Out of Estonia: Baffled Balts still puzzle over Kremlin rulers' curious antics

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TALLINN - Jaan Kross shook his head over the spectacle on television the night before: 'I shut my eyes. It was so uncomfortable. I tried to isolate myself from the picture and the text.'

At the age of 74, Estonia's best-known writer is not a man easily perturbed. Deported to Siberia in 1946, he spent eight years in exile. In 1992, a year into Estonia's newly recovered statehood, he was put in charge of a commission to investigate the dark deeds of the KGB.

What had upset him on television was different: 'This was not conscious behaviour, not a clear political act but a kind of . . .' He paused, sitting in a study lined with books in Estonian, German, Finnish, French and Russian, to search for the mot juste in English. 'A kind of terrible carelessness. Yes, that is it, carelessness.'

Only a few days before, Estonia had lost a Baltic ferry bearing the country's name. More than 900 people died. Mr Kross, like everyone in this tiny country of only 1.6 million, grieved. The event that made Mr Kross so uncomfortable, however, was Boris Yeltsin's notorious no- show in Ireland.

Russia's state-run media had tried to cover it up. But Estonian and Finnish television beamed it into Tallinn living rooms and broadcast each embarrassing detail: the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, and dozens of dignitaries, a band and 100- strong guard of honour, waiting in vain on the Tarmac at Shannon Airport for the Russian President to emerge from his plane. 'It was not,' said Mr Kross, 'the behaviour of a man at his post.'

But such behaviour is all too familiar to a writer who has devoted much of his work to probing the peculiar psychology of Russia's rulers and the people they rule. His most famous book is Tsar's Madman, a historical novel set in the early 19th century Baltics, then, as in the Soviet era, a part of Moscow's empire. The principal character, Baron Timo von Bock, writes a letter to Tsar Alexander. He complains about the Tsar's conduct and promptly gets arrested as a lunatic.

Albert Reynolds should read what Baron Timo had to say: 'As far as His Majesty's ability to command respect is concerned, his latest visit to Riga provides a telling example. The Emperor arrived, heaped opprobrium on the governor for the discomforts of his journey, spent the night in the castle, put an entire division through its paces in the morning, issued an order of the day that made him the laughing-stock of all Europe . . . took tea, exerted himself on the dance floor. . . killed a dozen post horses and wrote to Marquis Paulucci that he had found Livonia in excellent shape.'

For Mr Yeltsin's political foes in Moscow, the stunt at Shannon merely provided ammunition for ritual accusations of drunkenness. 'In order to have a driver's licence you must have a medical certificate, and here he is, trying to run an entire country,' sneered a gleeful Gennady Zyuganov, the head of Russia's Communist Party. 'Are you not worried that whoever carries the nuclear suitcase might stumble and fall down with his forehead against the nuclear button?'

Mr Kross sees a bigger issue. Many Estonians still remember Mr Yeltsin for helping the Baltic republics gain independence in 1991. But how to reconcile this figure with the imperious - and, yet more worrying, increasingly imperial - occupant of the Kremlin today? 'I really don't understand him.'

Only three years have transformed Estonia from a Soviet Socialist Republic into a fully independent state eager to join the European Union. Its currency, the kroon, is stable. Its population has been purged of Soviet surliness and its fields, forests and seas have been freed of Russian troops. When Brussels sent a retired German ambassador, Werner Unger, to take a look, he gushed with praise: 'Wonderful.'

Mr Yeltsin's antics in his flight from Seattle will not undo this. But how long will it be before Russia sheds its old habits? How long before Mr Yeltsin stops being so careless?

'Maybe there are some relics of the old Tsar in him,' Mr Kross said. 'Perhaps this is necessary for him, but I doubt whether this is best for Russia's little neighbours.' If Britain built its empire in a fit of absentmindedness, will a fit of carelessness be enough to rebuild Russia's?