Friday, January 23, 2009

Europe View on "December Heat"

Feeling the pinch
Jan 22nd 2009

Uncomfortable echoes of uncomfortable times

“ECONOMIC collapse undermines national security”. Two years ago, when the script for “December Heat”, Estonia’s lavishly produced new historical thriller, was being written, that seemed a theme from the past, not the future. Now it looks uncomfortably prescient—if not yet for Estonia, certainly for its southern Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania.

“December Heat” portrays the failed Bolshevik putsch in Estonia in 1924. Some elements are unlikely to be repeated. Communism then could attract idealists hoping to build a workers’ paradise. It is hard to imagine starry-eyed young Estonians now believing that modern Russia is a new civilisation. The Baltic states are in NATO and the EU.

But other elements are all too topical.

The film shows that economic hardship has discredited the idea of independence in the eyes of many. Children beg on the streets. Public servants are poorly paid. Private business is struggling. People are cold. A few tycoons have done well and are widely disliked for it. All of that sounds pretty familiar.

So does the political backdrop of the early 1920s. The politicians don’t seem to have a grip on the situation. Officials are indecisive and possibly treacherous. And although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are far better guarded than they were then, territorial defence has taken second place to NATO’s overseas commitments. It would require several hundred well-equipped coup plotters, not a few dozen with small arms as in 1924, to seize key buildings in the capital city. But with the right support from outside, it is not impossible.

Similarly, you can no longer take over a country’s international communications simply by sending few toughs with guns into the telegraph exchange and railway station. But as the events of April 2007 showed, a cyber-attack can have roughly the same effect without firing a shot.

This is good material for a lively if rather melodramatic film. Only quick thinking and bravery by the protagonist, the stalwart Tanel Rõuku (played by Sergo Vares), with his nubile and equally valiant wife Anna (played by Liisi Koikson) save the six-year-old Estonian republic from disaster. They are assisted by the true hero of the events, General Ernst Põdder, (a real historical figure, played by Tõnu Kark). He happens across the coup plotters while returning from a late-night drink and leads an impromptu posse to raise the alarm. The final scene, in which the plotters’ telegram “inviting” fraternal assistance from the Soviet troops massed across the border is foiled in mid-sentence, is both exciting and amusing.

The troubling question for today’s audiences is about the differences between then and now. Politics in the 1920s was pretty shambolic in the Baltic states (which is one reason that all three countries, like the rest of central Europe, descended into semi-authoritarian rule in the 1930s). Opinion polls of today’s type didn’t exist, but it is a fair bet that voters then thought as little of their squabbling, incompetent politicians as their current counterparts do. Until recently, a big difference would be the magnet that Euroatlantic integration has provided to all post-communist countries. But divisions in the EU and NATO, and the huge dents that the crisis has left in the “western model” of political freedom and welfare capitalism, mean that this magnet’s pull is now weakening. In Latvia and Lithuania, political protest has spilled over into sporadic violence.

So the big question is about Russia. For all its faults, the ex-KGB regime in the Kremlin now is hardly comparable to the ruthless Bolshevik ideologues of the 1920s. Yet the lingering worry remains. Prosperity made independence seem successful and permanent after 1991. What will economic hardship bring?

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