OPINION

Letter from Tallinn

Ivar Raig, Dean of the Economics Department at the University Audenter Mainor in Tallinn, Estonia – a country once locked behind the Iron Curtain – was unusually blunt: «Estonia currently has one of the freest economies worldwide,» he said. «And this is endangered by joining the European Union.» I talked to this prominent euroskeptic at a coffee break during the Ninth International conference on «Estonia and the European Union» a few days ago in Tallinn – one of the few places in Europe where the aura of the 14th and 15th century is so glamorously intact in its magnificently preserved old town. However, it seems as if not many Estonians share Professor Raig’s views on the EU, as this most northerly of the three Baltic countries – the smallest and most westernized – is approaching the final phase of its journey to the European Union: the signing of its membership agreement next year in Thessaloniki during the Greek EU presidency. For several years, Estonia’s two most important goals concerning foreign policy have been membership of both the European Union and NATO. Throughout its history, this Baltic state – slightly bigger than the Peloponnese – has repeatedly had to pay the price for being alone at the fateful moment. In 1939 Stalin and Hitler agreed that the Soviet Union would annex Estonia together with Latvia and Lithuania. The Nazi forces that invaded the region in July 1941, meeting determined resistance from the population, surrendered in their turn to the Red Army in September 1944. On the 50th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – August 23, 1989 – some 2 million people formed a now-legendary human chain stretching from northern Tallinn to southern Vilnius in Lithuania calling for secession. Incidentally, huge numbers of people gathered in Estonia to sing previously banned national songs and to demonstrate their desire for freedom. Most extraordinarily, following this «singing revolution» – as it has been brand-named since – came the demands for economic self-management. On August 20, 1990, Estonia declared full independence, which was promptly recognized by the western world and, more importantly, accepted – albeit reluctantly – by the USSR on September 6, 1991. After 1992, when annual inflation ran at 100 percent (currently it is below 5 percent) and in a period where the economy was shrinking by 15 percent a year, the country successfully pulled itself out of the Soviet wreckage. Meanwhile, for many, especially the young, the Soviet era is an increasingly distant memory. Only the reincarnation of a fashionable, newly opened cafe which bears the name of «Moskva» reminds people of the «bad old days.» «Today we need not be so worried about the loss of our identity or the danger to our sovereignty upon accession to the European Union… The sovereignty of Estonia in terms of the 21st century is the EU. Belonging to the union allows us, owing to the fast development of our economy, to make greater investments in education, culture and protection of our national heritage,» Mr Toomas Savi, president of the Parliament, declared last Thursday. The country’s GDP, proudly growing at a rate of more than 5 percent, makes Estonia the leading country in terms of preparation for accession. With only 1.4 million people, it has reacted quickly and most positively to the demands placed upon it by the EU, simultaneously opening its economy and developing new technologies to such an impressive degree that when it will become a full member, in 2004, Estonia will be required to «go back» and reimpose tariffs it had previously abolished. Still, support for accession among the population – whose lifestyle is now approaching western levels (though costs for the traveler are not yet as prohibitive as elsewhere) – is still found to be over 40 per cent. All the same, what does «Aunt Maali» (the «Kyra-Katina» of Greece) know of the division of competence between the EU and the member states? Well, probably as little as her Greek counterpart: by now she surely knows that nothing depends on her, that she does not need to know or understand anything. She suspects though that she should, at any event, hurry up. Mihkel Mutt, editor of a local cultural weekly, elaborates: «The history of Estonians as a nation has been the history of catching up with the others. Now, after the end of the Russian occupation, our country is once again catching up with the world. Failing to remember the lost paradise, our people strive towards a vague notion of paradise!» Now, could this possibly be the EU? Well, if not for Professor Ivar Raig then surely so for Mrs Kristiina Ojuland, the stupendous-looking Minister of Foreign Affairs, an able young politician in her early 30s holding an important position in a very young goverment. The newly appointed minister of culture, Margus Allikma, whom I met at a theater premiere party where he had no security guards to bother and escort him, is 42, while the minister of defense, Sven Mikser, is only 28. One of the most youthful aspects of such a young country is the nation’s Internet prowess. After an interview with the early-40-ish looking Estonian prime minister – for a documentary for ERT3 TV – Siim Kallas led me to the minister’s council room, where he proudly demonstrated one of Estonia’s symbols: «the paperless-laptoped-e-government.» A recent international survey showed that Estonia and Taiwan are the top nations in the world in what is called e-climate. Virtually all Estonians have access to the Internet, and the country leads the ex-communist bloc in per capita mobile phone use and Internet banking. Yet local euroskeptics fear that more red e-tape might be the consequence of a gargantuan, dramatically and unavoidably bureaucratic 25-membered union. «Sure enough, we are also concerned about being culturally homogenized,» I was told by a young actor at the Sunnipaev (the birthday party of the admirably avant-garde VonKrahl Theater). “The trouble is people know so little about Estonia. Many think we are almost Russians, others consider us Scandinavian. Some put us close to the Germans,» he added. «During the singing revolution a popular song of the time declared ‘what pride and wonder it is to be an Estonian’,» according to Andrei Hrostov, a freelance journalist. «A Russian finding himself amongst an alien nation asks himself ‘why aren’t they like us?’ An Estonian, on the other hand, struggles with the question ‘why don’t they know anything about us?’,» he says. However, beware of calling the Estonians’ a beautiful country – comprising 40 percent forestland – or «cute» or «tiny.» The Estonians will immediately point out that EU members Denmark and Belgium are geographically smaller while EU-hopefuls Malta and Cyprus have even smaller populations. They insist that «small is beautiful» and they are right.