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July 5, 2004 -> The Baltic Tiger

Most of the guests were wearing something red, white and blue.  Dinner was hot dogs and chicken wings, salads and nachos.  It felt like the 4th of July, minus the parade, fireworks, and … Americans.  Yankees were definitely in the minority.  The party was being hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce Estonia.  While in Sweden, we had sent a speculative e-mail to the US Embassy in Estonia, and they had been kind enough to forward our query to the ACCE.  So here we were, celebrating Independence Day in a country where independence was still a fresh memory. 

The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) are tiny countries with big histories.  At various points in time Swedes, Danes, Poles, Russians and Germans have laid claim to some or all of the Baltics.  At the nexus of Baltic Sea trade between Russia and Western Europe, and blessed with natural ports and navigable waterways, the Baltic region assumed an importance disproportionate to its size.  In the 14th century, several cities along the Baltic coast were in the Hanseatic League, a loose confederation of city-states designed to promote and control regional trade.  After several abortive attempts by Russia to conquer the Baltic region, Peter the Great finally finished the job in the early 18th century.

The territory of the Russian Tsars for almost two hundred years, the Baltic States had endured a tumultuous 20th century that included a brief interregnum of autonomy (1918-1940), two periods of Russian/Soviet occupation (1940-1941, 1945-1991), four years of German occupation (1941-1945), and two World Wars that crushed their economies and left hundreds of thousands dead.  In 1991, as the USSR began to implode, the Baltics declared independence from Russia for the second time.  Though Soviet hardliners wanted Gorbachev to send in tanks and troops to quell the independence movement, pressure from Western governments (and perhaps his own misgivings) convinced him to relent.  After nearly fifty years of ruinous Soviet occupation, the Baltics again had their freedom.

Our first impressions of Estonia were not positive.  Finding a hotel had been a nightmare; participants and spectators for the annual Song Festival had filled all the rooms.  (Singing has long been an important part of Estonian culture.)  When we arrived at the port of Paldiski (about 50 km from Tallinn), we discovered that there was no public transportation to the capital.  The port terminal was surrounded by slag heaps and crushed cars.  It was pouring.  Everything was grey, wet, cold and depressing.  In town (we finally found a taxi) it was raining even harder.  So much water was flowing over the cobblestone streets of the Old Town that rapids had formed.  We made a half-hearted attempt to see the sights but only ended up getting soaked.  Thankfully, the rain stopped long enough for us to enjoy the 4th of July celebrations and a few hours in the Old Town.

Tallinns' Old Town is very compact. When a cruise ship is in port, the narrow lanes become clogged with day-trippers.  You could walk most of the streets in a few hours.  Twisting streets and alleys fan out from the flanks of Toompea, the upper town where most of the early Hansa merchants lived.  In the lower town, commercial life continues to revolve around the town square – Raekoja Plats – with its medieval town hall and shops converted into smart restaurants, bars and cafes.  The brightly painted buildings - with ornamental gables crowning often quite simple facades, are reminiscent of the wharves in Bergen, Norway, and Copenhagen, Denmark.  There are also an abnormally large number of ‘striptiis' clubs and lingerie stores, which give a salacious slant to an otherwise family-friendly environment.  Everyone blamed the strip clubs on someone else: the Russians, the Scandinavians, the British bachelor parties (Tallinn is fast replacing Prague as the venue of choice.) 

Many visitors to Estonia are struck by how European Tallinn feels.  After all, Estonia has only just joined the European Union.  Fifteen years ago it was one of the forcefully adopted children of ‘Mother Russia.'  Such progress, so fast!  The truth is more complex.  During the two centuries of tsarist rule, the Baltics remained relatively autonomous.  During the Soviet period, the Baltics (particular Estonia and Latvia) were the most economically sound of the SSR's.  But fifty years of disastrous economic policies had ruined Estonia.  Just after independence, in 1991, the end of price controls brought spiraling inflation.  Rapid monetary reform, combined with austere budgeting, a reorienting of economic activity away from Russia, and vast inflows of foreign investment soon stabilized the country, however.  Now, Estonia was something of a “Baltic Tiger:” a “miracle economy” and new EU member growing faster than most of its European peers, including Latvia and Lithuania.

We met Sara at the 4th of July party.  She was doing a summer internship at the US Embassy in Tallinn before her final year of university.  In the late evening, we walked to Sara's apartment near the Old Town.  We had planned on watching the Euro 2004 soccer final between Greece and Portugal, but ended up watching the far more interesting final episode of “Sex and the City.”  At least we managed to catch the game-winning goal by Greece.  We went out a kitchen window and climbed up onto the roof.  Greek supporters were already singing in the streets.  It was a cold night, but we stayed up there as long as we could, admiring the lights of the new town and the twinkling lights of moored ships in the Baltic Sea.