comments, your purpose is not to convince your opponents, because they are not rational and will not be swayed by reason or logic. Your target audience instead are the lurkers, the people who have not formed an opinion or are not locked into any side yet.

The upshot of this is that changing the topic does not accomplish your goal. If you show your opponent less knowledgeable than you are, or incapable of arguing his point in a chosen context, that certainly improves your own reputation within the forum, gives you a higher standing (the social dynamic of flame forums is a very exciting topic that I may touch upon later). It does not, however, convince the lurkers. They are there, and lurking, because they don't have sufficient information on the topic; they are more likely to identify with the loud simpletons who bring forth uncomplicated, if subtly false, points.

What you need to do is to debunk the opponents' arguments, specifically the ones they put to you, methodically, consistently and convincingly. Use your knowledge and your sources to make the loud simpleton appear a complete moron who doesn't know what the fuck he is talking about. If you perfect this technique, you will eventually reach a level of discourse skill where you can make your opponent's words to discredit him. The true zen master will not even need to respond for the audience to start seeing the weak and implausible points in the opponent's argument; the very act of attack on the zen master is what defeats the attacker.

(I will not claim to have reached enlightenment, however on at least one prominent political forum - a heavily moderated one, where the discourse does not deteriorate into feces-slinging - I had been used as a measure of convincingness. I.e. "your argument is so stupid, it convinces me to take the opposite stance more than ten Flasher T-s could.")

2) It is not fair to call our opponents nationalists. Whether they are Nashi comissars, or flamers of conviction, nationalists they are not. For the purpose of this argument, Russia is not a nation, it is a state. The Kremlin-jugend we are fighting in cyberspace is not representing the Russian nation, it is representing the Russian state and its government, which are for most intents and purposes a single entity.

Russian nationalists do exist, and they are something else entirely. Ostensibly they are our allies, because they have come out firmly on Estonia's side during the conflict. However, after having the opportunity to observe them more closely, I do wonder if they're the sort of allies we really want. Being juxtaposed to Russian cronies, Russian nationalists are professional rebels, continuing the fine tradition of Soviet dissidents: they will take any position that is against the Kremlin. They will stand for Estonia, or for Georgia, or for Juschenko, or for neonazis, or for gay rights - not necessarily all at once, for they are far from a cohesive organization, but as a group they have enough in common to focus on a single enemy. Their fight is difficult, long, and quite possibly hopeless.

However, their fight is not our fight, and it would be extremely foolish for us to get dragged into it.

The pro-Estonian contingent does have an endgame, a specific goal that it is trying to achieve: getting Russia to lay off. If Putin announced tomorrow that the Bronze Soldier is Estonia's private matter, that Russian-speakers in other countries are welcome in Russia if they choose to leave but otherwise are on their own, that Russian companies are encouraged to do business with Estonia; that Russia couldn't give a flying fuck about Estonia in general - we will be satisfied and grateful. These are the terms of armistice which we will accept. If Putin, or his heirs, then continue to tighten the screws on their own population and fuck with various former Soviet states, sell nuclear fuel to Iran, send submarines to place flags on the ocean floor; then we shall certainly be concerned, but we shall stand on the sidelines and shrug.

The ultimate fate of Russia is not our problem.

Russian nationalists are also not our problem, because in large part they are somewhat unpalatable characters. Concentrating on the Russian nation as juxtaposed to the Russian state has left them very hardcore; their principal objection is the massive number of immigrants, guest workers and traders from the North Caucausus, as well as the corrupt police force and civil service. Their ideology is based on the understanding that the Russian people are fundamentally competent, cultured and Good*. It is simply the foreigners, and the corrupt government, that are keeping great Russia down. The moderate element here might advocate a retreat into traditional Russian territories stretching to the Volga river**, while the more extreme contingent here push for absolute Russian dominance on all territories comprising the multinational Russian Federation; whether or not any of them have a point, this shit is far too heavy for us, as Estonians and Europeans, to get into. And at the end of the day it's none of our business.

Small nations cannot afford ideals.

--------
* Someone asked if presuming that Russians are by default incompetent and incapable of building a democracy is in fact a fascist assumption. It's a very good point, and I'll admit that the presumption itself is Evil, but I just can't escape the thought that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

** My personal opinion is that this might be the solution - Russia giving up territories which are not authentically Russian, territories which the Empire and then the Soviet Union conquered out of greed and were never able to satisfactorily control. A Russia that stretches from Novgorod to the Volga would be far more manageable and could eliminate the irritating factors that bring out the asshole in a Russian; and the worst case scenario then is that the Russians will only be hurting themselves. This leaves out Siberia of course, but the Russian bits of it - the ones that were previously populated by bears - are nationalist in their own way. The people who actually manage the natural resources that make Russia rich have a different attitude from the Moscow beltway wanks, and as they would gladly make Siberia an independent state given the chance, they would probably do well, and even build the model Russian community - sort of the Switzerland to Great Russia's Germany. Then all they have to do is fight off China.

Of course, none of this is actually in any way realistic.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I Really Don't Want to Talk About Rein Lang's Birthday Party

Turns out there's an Apple store at Tartu Kaubamaja now! All-white and everything. No iPhones, though. Bought a new suitcase last night for my Eurotrip. Booked a Thalys ticket from Paris to Amsterdam, and a night at Rembrandt Square Hotel. Watched the Jeremy Clarkson episode of "Have I Got News For You" on YouTube.

No? Not interesting enough?

Fine.

Yes, it was a massive faux pas on Lang's part, he should've known it would start a shitstorm. Maybe he did. Lang is without question the most outspoken and direct politician in Estonia right now. He makes Andrus Ansip look like Arnold Rüütel.

You gotta see his point though, in that it's none of Russia's fucking business. The play is anti-faschist, it's been produced throughout Western Europe, and I dare say some government officials must've seen it.

Estonia's attitude to fascism is indeed different to that of Western Europe, for the simple reason that Estonia did not take part in WWII. Prince Harry had to apologize for his Nazi outfit because in Britain, undue levity on the subject is insulting to the memory of the nation's desperate struggle against the enemy. Essentially the same phenomenon as Russia's cultivated formal anti-fascism, though not to such an extreme. Estonia neither fought for nor against the Nazis though, but was rather fucked by both sides. So now we get to take the piss out of Hitler all we want.

Rein Lang was trolling, and Russia took the bait. Whatever.

The only interesting thing here is a newsbit published on the Russian portal of the public broadcaster, ETV. It appears that some former German MEP came out of the woodwork to claim that in any other EU country, a minister who did what Lang did would have to resign. I'm not going to bother figuring whether the dude got the story wrong or was looking for personal PR regardless. What surprised and annoyed me is that this article appeared on the russian version of ETV24.

Now, I acknowledge Delfi's right to sensationalism, even if I don't like it - they're a commercial enterprise and play to their audience. But ETV is state-sponsored, and by design provides not the content that people want, but the content that people need.

When the author, a fairly prominent LiveJournal user in Tallinn, was called on this, she responded saying that the text was in fact a translation from the Estonian edition of Postimees. The original, of course, looked a lot less objectionable.

As I said, it is in the nature of Estonians to criticize each other at each opportunity, and the unity of the crisis did nothing to change this. It's part of what makes the little country great - ultimately everybody is kept in check. And yet when the local Russians criticize the government, especially after the April riots, especially at the taxpayer's expense, it looks outrageous.

A curious phenomenon. It appears that the local russian-language news media really do need to be cleaner than the wife of Caesar. And Rein Lang doesn't.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Other People's Content: On Protest

It seems to me that the underlying assumption of any public protest - any public disagreement with the government, "the system", or "the establishment", by any name - is that the men in charge of whatever it is you're protesting against are actually listening, whether they later admit it or not, and that if you run your protest Right, it will likely make a difference. [...]So in the end the very act of public protest, even violent protest, was essentially optimistic and actually a demonstration of faith (mainly subconscious, I think) in the father figures who had the power to change things - once they could be made to see the light of reason, or even political reality.
[...]
A Willingness to Argue, however violently, implies a faith of some basic kind in the antagonist, an assumption that he is still open to argument and reason and, if all else fails, then finely orchestrated persuasion in the form of political embarassment.


Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Universe Abridged, Redux

A note, something from a forum discussion:

"If somebody has initial precepts that says God doesn't exist, there's no way to 'prove' to that person that God does exist."


Incorrect, because while atheism may display the zeal of a religion, it is based on reason and a set of observable, objective principles that do not contain a presumption on God. If you show, in the framework of science, a divine action - something that violates natural law - and present convincing proof that this is the action of a sentient being whose capability transcends logic, then a scientist and an atheist will acknowledge the existence of God.

If you remember the recent discussion on the feasibility of superpowers, how I said flying like Superman or Nathan Petrelli is impossible because it violates conservation of energy - it is entirely possible to use logic to assess an unknown phenomenon. Even if the phenomenon's actual mechanism is not understood, it is possible to dismiss a hypothetical as possible or impossible.

Now, the reason why the framework of science is superior to the framework of faith is because the uncertainty of faith makes it self-defeating. If you strip away enough layers of abstraction, it comes down to practical use: if an act of God cannot be triggered reliably, if it cannot be used to achieve a particular effect, then the fact that occasionally its presumptions appear to be borne out by observation is irrelevant.

When you show me a toaster that works by the power of Allah, then we'll talk.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Welcome to Old Europe

LJ user lasterix mentions a Postimees report about proposed changes in the labour import laws. The EU is pushing new members to accept more foreigners, and by 2009 Estonia might adopt a simplified work visa scheme, as well as doubling the annual quota to 0.1% of the population, around 1300 people.

This is scaring a lot of people: after the April riots, the last thing locals want is a bunch of Africans and Muslims, or any other foreigners in significant numbers, in fact. While the law states that any guest worker must receive at least the industry standard wage, and the employer is significantly responsible for them, the fear is that with Estonian specialists increasingly moving to other EU countries for work, the immigrants will be poor, uneducated, cheap labour that will turn this country into another shell of a European paradise, infested and polluted by mullahs screaming at prayer time.

Curiously, the LJ user in question writes in Russian, and so do her commenters; the people most scared of a black ghetto in Kopli are the ones currently perceived as unwelcome foreigners. It's a well-known phenomenon that the second-to-last group of immigrants are usually the most adamant about keeping the borders closed, just funny to see it actually happen so close to home.


However, I think Estonia is in a better position to handle the influx of guest workers than most other EU countries, and the local Russians have had a hand in this.

The key issue, again, is idealism. Europe is too wrapped up in its own noblesse oblige to approach the problem of immigrants forcefully.

The problem is not that the immigrants are there. It's that both sides - the immigrants and the locals - have the wrong approach, a mentality that precludes successful coexistence. After all, migration has been an aspect of human society from the start; very few peoples can claim that they now live where they originally did (though Estonians at least have the distinction of descending directly from the first human tribes to settle the north Baltic). Immigration itself does not lead to conflict; what does is the lack of desire to understand and accept the values of the new country.

A British friend of mine has once stunned me with his pathological tolerance, saying he didn't mind that all the people with wildly differing lifestyles and values came to Britain, nor that they continued to practice them; he would just appreciate if those values were not forcefully applied to him. This approach is wrong because it puts the native population into the position of a powerless minority, happy for whatever small opportunity is given to them. The truth is that IT has given a new dimension to globalization; we are now in the initial stages of a post-global world, where instant communication and cheap transport can be used to decouple economics from geography and society. A business's new branch can be established anywhere on the globe, wherever the labour is available; globalization now creates not only sweatshops, but positions for highly qualified, well-paid specialists, who can have a comfortable enough existence in their own country. This will not completely eliminate migration, of course, but it does weaken the economic argument for migration. People who leave their countries because there is no way for them to make a living there, are very rarely qualified enough to practice their profession somewhere else.

Or at least they won't have the excuse. Most Third World countries now have a booming economy, as the West wages its wars with economic means rather than military (this is the point behind the quip about democracies not going to war with each other); the Western economy needs access to new markets, but these markets need to be rich enough to pay the West's prices. Since the West is in a post-industrial state, and richer than ever, it actively wants its customers to be increasingly wealthy, not just from selling off their countries' natural resources, but from having a healthy economy of their own. North Africa and South-East Asia are no longer disaster zones, and people who leave them to come to Europe do not have the justification of inevitability.

So any immigrants to Europe now come here because they want to partake of the riches and security of the world's single wealthiest entity. This is where the buck stops and the white man's burden morphs into righteous indignation; because if these folks want the benefits of life in Europe, they'd better fucking behave themselves. European countries have every right to demand, individually, that immigrants subscribe and follow the rules of the community they have proactively decided to join.

But they won't, at least most of them, because Europe is still suffering from the spectre of intolerance. Between the effect of the Holocaust and the increasing historical awareness of colonial abuse, Old Europe has not been willing to implement any sort of policy that could be seen as limiting the rights of the immigrants. Of course, the personal liberty that is the hallmark of Europe is only viable if the citizen chooses not to exercise it to its full extent. The civilized European community functions on consensus and compromise, with members who realize that limitations for the sake of society benefit themselves in the end. Immigrants with no tradition of living in a social democracy do not have this understanding. Both sides are at fault.

However, I think Estonia may be one of the very few European countries with the ability to resist this combination of offense and apathy - and to a large part this will be because of the Russians, because of the riots of April 26th. Because while Estonia does suffer one half of the problem - the lack of the immigrant community's desire to play by the rules, and their sense of entitlement unmarred by obligation - it has just come through a test case, and is certainly not short of political will to tackle the issue.

The Tallinn riots were tame by world standards in terms of actual violence - in fact I've been told by Canadians that over there hockey riots with no political undertones whatsoever regularly result in far more damage - but in terms of political fallout, this was quite close to the worst case scenario. The riots broke out over a historically sensitive subject, a third rail that most European politicians will not touch (people have pointed out that the EU outrage over Russia's behaviour formally applied to the breach of the Vienna convention only); the government, with a single leader assured of his personal mandate and popularity, antagonized a very significant portion of the population, which was backed by an agressive neighbouring country that was also an important trade partner.

And yet here we are, less than two months later, and the world has not ended. The Kremlin has more or less stopped making noises in our direction, and local Russians may still be pissed, but they've realized that there is nothing for them to gain. Overall, the Estonian government - and more importantly, any future government - has a precedent for defending its decisions against a violent minority. For what it's worth, the YouTube propaganda clips will convince any potential immigrant with an Internet connection that Estonia is a country where foreigners are tolerated only as long as they don't stir up any trouble. Those that do, end up in D-terminal.

Ironically, the recent EU member state that was woefully unprepared for riots, is now the one most capable of dealing with hostile immigrants. If we do have to open up our borders to refugees and guest workers, I guess it's not such a bad thing to have that sort of reputation.

When I first wrote about the riots, the best comment was "Welcome to Old Europe". Glad to be here, Jens-Olaf; we've brought our own riot squad.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Captor's Other Victim

Giustino's other good question is why Russia's attitude to Finland is so different from its attitude to Estonia.

An explanation can be made if we presume, as I've written before, that the Russian authorities don't have anything personal against Estonia, but rather just need a target for discontent among the population. Be it Estonia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, or Burkina Faso.

It's true that the argument of Estonia's successful democracy being a threatening contrast to Russia's totalitarianism doesn't hold water: Russia is far from caring what anyone else thinks of it. Russians will enjoy it if their country is feared, but don't especially need for their country to be liked.

Now, let's remember that when Georgia was under fire, it was far, far worse than the height of anti-Estonian sentiment. Deportation of Georgian citizens, registration of people with Georgian last names, a threat of interrment... All Georgia did was elect a new president who was publically Western-minded* and unfriendly to Moscow. The same thing happened in Ukraine. I'm not really sure what caused the ban on Moldovan wines - I'm just going to take my own advice there and presume it was the Russian Surgeon General's stupidity rather than anyone's malice.

But Estonia didn't go through such a major shift - it was clearly Westbound from the beginning. While it was never particularly friendly with Russia, most of the time it wasn't an important enemy. So the ire of Russians was not caused by a sense of betrayal (not that this isn't there, in a perverse form, but that's a topic for another article).

So what is the difference between Estonia and Finland?

The answer is: exit points. On an emotional level, Estonia is felt to have been lost recently, in '91; most of the population of Russia today remembers a time when Estonia was their own territory. On the other hand, very few people alive now remember Finland as a Russian province; while Russians may know factually that Finland was a province of the Empire, it has been a Western country for the entirety of their conscious existence.

And here's the interesting thing. Both Finland and Estonia gained their independence and then made good, grew their economy and living standards, have become distinctly better than Russia on an everyday, obvious level. The difference is that Finland escaped from the Tzar, whereas Estonia escaped from the Secretary General.

Thanks to Putin's bridge to Soviet propaganda, which was entrenched in the consciousness of regular Ivans, a massive chunk of the Russian population now enjoys a distinctly Soviet identity; they take the Soviet Union as their own. Meanwhile that same propaganda demonized Tzarist Russia, and nostalgia for the time of French-influenced nobility and triumphs against Napoleon is far, far weaker - especially among the working class, which can't really identify with the Hussars or Petersburg courtiers.

By escaping from the rule of a foreign power - foreign both geographically and ideologically - and then becoming (almost literally) a runaway success, the former province juxtaposes itself to the former metropoly.

Finland's success is an affront to a suppressed aspect of Russian identity. Estonia's success is an affrong to the dominant aspect.


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* In response to criticism in the last post's comments - here I'm not referring to "the West" as a single political entity, but as a single concept of values, based on free market economy, representative government and the primacy of the citizen's interests over those of the state. Therefore this refers mostly to continental Europe, although in a broader sense involves Japan and Australia, who are only the West to Californians and Argentinians respectively.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Tired of Apocalypse

It is strange to think that we've made it almost half way through 2007, and the decade is almost over. Most of what I think of as my adult life was contained in it, not to mention the true start of the 21st century.

(If we talk about historical periods, centuries don't begin and end when the calendar says so. The divider will be a major event. The 20th century began with the First World War, and the 21st - on 9/11.)

History is cyclical, and I've found that with a bit of mental gymnastics it is possible to trace the interchange of positive and negative outlooks. The 90s were a time of End of History, of shrugging off the Cold War burden - in this part of the world specifically, it was a turbulent time, but overall the progress was welcome.

Estonians are still fairly confident of their future, but elsewhere the perceived imminent energy shortage and the spectre of terrorism - much scarier than the actual feasible threat - have affected the human mentality. This can be observed particularly in popular culture.

It is both easy and customary to criticize Americans' general intelligence level, but in this decade we've seen some genuinely good TV shows. The consumer culture has had its effect, and nearly every bright idea has been run into the ground (because it's not possible to infuse twenty two episodes a year with the same level of novelty and creativity as a good pilot), but the trend is certainly positive. And these shows allow us to extract the fundamental concept of this decade, in the same way as the 60s were all about revolts and new world orders, or the 80s - about greed.

The basic notion of the noughties is apocalypse.

How many of the good shows are about dystopia, about a Mad Max future and the world as we know it being taken away? Lost, Heroes, Jericho, Battlestar Galactica... I won't be so paranoid as to suggest that it's some far-Right-Christian plot to introduce the general public to the idea of Rapture, but one could argue the opposite - that the entertainment industry is tapping into a notion that most of the viewership finds plausible. Science fiction, the branch of literature whose entire point is to advocate prosperity through progress, has been coming up with things like the Riddick series or Serenity - that's besides the painfully obvious Matrix and its less grand but more endearing half-brother Equilibrium. The same relationship can be seen in two other apocalyptic prophecies - V for Vendetta and Children of Men, and while on the topic of British dystopias you might remember 28 Days Later (haven't seen the sequel yet) and the rather justly forgotten Reign of Fire.

It is probably indicative of general mindset that the original Star Wars trilogy - a struggle against evil - was filmed from the late 70s to the early 80s, and then in our time came the pessimistic prequels. But I, for one, am sick and tired of all this apocalypse talk. We've got two and a half years to go, and I can hardly wait. Roll on the next decade - I'm done with this one.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

This Post Will Save Your Life

My boss is not only a natural speedreader (which is really annoying), but also has a strange capacity for reading absolutely anything. He is a literary omnivore, consuming vast quantities of unremarkable unicorn fantasy as a way to spend a weekend.

I, on the other hand, like to read, but I'm picky about the material. I suppose it comes down to the fact that when I read, I open my mind to the book; I'm determined to control what sort of propaganda I expose myself to, and I'm easily disgusted by intellectual folly. Add to this the woeful state of jacket reviews, and you'll understand why I struggle even in large bookstores.

Recently I've noticed something else. I've become a literary sexist; I don't trust female writers. There's a voice inside my head that tells me things written by a woman will be either pink fluff, depressing relationship treatments, or dreary postmodernist philosophy. I'm sure it's wrong to think so, but there you go.

So it was largely by accident that I bought A.M. Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life in Stockholm a few weeks ago. The name is not obviously feminine, you see. But I'm glad I did: I enjoyed the book tremendously. Even though it does contain both relationships and postmodernism. Ignore the plot description on the back cover, done by an idiot intern who only read the first two chapters. This is the story of a person that has hidden himself away in a coccoon of success, eliminated all the things that would threaten his wellbeing - but found no wellbeing in it. It is the story of a person that has tried living without stress, and then made a conscious decision to let stress back into his life. Furthermore, it is the story of all the people around him - people he rescues figuratively or literally, people whose lives he's ruined and people whose lives he's improved. It is a sugar-free story of optimism.

It probably won't save your life, but it's a book worth reading. That is not a recommendation I give out lightly.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Leaders Past and Future, Part I

May 7th wasn't just my birthday, it was significant for something else: marking the third anniversary of Putin's inauguration for his final term. This time next year, Russia is going to be ruled by someone else.

If we are to predict events, we must understand the mechanics and motivation behind them - this is what I've been trying to do with the political side of AnTyx. To understand the current political crisis between Russia and Estonia, you need to understand that it was severely escalated by Russian internal propaganda, which also affects a large part of the disenfranchised Russian-speakers in Estonia, who only watch Russian TV and read Russian newspapers. The myth of Estonia as a revisionist Nazi state was created by Team Putin for domestic consumption, just like earlier crises with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus... The Kremlin has been using foreign policy as a tool of home politics.

The reason why this is happening is because Putin is preparing his exit strategy. On New Year's Eve 1999, Boris Yeltzin announced his resignation, naming Putin as his official successor. Until gaining Yeltzin's favour, Putin was a political non-entity, whose most outstanding achievement was the dashing rescue of his boss and mentor, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoli Sobchak. When Sobchak was hounded by federal prosecutors for corruption charges (in Yeltzin's Russia, a convenient standby that never really needed to be fabricated), his health was giving out, and Putin risked his own career by helping Sobchak leave the country. This impressed Yeltzin, who may have been an authoritarian drunk, but undeniably had a sense of nobility and a conceptual appreciation of loyalty.

Yeltzin also wasn't a fool. Putin as a political figure was created by Yeltzin's team, including Boris Berezovski, now residing in England - there's a warrant out for his arrest in Russia. Yeltzin's early resignation, and the virtually guaranteed success of Putin in the 2000 elections, was part of a deal that guaranteed security for Yeltzin himself and his core advisors, who at the time were colloquially known as the Family. Berezovski's feud with Putin is based on the fact that in this specific case, Putin did not honor the agreement. Berezovski and later Khodorkovski were made into an example, so that Russia's other oligarchs - most famously Roman Abramovich - would fall in line and not challenge the central government.

The upshot is that among people of power in Russia, there is a significant amount of resentment towards Putin. He does manage to keep a very high rate of popular approval, on the back of ensuring stability in post-Yeltzin Russia at the cost of some of the more ethereal civil liberties (like freedom of speech, or local elections for the heads of federal republics). But Russia has gone too far down the democratic path for Putin to be able to pull of a coup and remain in power past the end of his second term. This isn't Belarus.

So with the presidential elections looming, Putin needs an exit plan. You don't get to be leader of Russia without accumulating enemies; Putin's personal security depends on the state remaining stable, with a strong central government that is willing and able to protect him. This requires an official successor, a crown prince loyal to Putin himself. Inevitably this has to be someone ambitious, tough, but with no capability to succeed politically on his own merit. The man has to be lifted into the presidency by sheer power of Putin's endorsement.

And this requires utter, unquestioning support for Putin in the eyes of the people.

Hence the domestic propaganda, the preposterously clumsy handling of the Bronze Soldier debacle from a diplomatic perspective. Russia's involvement and escalation has done nothing to improve the position of Russian-speakers in Estonia, as it has turned a local minority issue into a battle against an external enemy. But it plays on Russian megalomania, inherited from WWII; any suggestion that the Soviet Union may not have been entirely in the right every step of the way generates a pavlovian response. The ghost of Russia's newfound greatness as an energy bully (overrated because Europe can get its fuel elsewhere, albeit at a higher price; Russia needs the money more than Gazprom clients need the gas) along with the ghost of enemies at the gates, will ensure that the majority of the electorate will do exactly as Putin says.

The upshot is that a few months from now, Estonia will have outlived its usefulness as a scary place where blond youths clad in SS uniforms walk the streets and poke old Russian veterans with cattle prods.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Estonica: Still Standing

I'm still around. I haven't been stabbed by rioters, arrested by the police, or even deported to Russia. :)

What I have been doing is dealing with the fallout of something I did on Saturday. With no network connection at the new apartment, I was having suffering from serious information deprivation. Getting online via a Chinese pub's WiFi and reading the news, and particularly the comments on LiveJournal, I became so incredibly angry that I sat down, and wrote a long text about The Truth.

This is a text that spells out the reality of Russians' position in Estonia, all the things that nobody ever really wanted to say out loud. The problem is that this is the time of reckoning, the time to choose a side. And I've chosen. I've been criticized because of the text, called a fascist, a nazi and a kike; I've lost friends over it, because some people could not comprehend the things I wrote about, or accept them. But I've also found support. Before the text spread through word of mouth, when it was only visible to locals, I received dozens of comments supporting me, saying that what I wrote was right.

Below is the translation of that text.

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My name is Andrei. I was born and raised in Estonia. My ancestors on both sides of the family lived in the first Estonian Republic. Even though I am a citizen of Estonia by birth, I have no Estonian blood in me. Biologically I am half Russian and half Jewish. When I am asked about my nationality, I reply: I am an Estlander.

And I support the relocation of the Bronze Soldier.

A few days ago, if you were to ask my private opinion about the monument, you would have gotten a different answer. I would have said that moving memorials is wrong in principle; that a healthy society must develop the capability to look at the figure of a solider in a Red Army uniform, with a stone halo in the shape of the Order of the Patriotic War, and see foremost a part of that society's history. I thought that the memorial should stay in place, and schools must explain to children what it is about. Because the tragedy of Estonia in World War II and the consequent decades of Soviet rule are a part of the country's history. And while the Bronze Soldier is standing on Tõnismägi, Estonians and Estlanders will remember what happened.

At the same time, I knew that there is something much more important than the fate of the monument. This is the right of Estonia's population to decide the fate for themselves. For a small country that only recently escaped from the rule of a gigantic neighbor - and a neighbor with a fundamentally different worldview at that - the sense of independence is primary. Estonians are a careful, restrained nation, capable of doing business even with a partner that they personally dislike; but if Estonians are slow to take offense, they are not quick to forget it. No business interests, no threats of sanctions can make Estonians admit the right of Russia to meddle in their internal affairs.

So let us forget philosophical deliberations of the insult of relocating soldiers' remains from a concrete slab to a military cemetary, and the idiotic myths of Estonian fascists. Let us talk about the sort of things that are not usually said out loud.

Despite the presense of many peoples on its territory, Estonia is a nation state, made by Estonians, of Estonians and for Estonians. This is exactly what is not understood by those local Russian-speakers who predict Ansip's resignation after the events in Tallinn on the night of April 26th, and call the riots a victory. They honestly think that the government will back down now; that they were simply not heard, or not taken seriously.

However, they base their opinion on the mistaken assumption that in a democratic Estonia, living according to Paragraph Twelve of its constitution, rioters shouting "Rossija! Rossija!" and throwing stones at policemen have the same right to the state as Estonians themselves. My parents, who have lived most of their lives in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, explained to me in my early childhood the fundamental principle of democracy: your freedom ends a millimeter from the tip of my nose. Freedom is not anarchy, and democracy does not intend to satisfy each and every member of society. Estonian democracy serves first and foremost the interests of Estonians.

Russians live in Estonia only because Estonians allow them to.

And local Russians understand this. Which is why most Russian-speaking Estlanders have considered all the pros and cons, and decided to stay here. In return for the right to use the conveniences of life in Estonia, they follow the rules that Estonians have established for themselves. This includes knowledge of Estonian, and behavioral norms...

Whatever Moscow media and anonymous russian Delfi commentators say, after 1991 Estonians did well by Soviet immigrants. Getting citizenship requires only minimal knowledge of the language and an elementary test on the Constitution; I have not had need to do the exams, but many of my friends have gotten citizenship through naturalization, and not one considered the demands to be daunting. At the same time, Estonian national exams (recognized for citizenship applications) are done by all those who graduate from a Russian-language high school. In the democratic, free, civilized countries of old Europe - like France - public schools in a non-state language are unthinkable.

The only thing Estonians have asked of the foreigners forced upon them by Soviet rule was respect for the local custom; an understanding that however long these people live in Estonia, they remain guests. This is why a citizen of Estonia by birth and one by choice is only distinguished in one aspect. The former cannot be stripped of citizenship under any circumstances. The latter can. Because when a family member is behaving badly, he is calmed down. When an uninvited guest does the same, he is thrown out.

The events in Tallinn are the fault of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, whose actions against the memorial were overly harsh and obvious, and also Russia's authorities, who used the Russian media to spin the hysteria surrounding the monument to the stage where the relocation of the Bronze Soldier was inevitable. Ahead of the parliamentary elections, the Reform leader needed a political platform, as his party had the image of a team of managers, not statesmen. In the battle of Estonia's two large political parties, the local ally of "United Russia" Edgar Savisaar unambiguously came out in favor of keeping the memorial, and so Ansip came out against. The President's veto did not allow the fate of the memorial to be decided before the elections, and they effectively turned into a referendum; people who voted Reform may not have wanted Alyosha's relocation, but they did not particularly care either. Winning the elections with an unpredicted majority, and setting the record for votes cast for a single candidate, Ansip was forced to continue the relocation process. Backing down at that point would have firstly shown him incapable of delivering his own political projects, and secondly would have destroyed the electorate's trust in the party, which already suffered from "vote Reform, get Savisaar" jokes because of the previous coalition. In the context of Estonian politics, this is terminal.

Under no circumstances could Ansip yield to the Kremlin. At the same time, the pressure from Estonian residents came from non-citizens, or citizens that did not vote; therefore their opinion was predictably ignored. The Estlanders that agreed to play by the rules voted for Savisaar - and lost; the democratic majority voted vor the relocation of the memorial, or at least not against it.

When the police, unprepared for the invasion of the agressive mob, gave downtown Tallinn over to be looted by drunk Russian youths (a third of the looters were Estonians! some scream; and who were the other two thirds? After the relocation of the monument to the German soldier in Lihula, Estonians did not smash shop windows), it was not a victory for Russia, and it was definitely not a victory for the local protectors of the monument. Among my Estonian friends, the disapproval of Ansip's behavior does not lead to demands for resignation, and the only call to hang someone that I've heard on April 27th referred to Edgar Savisaar, who ran to Russian TV to apologize. Two thousand drunk youths in Tallinn and Jõhvi will not scare a million Estonians; conversations overheard in a crowd of Tartu students came down to local Russians mostly being decent guys, and the riots being not a national confrontations, but rather the work of fuckups of all kinds. No matter how much the kids riled up by Night Watch and Delfi riot, the right of Estonians to move the Soldier as they see fit cannot be taken away any more.

At the same time, the authorities' failure to prepare for the riot, senseless and merciless to street kiosks, and the lack of a crowd of Estonian antiprotectors on Tallinn streets, does not indicate readiness to take more disturbances. As the famous Tallinn writer Mihhail Weller wrote, Estonians are not short of steam - they just have a bad whistle. A little more, and detained non-citizen marauders may start to be taken out past the Narva border crossing and left there. In my eyes, as a half-Russian, half-Jewish grandson of people who fought in the Second World War on the side of the USSR, they have already earned the suitcase-train station-Russia treatment.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Estonica: Riot

Scratch that. The shit has hit the fan in such a spectacular fashion that I'm waking up with brown specks on my windows - and I'm over a hundred miles away from it all.

By end of business yesterday, a crowd of Russian youths began to assemble at the Bronze Soldier site. By nightfall the police had had enough of the crowd throwing stones at them, and a wall of riot cops, armed with tear gas and flashbangs, drove the protesters back.

What followed was a night of carnage in downtown Tallinn, with the youth mob breaking windows and looting shoops. The police did not confine the crowd, allowing them to disperse into main streets, where cars were overturned and at least one kiosk was set on fire. The TV news crew that was in the thick of it showed drunk, excited faces tearing open stolen cartons of cigarettes and chanting "Rossiya! Rossiya!". One kid was explaining to the reporter in accented Estonian what the mob was after - that history should be reevaluated with their opinion taken into consideration. When asked about the looting, he responded that this was just a few Russians feeling thirsty.

By 2 am the riot was mostly over. Main thoroughfares were blocked by lines of police officers, violent and drunk Russian youths were handcuffed to lamp posts, yelling death threats at TV cameras. Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, leader of the opposition and the main political force in Estonia ostensibly protecting the interests of the Russian voters, said that as of 2 o'clock the next day, sales of alcohol in the city would be suspended - at least until May 2nd, but the ban may be extended. This period includes Valpurgis Night, the eve of May 1st, traditionally a grassroots carnival night in Estonia.

An emergency session of the government's crisis committee, made up of the Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, Interior Minister Jüri Pihl and Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo, recommended that the Bronze Soldier statue be relocated immediately, in order to prevent further rioting. As of this morning the statue has been moved to the military cemetary, and is being guarded by the police.

Late-night reports tell of the North Prefecture (the authority responsible for all the police in Tallinn and around) have called up every person on the roster, even those whose shifts have ended. The armed police forces have been deployed on Tallinn streets.

The mob's Estonian counterparts are rumored to be gathering later today in Hirve Park; the nationalists are fewer in number, but gearing up for a fight.

Qui bono? Qui culpa? Certainly Ansip is to blame for the timing. Had the excavation been scheduled after May 9th (Victory Day for the Great Patriotic War in Russia), and that day been kept peaceful, the critical mass would probably never have been reached. And while the hatred in local Russians was obviously nurtured by the Russian media (inevitably Kremlin-controlled), what is known publically at this point does not suggest that the riot was planned and executed by the Nochnoy Dozor or any other local pro-Russian groups.

The actions of the police, while perhaps operationally questionable - in that they did not manage to prevent the looting - were strategically sound and politically firmly in Ansip's favor. By allowing the crowd to disperse, they prevented civilian injuries and perhaps deaths on a larger scale; and at the same time the mob exceeded expectations by reducing itself to looting and violence.

With protectors of the Bronze Soldier, and by association local Russians in general, obviously shown to be violent, uncivilized, unreasonable and uncontrollable, Ansip now has a carte blanche. Even Savisaar appears to be stunned by the extent of the riot, and his "I told you so" is rather muted. Ansip's personal success at the elections has given him a carte blanche, and obviously his coalition partners aren't likely to protest any measures aimed against the Russians.

There is no benefit to the Kremlin that I can see right now, for much the same reasons - it is now painfully obvious that Estonia, as a country and as a nation, is facing the sort of sentiment and activity that nobody in Europe or the First World in general appreciates. By consistently and publically protesting the relocation of the memorial, the Russian authorities have now become inextricably linked to the riot, and everybody's going to be convinced, at least subconsciously, that they had something to do with it. I don't think Russia planned the riot, but Russia certainly caused it, and in terms of international politics, Russia is going to take the blame. And for most of Estonians, this is going to be a fight against an external enemy, an infiltrator, rather than a civil war.

The old curse appears to have come true - we are living in interesting times.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Education Terrorist

In the Philippines, a man is holding a busful of children hostage. His demands - proper education for the children in local poor communities.

Not condoning the hostage-taking, but if you absolutely have to, this cause is a damn sight better than the usual ones.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Optimism

Someone on a forum I go to mentioned how science fiction used to be popular in the 80s, but these days it's more about fantasy - Harry Potter and such.

This is a symptom of the change in human society, I think. Sci-fi as we know it began its great spurt in the 60s - there were SF authors before, like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, but most of the classics of the genre as it is today, people like Asimov, Zelazny, Heinlein etc. started out in short-story magazines in the 60s.

SF fed on the public fascination with technology, the advent of the space age, and a general optimism about humankind's ability to control its environment and expand further. The correlation can also be seen in early SF - in Victorian times, which saw a great technological breakthrough and optimism - with the origins of modern fantasy (Tolkien, obviously) rising up after WWI, when humankind generally wasn't feeling very good about itself (cf). In the Cold War days, you had a clear demarkation of Good vs. Evil and Us vs. Them, which simplified things to a great degree. (People tend to think of the 70s as a time of disillusionment, what with the anti-war protests, violence in the civil rights struggle and such, but only a relatively minor percentage of the population actively engaged in that.) So the general mentality was optimistic: we'd gone to the moon, we were well on our way to Mars, and at least within the lifetime of our children we'd have a Brave New World of flying cars and such; interstellar travel would not be far behind. One can expect confrontations, but they are likely to be upon clearly demarkated moral lines - whether an empire of good vs. an empire of evil, or a rag-tag band of adventurers against a massing horde. Heroes included space generals, intergalactic spies, and individual frontiersmen who inevitably fought on the Good Guys' side, even if they did so begrudgingly.

As the Cold War came to an end, the Berlin wall fell and the Second World was in turmoil, Francis Fukuyama did that whole "end of history" dance; science fiction became darker, with people questioning their own actions. In the music world, Nirvana and its malcontent followers started a trend for misery; similarly sci-fi briefly floundered on soul-searching and dystopian themes (for example William H Keith's Warstrider series, or David Aikman's When the Almond Tree Blossoms), but it wasn't authentic.

So, with no faith in a glorious future, people started to look for a glorious past. A time of fable, King Arthur and elves and dragons and wizards. Worlds where the heroes were flawed, and victory unsure. If sci-fi characters battled evil and won through their own efforts, fantasy has deus ex machina; just when all seems lost, a hero comes from nowhere to rescue the day. People of the 90s and noughties have no faith in themselves, and want a benevolent wizard to come and rescue them.

Harry Potter is not a Tom Sawyer, making his way in the world with nothing but his spirit and wit; he is a regular, sad kid who suddenly got superpowers and now fights off shadowy demons with the help of his friends and teachers. This is the reality of the early 21st century, where most people's consideration of the world they live in is dominated by terrorism, religious fundamentalism and global warming. All I hope is that it is cyclical; that some time soon, we will get past this phase, and once again our hero will be the Stainless Steel Rat.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Beginning & Ending

A news tidbit from a few months ago: an Italian doctor that helped his terminally ill patient to die was acquitted of charges of performing euthanasia. His actions were in fact qualified as stopping treatment, which is something that every patient has the right to request. It was the case here. The patient, Piergiorgio Welby, suffered from an extremely painful condition (muscular distrophy).

The story brings forth a significant dichotomy that, I think, is important to understanding the boundaries of human life. Euthanasia vs. stopping treatment: in the first case, the patient is terminally ill, and highly uncomfortable, but is not actually dying. In the second, it is the constant work of medical machines and administration of drugs which is keeping the patient alive.

If a person is still alive only through the concentrated effort of technology, his life is somewhat less sacred that normally. Certainly the person himself has the right to request his death, and not even the Catholic church will find the request unreasonable.

(Whereas euthanasia, actively administering lethal drugs to a person that would probably die soon, but not quite yet, is highly illegal - because it is not only a crime against the person, but a crime against society.)

If this dichotomy is accepted as correct, it can be extrapolated to the abortion debate. The big question there is where human life begins. If we have established that it ends when the body cannot support itself - anything beyond that is borrowed time - then wouldn't it be reasonable to say that life begins at the moment when the body can support itself? The line at which abortion is immoral is the line at which the child could survive outside the mother's womb, without incubators.

Obviously there are complications, such as weighing the life of the mother against the life of the child, and there may be cases where the deadline is not so clear-cut. This is, of course, an issue that should be judged on the merits of each individual case: this is why we have sentience, reason and the capacity for analysis.

But it's a start.

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