A Remarkable Diplomatic Row Between Estonia and Holland

In May, Estonia became the 15th country in the European Union to ratify the European Constitution. (Photo: Raigo Pajula / AFP-Getty Images)

Who would have believed that Estonia and the Netherlands, two small-seized E.U.-partners, would become entangled in a serious diplomatic dispute? It all started on June 6, when a personal letter written by Hans Glaubitz, Queen Beatrix' ambassador to Estonia, turned up in the Dutch press. In the letter, the ambassador complained about widespread racism and homophobia in Estonian society — Glaubitz' (male) partner, black Cuban model and dancer Raúl García Lao has repeatedly fallen prey to verbal attacks. "We had to ascertain that living in this lily-white society is extremely uncomfortable for Raul … It is not very pleasant to be called 'nigger' by drunken skinheads regularly and to be gaped at by everyone as if one has just got out of a UFO," the ambassador wrote. According to Glaubitz, this is highly characteristic for Estonian mentality as such: "On paper everything is settled in a proper way, but in practice, on the street, society isn't ready yet for two gentlemen, especially if one of them is black."

Promptly, all kinds of persistent rumors started buzzing in Tallinn — in the editorial offices, in diplomatic circles and in the gay scene. These seem to indicate that Glaubitz hasn't behaved like a "gentleman" at all. Are there other reasons for the forthcoming removal of the unhappy principle occupants of the beautiful Embassy building on Toompea, Tallinn's proud medieval fortress? Had "Buitenlandse Zaken," the Dutch Foreign Office, already taken the decision to transfer Glaubitz, because of his love for a good bottle of wine, and was the notorious letter just a diversionary maneuver? Did party-loving Lao exert pressure on his husband — in Holland gay couples can get married — to apply for a post in some other, more cosmopolitan spot on the planet, since he is completely fed up with tiny Tallinn and its small-scale nightlife?

But rumors are just rumors and Estonia's gossip magazines Kroonika and Just should deal with them. It would be a wiser option to employ some common sense. So let's confine ourselves to a more down-to-earth and differentiated approach of Glaubitz' initiative and have a closer look at the contents and tenor of his controversial letter itself. And indeed, there are some questions that explicitly deserve an answer:

1) Shouldn't an ambassador be more careful with distributing such a declaration among friends, especially if one of them is the diplomatic editor of the influential Dutch daily -? What did the Dutch Foreign Office know about Glaubitz' soloist action? It didn't keep him from launching his initiative. Lesson No. 1 from the diplomat's handbook: never be part of the news and if you are, not in a negative way! Meanwhile, Bernard Bot, the Dutch Foreign Minister, told his Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet that he finds the situation "regrettable." Passing the letter on to the media was "not wise," Bot said (although Glaubitz is denying that he leaked it deliberately). One could call this an understatement: Dutch (but also British) newspapers are portraying Estonia as a country where gays and dark-skinned people have to fear for their lives every minute of the day, since they are constantly being chased by dozens of aggressive skinhead gangs.

2) Isn't Glaubitz' conclusion premature? He and his partner have only been in Estonia since late September 2005 — less than a year. Is it possible to conceive a clear, unambiguous opinion about racist and homophobic practices in a country in such a short time and to base this very opinion on a small number of incidents? Although it infringes upon Lao's privacy, the mentioning of specific examples, provided with dates, would have made Glaubitz' letter and the tendency of his complaints far more convincing.

3) Have all racist incidents to which Glaubitz is referring in his declaration been registered at the police? This is necessary by way of providing concrete evidence. The lack of such evidence will create the impression that the ambassador has intentionally exaggerated the whole affair. Registration might also incite the police to pay more attention to the skinhead problem.

However, the pivotal question is, has Glaubitz touched an open nerve and is homophobia and racism that deeply anchored in Estonian society? To put it in other words, does the antipathy to gay and dark-skinned people exceed the level of ad hoc incidents and does it result from a widespread conservative mentality? Nuance should be applied here as well.

For many Estonians, including politicians, homosexuality is still a major taboo. Some of them will undoubtedly even interpret the presence of a gay-ambassador as an "insult." This was the tenor of an article by Kalle Mihkels, a M.P. for the leftwing-populist Keskerakond (Center) Party that was published in the Estonian daily Postimees on June 9 — "When in Rome, behave as the Romans do," he wrote.

Before criticizing Mihkels, one should bear in mind that open homosexuality is a relatively new phenomenon in Estonia. From 1944 to 1991, the Baltic republic was occupied by the Soviet Union, where homosexuality was a criminal offence. As opposed to Holland, Belgium, (West) Germany, France, and the Scandinavian countries, Estonia didn't experience the liberal-anarchist "1968 Rebellion" with its far-reaching consequences. Old Europe, as Donald Rumsfeld once called it, succeeded in shaking off oppressive conservatism and social control, and has gradually headed in the direction of creating societies in which every person can decide for himself how to organize his life. (Countries like Spain and Ireland are still in the middle of this process.) Although the inhabitants of Northern Estonia surreptitiously watched Finnish TV in the days of the Soviet Union and must have been aware of the turbulent developments in Western Europe, Estonia, like the other former Soviet satellites, only started making up the arrears in 1991.

Therefore, the acceptance of homosexuality needs time. Many Muslim immigrants in Holland are still wrestling with the subject. Glaubitz and his partner shouldn't go walking hand in hand in certain neighborhoods in Amsterdam. (Last year, American gay-activist Chris Crain was assaulted by a group of youngsters of Moroccan descent while doing so.) Eventually, this acceptance will have to be materialized. Whether people such as Mihkels like it or not, 10 percent of humankind is gay and equality of heterosexuals and homosexuals is one of the basic premises of the European Union of which Estonia is a member now. But conditions are not entirely unfavorable. Individualism and secularism are main features of Estonian society, which provides better chances of acceptance than Poland or Lithuania's suffocating Roman Catholicism will ever do. A homosexual is better off in Tallinn than he or she is in Warsaw. Only the attitude of the ethnic Russians living in Estonia will remain problematic, because of the influence of the gay-hating Russian Orthodox Church.

Combating racism in Estonia seems to be a much bigger challenge. Holland, France, Britain, and Portugal have lodged numerous immigrants from their former colonies over the last decades (when the Dutch colony of Suriname became independent in November 1975, one-third of its total population moved to Holland, for instance), while Sweden and Italy have welcomed many political refugees from African countries. Estonia only saw a couple of black students from "socialist brother-nations" like Angola and Mozambique during the Soviet-period. Yes, racism exists in Holland as well (a recent poll indicates that 10 percent of the Dutch consider themselves to be racist), especially with regard to Muslims, but the Dutch and other Western Europeans have at least got used to the presence of black people in public life.

Yet, if Estonia's high economic growth (11.6 percent over the first quarter of 2006) lasts and its prosperity reaches the E.U.-average, it will inevitably be confronted with an increasing influx of immigrants from non-Western countries. Bearing in mind the country's low birthrate, this might even be a necessity. But many Estonians will perceive this as a threat, since they already have the feeling that, after nearly 50 years of Soviet repression and imposed Russification, their (small) national culture is under serious pressure. So the future "multiculturalization" of Estonian society might turn out to be a painful process (as it still is in many "old" E.U.-member states). Glaubitz has a point here.

Finally the groups of "drunken skinheads" — although the "real," Lonsdale-adoring skinheads from Western Europe will only laugh about the shabby sporting-suits their Estonian "counterparts" are wearing. They hang around near the monumental Viru Värav (Gate) in Tallinn's historic center and are indeed not good publicity for Estonia's capital. However, for size (approximately 1,000 in the entire country), organization, and activities, they pale into complete insignificance beside the neo-Nazi plague that is currently terrorizing Russia — until so far, President Vladimir V. Putin and his Kremlin nomenklatura haven't displayed any serious willingness to quell this growing violence against non-white immigrants and students — and the Eastern German state of Brandenburg. Most of them are totally apolitical.

The Tallinn skinheads seem to be a symptom of a broader social problem: parents are neglecting their offspring, since they have to work hard and combine several low-wage jobs in order to survive. The children are bored and susceptible to militant-extremist ideas as well as to king alcohol. The Dutch Embassy could do a great job by lending financial and practical support to after-school activities that will keep them off the street and to anti-racism campaigns at schools. This will be of greater use than distributing personal letters. Maybe Lao could visit a couple of Estonian schools to tell the pupils that black people like him are just normal human beings, like everybody else?

In August, the new Dutch ambassador will arrive, undoubtedly a decent heterosexual man with a pearls-wearing lady at his side. Estonia already planned to send a new suursaadik (ambassador) to The Hague. Let's hope that a fresh new start in the mutual relationship will be made and that "Glaubitz Gate" will be relegated to oblivion soon. But attention for the subjects that Glaubitz broached should not be flagging — not in Estonia, not in Europe as a whole.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jeroen Bult.