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Slowpoke Estonians acknowledged Baltic pacemakers

  • 2010-12-23
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

If you are in Lithuania and have never heard an anecdote about a slowpoke Estonian, there must be something wrong. Even Tiit Naber, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to the Republic of Lithuania, has learnt a few jokes about his compatriots, like: the-fast-driver-is-not-Estonian-but-Finnish, and he cracks jokes – you guessed right – in the Estonian way, primly and drily. Seriously, the two Baltic countries have been poking each other for leadership in the Baltics for as long as modern history remembers. However, with Estonia being a regionally acknowledged few-steps-ahead pacemaker, awarded with euro introduction from next year, the self-esteem-less Lithuanians must temporarily concede and do what they know best – poke fun at Estonians with even more vitriolic anecdotes. The Baltic Times sat down to speak with Tiit Naber, and not only about the finer points of cracking jokes.

What was your road to Lithuania?
Before assuming ambassadorship in Lithuania, I was working in Brussels in the capacity of deputy chairman of the Committee of Permanent Representatives at the European Union (COREPER). I have been a diplomat since 1992, though by profession I am a mechanical engineer. Shuffling through different diplomatic assignments, in 1999, President Lennart Meri named me Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, and in 2000 I was named ambassador to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova. Following that, from 2002-2003, I was an adviser in the Foreign Ministry’s external economic policy department. I was chairman of the Council of Baltic Sea States’ committee of senior officials from 2003-2004, and beginning in 2004, I started to work as the deputy permanent representative of Estonia in the European Union.

Can you talk about Christmas celebration differences in Estonia, a Lutheran and Orthodox country, and Lithuania, a Catholic country?   
First, like elsewhere in a Christian country, Christmas is a big family event in Estonia. No doubt, it is a major celebration of the year in our country. When it comes to the differences in food, it seems to me that the Estonian Christmas table is more modest than the Lithuanian table is. We do not have twelve special dishes on our tables for Christmas Eve, as Lithuanians do. Our Christmas table traditions are similar to those in Germany; we also serve sauerkraut and blood sausages for the festive Christmas dinner.

You have spent over two years in Lithuania. Do you think Lithuanians generally know a lot about Estonians?
Well, I believe they do, as we are so close to each other. Particularly in summer, there is a big tourist flow from one country to the other. According to our statistics, Lithuanians most often travel to Parnu, Tallinn or Estonia’s islands. However, there is always more to do in attracting larger flows to each country. Our popularity in the region, including Lithuania, we attribute to the effectively working Estonian Tourism Board that overlooks tourism policies. I saw their advertisements even on Lithuanian TV and local buses. Probably you know that Tallinn will become European Capital of Culture next year; we expect that the yearlong venue will help us to popularize even more our country in the world.

According to Lithuanian Statistics, last year, a bit more than 33,000 Lithuanian tourists stayed in Estonia for more than one day. Is that a considerable number?
No, it is not. However, one should take into consideration the fact that  a big number of Lithuanians that stay overnight in Estonia is unaccounted for. It is easy to travel from one country to the other, either by car or by Estonian airplanes. I am glad that Estonian Air has recently increased its flights from Vilnius to other European countries. I do see even more room for our communication and transport sector activities in Lithuania.

Back in the 1990s, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence, we were seen as one political and economic unit by Western countries. However, having started from the same point, all the three countries have chosen slightly different paths for their development. Do you share my notion that we would be politically and economically even stronger and more known if we represented ourselves as one cohesive regional unit?
I would like to disagree on the point that we are not considered as one region. All Western countries, even now, twenty years after the proclamations of our sovereignty, see us as one Baltic region. Even tourism-wise, tourists that come to the region often tend to visit all three countries instead of seeing just one. Politically, we are also very close, as we have excellent cooperation. From an economic point of view, it is quite natural that each country has its own market, export and development vision led by competition.

What is the biggest misconception about Estonia that you have heard while working in Lithuania?
To be honest, over these two and a bit more years that I have spent now in Lithuania, I have heard only good words about Estonia.

During the Soviet times, Lithuanians used to crack jokes about Chukchi, people inhabiting the Chukchi Peninsula and the shores of the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea region of the Arctic Ocean, portraying them as a goofy nation. Nowadays, many Lithuanians poke fun at Estonians for their demure temper. Does it hurt you? Have you ever heard an anecdote about Estonians while residing in Lithuania?
Does it hurt me? No, not at all. It is always very nice to hear jokes about nice neighbors (grins). I have heard several funny stories about Estonians, but I liked that one about an Estonian on the highway the most…

Can you tell it?
Ok. On a highway, one Estonian car passes by a Lithuanian car. The Lithuanian driver tells his mate: “I bet he is not Estonian. The driver must be a Finn. Estonians do not drive so fast.” I guess I should not have told the anecdote – now people will assume I always exceed the speed limit while on the road (grins).

Did you ever wonder why Lithuanians like to mock Estonians? Is there any cultural cause?
No, I would not go that far as to speak about any cultural causes. All people like to sneer at their neighbors. Lithuanians are not an exclusion.

Do Estonians have any anecdotes about Lithuanians?
No, I have never heard a funny story about Lithuanians in Estonia. I never thought why it is so.

Obviously, for us Lithuanians, poking fun is a good way to vent our frustration, when it comes to dealing with our certain setbacks against Estonia, for example, its quicker introduction of the euro…
Well, to be objective, Lithuania had the possibility to introduce the euro even earlier than Estonia, but you did not meet the Maastricht criteria. You blew it up yourselves. When the economic crisis broke out, our advantage against Lithuania was our accumulated financial reserves. It definitely has helped us to get comparably smoothly through the economic hardships and join the eurozone from 2011.

However, do you agree that Estonia has always been seen as the leader of the Baltic region? Is that due more to a more effective Estonian public relations campaign abroad? On the other hand, is the image substantiated by real economic data?
Our economic focus has been exclusively on our financial stabilization for the last five or six years. It is hard for me to draw any more definite conclusions in regards to the public perception as it is. Generally speaking, Estonia has also been affected by all the adverse factors as have other countries in the region. Obviously, our strict financial course has paid off. Maybe for us, it was easier to implement, as Estonia is a small country. In addition, I think that, generally, we had bigger support from our citizens when it came to the policy.

A recent European survey finds Lithuanians to be one of the unhappiest nations in the entire European Union. Have you met many unhappy Lithuanians here?
(Pause) No, I have not met unhappy people in Lithuania (laughs). However, sometimes, like elsewhere in the world, I see too serious faces around that, I suspect, reflect some trouble. It is normal that somebody is happy and somebody is not.

If you ask an average Lithuanian ‘Joe’ about our government, he will complain about it all night long. I heard that Estonians do not like to complain, even about their government. Is that so?
In Estonia, sometimes we joke that our best national food is another Estonian (grins)…

Well, in Lithuania, we have a saying of similar implication: with no goods news around, the best good news is a neighbor’s house on fire.
Seriously speaking, in general, Estonians are more understanding when it comes to their government’s policies.

Do you share the notion that Lutheranism defines countries, including Estonia, in a bit different way than Catholicism? I mean that Catholicism is often perceived as a religious doctrine teaching unconditional obedience and pending spiritual reward in another dimension, while Lutheranism embodies more powers in the person himself, yet on this sinful earth.
It is an interesting point of view. I cannot draw any motivated reasoning in regards to the notion. However, when it comes to Estonia, I believe that our culture and our way of life have been influenced most by Germany.

Sometimes the Estonian government is called an e-government. Is the name substantiated? How does the e-government function in reality?
I would speak not of an e-government in Estonia, but rather about our e-society. The electronization level is indeed very high in Estonia. Most Estonians using their ID cards can even access their medical files in medical services, public service records and property data. It has become usual to check in for a doctor’s visit through the Internet in our country. Estonian doctors do not file medical records in the paper case-records any more. They simply write in what they have to write in their patients’ electronic case-records. Certainly, once you go to a pharmacy, you do not have to hand the pharmacist a paper prescription – it is already in the computerized system. For example, last year, nearly 90 percent of Estonia’s population filled out their tax declaration via the Internet. The Internet distribution in Estonia is one of the highest in the world.  People do take advantage of the modern technologies and the possibilities.

That is awesome. Lithuanians can only envy some of these things. While Lithuania is struggling with its image search, Estonia has managed to create a very attractive image in the world. How did you succeed in doing that?
Well, all those people that use e-services see how easy and effective it is. Not only public, but also private money has been invested in the computerization. Certainly, Skype has contributed immensely to the Estonian image.

Lithuanian Statistics show that over one million Lithuanians have left Lithuania for other, more developed countries. Is emigration a serious issue in Estonia?
I have to admit that, even during the downturn, Estonia remains an attractive place to work, as our country has not been so severely affected by the crisis as Lithuania. Frankly, the emigration level is very small in Estonia compared to Lithuania. Why is this so? I reckon that the construction business has been hit particularly hard in Lithuania, causing big numbers of lay-offs. While the sector has been affected in Estonia as well, it has coped with the shake-up better, as it switched to the crisis’ least affected construction markets in the Nordic countries – Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Thus, Estonian builders keep going back and forth, especially when the communication in the region is very good.

Thank you for the interview. Happy Holidays!