When an Estonian official once asked me about a suitable mission
statement or motto for his country. I suggested, only half-jokingly,
"We told you so".
Estonian smugness is of course legendary. But it is odd but true
that on most important questions the Estonians (and usually the
Latvians and Lithuanians) have been right, whereas outsiders have been
wrong, sometimes wildly so.
I remember being told forcefully in 1988 by one of the BBC's best
Russian-speakers that the "tiny Baltic Soviet republics" wanted only
autonomy from the Kremlin. A handful of "nationalists", mainly
emigres, dreamed of full independence, but it was never going to happen.
Luckily the Estonians took no notice. They never considered
themselves to be a "Soviet republic", but rather an occupied
territory. And they certainly did want independence. They went ahead
with the remarkable Congress of Estonia. Like its Latvian counterpart,
this was an independently-elected alternative (ie non-Soviet)
parliament which sought to recreate the republic abolished in 1940. It
was an important reminder that the Baltic states were not seeking to
gain independence, but to regain it. This was the political equivalent
of raising the Titanic—but most outsiders simply couldn't understand
it, and dismissed the Congress as a nationalist stunt.
Luckily the Estonians took no notice and focussed on restoring the
prosperous, lawful country that was still—just—in living memory.
That included modest attempts to restore Estonian as the state
language, and to try to induce the hundreds of thousands of Soviet-era
migrants to regularise their residence. The outside world (which
mostly has far harsher rules for migrants wanting to naturalise) was
sure this would mean "Bosnia on the Baltic". There were countless
monitoring missions and working groups. But the result was that
hundreds of thousands of people have learnt Estonian (or Latvian) and
gained citizenship. It's worked amazingly well.
Then there was the senior IMF official in 1992 who told Estonians
to back "a common currency from Tallinn to Tashkent", rather than
reintroducing (very successfully as it proved) the kroon.
Luckily the Estonians took no notice. The government of Mart Laar
also ignored outsiders who told them not to privatise rapidly and
fully, but to give state industry a lengthy, gentle transition. The
speed of economic change did feel rather alarming (I was running a
newspaper in Tallinn at the time) but it was the right policy. So was
the decision to abolish tariffs and subsidies (now, sadly,
reintroduced as a condition of EU membership). Equally successful—and
accompanied by dire warnings at the time—was the flat tax.
I still remember a western ambassador who was reduced to
helpless giggles in the mid-1990s when I suggested that all three
Baltic states would be EU members in ten years' time. The combination
of outside competition and Brussels bureaucracy would cause them
collapse overnight, he told me. And Nato membership was not even a
joke, just dangerous nonsense—as late as 2000, much of the
foreign-policy establishment in western Europe was convinced that such
a step would destroy relations with Russia.
It's quite a long list, which might make Estonians and their
Baltic colleagues rather sceptical of outside advice. It might also,
perhaps. make outsiders cautious about offering it, and keener to
learn from Estonia's example. So I am pleased that British
commentators are now writing enthusiastically about Estonia's flat
tax. But there is some way to go: the Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago
wrote enthusiastically that: "Mr Laar is tipped as a European
commissioner when [sic] his country joins the EU in 2007."
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist
Saturday, September 24, 2005
When an Estonian official once asked me about a suitable mission
Monday, September 19, 2005
Finally, here is the previous week's column from European Voice
Birthday parties have an added frisson when they celebrate a highly
controversial birth. There was quite a bash the other day in the
streets of Tiraspol—a city that few Europeans would find on the map,
although well known to arms-dealers, drug-smugglers, spies and
suchlike. For Tiraspol is the soi-disant capital of the soi-disant
state of Transdniestr.
Depending on your political standpoint, Transdniestr is a valiant
bastion of Russian language and culture, battling against fascists
wanting a Greater Romania, and against American global hegemony. Or it
is a corrupt tinpot dictatorship in a breakaway province that survives
thanks only to being useful to some very nasty strands of Russian (and
to some extent Ukrainian) political and economic life.
But like it or not, Transdniestr was 15 years old this month. It
celebrated in style with a huge fun-fair, bombastic speeches—and most
importantly "official" delegations from the other three unrecognised
statelets of the post-Soviet landscape: Nagorno-Karabakh, South
Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
There is an intriguing air of unreality about the idea of
non-countries conducting pretend diplomacy with each other. During the
Cold War, the Polish government-in-exile in London used to have
meetings with the surviving Baltic diplomats, stranded there in dusty
embassies while their countries were de facto part of the Soviet
Union. Their status was a bit different though: the Balts still had
diplomatic status (because Britain didn't recognise the Soviet
annexation) whereas the Poles were private citizens—at least until
President Lech Walesa invited them to Warsaw in 1990, and, gloriously,
retrospectively recognised their legitimacy.
For less noble reasons, Transdniestrians also hang on, hoping that
stubbornness will eventually bear fruit. But they don't exactly exude
confidence. The official news agency, Olvia-press, recently published
a fascinating commentary "exposing" the various western plots aimed at
destabilising Transdniestr by means of a "coloured revolution". The
first stage was the "transformation of society within Moldova" by
"discrediting Soviet values, forming a pro-Western mentality and, most
importantly, creating…total dependence on American bosses". The first
two of these sound highly desirable. And the third has not happened:
American investors, sadly, are conspicuous by their absence; the US
embassy seems rather underpowered, and the best-known American there ,
the OSCE Ambassador William Hill, is something of a hate-figure for
But never mind. Olvia-press goes on to outline the other scandalous
tactics of the Anglo-American hegemons, particularly a highly sinister
programme called "Community Connections" which sponsors "leaders of
public organisations, the intelligentsia, journalists and
representatives of small and medium business" to go on short trips to
America. There, it claims, they are "brainwashed".
That paranoid, exaggerated tone highlights the Tiraspol
propagandists' problem. If their system is so wonderful, then why are
people so eager to go to horrid America? And why is it so easy for
Western propaganda to persuade Transdniestrian youngsters that EU and
Nato membership via a united Moldova will make them freer and richer
than living in a rogue statelet propped up by Russia? Grudgingly,
Olvia-press blames a "certain complacency" among the Transdniestrian
authorities in dealing with the local youth. But it ends up insisting,
with beautiful contradictoriness, that a) the American puppets are
useless; b) they steal their backers' money (that implies that the
brainwashing wasn't that effective); c) Transdniestrians love their
government so much that no revolution is possible; and d) that the
American behaviour is highly provocative and should stop at once.
I decode that to mean that America's democracy-promoters are
beginning to have quite an effect, and the regime is getting worried.
Which is good news.
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
The less-than-august omens for Poland
By Edward Lucas
If your job involves Eastern Europe, August looks like a good time for
holidays. As in most of the continent, it is a month when officials
are unavailable, government shuts down and people leave the cities to
But history suggests that it is a very good month if your job is
journalism. Among the stories you might have missed if you regularly
take holidays in August are the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the building
of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the birth
of Solidarity, the first big hole in the Iron Curtain, the botched
coup in Moscow that marked the end of the evil empire, the collapse of
the Russian financial system and the sinking of the Kursk submarine.
Against that background, how did August 2005 measure up? There have
been interesting rumblings from Transdniester, and worrying ones from
Macedonia; a Serbian army helicopter planted a church on the top of a
mountain in Montenegro and the Czech prime minister apologised for the
deportation in 1945 of Sudeten German anti-Nazis. But the month's
really big news has been from Poland.
I don't mean the 25th anniversary of Solidarity's founding, or the
opening salvos in the two upcoming election campaigns. Far more
important are Poland's rows - a Cold War in miniature - with Russia
Belarus is Europe's only remaining dictatorship, where the regime's
latest target is the country's biggest ethnic minority organisation,
the Union of Poles (UPB). This might seem an odd target. Poles in
Belarus are not highly politicised and the UPB's activities are
inoffensive: chiefly Saturday schools for children, and folk-dancing
events. But the Belarusian authorities are not worried about the
intellectual firepower of their opponents. They just dislike the fact
that they exist at all. Any independent organisation, especially one
with foreign financial and other support, is a direct challenge to the
closed, monolithic society that the regime desires. So it has
dissolved the UPB and installed a more compliant leadership. It has
jailed Polish-language journalists, harassed activists, and denied
entry to, or deported, visitors from Poland.
Although the regime has murdered people in the past, it has not used
force this time. That's not the case in Poland's row with Russia,
which began with the mugging in Warsaw of three teenagers from the
Russian embassy. Russia treated this as a diplomatic incident
resulting directly from Poland's Russophobia, and demanded a formal
apology. The verbal outbursts were followed by physical retaliation:
in quick succession, two Polish embassy officials, and then a Polish
journalist, were beaten up in Moscow.
What's ominous here is not that Russia and Belarus are behaving, as
usual, unpleasantly. It's that the EU seems to have given up trying to
defend its members, like Poland, who most need support. Where were the
protests from other European embassies when Poles were being beaten up
in the streets of Moscow?
When the new member states joined the EU last year, the bold aim was
to convince Russia that it could be friends with Western Europe only
if it dropped its historical grudges against former captive nations in
the continent's east. That policy has, so far, failed totally.
Instead, Russia is enjoying the sight of the powerful countries of
Western Europe scurrying away from any possible conflict. It would be
nice to think that this is just an August blip; that when the
important people return from their holidays, the EU will come out
toughly in defence of Poland.
But I expect they'll play safe. And that, of course, is far more
Thursday, September 01, 2005
By Edward Lucas
To raise money for church repairs in my home village in south-west
England, I have just given an illustrated talk there on 'Scrapes,
scoops and spies' in Eastern Europe.
The first problem was showing how countries could appear and disappear
- that's startling in a region that has not been near an international
frontier since 900 AD.
But I found maps showing Europe in 1914, 1922, 1945 and now, which
illustrated well the crucial interplay between history and geography.
Nor was it too hard showing resistance to communist rule, and the
For the communist seizure of power in 1945-48, I used pictures of two
of my Czechoslovak heroes, Jan Masaryk (the last non-communist foreign
minister, who fell to his death, probably not unassisted, from the
window of his flat high up in the foreign ministry building) and
Milada Horakova. She survived a Nazi concentration camp only to be
hanged after a communist show trial in 1950.
There were excellent pictures, too, of the East German workers'
uprising of 1953, of Hungary in 1956, of the Soviet-led invasion of
Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Solidarity in Poland in 1980-81.
But what was missing from the internet were images of the communist
system itself. (I thought it would be cheating to use commercial photo
libraries, so I was relying only on what the general public can find
via the internet search engine, Google.)
I searched in vain for illustrations of the degradation and
frustration of everyday life, of empty shops and squalid housing.
I did find one picture of the world's worst car, the Soviet-made
Zaporozhets - but it was a lovingly restored one owned by an eccentric
American collector, not the usual stinking rusty deathtrap.
Illustrating the moral dimension, of collaboration and deceit, was
Some extracts from works by Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky and Milan
Klima would have done the job perfectly, given the time to read them
aloud: the real face of totalitarianism is sad, shabby compromises
made by sad, shabby people. That is ideal material for novelists, less
so for photographers.
It was hard too to explain wear and tear on my own nerves. Western
journalists behind the Iron Curtain worried often that we were
endangering our contacts, or (occasionally) that they might compromise
us. Soviet-block foreign correspondents in the West were almost
invariably spies; the communist authorities assumed we were too. That
meant a regular diet of hassles (ranging from blocked phones to
honeytraps) and threats of expulsion.
Sometimes these were comical. In Prague the authorities complained
about my frequent visits to the British embassy.
I was happy to explain that I was going not to pick up secret
instructions, but in the hope that the little shop there might have
new supplies of life-preserving Marmite (a yeasty gunk that Brits eat
spread on hot buttered toast).
In Soviet-occupied Estonia I was the first Western journalist to
interview the head of the KGB in Tallinn. I started the interview by
asking: "Am I the first Westerner to come into this building?" He
replied coolly: "Let's say that you will be the first Westerner to
leave it." I got goosepimples: remembering that anti-communist
partisans sent by Britain (and betrayed by British traitor Kim Philby)
had been tortured and murdered in that very building in the 1950s.
When the KGB collapsed in 1991, the Estonians found a machine in the
basement that, seemingly, had been used for mincing up bodies. Perhaps
I should have got a picture of that.
[ps from Edward: we did use a picture of that mincing machine in the Baltic
Independent when I was editing it]