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Estonia - People

The name "Eesti," or Estonia, is derived from the word "Aisti," the name given by the ancient Germans to the peoples living northeast of the Vistula River. The Roman historian Tacitus in the first century A.D. was the first to mention the Aisti, and early Scandinavians called the land south of the Gulf of Finland "Eistland," and the people "aistr." Estonians belong to the Baltic-Finnic group of the Finno-Ugric peoples, as do the Finns and Hungarians. Archaeological research supports the existence of human activity in the region as early as 8,000 BC but by 3,500 BC the principal ancestors of the Estonians had arrived from the east.

Estonian is the language of the Estonian people and the official language of the country. Estonian is one of the world's most difficult languages to learn for English-speakers: it has 14 cases, which can be a challenge even for skilled linguists. During the Soviet era, the Russian language was imposed for official use. The Estonian language, whose written alphabet uses Latin characters, belongs to the Balto-Finnic group of Finno-Ugric languages. As the name suggests, it is closely related to Finnish and more distantly to Hungarian. In September 1989, the parliament approved a law designating Estonian as the official language of the republic. At independence, more Estonians spoke Russian than vice versa. As would be expected, the share of Russian speakers increased from 50 to 59 percent between 1979 and 1989, while the share of Estonian speakers declined by 2.1 percentage points to 67.4 percent.

Literacy is nearly universal, and the population is considered well educated relative to the rest of the former Soviet Union. As of the 1989 census, 59 percent of the population ages 15 and over had completed secondary school, up from 47 percent in 1979. The share with completed higher education rose from 8 to 12 percent.

Estonians have strong ties to the Nordic countries today stemming from deep cultural and religious influences gained over centuries during Scandinavian colonization and settlement. This highly literate society places great emphasis upon education, which is free and compulsory until age 17. About 20% of the population belongs to the following churches registered in Estonia: Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Estonian Orthodox Church subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate, Baptist Church, Roman Catholic Church, and others.

Estonia's population as of 2010 was 1.340 million. According to 1989 census figures, Estonia had a population of 1,565,662. By 1994 this number had dropped to an estimated 1,506,927 as a result of negative natural growth rates and net out-migration beginning in 1990. Females outnumbered males by some 100,000 in 1991. Seventy percent of the population was urban. The birth rate in 1993 was 10.0 per 1,000 population, and the death rate was 14.0 per 1,000.

In 1934 Estonia had a population of 1,126,413. War losses and Soviet deportations brought that figure down to an estimated 850,000 by 1945. During the Soviet era, the population grew steadily, fueled largely by in-migration from other areas of the Soviet Union. During the 1950s and 1960s, net in-migration accounted for more than 60 percent of the total population growth. In recent years, net migration has reversed, with some 84,000 people, mostly Russians, having left between 1989 and 1993. In the mid-1990s, these trends were continuing, though more slowly. Since 1992 Estonia has been offering financial assistance to people wishing to resettle in Russia; in October 1993, it signed a treaty with Russia regulating repatriation and resettlement. According to public opinion polls conducted in 1993 and 1994, however, the vast majority of local Russians were not inclined to leave Estonia.

Tallinn, the capital, is the largest city, with about 479,000 inhabitants in 1989. Tartu, the second most populous city, had about 113,000 residents in the same year, and Narva, on the Russian border, had 81,000. Since the late 1980s, many place-names have had their pre-Soviet names restored. These include the Saaremaa town of Kuressaare (formerly Kingissepa) and some 250 streets throughtout the country.

In half century of occupation the demographics of the country changed dramatically. By one estimate, prior to annexation, the country‘s native people comprised 88 percent of the population. Upon regaining independence, they were down to 61 percent of the population and only half of the people lived in urban areas. From 1945-1989 the percentage of ethnic Estonians in Estonia dropped from 94% to 61% by another estimate, caused primarily by the Soviet program promoting mass immigration of urban industrial workers from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as well as by wartime emigration and Stalin's mass deportations and executions. Estonia's citizenship law and constitution meet international and OSCE standards, guaranteeing universal human and civil rights.

Longer life expectancy in the Nordic countries was more than offset by Estonia's higher fertility level. As a result, relative to the able-bodied population in 1989, there were more children and fewer senior citizens in Estonia than in either Finland or Sweden. Women make up 53 percent of Estonia's population, a somewhat higher share than in the Nordic countries. Estonia's population lagged well behind the two Nordic countries in terms of mortality and life expectancy! Infant mortality, a major component of overall mortality in Estonia, was 12.3 per 1,000 births in 1989.2 Even with understatement the official rate is twice as high as rates for Sweden and Finland.

Despite similarities in geography and climate, the distribution of the labor force in Estonia differs significantly from that in Finland and Sweden. The share of labor in agriculture was comparatively high, reflecting the low level of development in Estonia. Other differences reflect the impact of past Soviet development policy that favored industry and attached little importance to consumer services. Thus, at independence nearly a third of Estonian workers were employed in the industrial sector compared with less than one-fourth in the other countries. Relatively small shares were employed in trade and public dining and in financial institutions, and a comparatively small proportion of the labor force works in the service sector.

Russians were disproportionately represented in the higher paying sectors, such as industry and transport, while Estonians predominated in the lower paying sectors, such as health and education. This pattern, which was repeated throughout most non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union, was the result of the long-continued Soviet policy of sending highly skilled Russians to republics outside Russia in order to staff new industrial enterprises.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2014 18:57:32 ZULU