Friday, November 7, 2008

A View from the Cheap Seats: Open Estonia XIII

Bear Baiting
or “Russians Have Feelings, Too”

You gotta love Kadri Liik for putting the gristle in the conference’s rubber chicken. At the 13th Open Society Forum, she seemed unable to resist a quick jab at Russia whenever the microphone passed her way. To a question about the Kremlin, she garbled something about being persona non grata but then did make clear she was “usually present in more pleasant company like this.” As the staff from the Russian embassy looked on.

Liik noted that Russia feels entitled to its allies in Europe and believes it has the right to “take them back by force” if necessary. Later, she urged to “stop pretending we have any common values with Russia.” Finally, she suggested Medvedev and Putin were criminals who should be tried for war crimes. I looked over at my Russian acquaintances and wondered if pictures of Kissinger weren’t dancing in their heads. Or perhaps Bush.

Russia was discussed as if it were a lab rat in a maze or an anesthetized patient on an operating table. A better analogy: an unloved child at the dinner table, whose behavior his parents bemoan in the third person. (What happens to those kids? In my country, most end up either suicidal or in jail.)

I almost felt sorry for the embassy staff—some of whom I know—but then I recalled episodes I’d seen broadcast from the Kremlin where Mr. Putin laid into visitors, giving them little or no chance to respond. This is how the game is played, I guess, and I had to, in the name of lively discussion, shout a quiet hurrah for Kadri Liik bringing gasoline for the conference fire.

Court Intrigue

Kadri’s attempts at fun were soon enough extinguished by no other panelist eager to play along, and the journalist beside me began killing time by explaining who was (or had been) sleeping with whom in Estonian government. There were plenty of parliamentarians and statesmen around for cannon fodder. Mostly, I just listened, punctuating the journalist’s narrative with the occasional “Really!” to which he responded “Yes,” to which I responded “No!” to which he responded “Yes.”

We foreigners miss so much. Estonia is as incestuous a soap opera as The Bold and the Beautiful. Think again if you were under the impression there’s been no fun in government since Kennedy and Clinton.

Of course, he could have been lying.

I spent my time wondering about my fellow Canadian, Dr. Andres Kasekamp. Certainly a capable moderator and probably good man to have a beer with, but where does he get the brand of English he speaks? Is it a consciously-acquired Euro souvenir to show off when visiting friends back home in Toronto? Or genuinely acquired during his PhD days in London and further churned through a tour of duty in Berlin? And Mr. Ilves? He’s American educated and pronounces “negotiation” like a Brit. Americans say nee-go-she-ay-shun (even though they don’t negotiate). Does Ilves also say shhedule? Jolly good and Bob’s your uncle? To settle the matter, I wanted to take the microphone and ask to borrow a rubber. Whether he tossed me a condom or an eraser would settle the matter once and for all.

Twelve Monkeys

David Foster Wallace’s Twelve Monkeys were there, too. The dry-cleaned cynics of the traveling press. Having undoubtedly seen the same show at a previous stop, they sat with smug grins, checked email, examined clothing for lint, and crossed and uncrossed their legs seeking that position of comfort one can never quite find in a folding chair.

Though generally quite nice people when you talk to them, if allowed to remain silent they project the air of elitist pricks from another planet, with whom you’d expect to have this sort of discussion:

Question: “What do you do?”

Answer: “I’m an intellectual.”

But most really aren’t that sort. These Twelve Monkeys, in fact, were not carrying Mr. Wallace’s identical steno notebooks, though a few wore identical gold-buttoned navy blue cast-off-the-bow-line jackets, the all-purpose, goes-with-anything sport coat. Mostly, the foreign press served as a backdrop before which to closely examine the Estonian press, who appeared to have slept in their clothing and not bathed for several days. That’s the men of course. They don’t own suits and they’ve declared a fatwa on irons. The female reporters favored tight blouses and low-slung jeans which occasionally offered a glimpse of their naughty knickers. The ladies have potential, but if they’re after sassy, I’d direct them to Tina Brown or Arianna Huffington.

Used to, to note that professional dress has not visited the Estonian press would be cheap. But it’s no longer 1992, and the observation on my part is simply unprofessional.

The EU & Russia

That was the topic, and near the end of the panel discussion, things finally got interesting enough for Mr. Ilves to take his hands away from his face and uncross his legs.

George Soros had suggested that the solution for a relationship between Ukraine and Russia was not to be found in NATO membership and Mr. Ilves wanted to take issue. But just when it looked like we were set for a steel cage match, we were out of time. And we’re out of time now. Tune in next year to see George Soros perform a pile driver on Toomas Hendrik Ilves while containing the Ukraine with a left-handed sleeper hold.

Unless the organizers read this and disinvite me.

Montague H. Crakenthorp in Ohio and Alistair Digby Vane Trumpington in London also contributed to this report.