The Eastern Chill


Good friends recently told us that their young son turned off the TV because the news was frightening him. He’s not the only one who has been scared. Georgia and South Ossetia may be a long way from Estonia, but even so we follow the Georgian conflict with a chill up our spines. Why?

  1. Slippery Language: Russia has stated that its reason for invading Georgia is to protect Russian Nationals who are being threatened there. While the status of Russian Nationals in Georgia may in fact be critical, the language is very slippery and could be used in other, less deserving situations as well … say Eastern Estonia, where the population is largely ethnically Russian. Can Russia invade a sovereign nation simply in order to protect its citizens? Who defines what constitutes a “threat” and is there a forum for determining whether force is in fact a justifiable response? At what point does “ethnic tension” (common to any multi-ethnic nation) translate to “ethnic threat”.
  2. Crying Wolf: Both Russia and Georgia are accused by the other of “ethnic cleansing”. Like the term “Axis of Evil” or “War on Terror”, the free use of this accusation has the dual effect of influencing popular opinion via hyperbolic headlines and simultaneously diluting the power of important and specific language to accurately identify the “real thing” and to prompt an appropriate response in the future.
  3. Loss of Moral Highground: This is not the first time that a large powerful nation has taken unilateral, pre-emtive military action while disregarding the world’s calls for calm and diplomacy. When the US ambassador to the UN recently condemned Russia’s military activity in Georgia – in particular attacks against civilians – the Russian ambassador fired back that such statements were entirely unacceptable coming from the US given its own military activities. Not long ago, America was in a position to make such statements but because of our hasty and miscalculated actions in the Middle East, we have relinquished the moral high-ground and given the world a new excuse for war with the doctrine of “unilateral pre-emtive strike”.
  4. Appeasing the Beast: Both Europe and the US have a vested interest in keeping Russia happy and have slow-footed and acquiesced on similar issues in the past. Based soley on the fact that Russia switched sides in World War II, they were allowed in the time of Stalin to get away with mass deportations and atrocious war crimes against their “near neighbors” with nothing more than a hand slap from the West. When economic interests and self-preservation trump “the right thing to do” osteoporosis begins to erode the spine of world’s “strong nations”. With Russia’s oil and gas resources helping to fuel the energy hungry first-world, nuclear armament still an open question, and a NATO trump card always up their sleeve, Russia is confident that it can keep the US and Europe walking on egg-shells while it makes its own rules in the rest of the world.

Taken together, such facts appear to some of Eastern Europe’s small and recently independent nations as “a cloud the size of a man’s fist”. No wonder people are shuddering.

For more clear thinking and analysis on the current situation, let me reference another expat (of another stripe) living in Tartu: To Die for Danzig?

Baltic Bullies: Fear or Smear?


All summer long we have been hearing rumblings from the East about imbalanced portrayals of the Russian government at the hands of the Baltic states and unfair treatment of Russian minorities. A recent mission prayer calendar issued by my own denomination even indicated that mistreatment of Russian minorities in the Baltics may well amount to violations of human rights.

I must say that I’ve been fairly incredulous about these claims. I have indeed witnessed social tensions between Russians and Estonians, but these tensions have always varied in degree according to circumstances and have never amounted to “human rights violations”.

I have to admit though that I may have adopted an interpretive lens which is overly sympathetic to Estonian interests or have simply not been in the right places to observe these problems myself. If in fact these very serious accusations are correct, then I would most certainly agree that they must be addressed promptly and thoroughly and to the satisfaction of the international community.

In the interest of a fair assessment of news headlines, I want to also hold up the possibility that the reports I have been hearing are themselves politicized exaggerations aimed at discrediting three small but quickly growing independent states whose fairly recent escape from Soviet occupation contributed to the eventual collapse of that system. This would not seem too wild a possibility given the stream of nationalist rhetoric which has been emanating with increasing frequency and force from Moscow of late.

Given the seriousness of the situation – no matter which way the evidence leads – I want to advocate a cautious, diligent and open minded investigation of these reports. In the meantime, I will dig a bit deeper into the issue and see what I can find from resources on the net to give you the facts along with my own interpretation of their importance.


Estonia’s Bronze Soldier

Bronze Soldier

Estonia has made world news lately as the relocation of a soviet-era bronze war memorial prompted riots by Russians in the capital city of Tallinn. I’ve culled some good articles from the internet to shed some light on the meaning behind these disturbing events.

Here is some brief background. The war memorial is a bronze statue of a soldier which stands on the site of a grave for the unidentified fallen of the Red Army. To Estonians, it is a lasting symbol of 50 years of illegal Soviet occupation and oppression of the Estonian way of life. For ethnically Russian Estonians, it stands for a sense of nationhood and global respect which has been lacking ever since the fall of the USSR. It seems to me that the current hoopla on the ground in Estonia has much less to do with the difference between these interpretations of the statue and more to do with hoodlums who are capitalizing on a tense situation in order to rabble rouse.