Estonia is a small country in Northern Europe bordering Finland, Sweden, Latvia and Russia. To the north and west, surrounded by the Baltic Sea and, along the east bordered by the Peipsi Lake, Europe`s 5th biggest lake, Estonia is one of the least populated countries in Europe and one that is full of natural beauty, having a territory of 45,000 km2, (the size of Denmark) but only 1.3 million inhabitants. There are plenty of unspoilt areas to retreat to along the main shoreline plus the 1500 islands, many of which are uninhabited, with the two main islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, being most popular. In addition, the forests and wetlands of middle Estonia or the hilly countryside on the south, where the highest point in the Baltics, proudly called Suur Munamägi (Big Eggmountain) 318 meters high, provide different environments for nature lovers. The weather is pleasant in summer, around 20-25 degrees C, but can be as cold as cold as -25 degrees C in January or February.
The Estonian language, belonging to the group Finno-Ugric languages, is closely related to Finnish and, with its 14 cases as with Finnish, can be a challenge. Russian is widely spoken as well, as only about 70 % of the population is Estonian with 30 % “Russian speaking “with actual Russians making up 25%. In some places, like the capital Tallinn or North-Eastern Estonia the percentage of non- Estonians is noticeably higher. The reason lies in our history. Ancient Estonian tribes have been living in the area since 9000 BC, but, with Christianity arriving in the 13th century via the crusaders, there began a long period of foreign rule, firstly German and Danish, then Swedish and Russian. Estonia first became an independent Republic in 1918, so this year we are celebrating our 100th anniversary of the Republic. De facto, of course the Soviet Union occupied Estonia after World War II, but de jure Estonia`s state continuity was preserved by the government in exile, recognized by many western governments, including the USA. Estonia regained its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course different rulers left their influence and imprint on the country and the people, but it was the Soviet occupation for almost 50 years with its resettlements of people of other areas of the Soviet Union that reduced the percentage of Estonians in their own country from 90% in 1939 to 61% in 1989.
Sometimes I have been asked, given all the history, how did Estonians manage to survive? Estonians feel very strongly about their heritage and traditions. I think that this unites the families to come together at Christmas and eat our traditional food of blood sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes or light the bonfires and celebrate Midsummer. The capital city of Tallinn, with its beautiful medieval old town, has 450,000 residents, but is empty of people, except tourists, on June 23rd as everybody leaves for the countryside to celebrate Midsummer with family and friends.
Every five years the whole country comes together to celebrate the Song and Dance Festival. The tradition goes back 150 years, when several, then male, choirs came together in the university city of Tartu to sing patriotic songs in peaceful protest against the tsarist Russian rule. Ever since, also during the Soviet times, every five years some 10,000 dancers and about 300,000 singers gather together at the Song Festival Grounds with over 100, 000 people watching and singing along. Estonians love to sing. There is a saying that where three Estonians come together, there is a choir. Perhaps you have heard of the Singing Revolution? In 1987-1991, hundreds of thousands gathered together for spontaneous Song Festivals to sing patriotic songs in protest against Soviet rule, demanding independence. The high point of the Singing Revolution was the “Baltic Chain” in August 1989, when about 2 million people formed a human chain of 675 kilometers from Tallinn to Vilnius, holding hands and singing.This sign of unity did much to help the fall of the Soviet control of our country.
Once you have strong identity and roots, you can build on it. And Estonia has done so in the last 27 years, being one of the fastest growing economies in Europe through the 1990s and 2000s. The GDP per capita has tripled from 1993 to 2017 and the average monthly salary has doubled in last 11 years. Estonia, a member of the EU and NATO since 2004, joined the Eurozone in 2011 and ranks highly in the Human development index, which weighs indicators such as income, education and life expectancy (30th in the world in 2018, in comparison, USA ranks 13th and Austria 20th). And in the PISA Test which measures the skills of 15-year old students, our students have caught up with the world front runners from Finland and even passed them in the category of science in 2015. Estonia also scores highly in international measurements of economic and civil liberties and press freedom. Known as a home of Skype, a free Internet communication tool for calls and chats, Estonia is one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. An e-government concept, developed in early 2000s, has resulted in 99% of public services being available online today. It is not a joke that you can register a company in Estonia in 10 minutes. We were the first country to hold elections over the internet in 2005 and currently around 30 % of Estonians vote online.
In 2014, Estonia introduced the unique in the world concept of e-residency, a transnational digital identity card that enables access to Estonian public e-services and therefore we are able to do business from anywhere in the world. The first e-resident of Estonia was the British journalist, Edward Lucas, and one of the last ones, in September 2018, was Pope Francis. Now, of course, not everything is perfect, there are plenty of challenges too: income levels, although rapidly growing, are still only about 70 % of EU average and the regional differences in incomes between the cities and the countryside particularly,remain a problem. The pensions for elderly are still too low and the inequality in pay for man and women too large, but holding together, like we do at our Song Festivals, these challenges are manageable. Estonia has come a long way in last quarter of the century, we just have to keep going.
Contributed by Maiemajak-Knöbl