Letter from Tallin

On New Year’s Eve, two months ago, a five-star hotel called Reval Olympia in Tallinn, was bragging it would transform the Estonian capital «into Paris of a century ago,» as the publicity went. That pompous party carried the title La Grande Affaire, and featured a (French) entertainment program, French cuisine and exceptional wines. At about the same time, the local City Paper reported: «Recent confirmation that Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas is studying French has prompted admiration but also suspicion that he’s bucking for a new job – at European Union headquarters in Brussels.» The rumor was promptly denied by spokeswoman Hanna Henrikus. Shades of impartiality What, en passant, has also been denied was the shade of doubt as to the country’s impartiality. That was when the Baltics were caught in the US-EU dispute over the international criminal court, which Washington opposed and Brussels backed strongly. At the time, around October, Washington urged the Baltics to sign deals granting immunity from the court to American soldiers. The EU firmly opposed such exceptions. «Estonia is not in a situation where it has to choose between mother and father,» said PM Siim Kallas last November. Yet, significantly, Estonia has one of the world’s highest divorce rates: two-thirds of marriages there break up, they say. A – more or less – similar marital case is illustrated in Jaan Taette’s most successful current menage-a-trois comedy «Happy Every Day» currently playing at Tallinn’s City Theater. The sentimental estrangement with EU-member France came only a few days before the International Herald Tribune carried on its front page (February 22, 2003) the title «Are US and France heading for divorce?» Although Estonians characterize themselves as an unusually reserved people who speak sparingly, the prime minister’s spokesman, Daniel Vaarik, apparently under cloudless pan-European skies last week declared, in response to French President’s Jacques Chirac’s dressing down of EU candidates for their aggressive pro-American stance on Iraq, the following statement: «Every country has the right to express its opinion, and we do not regret having expressed ours. It’s also worth nothing that the opinion expressed by France is not the dominant one in the EU.» Yet the French diplomats in Athens would be wrong to let irritation overcome them, and not show themselves tonight at the Estonian Ambassador’s Dainnius Junevicius National Day reception. In a few hours, time observers will see whether any anti-Estonian grievances will be manifested in Greece’s diplomatic parquet, and how long US Ambassador Thomas G. Miller will stay at the party. Estonia barely registered a blip on the international anti-war demonstration screen February 15, as less than 300 people bothered to brave the frosty temperatures in front of the city hall to demonstrate against the possibility of a US-led attack on the totalitarian Iraqi regime. Apparently there are no disputatious intellectuals in such cold climates. This should be duly rewarded at tonight’s embassy reception. Shouldn’t it? Web devotees So today, February 24, is the day Estonia, one of the eight-plus-10 European states that have sided with the United States, declared its (first) independence, in 1918. After a 50-year interlude, EU candidate Estonia (population 1.4 million) regained its independence a decade ago, a short time later concluded the accession negotiations on December 13, 2002 at the Copenhagen summit, and now will be signing the accession treaty on April 16 in Athens. The date of final accession – France willing – for a country that has forged a reputation as one of Europe’s most dedicated devotees to the Web way of life – is set at May 1, 2004. Last November, Kallas himself, prime minister of this tiny Baltic nation, guided me proudly around his Cabinet meeting room outfitted with sleek LCD terminals and cordless keyboards that ministers activate with «smart» cards. Probably in Greece we would say that this country is «completely Americanized,» but the fact is that the USA is still behind Estonia’s e-technology. And there is a good reason for this. Although the Estonian government two years ago announced plans to move to electronic voting in time for the country’s 2003 general elections, the general elections scheduled for next Sunday (March 2) will be the same good old, complex paper-based polling system. The Americans seemed to know better. When the Democratic party ran its presidential primary election in Arizona online some years ago, the Justice Department expressed concerns about minority voters being locked out of the democratic process for economic reasons. There were also technical problems. Yet, in a country where no niche has been left Net-less (all of its some 700 schools are Web-equipped following the recent completion of the state-sponsored Tiger Leap program ) the worries are of a different nature: Some time ago, the Estonian prime minister was taking part in an online debate when a hacker captured the line and answered a question as though he was the prime minister. The incident must have convinced the government of the prime importance of security.