I HAVE MET Marina Kaljurand, I have met Hillary Clinton, I have crossed paths with Siim Kallas outside the foreign ministry on Iceland Square (and had someone whisper in my ear, ‘Do you know who that is?’) and remember very well as a boy going to visit Trump Tower in Manhattan, so that we could take in this cathedral of 1980s greed and excess. For me, this presidential election is — unlike any before it, either in America or Estonia — very, very personal.
The people running for president are not so much candidates as they are like family members. Your kooky uncle. Your obstinate cousin. You look down the table at a holiday — maybe Fourth of July for Americans, maybe Jaanipäev for Estonians — and realize that, ‘Oh, no, we really must choose one of them to represent the entire country again.’ And not just for a day, but for a decade.
One might be excused for suffering from indigestion.
Then comes the measuring, the sizing up, the countryside whispering. America still harbors its Cold War mentality. There is blue and there is red. There is good and there is evil. There is Clinton and there is Trump. Are you for him or against her? If you are for him, you are against me. Trump is working for Putin. Hillary only serves the interests of her shady “Clinton Foundation.” In my hometown on weekends, demonstrators gather at a certain intersection with signs. On the left side, you have what might be considered Republicans. They have Trump signs. On the right, you will find Democrats. They support Clinton. They yell at each other and people honk their horns in support of either side, raising their fists in solidarity from car windows. This is American politics.
In Estonia, the dialogue is more nuanced. Here there are more choices. How confusing could it be for me, as an American, to look at a stage at the Arvamus Festival in Paide, for instance, and see four people engaged in a meandering discussion about where to take the country? To know that beyond those four, there might even be four others who could become the next president? People aren’t sure why their head of state is so important — How many times has someone told me that this figurehead has no power? — and yet they know that he represents Estonia, the chosen land.
It starts, as expected, in the sauna. “What do you think about so-and-so?” someone will whisper to you in Estonia. Then comes the inevitable discussion about what happened to that money. “But I think the Estonians respect that in a way,” I will say. “They like the idea of being clever with money. It’s the chewing gum in public thing they can’t stand.” Then I remind them of my handshake with Kaljurand at an Arvo Pärt concert in New York in a room full of monks. By shaking my hand and smiling, she won my support. “Yes, but did you see what so-and-so wrote on his blog about her?”
The sauna whispers continue. Siim Kallas, Erki Nestor, Allar Jõks, Mailis Reps, Mart Helme, Marina Kaljurand, and Jaak Jõerüüt — who should probably be elected on the strength of his surname alone. It’s like some complicated card game. I can’t follow all of the moves. This is what it comes down to — for at least the Estonians. Some facts, some gut instinct, a few public gaffes. Slowly the Estonian mind accommodates some popular choices, which might be, in comparison to America — where people fantasize about moving to Canada or seceding from the union should their candidate lose — a slight bit healthier.
In the end though, I am reminded — tragically — of Seto Kuningriigide Päevad, the Days of the Seto Kingdom in southeast Estonia, where the Seto leader, the Ülemsootska, is selected for the coming year. People gather and whisper. “Maybe I should vote for him, he is a good traditional dancer.” “But she knows all of our folk songs!” “He came over to my house once and helped me with some rotten logs. He’s definitely the candidate for me.”
The people line up behind their chosen leaders. Whoever has the most people standing behind him gets to lead the masses. This is how village politics works everywhere.