Liis Kängsepp

Liis is a stringer (reporter) at Dow Jones Newswires.

With Rail Baltic, EU transport plans hope to pick up speed

Rail Baltic to connect the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with a high-speed railroad.

The original report was first written by Frances Robinson and Liis Kängsepp for The Wall Street Journal, and has been republished by kind permission. Additional reporting by Estonian World.

There’s a point on the border between Latvia and Estonia where picturesque little villages are used to the sight of freight trains rumbling by. But last month they got to see something different.

Emblazoned with the European Commission logo and “RB Express”, a passenger train carrying dozens of VIPs, journalists, civil servants and railway experts was trundling along the route to promote the European Union’s grand plans for transport. One of those projects is Rail Baltic, which will connect the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with a high-speed railroad.

Rail-Baltica
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“Nobody in the Baltics takes the train these days – it is just inconvenient and very time-consuming,” Indrek Sirp, the chairman of the Rail Baltic task force, explained. People tend to drive or fly. In the future, however, it should take two hours to get from Tallinn to Riga (at the moment with a bus it takes four) and four hours from Tallinn to the Lithuanian-Polish border (at the moment it’s a 10-hour drive).

Quite what the new trains are going to look like will depend on how the industry will evolve over the next 10 to 12 years. They will certainly be more comfortable and speedier than the long-distance trains currently operating in the Baltics.

“There will of course be very comfortable seats, good catering and excellent facilities for working, and of course wireless internet,” Sirp said, noting there actually was a train connection between Tallinn and Warsaw at one point in the 1990s – but it was uncomfortable and unprofitable, so it didn’t last.

To provide an idea of what to expect, Lithuanian Railways put together a five-car train involving two passenger cars, two dining cars and a conference car. This VIP vehicle had a boardroom, space for a temporary television studio and a sleeping compartment, and only gets four or five outings a year, so it’s pretty special.

Still, there was certain theatricality to the proceedings. For starters, “Express” is a generous description for the train that was frequently overtaken by cars on the highway alongside. At each border, the whole enterprise had to stop while locomotives were switched – with Lithuania starting off with a Siemens locomotive usually used for freight and Latvia changing to an old Soviet-built behemoth. Passengers were greeted by choirs, mayors were showing off their 19th-century Russian railway architecture and presenting local cake.

When the new line is finished, the trains will be going much faster – up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) per hour.

But will people actually take advantage of this opportunity? Sirp said he believed they will. An analysis made in 2011 predicts there will be around 3,000 people traveling back and forth between Tallinn and Pärnu – the first stop on the railroad after Tallinn – every day.

And even though last month’s trial service was only a special charter, according to Martynas Tarvidas from Lithuanian Railways’ passenger-trains unit, “It’s a huge thing, to finally get a single train going from Vilnius to Tallinn. It’s a piece of history.”

Rail Baltic

Rail Baltic is one of the priority transport projects of the European Union. The project is supposed to link Finland, the Baltic States and Poland and also improve the connection between Central and Northern Europe and Germany. It envisages a continuous rail link from Tallinn (Estonia), to Warsaw (Poland), going via Riga (Latvia) and Kaunas (Lithuania). It will by-pass the Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and Hrodno (Belarus) where the two historic rail routes Poland-Lithuania have been going.

The section from Helsinki to Tallinn will be operated by existing commercial ferries. In the future a proposed Helsinki to Tallinn Tunnel could provide a rail link between the two cities.

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Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Need a book? Fly to Estonia

The nation that brought the world Skype and its free internet phone calling service is branching out with a less-ambitious giveaway scheme: an airport library where books are taken but not necessarily returned.

Disclaimer: This article was originally written by Liis Kängsepp for the Wall Street JournalRepublished by the permission from WJS.

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Estonia’s Tallinn Airport hosts more than 2 million passengers per year flying to 45 destinations, including Helsinki, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen. There’s a tobacco shop that sells Cuban cigars, a men’s clothing store featuring the latest in Baltic fashions, duty-free outlets, and plenty of haunts for candy, snacks and other sundries. But no book shop. This is a glaring deficiency for an airport that bills itself as the cosiest in the world.

Airport officials, looking to remedy the problem, put out a request for book donations about six months ago in hopes of stocking a shelf or two with books flyers could borrow for trips abroad. The plea took on a life of its own, gaining traction on Facebook and other social media outlets. The staff was flooded with emails and phone calls from people wanting to send their dusty paperbacks and hardcovers on journeys around the globe.

The public’s largess, which led to a solid surplus of books, has colored the library’s operating philosophy. There is no membership fee, no stickers on the books and no security system or check-out process. There is not even a librarian.

“We are aware that probably not all books are going to find their way back to our library,” Lauri Linnamae, a communications manager for the airport, said. “We kindly ask that if you take a book and want to hold onto it, bring us back another one you don’t need.”

The philosophy likely poses little threat to the mega booksellers and small chains dotting the global airport landscape. But the initiative represents another potential model for finding a use of paper books in an age of tablets and other devices that can house several books on a hard drive or in an online collection.

Among the donors was Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his wife, Evelin. The couple wrote dedications to readers. When all was said and done, 2,000 books piled into the airport’s new library.

“We had elderly people calling in and saying they would like to donate books, but had difficulties moving around,” Linnamae said. “So our people went to their houses, had coffee and cake, and brought back loads of books.”

Scouring the used book scene in search of second-hand reading material can lead to a lot of disappointment. Linnamae said airport officials had this in mind, leading to modest expectations.

“At first, we were a bit worried that we could get pretty much worthless paper, but reality was quite the opposite – we have a big collection of classics.”

The collection is mostly composed of works in the native Estonian, Russian or English. Swedish and Finnish books also make an appearance. Along with books by Ilves, the president, other authors include Magaret Atwood (Canadian author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Edible Woman”); Machado de Assis (Brazilian author of “Ressurreição” and “A Mão e Luva”); and English automobile journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

There are also books by Alexandre Dumas (French author of “The Count of Monte Christo” and “The Three Musketeers”); Victor Hugo (author of “Les Misérables”); and Gustave Flaubert (author of “Madame Bovary”).

Books by Lennart Meri, Estonia’s first president after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, also are available thanks to donations from his son.

The library at the Tallinn Airport is not the first lending operation to appear in a terminal. The library at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport allows people waiting on planes to read Dutch literature, scroll through photo books and videos about Dutch culture, and listen to Dutch music. But the material needs to stay in the library.

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Cover photo: Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport/Wikimedia Commons

Other photos: Liis Kängsepp

Estonia to host EU’s IT Agency

Estonia hopes to firm its image of an information technology leader after the European Union’s agency that manages large-scale IT systems in home affairs opens in Tallinn this weekend.

This article was first published by Wall Street Journal.

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One of the tasks of this new agency will be supporting the implementation of the EU’s asylum, migration and border management policies. It will have to ensure that systems such as Visa Information System and Eurodac operate 24 hours a day and it will be responsible for issues related to the security of these systems. As of next spring, the agency has to start managing the second generation Schengen Information System, which serves the EU’s passport-free area that now comprises 26 nations.

The temporary office of this new agency in Tallinn for the moment looks dark and deserted. Empty desks are waiting for employees while the hiring process is taking place.

One of the very few desks that are in use is the desk of Krum Garkov, the agency’s executive director with more than 15 years of experience in IT. Although the official launch date for the agency is this Saturday, Mr. Garkov has been in Estonia for about a month trying to get things started and settle in.

“There will be quite a lot of challenges in the next months,” Mr. Garkov said in an interview. “We need to build up our capabilities quickly and meet the expectations regarding the value we have to the member states.”

Estonia’s Minister of the Interior Ken-Marti Vaher said that locating the headquarters of the IT agency in Tallinn is as a sign of respect Estonia enjoys when it comes to IT and cyber security.

“Estonia has high expectations that the agency will become a true center of excellence in the development and management of large-scale IT systems,” Mr. Vaher said. “The agency will offer Estonia greater visibility in the IT field and further enhance its reputation as well-developed IT country.”

The agency’s technical site will be in Strasbourg, France, with a backup site in Austria. The budget for the agency is about 20 million euro ($26 million) this year and 41 million euro in 2013. Estonia will invest about 7 million euro to give the agency a permanent location.

In April 2007, Estonia was the target of several cyber attacks after the government decided to relocate a statue to Soviet soldiers, which for Estonians was a symbol of occupation but for the local Russian population it symbolized the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in World War II. Many local websites, including those of government institutions and local banks, were attacked from abroad. NATO established its Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Tallinn in 2008.

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Photos: VisitEstonia

For U.S. Diplomat, Culture Shock after Estonia Stint

A U.S. ambassador returned home after decades abroad to disappointingly observe that his country was less technologically developed than one of Europe’s smallest states kept for decades behind the Iron Curtain.

Michael C. Polt is back in the U.S. after a 35-year diplomatic career. He most recently served as the U.S. ambassador to Estonia, where documents are signed electronically and wireless Internet is available almost everywhere, for free.

So I did spend two and a half hours at my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in order to get my car license plates – something I should have been able to do by inserting my ID card into a license plate vending machine similar to an ATM in about 2 minutes,” Mr. Polt wrote in his blog. “Of course my gripe is not simply about waiting in line for a government service or even slow or expensive Internet access. It is my concern that what should be America’s leadership as a modern, agile, and innovative society is in a bit of a rut.“

Mr. Polt says that government services in the U.S. are much more old-fashioned than they should be in the 21st century and argues that in Estonia people have a comfortable relationship with their government because they spend very little time dealing with bureaucracy.

“Most services can be obtained sitting in a comfortable easy chair at home with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, while enjoying a favorite beverage,” Mr. Polt wrote. When returning to the U.S., he experienced that Internet access is slower and more expensive.

“In Estonia, broadband wireless access throughout the country—at little or no cost—is a given,” he wrote. “Internet is a utility, as universally available and affordable as water, electricity and indoor plumbing. We still grit our teeth paying a hefty charge for slow Internet access in top hotels in the country that invented the Internet!”

When talking about cyber security, Mr. Polt admits it is a difficult subject in the U.S. because people feel uncomfortable even thinking about a “national ID card” and a government-run database of people, both of which exist in Estonia.

“I readily share our wariness of ‘big brother’. But I have concluded that big brother already exists in multiple databases that all too readily share information to make big brother larger and more unpredictable than any single, user monitored and legally secured personal identity system would,” Mr. Polt wrote. “My friends in Estonia repeatedly demonstrated to me the utility of their ID cards as well as the electronic fingerprints they were able to monitor of those who had accessed their data, including even the police.”

This article was first published by Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/emergingeurope/2012/10/22/for-u-s-diplomat-culture-shock-after-estonia-stint/

Pictures: VisitEstonia and US Embassy in Tallinn

ECB’s Ardo Hansson: Europe Needs Patience Amid Positive Signs

Ardo Hansson, Estonia’s member of the European Central Bank’s governing council, said on Saturday that Europe’s situation appears to be taking a more positive turn in recent months, but he advocated for a patient approach when it comes to implementing restructuring measures and creating new institutions.

“There have been more positive news during recent months,” Mr. Hansson said in an interview following a speech at a conference on Estonia’s recent history. “In most countries, state budget deficits are decreasing, structural reforms are being implemented, [and the] ESM has been established.”

The comments paint a brighter portrait than the remarks which the former World Bank economist made a month ago, when he said that Europe was “muddling through” due to significant pockets of economic decline. On Saturday, he said that trust and stability are begun to be restored.

“When we look at how different government-bond yields have developed, I would say there is less fragmentation than a few months ago.” He said that the ECB has “done a lot” to facilitate stability “and now a clear responsibility lies on governments.”

Mr. Hansson took over as Estonia’s central-bank governor earlier this year and is credited with giving the small Baltic state a more vocal seat on the ECB’s governing council. He is widely considered to be a trusted ally of ECB President Mario Draghi, and has been an advocate for bold action being taken to arrest the crisis and decrease uncertainty.

Still, Mr. Hansson knows the crisis isn’t solved, and he continues to preach a slow and steady approach.

“It is not wise to move too fast when restructuring very political issues or creating new institutions. It takes time,” Mr. Hansson said. “When establishing new institutions, it is better to go slower, rather than cannonball ahead.”

The word of caution comes as European Union leaders discuss a variety of measures aimed at managing the three-year-old eurozone crisis, including the establishment of a new eurozone banking supervisor. Policy makers have taken different views on how quickly a supervisor should be installed.

From the editor: as the new president of the Estonian central bank, Ardo Hansson recently completed his first 100 days in office. According to a local newspaper report,  for a small eurozone country, his influence is already being felt in the corridors of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Before taking the position at the Estonian central bank, Mr. Hansson worked in the World Bank for more than 10 years. His most recent position was in its Beijing office, where he stayed for more than three years, working as the chief of its economic policy unit.

 

This article was first published by Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444868204578068472661919976.html

Pictures from: Picture pictures www.pictures.com

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