All the world's a stage in Estonia

By bne IntelliNews September 4, 2014

Mike Collier in Tallinn -


It's natural to assume that when extraordinary events happen, the impact of those events must also be extraordinary. Certainly the visit to Tallinn on September 3 of US President Barack Obama was extraordinary, though even 12 hours after it started the patina had worn off, the way one walks out of a cinema charged with emotion after seeing an extraordinary film but then very quickly settle down back into the everyday on the bus ride home.

Airforce One touched down in Tallinn at 06:25 on September 3, according to several press reports datelined 06:24. By the time it took off again less than 12 hours later, Obama had crammed in a remarkable series of engagements: welcoming ceremonies, a bilateral meeting with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a press conference, a meeting with all three Baltic presidents, a meeting with Prime Minister Taivo Roivas, a lecture, a couple of meet-and-greets with service personnel and school kids.

All of it came with the great roadshow that accompanies the presidential circus: the roadblocks, barriers, choppers, sniffer dogs, snipers, metal detectors, motorcades, assorted G-men and other things that ironically restrict the freedom of the locals wherever the leader of the free world sets foot. The Estonian government estimates that the whole affair would cost a mere half a million euros looked optimistic to say the least, a bit like some ancient Roman impresario claiming the entertainment at the Colosseum could be put on for four cisterces and a bag of nuts.

And then there were the journalists, around 400 in all (including 100 from the US), all of whom were trying to negotiate the logistical intricacies of an itinerary slightly more complex and unintelligible than the Enigma codes. Watching Obama arrive – duration 10 minutes – entailed a two and a half hour wait outside the Kadriorg Palace. Watching Obama and the three Baltic presidents give their press statements – duration 15 minutes - required another set of security checks and a further two and a half hour wait in the basement of the palace, where journalists passed the time trying on the medieval costumes of the tour guides and drafting resignation letters. 

When the presidents did appear, they performed their star turns like true pros from central casting. Estonia's Toomas Hendrik Ilves, sporting his trademark bow tie, portrayed the urbane Ivy League academic so convincingly that he might have been mistaken for the American president himself a century ago.

Lithuania's Dalia Grybauskaite was her usual feisty blonde bombshell self, the sassy dame no-one tries to push around, while Latvia's Andris Berzins combined the verbal delivery of Bela Lugosi with the general mien of Grandpa Walton.

Of the three, only Grybauskaite was really notable, making the most of her cameo role to blast Russian aggression in Ukraine as "an attack not only against Ukraine but against the peace and borders of Europe" and declaring that “today Ukraine is fighting not only for its own freedom, it is fighting instead of us," in a manner suggesting she might pull out a Derringer herself at any moment and take care of Putin personally.

Clarion call

Obama meanwhile – playing himself - largely held back. Like all the great actors, he knew how to pace himself and was saving his Hamlet for the early evening matinee performance of his lecture at the Nordea concert hall.

When it did come, his speech was a good one, delivered with the kind of oratorical skill rarely seen in the Baltics. He touched  on a broad range of topics, from the Baltic fight for freedom, to the way sanctions are hurting the Russian economy and – in an important aside – a call for the Baltic states themselves to be more tolerant and inclusive of their minorities (for which read Russians). He topped it off with an all-American clarion call for freedom and democracy: “Freedom will win, not because it is inevitable, not because it is ordained, but because these basic human yearnings — for dignity, for justice, for democracy — will never go away.  For they burn in every human heart — in a place where no regime can ever reach; a light that no army can ever extinguish.” 

His speechwriters deserve much of the credit for giving him good lines, but it was Obama's bravura performance that turned it into great theatre and had the audience demanding a curtain call. But it never came, thanks to the demands of that crazy itinerary. Within an hour, Airforce One's wheels were lifting off from the Tallinn tarmac and attention instantly shifted to the Celtic Manor golf resort in Wales where Nato’s summit will decide the future of the Baltic states and in many ways the wider world at large. Always leave them wanting more.


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