Monday, 30 April 2007

True lives in Estonia (Part 1)

Calm has returned to Tallinn for now and there is time to reflect. Jaanus Kase contemplates on national identity, symbolism and much more - a generous and illuminating attempt at understanding the eruptions in Estonia last weekend. Meantime, Russian and Estonian speaking friends in Estonia shared their impressions with me and I hope to share their views in a neutral space.

Sometimes it is easier to understand complex stories by focusing on simple personal stories. Today a Russian Estonian (let's call him Paddy for the sake of his privacy) told me his story. At 3 years old, his family moved to north eastern Estonia to assist in the "economic reconstruction" in 1978. In this corner of Estonia near the Russian border, more than 90 per cent of his neighbours were Russian. His parents were construction workers and their home was given to them by the state (as was with everything under the Soviet regime). They settled there and worked hard. He went to school and worked hard. Paddy did not learn Estonian at school because it was not an option. And he learned a different version of history and culture to you, me and his neighbouring Estonian speakers I guess.

Paddy was a clever chap and made his way to study in Tallinn. He went to work in a Russian-speaking software company in Tallinn. There is a circle of Russian-speaking companies in Estonia which operates in a separate dimension to Estonian-speaking companies. Externally, these circles of companies do business with the same trading partners but internally, the two circles do not mix.

Slowly Paddy started to learn to speak Estonian and, at the age of 28 he was able to take the plunge and apply for work with an Estonian-speaking company. He tends to earn a lower wage because the negotiating strength of the Estonian-speaking employee is higher. But he doesn't encounter any explicit racism in the workplace, although he may not receive as many social invites as his Estonian-speaking colleagues.

But Paddy's parents are not so lucky. They lost everything in 1991 when Estonia asserted her nationhood. They scratch a living in basic jobs to survive and, because they can't speak Estonian, they are victims of the limited reportage in Russian language media. Nothing to go back to and nothing to look forward to.

Paddy is not an Estonian citizen but he has an alien passport. With entry into the EU, he now has the same inter-European travel rights as other Estonians, but he has no nationality - just permanent resident rights. Unless he marries a native Estonian who is a citizen, his children will also not have equal rights to nationhood and citizenship as their schoolmates.

Paddy is one of the success stories - he has made the leap out of the enclosed underclass of his fellow Russian-speakers in Estonia. He is not a sad, disaffected, drunken looter and nor is he an apologist for the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. But he feels empathy with the Russian-speaking youth who disgraced themselves last weekend in the riots - he understands their pain for their parents, their lackof national identity, their sense of meaningless in a society that consigns them to the dustbin of historical revenge. He comes from a culture that is constrained by lack of cultural exchange - a Russian-only media that has its own agenda - he knows this, understands the impact but has no means of changing it.

Understanding these complex problems is tiring. Tomorrow I will tell Mick's story (another pseuodnym) - an ethnic Russian who is second-generation Estonian. Mick was disgusted with the violence of last weekend and said he was ashamed to share the same language with the rioters. More anon.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

When is an Estonian not an Estonian?

More tension in Tallinn - a third night of violence and trouble has spread to other towns across Estonia. One news report suggests this will continue to fester until 9th May and, with native Estonians working with the police to protect society, vigilanteism rears its ugly head. I fear for my friends and former colleagues in Estonia and I fear for Estonia itself. The great Russian bear is angry and the EU is caught between a rock and a hard place.

A comment on my earlier posting corrected me on my mistaken understanding of citizenship and nationality in Estonia. Wolli said

You can become French by getting French citizenship. You can only become Estonian by being born to Estonian parent(s). You can indeed become an Estonian citizen but in this country, "nationality" and "citizenship" are two different concepts.

Therein lies the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King (to quote Shakespeare roughly speaking). I was aware of many racist issues in Estonia - to discover that it is institutionalised to this degree is scary. To learn that across the EU we are supporting state-sponsored racism with our tax euros is very bad news.

We emerge from the womb as accidents of birth and cannot be blamed for our parents or location. But, in Estonia, it seems that we can. If I am born in Estonia of non-Estonian parents, I am not entitled to be an Estonian; as I take my first breath I can look forward to a life of no passport, no rights, no equality. That's sick.

Not everybody in the EU favoured the enlargement of the union. Now we learn that we have included a country that does not accord nationality to children born in that country. The European Union could fast become a failed experiment when its citizens discover that we are subsidising a new member state that operates as a two-tier society.

At the risk of flame, I question what Estonia and the EU are doing.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Rising above racism

There was more trouble in Tallinn last night but the police, no longer distracted by the need to protect a big heap of metal, seem to have gained better control of the situation - only 100 arrests and no news of any fatalities. My blog inspired some interesting comments as well as a number of personal discussions on the topic.

I'd like to quickly apologise to any Estonians who feel my blog was a personal attack on them - it was not my intention to single them out as the racists of Europe - I am sadly conscious that racism is rife in every nook and cranny of our federation and little has been achieved in the past 50 years to improve matters. But because it is commonplace, does not mean it is morally acceptable or economically or politically sensible.

In the waiting room of my doctor's surgery in rural France a few years ago (aside: a sign on the wall offered free horse manure - enquire within), I read an article in a glossy magazine about racism in France. I learned that an astonishing 63 per cent of French people admit to being racist, are even proud of it. This was in stark contrast to the UK - where racism was not only regarded as a fatal character flaw but could also land you in big legal trouble. I grew up in a country (Ireland) which was uniquely unicultural because nobody wanted to immigrate to a wet and soggy island where there was no work and no money - even if we were the friendliest, most fun-loving people on the planet.

In the 80s, living in London, I felt my share of racist slurs - my 2:1 degree was poor protection against the dumb Paddy image, and my anti-war beliefs didn't help when the IRA were bombing mainland Britain. In today's London, the hitherto dumb Paddy is the guy on the mobile phone managing the building project, and the hod carrier is from Poland or perhaps Estonia. Where racism is concerned, pecking orders change over a generation or two it seems.

In France in the early noughties, I felt the whack of racism again in the lead up to the Iraqi war. As soon as Tones went off the rails in pursuit of his place in history, the shallow veneer of Anglo-French detente disappeared and it was all "roast beefs go home" from then. And, like most stupid people who shoot first and ask questions later, nobody bothered to ask if I was English before they thrashed my trailer tent on one occasion and burnt my car to dust on another. Nor did anybody ask my views on the war. Different towns, different perpetrators, same ignorance.

Escaping back to the UK, I got a new car and licked my wounds in a society where we Irish have risen towards the top of the social pile. Only to find new racial tensions erupting because of the perceived threats from terrorism and EU enlargement. It seems that there is nowhere to escape intolerance and fear of "otherness".

And what has this to do with the price of eggs or Estonia's current social crisis? By looking out we understand the inside better - as they say, travel broadens the mind. Estonia has made very brave and effective strides to shrug off its unhappy history, but it's never enough. I am not aware of any truly inclusive society, but if we don't all strive to that goal we sink into moral and cultural torpor and might as well close the curtains on the European experiment.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Tension in Tallinn

This morning I wake to news of riots in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, following protests by ethnic Russians against the removal of a Soviet-era war memorial from the city centre. Giuliano, an Estonian blogger, is waiting for the government spin to begin, now that the event is over. His assumption that the riots were a flash in the pan is rather naive and ignores the ethnic issues that culminated in a night of violence where 1 person died, 43 are injured and more than 300 were arrested.

Tallinn is the home of Skype software development and was my second home for about a year. It is a city of stark contrasts, between the freezing dark winters and the warm bright summers and between the charming, higgledy-piggledy medieval buildings of the old town and the ugly, utilitarian suburbs of the soviet era.

Estonians are very proud of their achievements and so they might be. After centuries of subjugation by various neighbours, they have emerged as a beacon of economic stability and vibrancy in the post-Soviet Baltic states. But, lurking under the surface, is something dark and sinister which Estonia has failed to recognise or address.

The problem no Estonian wants to deal with is that of the ethnic Russians who were left behind when the iron curtain collapsed. Under the Soviet regime, ethnic Russians were the cream of Estonian society, holding the best jobs, living in the nicest houses, children attending Russian-speaking schools and not mixing with lowly Estonian children. Ethnic Russians make up more than quarter of the Estonian population, and almost half of the population of Tallinn.

There is an apartheid system in operation I discovered. Ethnic Russians are not entitled to Estonian passports and have become, to all intents and purposes, stateless people imprisoned in a nation that despises them. They are issued with national identity cards but the field for nationality remains blank unless they pass an Estonian language exam. For many of the older ethnic Russians, this is almost an insurmountable task - Estonian is a very old and grammatically complex language. A sign at the entrance to the Tallinn Summer Fair last year offered discounts to pensioners but was limited to Estonian pensioners only.

Ask any Estonian and they will tell you proudly that they have forgiven the ethnic Russians and they are all one big happy family. The facts belie this fairytale however. Ethnic Russians have become a new underclass in Estonia, doing menial jobs when they can get them with many turning to prostitution and crime in the absence of any viable alternatives. Native Estonians blame them for being lazy and naturally criminal and seem blind to the damage this apartheid segregation causes; to their communities, to their international reputation and to the long-term stability of their society.

Tensions were heightened this Spring in the lead up to parliamentary elections, with politicians playing to these deep social divisions to gain the emotional upperhand at the polls. The promise to remove the war memorial was a ploy used by the winning nationalist party in their campaign and trouble has been brewing since.

Yet the Estonian police seemed completely unprepared for the trouble that ensued. According to a friend in Estonia, they stayed in place surrounding the statue, expecting everybody to get fed up and go home. Instead, there were pitched battles through the streets of the capital between native Estonians and ethnic Russians, accompanied by damage to property, cars and general looting.

The EU wants the problem sorted quickly, adding to the stress of a government that seems incapable of facing up to the complexities of the situation. They have called in the army to stop ethnic Russians travelling to the capital today from eastern Estonia against a backdrop offury in the Russian parliament, which is threatening to sever diplomatic relations with its Baltic neighbour.

Will this crisis help Estonia wake up from its torpor and start facing the demons of its Soviet past? Can Estonia afford not to?

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Who is stealing my identity?

With yet another IT bungle, today we learn that the NHS has exposed personal information about junior doctors to the public at large. The abysmal tech failures of the mammoth health care organisation are widely reported and continue to bleed UK taxpayers dry, so I won't labour the point here. This latest gaff points to another major concern - the vulnerability of individuals to protect their identities in the most surveilled society in the west.

On the one hand, we are bombarded with dire warnings about the increasing dangers of identity theft while, on the other hand, our personal information is required to perform the most mundane transactions. Here are just a few examples I personally experienced. I learnt on the news recently that my bank information was compromised following the theft of an employee's laptop. Breaking the story, the BBC informed us that the theft occured some months ago but the bank had not bothered to alert its customers. Charming!

Hot on the heels of this story, I learn that my credit card details may have been included in the theft of customer details from a UK-based retailer - another stolen laptop - this time in the US, owned by the parent company of the retailer. And again, first thing I hear about it is on the news - not a word from the company responsible.

Against this backdrop, I am bombarded by unsolicited phone calls from a credit card company that wants to sell me identity theft protection. Seemingly incapable of protecting my data, they spot an opportunity to play on my fears to charge me even more money for their incompetence. Who are these jokers?

It's not easy (in fact probably impossible) to avoid giving your information to banks and retailers and their negligence is nothing short of criminal. But the danger doesn't stop there. Recently, I was in the market to rent a house. Property rental agencies require a myriad of references for would-be tenants, and charge hefty fees for the "service". After finding a suitable property, I picked up the referencing paperwork from the agency. This agency outsourced the referencing process to a third party, passing not only bank details but also tax and employment information to an anonymous internet-based service. They wanted to charge me 100 pounds for the service for which they paid less than 20 pounds (I did my homework), and if I failed to meet the secret criteria of this third party my fee was forfeit. The agency were surprised at my misgivings - am I the only person that notices such things? I looked elsewhere for a house.

At the same time I replied to a telecommuting job advert posted on Craigslist and was pleased to receive a positive response. Until I looked at the fine print which required me to scan my university transcript, proof of ID (such as passport or driving licence) and email them to some stranger. And, of course, if I wanted payment, they would also require my bank details, a nice haul for any criminal. That's one job I won't be taking up.

Fortunately, because I try to avoid driving, I was not a victim of the major credit card fraud that has been occuring at petrol stations across the length and breadth of the UK. There is a suspicion that these thefts are the work of a ring of Sri Lankan criminals and that the proceeds are being used to fund the Tamil Tigers. Isn't that just fine and dandy.

With the exception of the job advert, these dangers are of a physical nature. The online threats are even scarier. Maintaining my list of online passwords is a total pain and gets worse by the day - especially since I'm one of those paranoid people that likes to have a unique password for each site I join. The response from the great and the good of the internet is the Open ID initiative, described as a free distributed authentication systems. The idea is that we all set up a personal ID and password, either on our own servers or with an Open ID provider, and we can then use this single ID to identify ourselves at all internet sites that participate in the system.

Getting rid of the password hassles is very appealing but at what price? Corporate identities can be safely managed by company servers and subject to their security policies, but what of the individuals that have to purchase the service from an Open ID provider. I don't expect they will provide the service free of charge so the system will introduce a cost for internet entry which might prove prohibitive to many. And why should I trust the security policies of any of these providers which must, surely, be a magnet for hackers and criminals?

Something else that bothers me about Open ID is the profound lack of negative commentary about the initiative. With giants like Microsoft and AOL coming on board, the idea is gaining ground rapidly. But, as I said earlier, corporations can run their own servers and can impose heavy-duty security policies on their implementations. For them, the system is practical and provides them with greaters controls than before. Are these the same giants that favour the two tier internet and fight against net neutrality I wonder? Will Open ID emerge to be just another attack on internet freedom, excluding the poor and making them even more vulnerable to fraud?

Monday, 23 April 2007

Beat congestion - stay at home

With the news today that even the Queen is green, the pressure is mounting for people to take a more responsible approach to travel and its impact on the environment. But, now that cheap air travel has opened up the world to people, it is not easy to turn back the clock and tell people to stay at home. For the wealthy, there is the new trend of offsetting the impact of their trips with investment in green projects (as the Queen plans to do). But for your average Joe, this puts the cost of travel beyond reach and doesn't seem very fair.

Meantime, with increasing congestion in the skies and on the roads, we hear a lot of talk and debate, but don't see much real action. The government wants to introduce road charging to reduce congestion and assures us that this is not another stealth tax but a scheme which will benefit everybody. They claim that when the driving public becomes aware of the real cost of motoring, we will be happy to reduce our time at the wheel. What a load of codswallop.

Most people don't choose to sit in traffic jams morning and evening, 5 days a week. They are there because they have to get to and from work in a country where public transport is increasingly inadequate, unreliable and prohibitively expensive. In a society which requires all schoolchildren and workers to arrive at school or work at approximately the same time every day, it is little wonder there is congestion at peak times.

There are a number of practical steps we could take to improve matters without taxing people. We could stagger school opening times for example, taking the pressure of the school run out of the rush hour. And we could also stagger the school holidays to avoid the travel chaos that occurs every holiday. In light of the inflated travel costs during school holidays, this move would be welcomed by parents and teachers alike I think.

And, rather than penalising people for driving to work, we could reward them for staying at home. Some jobs require a physical presence, such as doctors and teachers and shop keepers. But in our service-based economy a very large percentage of us could use modern communication tools to perform many of our tasks remotely. Not only can telecommuting reduce congestion, but there are proven benefits in terms of increased productivity and enhanced work-life balance. Instead of charging people to use the roads, reward home workers with grants to equip home offices, subsidised broadband and lower taxation for work done from home. Instead of building more roads and airports, invest the money in free wifi and cheap access to video-conferencing facilities in all communities.

A major barrier to the growth of telecommuting is a culture of distrust among employers, a belief that workers will take advantage of the situation and not pull their weight. This is a sad attitude that says more about the employer's lack of self-belief than about the trustworthiness of the workforce. With good communications and efficient performance management, employers will find that workers can be trusted and, with less stress, they will tend to perform beyond expectation. Companies will also benefit from a reduction in the cost of office accommodation and better staff retention. It's a win win situation.

So why isn't it happening? There seems to be an astounding lack of political will to upset the status quo in a way that would reduce our reliance on planes, trains and automobiles. A cynic might say that this arises from the vested interest of car makers, oil companies and the travel sector. That may be the case, but the time when this was acceptable is rapidly running out. When compared to the complicated, costly and socially invasive plans for road charging, the telecommute option appears simpler, less intrusive and rewards people rather than penalising them.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Virginia victims

Like the rest of the world, I was deeply saddened by the news of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech University - when 32 students and staff were gunned down by a fellow student before he turned his gun on himself, bringing the final death toll to 33. I watched the news coverage in horror, when we saw amateur video footage of the killer, striding across the campus looking like Neo from the Matrix - maybe that's how he imagined himself.

There followed the memorial service, where the President preached, and students and parents hugged and tried to find some solace and come to terms with this atrocity. I read and watched interviews with students who had been lucky enough to escape with their lives, describing their experiences and attempting to make some sense of it all. Even more horrible than the shootings perhaps, listening to these students, was their universal lack of recognition that there is a connection between gun culture and gun crime. One interviewee went as far as agreeing with the view of the gun lobby that the answer to the problem is to arm all students.

From a European perspective, the American obsession with guns is obscene and not acceptable in a civilised society. It is quite shocking to discover that bright young people, who have had such an intimate experience of the horrific results of lax gun control, are so totally blind to one of the main causes of that experience. To deny that there is a connection between easy access to guns and violence is to ignore the evidence of the U.S. homicide statistics which are higher than those in Europe by a factor of 10 or even 20 I guess.

Another thing struck me in the news coverage. One report spoke about the 32 victims of the carnage - but 33 people died. It seems that the shooter is not regarded as a victim by some which is a terrible shame. The sad loner who was so at odds with his peers and his society - is he not a victim also? And what about his poor parents, who have to add the guilt for his dreadful actions to their grief at his suicide? To lose a child is the saddest thing a parent can endure (some don't), but to lose a child in such circumstances - their lives since then must be a living nightmare.

For any good to come of this awful event, it is time America recognises the connection between easy access to guns and the all too frequent abuse of this freedom, not alone by criminals but also be socially-inadequate, emotionally-charged young people. Over on this side of the pond, we are overwhelmed with grief for all of the victims and their families and friends, but we are also astounded by the gun culture that enables it. If the tragic deaths at Virgina Tech are to mean anything, it is essential that America grabs this opportunity to review gun laws and put them beyond the reach of people without proper licensing and control. To do less is to disrespect their memories as has, sadly, been done already with the victims of Columbine and all the other tragic victims of meaningless murders on the streets of America.