Sunday, 20 August 2006


E-commerce, e-banking, e-government: Estonia has come a long way since it was a Soviet Republic ruled with an iron fist from Moscow.

Today this small Baltic state of 1.4 million people is not only part of NATO and the EU, it’s also leading the way in the cyber world and has attracted attention as the world’s first paperless government.

E-Stonia by barb

Café Moskva is one of the trendiest places in Tallinn’s 14th century old town. With its mix of retro-soviet charm and minimalist design it’s a popular hangout for young Estonians meeting for coffee, enjoying Mediterranean-Baltic fusion meals – or just checking emails.

Jan is a 33-year old architect and doing just that: checking his emails and making a few online payments. Internet is a basic need, he says, just like food and water.

"I need it everywhere, I have internet at home, at both work places. If I’m going to the sauna or skiing of course I don’t have it, but if I’m by car or public transport I always have it."

Just like Jan - more than 60 % of Estonians do all their banking online, and use the internet to do their taxation and other administrative tasks. And even if you don't have internet at home getting online is easy. Pubs, hotel lobbies and gas stations all have wireless internet access and the entire old town of Tallinn has become a WIFI area.

Quite a remarkable high tech transformation for this Baltic country where not long ago you could wait up to four years for a telephone line to be installed. Today Estonia has the same rate of internet usage as Germany, even though the country is still far behind economically.

So, how was this possible? Ivar Tallo one of the driving forces behind Estonia’s internet revolution, identifies several factors:

1. The size - Estonia is small, so it was comparatively easy to introduce the new so called ICT technologies.

2. The end of communism and the sudden change from one system to another also facilitated the introduction of new technologies.

3. The geographic proximity to high-tech Scandinavia was also crucial.

4. The strong political will of Estonia's leaders.

This was probably most important, says Ivar Tallo:

"Estonia is in this ICT a very good example how politics matters. Politics is something dirty and it doesn’t matter. But we cant find any other explanation that the fact that the Estonian government has always prioritized ICT development and not only in words but also backing up with real resources having 1% of the budget over the past 10 years spent on ICT."

Tallo points to a map covered with little dots illustrating all the public internet access points throughout Estonia. Today there are more than 700 such points were Estonians can access the internet free of charge.

But the IT hype doesn’t stop there.

Just a stone throw away from the Café Moskva, in the castle above the medieval town, Estonia's government ministers are deep in discussion during their weekly Thursday meeting. In a beautiful vaulted room overlooking Tallin’s cobbled streets one thing is striking about these meetings: the lack of paper.

The minister are hunched over the flat screens of their silver PCs, making online comments that are beamed to a big screen across from the Prime Minister. The cabinet members are not carrying heavy loads of paper, as all the documents and briefing notes have been prepared electronically, easy to share.

Tex Vertman was one of the government’s first IT advisors and says these online cabinet sessions save the government a lot of time – and money.

"Cost is important and the Estonian government saves annually approximately 200-300.000 Euros only for the copying of the papers, plus human work, time and if some minister can’t participate in a meeting then they can virtually participate in the meeting from another country."

There are many advantages to this e-government, says Ivar Tallo who’s even created an e-governance academy. It raises the efficiency of the government and of the state bureaucracies. It makes the decision making process more transparent to the citizens and also facilitates access to information.

But what about the drawbacks? Ivar Tallo admits that one shouldn’t ignore the dangers:

"The more information we have online by necessity the more danger there is for the identity theft. But we can’t really stop using electricity because someone put his fingers into the electrical wires and gets killed. Yes theses things happen and precautions have to be taken. How many people get killed by cars every year and still we buy and build cars. so, the electronic world it is similar in that sense: if you are careful, if you follow the procedures - it is safe."

So internet savvy Estonians will continue to defend their place in Europe’s cyber elite. The Baltic country is planning to introduce e-voting where anyone can vote from anywhere providing they have access to a computer and the internet. Tallo doubts that this will increase voter participation, but it might attract young people and at least avoid a vote decrease.

Friday, 18 August 2006

Belgrade's nightlife floats on the Danube

In summertime, many clubs close their downtown venues and move to floating rafts -- or splavs as they're called here.

Hundreds of them line the majestic confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava, offering everything from Gypsy music to electronic beats, grunge or so-called turbo-folk -- a distinctly Serbian mixture of sentimental lyrics and disco beats.

A typical Belgrade night out starts at a main location, with subsequent after parties -- and even after-after parties. Ending up at a café or someone's house at seven in the morning is not uncommon. But people usually just go with the flow, says party goer Tobias.

"We go out pretty much every night," Tobias says. "You go to lots of places in one evening and just float from one to another. People come and people go."

Serbs have to work hard to party hard

With an average income in Serbia of 300 Euros ($385) a month, it seems difficult to fathom how people manage to sustain such a social life.

Darko, a UN worker in Belgrade, says some people have relatives abroad. Working two to three part-time jobs is not unusual, either.

"There is also a sort of grey market, which means people are dealing with unofficial business," Darko says. "I think the salaries are also picking up in the private sector."

But not everyone is working in the private sector and unemployment, especially among young people, is over 20 percent.

"We've been going through really rough times for the past 15 years," Darko says. "I think it's some sort of filter to try to party and forget about the past. Live in the present. It's a culture of people enjoying life and not working very much."

Partying as a means of escape

Many people say this never-ending nightlife very much reflects a generation that has grown up in times of war, without many values. It is a generation looking to escape reality.

"People feel a bit alienated from the political establishment. It's hard to find jobs, and so having places to go out at night becomes an important means to escape," Tobias says.

"You can lead quite a nocturnal existence in Belgrade," he says. This would be hard to do in a city where everybody has jobs.

A social career in Belgrade requires the right outfit

Belgrade has very specific rules for dressing up for a night out on the town. Party goer Ana says you have to pay close attention to attire.

"Each layer of society has its own rules, whether it's bling with lots of jewels and minimal clothes with everything exposed for the girls. Or if it's alternative, asymmetrical haircuts - then you just stand around drinking very smartly, smoking very smartly and looking very serious, because you can't look foolish. If you want to make some kind of social career in Belgrade, you have to be very cool."

Finding the right tune for the night

Every boat showcases a different style and it's important to know your music.

"It's not like there's one predominant style. You can do turbo, you can do grunge punk things or you can do quite sophisticated. There's just everything there," says David. "There's a tremendous variety."

The floating nightclub called Plastic Jam is known for its electro, house and techno. With the minimalist wooden design, the stylish long bar, the young people sipping cocktails and grooving to the beats -- this club could very much be in New York, Paris or London.

While many of the floating nightclubs on Belgrade's Danube riverfront play music you would hear anywhere in the world, some people think it's difficult to have a good party without Serbian turbo-folk.

The music with its electronic beats and oriental influence is catchy and extremely popular.

The Serb lifestyle has to include music

Serbia has undergone a lot of changes since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic back in 2000. But turbo-folk star Dzej says this hasn't impacted the party scene.

"We lived like this under Milosevic and we continue living like this without Milosevic. People in Serbia just like music. They will give their last money for music. That's how we live and that's how we are."

But Bane, a former DJ and self-proclaimed music expert, says ideology was behind turbo-folk in the 1990s.

"It was more than just music, people would associate it with crime, nationalism and power. Nowadays, although being popular, it doesn't carry this ideology any longer -- although it will probably never completely lose it."

For Dzej, Serbia's partying habits are evidence that the country will never completely be part of Europe.

"Serbs have a different soul and a different type of life. You can ban everything to Serbs, but you can not ban them from partying and having a good time."

Belgrade Nightlife by barb

Monday, 14 August 2006

Estonia cashes in on booze cruises

Alcohol has long been an expensive commodity in Scandinavia. As a result, shopping expeditions abroad in search of cheap alcohol is a time-honored tradition in this part of the world. Norwegians travel to Sweden, Swedes to Finland and Finns to Estonia to load up on cheap booze.

It‘s not a tradition that the respective governments endorse: they’re concerned about increasing rates of alcoholism, hence the high rate of tax on alcohol to begin with. And so, when Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, Finland was worried that alco-tourism across the Baltic Sea would increase -- even though the Helsinki government had lowered its alcohol taxes by more than 30 percent. But has this measure been successful in stopping vodka tourism? And what’s been the impact on Estonia? I traveled to the Estonian capital and found out more at the port of Tallinn.

Booze Cruises in Estonia by Aventures

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