The Estonian Escapade

ilves070108.jpgIf there existed a silent competition among the heads of state of former Soviet territories to see who can antagonize the Kremlin the most, one would have to concede that the plucky Estonians certainly punch above their weight. Points in this game would probably be earned for subtlety, creativity, and indirect baiting – much as we saw in all the measured diplomatic statements during the bronze soldier crisis and the ensuing cyber war, which at the end of the day appeared more damaging than beneficial to Russia’s reputation. (as a side note, it looks like Lithuania is already getting its cyber punishment as a result of holding talks with Washington about missiles sites). I have no doubt that for many politicians who at one point in time were dissidents in the former Soviet sphere, that poking Moscow in the eye with a stick is a national past time – sometimes over illegitimate or unimportant concerns, obligating a predictably brusque response from Russia and heightened tensions. Everyone knows how to play the nationalism card. Yet I still don’t know what to make to the latest Estonian escapade sparked a few days ago, which involved Toomas Hendrik Ilves giving a “lyrical” speech before the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples in Siberia, in which he called upon this constituency in Russia to look at the benefits afforded by EU membership. “Once you have tasted freedom, you will realize how much of it is sacrificed in the name of surviving or just getting by,” he said.

Russia’s no-nonsense response was swift and strong: Duma member Konstantin Kosachyov publically confronted the Ilves delegation at the conference, accusing him of inciting unrest and separatism within Russia’s sovereign territory. “Albeit in a very disguised way, I could feel a call to the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia to think about their own self-determination,” he said.Is Estonia returning to a period of confrontation with Moscow? Were Ilves comments interpreted by Kosachyov rightly or wrongly? Why should Russia be so afraid of ethnic identity politics?Having had the opportunity once to personally meet with President Ilves, I found him to be a carefully intelligent man of impressive erudition. I do not believe that he would be the type to intentionally bait the Russians for such a stunt, especially over any potential point of conflict within their territory. I was not surprised to see an interview the following day in which he denied Kosachyov’s allegations: “To read into the speech anything requires a hyperactive and distorted imagination,” he commented, reiterating that he did not believe that these groups required independence within Russia.It isn’t difficult to see how Ilves’s speech might have been provocative to certain nationalists in the Kremlin, who are extremely sensitive to what they perceive as mistreatment of and discrimination against ethnic Russians living in countries such as Estonia and Latvia.Russia probably recognizes that this kind of talk is like smoking cigars on top of a powder keg, so I do think that we will see the Ilves-separatism issue quietly fade away. Nevertheless, we are left with two hanging questions: Why should this speech be an issue of controversy in the first place? And why did Ilves simply storm out of the convention with his delegation without answering Kosachyov’s “distorted” comments – reportedly smiling and waving.I believe the answer to the first question is self-evident – that Ilves should not have to apologize for bringing up these issues of rights, liberty, and freedom. If the citizens of Russia, whether they are Finno-Ugric or not, should demand greater personal freedoms and better protection of their rights from the state, then it’s time to join the 21st century and accomodate.The answer is the second question is best dealt with by another Estonian blogger at Itching for Eestimaa, who appears to know the issue much better than I do:

Some people think that Estonia’s Russian policies have failed because Estonia used the “i” word, or forgot to thank Russia for liberating its parliamentarians of the 1920s and 30s from their lives. But, please, let’s be serious shall we. This is a show. It is a show where Estonians can earn the respect of their constituents by walking out of an assembly, and where unelected sycophants like Kosachev can earn brownie points from their all-powerful boss/bosses.This is not something that matters like missile defense strategies or access to oil and gas reserves. This is a row about nothing. Really, think about it, what are the Estonians and Russians mad at each other about? Statues? History? Attitudes? Language requirements for civil service positions? Preambles to border treaties? And this impacts our daily lives how? Exactly. Just as Seinfeld was a show about nothing that managed to stay on the air for nine seasons, the Estonian-Russian crisis continues to pump out juicy headlines about … nothing.Everyone benefits and the only people it really hurts is the Estonian transit industry (to the benefit of Russian competitors) and the Estonian Russian minority, whose would-be perspectives are overshadowed by Russian meddling and Estonian obtuseness. Do they even have an opinion? Who cares! Let’s argue about “fascism” and how prominently monuments are displayed in the capital cities of foreign countries. Ah, Christ. There’s a good Monty Python sketch in here somewhere. I just know it.