Estonia is hailed as one of post-Communism's success stories but is this correct? BHHRG went to see and monitored the parliamentary election held in the republic on 2nd March 2003.
The small Baltic republic of Estonia has been hailed as a bastion of democracy and one of the economic success stories of post-communism. In the present year, 2003, the Heritage Foundation concluded that it has the sixth freest economy in the world, thus putting it ahead of France and Germany! Such fulsome approval has, no doubt, contributed to the fact that the country is now poised to enter both NATO and the EU. In November 2002, Estonia became one of seven new ex-Communist countries to be invited to join the alliance, along with Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria. Estonia is also among the top contenders for membership in the European Union. Referendums to endorse membership of both organizations will be held later in 2003.
However, as with the other Baltic states, there is another, darker side to the story. For example, like, its neighbour Latvia, Estonia has a large population of ethnic Russians who are both economically disadvantaged and effectively disenfranchised, although, unlike Latvia, Estonia does at least permit its Russian minority to participate in local elections. Otherwise, Russians can only vote in parliamentary elections if they have Estonian citizenship - something only available to those born in the republic between 1920 and 1940 (during Estonia’s interwar independence) and their descendents or, alternatively, if they pass various exams, including a language test. From the Finno-Ugraic family, Estonian is notoriously recondite and difficult language with precious little relationship to any other tongue in the world. International organizations like the OSCE and Council of Europe have been remarkably relaxed about what appears to be a serious breach of human rights and democracy in the Baltics’ treatment of its Russian minorities compared, say, with the pressure they exert on Turkey which is constantly admonished for discriminating against its minority Kurdish population – in particular, the failure to afford the Kurds greater linguistic rights.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that Estonia’s troubles were solely connected with its Russian minority. All three Baltic States have other problems too, including declining populations, unemployment, teenage crime and drug addiction. The truth is that organizations like the Heritage Foundation, cocooned from reality in their Washington duplexes, have no idea what life on the ground is like in any of the former Communist countries when they (preposterously) accord marks out of ten for progress towards a free market.
BHHRG has visited Estonia twice in recent months. Unlike other accession countries, it is reported to have a strong Eurosceptic constituency so, in October 2002, prior to the Copenhagen EU meeting when a formal invitation for the country to join the union was issued, the Group’s representatives travelled to Tallinn, Tartu and Narva to gauge opinion on the EU. This visit was followed up in Spring 2003 when BHHRG sent observers to Estonia’s parliamentary election held on 2nd March, 2003. Voters chose from a nationwide total of 963 candidates to fill the 101-seat national parliament, the Riigikogu, with 11 political parties registered and a handful of independents competing. Since the last parliamentary election in 1999, Estonia had adopted a new electoral system in accordance with the Riigikogu Election Act, passed on 12th June, 2002, and implemented on 18th July, 2002.
Like other post-communist countries in both Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with a strong rural base, agriculture has all but collapsed in Estonia. Vast tracts of formerly cultivated land now lie destitute, surrounded by the decaying infrastructure of the former collective farms – cattle sheds, barns and management facilities. The situation is at its bleakest in the Russian-populated regions in the east of the country. There, one can see numerous small, wooden houses boarded up and abandoned by their owners long gone in search of a better life either in towns like Narva or to Russia itself.
The collapse of the collectives has brought with it the disintegration of social networks. Many rural people in Estonia now live in small, isolated communities often comprising a few homesteads eking out a living by subsistence farming. The disintegration of their previous social arrangements means that people have difficulty forming the kind of groups and associations needed to breath life into the workings of a modern democracy. Inevitably, this means that politics is conducted by small cliques many of which drift from one indistinguishable party to another. Civil society lies still-born in much of Estonia.
Despite a public commitment to and fierce pride in its independence, combined with a frequently stated fear of occupation by larger neighbours, Estonia has managed to sell more or less everything of value to foreign buyers – its banks, daily newspapers top phone companies and stock market. While it has attracted some investment in high-tech industry - Finland’s Nokia mobile phone company has built a factory in the country, there is much industrial blight; the problem is that this kind of investment ultimately creates few jobs. BHHRG also found that Estonia’s reputation as a thriving Internet center was totally undeserved as it proved impossible to get on line in hotels across the country, even those catering to foreign visitors.
BHHRG’s representatives concluded that significant social and economic problems plagued the republic. In July last year, the Estonian news agency ETA reported that statistics compared during an AIDS conference in Barcelona revealed that Estonia had “bypassed the other Baltic states as well as Russia in the number of HIV-positive people per 100,000 citizens and is comparable to the African countries.” Addicted intravenous drug users (there are reportedly between 12,000 to 15,000 drug users in the country) made up 85% of newly diagnosed HIV-positive cases, and Estonia was second in the world after Russia in the percentage of intravenous drug users.
The population of Estonia has continued to decline, dropping two percent since the previous parliamentary elections in 1999 to roughly 1.35 million. State incentives for child-bearing have dried up, and the state-provided child allowance now stands at $11 per month, the same level as in 1997. Clearly the exodus of inhabitants abroad in search of income opportunities, a trend already long visible in other ex-Communist countries, applies particularly to Estonia. BHHRG’s representatives visited the towns of Paldiski in the west and Narva in the east and encountered significant depopulation. In Paldiski, BHHRG was told that there were c. 4,000 inhabitants in the town, down from around 10,000 since the mid-1990s when thousands of Russians left with their families. Roughly 1,600 out of the 4,000 were Estonians, the rest Russian. Paldiski was once home to the largest and most prestigious submariners’ academy in the USSR. When this closed, a large number of Paldiski’s residents lost their livelihoods and left. Many of Paldiski’s buildings, including the submariners’ institute, stand abandoned and empty, stripped of everything including the glass in the windows. On polling day, the election commission chairman in Paldiski told BHHRG that unemployment was a chronic problem causing a lot of people to leave, but that a lot of single mothers had moved to Paldiski to occupy vacated apartments because they could obtain them for free. She said roughly 60-65 out of 100 marriages now ended in divorce in Estonia, a sharp increase since the Soviet times.
In Narva, on the border with the Russian Federation, BHHRG’s representatives spoke with its ethnic Russian inhabitants. The central complaint of younger people was their difficulty in finding work – even short-term summer jobs. They also said that their parents were often forced to do menial jobs as there was no work for people with professional qualifications. They complained that there was “nothing for the youth to do,” and hence there were a lot of young drug addicts and a “huge problem with narcotics” in the area, and that kompot (a cheap, synthetic form of heroin) was a “big favourite” among drug users. In October 2002, BHHRG almost tripped over used syringes near Narva castle, yards away from the border crossing with Russia. Others confirmed that drugs came in from Russia on a regular basis. Narva’s municipal authorities had promised the city’s residents cinemas, discos, etc. – but none had materialized. People also told BHHRG of the numerous advertisements in the newspapers inviting young women to become prostitutes.