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Estonia - Introduction

With just 1.3-million people, Estonia is one of Europe's smallest countries. As part of the great northern European plain, Estonia is extremely flat. It is essentially a low coastal country with average elevations of 160 feet (48.8 meters) in the northwest, and 320 feet (97.6 meters) in the southeast Haanja Uplands, which include the small mountain of Munamagi, at 1,040 feet (317.2 meters), the republic's highest point. Estonia's northern shore along the Gulf of Finland, called Glint, consists of deeply dissected limestone escarpments, providing for a large number of good natural harbors, including that of the capital city of Tallinn. Shallow riverbeds, combined with very flat terrain, lead to frequent spring flooding. As a result, bog land covers a substantial amount of the country.

Estonia has the connection of history that draws the attention of other countries. While the Danes, Germans, and Swedes were all conquerors, it was so far in the past (with the exception of the Nazi occupation, which most older Estonians look upon as more benign than Soviet rule) that all seems forgiven. In many respects Estonian culture has evolved with these other cultures — Lutheranism is the predominant religion, Estonian architecture reminds one of an old Danish or German town, and the independent, pragmatic, and often reserved nature of Estonians is far more reminiscent of the characteristics of their northernthan eastern neighbors. The Finnish tie is even closer, based mainly upon the linguistic similarity of the two nations. Finns have made large investments in Estonia, and more than a million Finnish tourists and shoppers visit Estonia each year, pumping millions of Finn Marks into the Estonian economy.

The other country with which Estonia’s history is so intertwined — Russia — does not enjoy so positive a status. Relations with Russia are strained for a variety of reasons, foremost the question of Russians still living in Estonia. Russia continuously asserts that Estonia persecutes these ethnic Russians through its naturalization laws that require language pro?ciency and a 5-year residence (which happen to be the same requirements of several European Union countries). Russians and Estonians work and live side by side in Estonia and while there is an occasional problem between members of the two nationalities, it is grossly exaggerated in the Russian press. It is an accurate assessment to say that most Russians are happy to be in Estonia — they enjoy a far higher standard of living and greater feeling of stability than do their brethren in Russia

The determination of the Estonians to regain their independence, lost since 1940, had been proclaimed by artist and future politician Heinz Valk in 1988: "One day we will win in the end!" ("Ükskord me võidame niikuinii!"). Indeed, when victory came, it was at a surprisingly low cost. Unlike Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia suffered no casualties in its independence struggle. Unlike Lithuania, Estonia was spared any direct economic blockade by Moscow. Unlike most secessionist campaigns, that of Estonia, like those of the other Baltic states, enjoyed the tacit support and acknowledgment of Western governments, which had not recognized the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union a half-century earlier and which supported their right to seek redress. The events of 1988-91 were in many ways a process of advancing step by step, keeping the pressure on a wavering Soviet Union and laying the groundwork for a leap to statehood.

In campaigning for independence, most Estonians were intent on escaping and reversing their Soviet past: years of stifling social and political rule, growing economic inefficiency and languor, cultural deprivation under a policy of Russification, and increasing environmental waste and destruction. This was the sentiment that came forth in the "singing revolution" of 1988, when Estonians gathered in large, peaceful rallies to sing their national songs and give voice to their pent-up frustrations. At the same time, the Estonians were equally intent on a future as an independent nation enjoying economic prosperity in a post-Cold War Europe.

In the mid-1990s, several years after independence, Estonia's past as a Soviet republic was proving itself a legacy that could not easily be put aside. The challenges Estonians faced included integrating a 500,000-strong Russophone population that was largely the product of Soviet-era immigration policy, as well as restructuring an economy that had been developed along impractical guidelines dictated by an overbearing center. The future, meanwhile, was not unfolding entirely as had been expected. The process of regaining prosperity by means of economic shock therapy was beginning to tear at the fabric of Estonian society, which, despite Soviet rule, had achieved a certain equilibrium since the 1960s. Widening gaps between the newly rich and the newly poor were putting a strain on the Estonians' erstwhile social cohesion.

On the diplomatic front, a new Europe and genuine Estonian sovereignty also were proving slow to materialize. Estonia's proximity to vast Russia was still a given, despite a desire to be rid of Russian influence once and for all. Post-Cold War Europe calculated its policies with an eye to the superpower to the east just as much as it had in the days when the Soviet Union was still intact. Still, as Estonia marked four years of independence in 1995, domestic peace and a measured pace of progress--the hallmarks of the independence struggle--had been maintained; these two factors offered the best guarantee of the country's continued advancement.

A country of only 1.3 million people, Estonia punches well above its weight in promoting international security. The Government sees joint security operations as a way of gaining valuable experience from (and scoring points with) the United States, but its participation also stems from a sense of obligation to western nations and NATO after Estonia regained its freedom from the USSR. In 2007 Estonia had nine percent of its land forces deployed abroad (all of which operate without any caveats), perhaps the highest level in NATO. For five months in 2007, Estonia's deployment percentage approached 14 percent, when Estonia provided an additional company for election security in Afghanistan.

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Page last modified: 23-03-2014 19:45:38 ZULU