VIEWPOINT: Copy Estonia? Don't believe the Skype!

Over the last few years - in fact ever since Latvia needed a massive bailout during the crisis and Estonia didn't -  a popular belief has arisen that Latvia should be a lot more like Estonia. Identical if possible. Apart from the language and the flag, obviously.

I've had enough of this bad-mouthing the Balts and glad-handing our Finno-Ugric neighbors. I'm here to tell you that in fact Latvia is superior to Estonia in pretty much every respect.

I have done the research.

The last straw came on Friday when Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas was in town to meet with our very own Maris Kucinskis and Lithuania's Algirdas Butkevicius.

A lot is made of Roivas' youth, as if he is some kind of Doogie Howser, PM. But I will not patronize him by dwelling on that. Maybe he takes some kind of hormones, I don't know. But what irked me was the way he stood there looking fresh and smart despite schlepping down from Tallinn earlier in the day and having a couple of hours of talks.

He did not look like he was even trying. In contrast, Kucinskis, with his tie all squiffy and his famously scuffed shoes looked like a real politician who had been up all night drinking beer and eating sandwiches while hammering out some crucial deal between hands of poker.

I didn't notice what Butkevicius looked like other than having a vague impression of a gray presence in the room. 

It got worse an hour later at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga where Roivas was talking about the digital economy. He probably thought no-one could notice but with my razor-sharp journalistic instincts I immediately twigged that he was himself using an iPad to control an interactive presentation full of 'clever' slides and statistics.

It was more like a lecture by an academic than what we should expect from a politician - mumbled generalities while trying to remember bits from all the other speeches you've made during the last two weeks.

At one point Roivas claimed he had filed his tax return in Estonia in under five minutes. This is clearly impossible. It takes me hours to work through tax forms, then there is the endless waiting in a tax office to hand it in before someone tells you to put it in a post box hidden in the corner of the room. A week later you get the letter demanding to know why you haven't filed a tax return.

If I didn't go through that whole process, sweating that I had forgotten something, I would have even less idea of my financial affairs than the tenuous grasp I already have. In five minutes I could do no more than guess and take pot luck. I assume that is what the entire Estonian tax system is based on. It could fall apart at any second.

Roivas so infuriated me I decided to go to Estonia myself over the weekend to see if it was really the land of milk and honey we all assume. Guess what? It's not.

For a start, as soon as I crossed the border, my cellphone could no longer connect to the internet. E-stonia? Ha!

I only got re-connected when I reached the wifi hotspot inside my friend Vello's house. I say 'house' but in fact he lives on a large yacht moored in the Pirita marina constructed for the 1980 Olympic games. Consequently he insists on calling the kitchen the 'galley' and the toilet the 'head'. He kindly provided me with a 'berth' for the night in a hammock slung over a reproduction cannon he fires each morning as he hoists the Estonian flag up the fo'castle.

We decided to catch a bus into the center of Tallinn.

"How much is a ticket?" I asked.

He looked at me as if I was an idiot.

"It's free. All public transport is free for Tallinn residents," Vello said.

"But I am not a Tallinn resident. I am resident in Latvia. How much does a ticket cost?"

"I've never seen anyone checking tickets. Even if they did, the law says they have to give you a chance to buy a ticket before they can issue a penalty."

"How much is a ticket?"

The answer, I discovered, when I boarded the bus was "either €1.60 or €2.00 according to how surprised the bus driver is that someone asked to buy a ticket."

Sure, everyone on the bus looked at me like I was an idiot, but I just sat there brandishing my ticket, letting them know this is how we do things in Latvia.

Our destination was Kadriorg Palace, seat of the Estonian President. I was anxious to get the views of Ieva Ilves, the Latvian first lady of Estonia. Her opinion could surely be trusted amongst all the PR spin about how hunky-dory everything is, Eestimaa-wise. 

A significant slice of Latvia's intellectual elite seems to believe that her husband, Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the greatest Baltic philosopher since Immanuel Kant.

"Ooh, if only WE had such a President," they have whined for years, "If only OUR president would name-drop Hobbes and Locke at every opportunity instead of threatening to slap cameramen or saying he needs a drink."

While I admit that Ilves' work in popularizing the bow tie is indeed praiseworthy, I see very little reason in letting everyone know how many Enlightenment thinkers you can name in 60 seconds or getting involved in Twitter wars with Nobel-prize winning economists.

Besides, Ilves ain't all that. The day after Latvia joined the eurozone he visited Rujiena in order to meet then-President Berzins and buy some ice cream in a clearly contrived PR scoop (geddit?) to demonstrate the importance of the eurozone. He called it "ice cream diplomacy" a quote, I think, from Leviathan.

I watched closely as he visited the chiller cabinet. At the checkout I noticed he had selected Rum & Raisin flavor. He called an impromptu press conference and some Japanese reporter asked him about Ukraine.

"Is Rum and Raisin your favourite?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was an idiot.

I forget what Berzins chose. Possibly a Nut Sundae.

Nevertheless the experience stood me in good stead for my Tallinn trip. Sadly the Kadriorg Palace guards didn't believe the large tub of Rum & Raisin ice cream I brandished was for their President and refused to admit me to his presence. They just looked at me as if I was an idiot.

Back aboard Vello's house, I asked him about the e-residency scheme that has generated so much press coverage for Estonia recently.

"You mean the hipster membership cards?" he said. "Yeah, that's sucking in some dough from the marks."

I bought one. It didn't give me discounted entrance to any of Tallinn's museums and it didn't work when I tried to validate it on a bus, so I forked out another €1.60 or €2.00 for a ticket.

I tried putting the e-residency card into an ATM in case it gave me access to the Estonian central bank's gold reserves. It didn't, it just got swallowed. Useless.

Enough was enough. Vello piped me ashore and I climbed back into my car and drove south. There are too many lines painted on Estonian roads, there are too many reflectors and signposts and too many lights on pedestrian crossings. There are too many speed monitors and too many electric car charging points.

I was relieved to cross back into Latvia where, curiously, the roads immediately became covered with patches of dangerous black ice. The only possible explanation is that Estonia enjoys a considerably warmer climate than Latvia.

Now I read that today, Kucinskis is visiting Roivas in Tallinn. I'm not sure what they can possibly have to talk about that they didn't discuss five days ago. Maybe Roivas left his iPad in Riga.

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