“My moral values haven’t changed,” the Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas insisted. In just one week, Kallas’s untouchable grip on the country’s top job and her credibility collapsed.
What happened? Media revealed that her husband belonged to a group of business associates who continued to operate in Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine. After first claiming their trucking company only helped ‘one Estonian customer close down their Russian business’ and were doing ‘a morally good thing’, new details started to emerge.
This customer was an aerosol canister factory that belonged to one of the associates. Instead of returning factory equipment from Russia to Estonia, the trucking firm continued carrying raw material to Russia, making at least 1.5 million euros in revenue on the deals.
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If Kallas had not built herself up as a moral beacon regarding the Ukrainian war in Estonia and on the world stage, one might say this is business as usual. A few months ago Kallas urged local businesspeople to ‘find their moral compass’ and restrict ties with Russia. This wasn’t a one-off statement, but has characterised her policy since 24 February 2022. She has been one of the most staunch advocates for sanctions against Russia.
She wasn’t involved in the business herself and, strictly following the law, it wasn’t illegal. Still, many believe her actions and statements constitute moral corruption.
Firstly, she tried to downplay the issue. Secondly, she insisted the scandal was revenge by middle-aged white men. Thirdly, she complained she was being bullied by reporters. Finally, she announced that her husband’s continued business links to Russia are a non-issue in the West, but are in Estonia, because the people have high demands of their leader’s ‘moral values’.
As we went to press, she was still in power, though 70% of the public want her to resign.
It’s evening rush hour and time to pick up the kids from the kindergarten. So I climb into my cargo bike, which I bought last autumn with my wife.
Tallinn has never been a bike-friendly city, but the concept of three-wheeled cargo bikes is completely new. There were probably no more than a dozen of these bikes in the Estonian capital, when we joined the peloton.
Our way home takes us through streets where bike and car lanes are not physically separate. Every day I feel how car drivers do not notice us on the road.
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Situations vary from trucks and delivery vehicles stopping on the bike lane to drop off goods at nearby shops and cafés to cars queuing in a traffic jam, and leaning to the right side of the road, where they steal space from bikers. While small bikes and electric scooters can ease past, a larger bike like ours must sit and wait.
Often, drivers don’t look into the wing mirror to see if a bike is coming. This is where it gets dangerous for us.
On the narrow bike lane, I have developed my own kind of passive-aggressive reaction to help drivers learn and get used to paying attention to us. Sometimes I knock on their window when driving past. Then I give a long, cold glance straight into the eyes of the driver. I even ask the kids to wave to the driver.
It is not the drivers’ fault that they are not accustomed to sharing the road with vehicles such as ours. The real problem lies in the municipality, which hasn’t developed adequate biking lanes.
But I take it as my small task to nudge for change. Day by day. Step by step. Eventually the drivers will accept us as a natural part of the traffic.
“The parents of the 12-year-old boys’ basketball team are worried because the recently ordered new uniforms have not arrived yet,” wrote an Estonian satire news site Lugejakiri. The article came with a photo of the supposed new uniforms — the notorious white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
Of course the parents actually hadn’t ordered such clothing. The fictitious story was a reaction to an embarrassing event where a Finnish youth basketball team pulled out from a tournament because their Estonian opponents had used racial slurs against their black and Asian players.
The incident received wide media attention in both countries and sparked a much deeper debate. How to teach tolerance to such young kids? In a country where many of the older generation freely use the N-word and where, until a few years ago, the dictionary expressly said this word was not derogatory, it is not so easy to adopt a tolerant approach.
30 out of the 101 seats in the Estonian parliament will be occupied by female candidates after last week’s general election. This matches the average political representation of women in the EU.
Even though the sitting Prime Minister Kaja Kallas earned a record-breaking 31,800 votes, just 13 out of the 37 seats won by her Reform party will be taken by women.
Still, 30 female deputies is the highest number of women ever to be elected to the parliament in Tallinn. Progress to gender equality follows a slow and winding road, even though, this time, there appeared to be more public calls to the electorate to cast their votes in favour of a female candidate.
Three things are needed to make an Estonian, according to the old saying. You need to build a house, plant a tree and finish the Tartu cross-country ski marathon.
Most probably, I will never build a house. I have planted a few trees. But for sure I can tick off the marathon box, having multiple times finished the classic 63-kilometre cross-country race, named after the southern Estonian city close to where it takes place.
The excitement starts building every year in late autumn when the days here are sombre, dark and wet. That’s when checking the 10-day weather forecast becomes a bit of an addiction. Is the temperature going to fall below zero? Is there any hint there will be some snow? A few degrees this way or that can make the difference between the ugliest and most depressing time of year and its opposite — a snowy, beautiful winter.
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The weather is becoming more unstable. Cold and snowy temperatures change abruptly to a warm and rainy climate, destroying the ski track in a matter of days. This means it becomes more difficult to enjoy winter sports. I take every snowy winter, and every snowy weekend as the last there might be. A few weekends ago, I forced myself to do a 19-kilometre lap, even though I was suffering from a nasty cold. This was because the forecast correctly said that the next weekend there would be no more snow.
I’m a fan of a diminishing sport. The number of people registering themselves at the ski marathon is declining. You can’t be sure if the winter will actually allow you to prepare for the tough effort or if the marathon will even take place.
Cross-country skiing has been part of Estonia’s national identity for decades. It is something that has allowed us to feel “nordic”, which is something the nation also yearns for in terms of quality of life. But soon we’ll need to find a new characteristic to define what makes a “proper Estonian”.
Rising interest rates are expected to push up average mortgage payments in Estonia by up to 45% this year, taking hundreds of euros out of families’ pockets each month.
For Estonians, home ownership is sacred as this comparative map of European home ownerships shows. This attitude has been reinforced by years of sub-zero interest rates and booming real estate prices, which have fuelled fears of missing out on the opportunity to buy property at an affordable price.
With inflation at record highs and utility costs skyrocketing, people remember the 2008 financial crisis, when many lost their homes, are coming back.
It’s in The New York Times, it’s in The Wall Street Journal, it’s in Western European media. And it’s not going away. I’m talking about an outdated but persistent shorthand by which each of the Baltic countries is referred to as a “former Soviet republic” regardless of whether the article is about economics, digital leaps, tourism or Russia’s ongoing war of aggression.
Hence why this tweet by the Estonian politician Eerik-Niiles Kross – a sarcastic tutorial on how to describe other countries around the world – went viral earlier this month.
Here in Estonia we try to take it in good humour, but it actually demonstrates the shallowness of many large media and their editors. To be clear: the “former Soviet republics” never agreed to be part of the Soviet Union. They were violently forced into it. What we are or do now has little or nothing to do with our Soviet legacy.