The city of Tallinn's war on public drinking continues to generate fodder for a colorful sideshow, with some of the brand-new signs denoting outdoor drinking areas going missing and a city official alleging a national government plot.
It started with an admittedly out-of-left-field Parliamentary decision to allow public consumption of alcohol in most places nationwide from July 1. The move caught even seasoned political observers by surprise. After all, Estonia has done nothing but tighten drinking laws since the 1990s. Excise has increased, alcohol sale hours and locations have been cut back, alcohol content in domestic beverages has decreased as the standard of living rises.
Even the 2007 Tallinn riots, as politically charged as they were, could be seen as having an alcohol-related substructure. The Bronze Soldier, the controversial statue that was relocated, was at face value a place where some ethnic Russians gathered to drink vodka and remember the old days. Whatever the dubious ideals of the Great Patriotic War that participants believed they were celebrating, it the frontline sto gramm of vodka that helped foster an era where on-the-job alcohol abuse was endemic, and the discontent over the statue spilled over in looting of, what else, liquor stores.
Now came Parliament's un-Nordic decision to allow drinking everywhere - even vodka from the bottle in the city center. Only a few places, like schools and hospital grounds, were off-limits. The rationale and timing are still not entirely clear but appear to have stemmed from a spirit more Amsterdam than socialist - the pragmatic observation that police weren't enforcing the law anyway (unless there was a disturbance) and the libertarian view that society was finally mature enough to handle a few open containers.
For the city of Tallinn, long at loggerheads with the national government and ruled by an opposition party, it was a golden moment to corner the market on being "Nordic," socially progressive, and public-health-minded.
For years, Tallinn's administration has been described by its opponents with somewhat opposite adjectives; it's been accused of being a corrupt political machine. It tends to be associated with a fondness for subsidizing low-value services to save the proletarian masses a few cents here and there, and Tallinn's ruling party even has ties to cross-border Russian circles. Yet here was a deputy mayor (Kalle Klandorf) alleging that MPs wanted Tallinn to look like "downtown Pskov," one of Russia's most demographically challenged and peripheral areas, where adults, according to Klandorf, gather on playgrounds in the morning to drink.
And so the city's response was to promptly, with the speed characteristic of a majority-ruled council, ban public alcohol consumption everywhere in town as of August 27 except for two areas - around Parliament and the presidential residence. There, on September 8, it installed signs depicting bottle and wineglass icons. Few neglected to notice the colors pretty much Pantone-matched the blue and yellow of the Reform Party, the national coalition party.
Unfortunately for the city, its witty real-life political cartoon was not the last word. The signs were too popular for their own good, apparently, and last week, the ones around the presidential palace vanished. City officials were livid.
With the signage still failing to turn up this week, a city official said they were looking beyond dorm-room suspects and alluded to a possible national government plot. "On one hand the signs were popular but on the other, this could be a government provocation," said Kesklinn (city center) mayor Alar Nääme to Pealinn, the city's newspaper.
In the eyes of Tallinn and Center Party officials, national agencies appear to be extremely busy. It was just two weeks ago that Mayor Edgar Savisaar, also in Pealinn, accused the special services of being the unnamed paparazzo who took pictures of the First Lady with an apparent paramour.