Thursday, December 01, 2005


Restaurant critics give Estonia three stars

By Edward Lucas

In most of the countries I cover, the prime minister lives in a
bubble, travelling in a large black shiny car from one well-guarded
location to another, surrounded by obsequious advisers basking in his
reflected glory.

If he goes to a restaurant at all, it is a glitzy one with a private
room. If the bill is paid at all, it is certainly not something that
bothers him directly.
That's certainly true in Belarus, which I have just been discussing at
an excellent conference organised by the Open Estonia Foundation (part
of the Soros philanthropic empire).
I follow Belarus fairly closely (in so far as I can without being able
to go there), but I was struck by the fierce new rules on internet
access, which will deprive non-governmental organisations of their
broadband connections.
The draft new law on subversion threatens hefty prison sentences for
crimes such as "discrediting Belarus in co-operation with
foreign-financed organisations and the mass media".
But outside intervention will at best have a marginal impact. The real
problem is the deep Sovietisation of Belarussian society, which has
atomised and demoralised it to an extent unseen elsewhere in the region.
The building blocks of democratic change - impatient middle classes,
patriotism and religion - simply don't exist. So the most important
thing is to do no harm.
A lively debate about economic sanctions ended with a consensus (I
think) that a Soviet-style economic collapse was not going to happen,
and that making Belarus poorer and more dependent on Russia was
unlikely to stoke pro-western and democratic feelings.
The conference's high quality made up for the fact that my other
plans, to see some Estonian policy wonks, had been ruined by the trip
of my fellow-countryman, Tony Blair. His heavily guarded convoy of
limousines had brought traffic to a standstill for large chunks of the
day and the people I most wanted to meet were too busy, either because
of him, or because of the disruption caused.
But late in the evening I got a message that some government advisers
were at a restaurant and I was welcome to join them. That was nice
enough: they might have had enough self-important British visitors for
one day.
As we chatted about Russia's slide to autocracy, the psychological war
it wages against the Baltics, and the strange and dangerous way in
which Western Europe seems to ignore this, a couple more people turned
up, pulling up chairs to the table, sitting down and tucking into the
wine and tapas.
They included the Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. I was
impressed with four things. First, he was not spending time with a
hand-picked group of top policy-advisers for a high-powered
discussion, but hanging out with a rather random bunch ranging from
very senior to rather junior, just to chew over the events of the day.
Second, the conversation flowed naturally. I heard nobody laughing
loudly at the boss's jokes, or falling silent when he spoke. Third,
the other customers in the (very unpretentious) restaurant, and the
staff, showed not the slightest bit of surprise. Fourth, before Ansip
left, he made a point of checking that somebody was dealing with the bill.
I told him how impressed I was, and why. "Estonia's like that," he
replied. "Some German tourists asked for my autograph in a restaurant
recently, just because they were so surprised that I would eat there
like a normal person."
Sadly, I can't imagine this happening in Britain with Tony Blair any
more than it would in Belarus with Alexander Lukashenko. Lucky Estonia.
# Edward Lucas is Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The

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