After five years as the Moscow correspondent of Estonian Public Broadcasting, Krister Paris returned to Estonia just in time for the midsummer holiday. Ott Tammik, an editor at ERR News, caught up with Paris to talk about his firsthand experiences and recent changes in Estonian-Russian relations.
What has changed in the five years that you've been in Moscow?
There was a clear development in the mentality of people, I would say a positive development.
When I arrived, Putin and his supporters were firmly in power. A few years ago, if some were to yell "retire Putin" at a protest, it would have come as a complete shock. And now it is totally normal to criticize the government.
The change in mentality is not only political, but the population in general has become more Western and European, especially Moscow. People dress better and they are more aware. The middle class has become wealthier and is traveling abroad more often. It seems that people are more often looking for a trash can to throw their garbage in and there is a certain caring that I didn't see before. There are all kinds of citizen initiatives. There is a massive inertia, it is a massive country and a massive capital city.
You've said that the political environment has reminded you of your childhood memories of the Singing Revolution?
Absolutely. The explosion and the feeling of freedom when people took to the streets and understood suddenly that there were many of them. And the authorities retreated at first.
In the beginning political activeness was almost non-existent. Street protests were made up of a few hundred people, which is ridiculous for Moscow. Then came the breakthrough; something clicked when the authorities said that Putin was here to stay regardless of the nation's will.
When I went to Bolotnaya Square at one of the first major demonstrations in December 2011 there were suddenly, to everyone's surprise, no longer hundreds or thousands of people, but tens and later hundreds of thousands of people. Suddenly everything seemed possible. Something seemed to be changing and the powers seemed to be panicking and there was a vibrant discussion on the internet. The magic was in the fact that it consolidated everyone. At some point gays and skinheads were standing together on the square; it galvanized all layers of society.
Why did it dissipate?
It turned out that there wasn't the critical mass - 100,000 people is just 1 percent of Moscow. Since it was a spontaneous movement, the demonstrators lacked any kind of common goal other than to force Putin out.
They didn't know what to do next and they didn't find a leader.
And on one hand it was all limited to Moscow, which, as the capital, has shown the rest of Russia the way, but everyone else continued to watch their televisions.
Most of the leaders have now been hit with criminal cases and are going to court, although no one has really been arrested yet. Then came the Bolotnaya case, where the government sent a clear message that not only leaders but everyone who supports them can be put behind bars.
Now we see that the authorities have put the squeeze on the opposition, and after a while it became pointless to do stories about subsequent arrests and restrictive new laws.
When can we expect new changes?
I have talked to analysts who have said that they think the powers will do everything possible to ensure that the Olympic Games go peacefully. Let's say that in 18 months or two years, when the games have smoothly passed, they will have to start making tough decisions.
So Putin won't stay forever?
It may seem for now that there is no sign of a successor for Putin. They tried it with Medvedev and the Kremlin saw it as a failure.
Putin's problem is that he is part of what's know as the Collective Putin. He doesn't have any other choice but to remain until he is told to. He is serving a life sentence because the people who are pumping oil and pocketing the proceeds won't let him go. He is the face of the regime and the only one that has not been discredited and who cannot be criticized in the state media. The only thing the Kremlin cares about is holding onto power at all costs. At first they will not go over dead bodies, because that could be damaging. If blood were to seriously flow somewhere, the result would be unpredictable. They have been very smart so far, putting on some pressure but nothing like the brutality seen in Belarus.
Life has shown that these kinds of revolutions usually occur unexpectedly and from some kind of ostensibly unimportant event, such as when the man who lit himself on fire triggered the Arab Spring. In Russia's case, there is an interesting phenomenon in which the improvement of the nation's quality of life could spell the end for the Putinist regime.
Is Estonia a gathering place for Russia's political opposition?
It is my understanding that it is to some extent. They also go to Lithuania, but there is purportedly a much greater presence of Russian intelligence workers there. I can't really say how often they come here, but from time to time there have been media reports that they are meeting here again.
I heard that one of the members of Voina (a street art group) lives in Tartu. They were responsible for drawing a giant phallus on the Liteyny drawbridge facing the headquarters of the FSB in St. Petersburg. I heard it was quite impressive when they raised it in the evening.
But in all seriousness, Estonia is a role model for the opposition, and for the more awakened people in general. It is the West, it is liberal, it is everything that Russia is not. Estonia has in their eye taken a cardinally different direction. There is no other former USSR country that is as successful today. The Baltics are all more or less the same, but it could be argued that Estonia is the most successful thanks to its lower level of corruption.
And does the average citizen believe that?
Yes. There are two types of people. One is of the older generation, for whom Estonia is a nostalgic place. Many have come here for honeymoons and they remember Soviet Estonia as a charming place and they have a soft spot for it. And then there is the younger generation, who come to Estonia because their wallet might now permit them to travel farther or because people here speak Russian but have a completely different mentality. Estonia has a good reputation and all the efforts to change that - whether regarding the Bronze Soldier or whatever - have faded into the background.
So the Bronze Soldier affair is in the past?
Absolutely. Sometimes the Kremlin decides that for some internal political reason it needs to beat on someone else and draw attention elsewhere. But Estonia is in no way an everyday topic of conversation. Size-wise it is like one district of Moscow, if that.
The keener people understand that that which is shown on television about other countries has just as much truth as the domestic affairs being covered. But beliefs outside of Moscow can be completely different. Of course, the propaganda is very skillful. There is never a blatant lie. Every fact they assert can be signed off on, but it's more about how they are presented.
You covered the recent thaw in Estonian-Russian border treaty negotiations. How did that come about?
Russia tried hard to pretend it was not their initiative, which it was. Lavrov tried out the idea in an annual speech at a university where he has been know to test the waters. I asked Lavrov at a press conference why they had suddenly changed their minds. We have the same government as before and now suddenly they show an interest in improving relations with us. Of course the answer was: "No, it was your initiative. We have always said that we are ready to go forward if you are willing to make concessions."
But clearly there have been some signs for a while. The Bronze Soldier affair practically ended all transit through Estonia and it was clearly political. When I first went to TransRussia, a major annual conference, the transit businessmen said things were very bad. Later things were developing quietly and trains were rolling again, but insiders didn't want to talk about it at all because they feared that if someone who does not want good relations heard about it, they might pick up the phone and shut it down again. And this year, suddenly, there was a big Estonian exhibition, and Anne Veski [an Estonian singer popular in Russia] even showed up.
Why the change of heart?
Analysts say Russia wants to get its past problems out of the way. They just want to repair international relations. They have unsigned border treaties only with Estonia and Japan. It is a practical step and they have come to understand that there is no point in continuing endless historical debates. Also, they need it if they want to move forward with the proposed EU-Russia visa freedom plans.
Do they really need the border treaty for a visa-free policy?
No, practically speaking they don't, but it is still better if there are no directly hostile countries at the negotiating table. They no longer see a reason to pick pointless fights with all their neighbors, especially in Europe. Poland is the best example. There have not been any tangible breakthroughs, but they have made gestures to ease tensions.
And how has the Estonian side responded?
Look at the change in rhetoric of the shapers of our foreign policy. If you compared the language of Ansip or Mihkelson a few years ago and today, it would seem that they aren't the same people.
Critics of the border treaty developments say that Estonia is giving everything away.
Well look at what prompted the thaw in relations. Estonia gave up everything and Russia didn't take a single step back. It is without doubt the result of pressure from businessmen. I wouldn't say that we have completely sold out. But let's say that Russia has come to understand that soft power works better than direct conflict when seeking to keep someone in their sphere of influence, or to expand it.
In what other areas could Estonia and Russia see eye to eye?
The next step is to join the Commonwealth of Independent States [laughs]. Our values are clearly conflicting [...] Certainly businessmen would know to propose concrete agreements for business to flow more smoothly. Another important reform of great symbolic value would be to implement a humane - that is to say, onboard - passport control system on the Tallinn-Moscow train routes so that trains don't have to wait on the border for two hours. There are also all kinds of visa simplification issues that I believe would be in both countries' interests.
Does Russia still pose a military threat to Estonia?
We have no reason to fear Russian tanks. From time to time, when this issue again arises in Estonia, and I have asked Russian analysts for input, they look at me with a face that seems to say they feel slightly sorry for me - "what are you talking about?" they ask. The threat to Russia is from the south and in the longer term from China. they have good relations with the West, even with Estonia. The West is more likely a partner. If they want to have some form of influence over us, it is easier to buy us out - let's be direct, through politicians.
What shocked you most in Russia?
I went there with a really open mind, so I wasn't really expecting anything. Freedoms have been taken away step by step, not with a single bang. The government has taken advantage of the people and their uncertainty, as was the case in the Chechen war. The government used fear tactics just as our politicians do.
And the level of corruption was appalling of course. I saw how it suffocated the people. It's no wonder that the share of young people going into entrepreneurship is something like 2 percent. You can never be sure that your business won't be taken away from you, or officials might demand such a high bribe that you are forced to shut down. Or perhaps you get into a car accident with an important official. It's not about one specific event, but the general feeling of what it means to live in a closed and unfree society which has continued to deteriorate into deeper authoritarianism.
I think one of the best symbols from Russia was how during Putin's inauguration his motorcade drove through completely empty streets, and in the background somewhere you may have seen the the military vehicles that kept crowds away. And compare that with the number of people who welcomed Obama.