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Travels in Estonia – The Lessons of the Bronze Soldier

Today I just completed a short visit to the beautiful city of Tallinn, where I had the great honor of personally meeting with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, among many other interesting people. I had a serious discussion with President Ilves on various issues, and I can say that he lived up to his reputation as a erudite intellectual, even speaking better English than I do. Aside from these meetings, I was visiting Estonia to give a speech at Tartu University, where I had taught part of a class last summer. My talk covered the issue of the North European Gas Pipeline, which again has seized the headlines here as environmental concerns raised by Finland may be pushing the planned pipeline into Estonian waters (Hello Estonia has blogged about this). Having just come from Latvia the day before, I found a significant contrast between the two Baltic nations. In my limited subjective experience, there was a far greater amount of optimism in Estonia, and Tallinn exhibited a distinct Nordic feel as opposed to Riga’s “Mitteleuropa” elegance. In terms of these countries’ relations with Russia, they are moving in opposite directions. Just like Latvia, Estonia had eagerly hoped for a warming of relations with the Russian Federation following its entrance into the EU and NATO, but this did not occur. Estonia also shares Latvia’s disappointment with the results they have been able to achieve from membership in these organizations. However, unlike Latvia’s main areas of difficulties with Russia, Estonia’s public is mostly occupied with the tricky cultural politics of identity, which have been most eloquently illustrated by the fight over the so-called Bronze Soldier – which some say is an honor to those who served in the Great Patriotic War, while others call it a symbol of the tyranny from the Soviet presence. While Latvia debates its border with Russia (recently settled) in terms of the pre-War voluntary alliance vs. occupation, Estonia is faced with the difficult task of negotiating how to understand the national identity in the wake of WWII. (However, there are a host of other political issues behind this fight). I don’t have anything really insightful to add to this emotional debate beyond the observation that historical reckoning is pastime best practiced with great patience and open minds. (here’s what I wrote about the Bronze Soldier) Another extremely important difference in Estonia’s relationship with Russia is its relative energy independence thanks to oil shale. Despite this self-sufficiency, I am told they are actually being pressured by the EU to import Russian gas. Go figure! Not being as politically dependent on Russia as some other neighbors, Estonia can afford to be more honest about some topics. For example, while most of the attention at the last Munich security conference was focused on Vladimir Putin’s speech, President Ilves gave a very compelling and intelligent talk on prosperity, peace, and security, and recognized the need for the European Union to develop a common energy policy: “We recognize that it would be good to have a common energy policy, that instead of individual deals with energy suppliers, the EU speaks with a common voice. This would allow us to meet our energy needs more cheaply, we would avoid the divide et impera tactics available to suppliers, it would add security to energy supply when dealing with a fickle Russia that sees energy as a foreign policy tool.” During my visit to Tallinn, I did not make very many friends when I spoke out about the surprising silence of European political leadership in respect to the Russian Federation’s attack on the market. I tried to explain how contagious Gerhard Schroeder’s technique of using the Russia-as-victim narrative to block any criticism of his personal, corrupt enrichment and collusion with the Kremlin is becoming among others looking to explain away the problems in Russia. However, being in Estonia was I extremely mindful of the political sensitivities surrounding this issue of a German leader calling Russia a victim. Taking a lesson from the Bronze Soldier controversy, I was explicitly clear in my comments with the press regarding the tremendous and brave sacrifice of Russians during the last war, and that Schroeder’s use of this narrative device in no way should ever be confused with the reality of Russia’s extraordinary human contribution during the last war.