A man busking in the shade, a charming archway ... Going through my archives, this picture looked so familiar that I thought I'd already shown it here on Worldcrunch. But I was actually thinking of a different photograph that I took, as luck would have it, during the same tour of the Baltic states, in neighboring Riga.
With Britain missing its turn for the European Union presidency in light of Brexit, the rotating six-month duty has fallen into Estonia's lap earlier than planned.
Until the end of the year, the northernmost Baltic country will lead the EU through a complicated period: On top of difficult divorce negotiations between Britain and the 27-nation bloc, Estonia will also oversee talks on the Russian Nordstream 2 gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea to Germany, an issue over which several diverging interests are likely to face off in Europe.
But Estonia's priorities lie elsewhere: As one of the planet's most tech-savvy countries, the ex-Soviet nation now wants "to give a strong push toward creating a digital Europe." An important part of this ambitious plan is making free movement of data the EU's fifth freedom (after persons, goods, services and capital), with an aim to boost cross-border digital commerce and services and facilitate the daily lives of Europeans.
More than 22,000 foreigners have already become e-residents.
Estonia is a pioneer in e-government. On its website e-estonia.com, the country boasts that citizens can vote without leaving their homes, file their tax returns online in five minutes, sign official documents with a digital ID-card and even register a business in just 18 minutes. Speaking to the Financial Times, Prime Minister Juri Ratas said this avoided the equivalent of an "Eiffel Tower" of paperwork every month.
The pinnacle of Estonian digitization is its e-residency initiative. With a few clicks and 100 euros ($110), anyone in the world can become an Estonian e-resident, even if they never even set foot in the country. And as it faces a quickly aging population, the government is keen to attract entrepreneurs and highly-qualified workers from abroad.
More than 22,000 foreigners have already become e-residents, including more than 1,000 Britons who are worried about the consequences of Brexit. A sign, perhaps, of the (future) times.
In 2001, Estonia became the first former Soviet country to win Eurovision. The annual song contest had become quite popular there after its first participation in 1994 and has always been since then. So much so that, in 2009, when Estonia said it would withdraw from the contest, set to be held in Moscow during to the ongoing Russo-Georgian War, the national broadcaster ERR announced it would still send an artist to perform in Russia due to public demand.
Six years later, the country will be represented by the duo Elina Born and Stig Rästa. Elina says she was first contacted by Stig, a popular singer in Estonia, when she was in class. A Facebook message from him popped up saying he enjoyed her voice when he saw this expand=1] video, and the young woman started crying.
They will perform “Goodbye to Yesterday”, a song about — from what we gather — a couple fighting because the guy didn’t wake the girl up when leaving.
Does it make you want to visit that country? 4.25/10
Was there enough glitter? 2.5/10
Ok to quit your day job? 5.75/10
OVERALL AVERAGE: 4.2/10
TALLINN - It’s 4 p.m., and night is already falling on Tallinn. The wind is freezing. Covered in snow, the old Soviet military barracks located on the outskirts of Estonia’s capital city look like the set of a Cold War movie.
Uniformed soldiers occasionally cross the courtyard. You almost expect James Bond to suddenly come around the corner of one of the three buildings on the site that in 2008 became the headquarters of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence.
The flags of the 11 members flutter in the central court. Behind the thick walls of the barracks, experts simulate cyber-attack scenarios and ways of fighting back. The existence of the center and its location in Estonia bears witness to the new status of the little Baltic state on the outer rim of Europe. Since it was the victim of major data pirating in 2007, ostensibly orchestrated by its big neighbor Russia, the country has built state-of-the-art expertise in computer security.
In addition to cyber defense, Estonia, which is the birthplace of Skype, is one of most connected countries in the world. You only need to stroll through the streets of Tallinn to take stock of this – Wi-Fi has been available everywhere – free – for a decade. Third generation (3G) Wi-Fi is available throughout the country, in the cities as well as in the rural areas. A third of the country is already covered by 4G. In Tallinn, it’s not unusual to see people pay for their parking space with their smart phone.
By 2015, the former USSR satellite state will be in a position to provide 100mb/second connections to the entire population. The EU objective is to attain this by 2020 when it is expected that no more than about half the total population of the member countries will be using it. Yet in Estonia, “Internet access is considered as a basic right, like access to water and electricity,” says Indrek Vinberg, the young director of the new technologies demonstration center in Tallinn.
The richness of its technological infrastructure has made Estonia a pioneer in terms of e-government. Introduced in 2000, electronic tax filing has become the norm. “Ninety-four percent of Estonians file online,” says Minister of the Economy and Telecommunications Juhan Parts, adding that this has made paying taxes “almost fun.”
The country has been using electronic ID cards since 2002, and this is the real keystone of the system. The card makes it possible to access various public services on the web (social security, police, education, etc.) with the guarantee that the different government portals and their data are safe and protected. Tallinn’s residents can also use the card as a transportation card. It is also a voter registration card for those opting to vote via Internet, which 24% of citizens did during the 2011 legislative elections.
Teaching coding from primary school
It is not surprising in this context that the new EU Agency for Large-Scale Information Systems, charged with managing the second generation Schengen Information System and supporting management of European immigration policies, has officially been headquartered in Tallinn since Dec. 2012, while maintaining a base of operations in Strasbourg. This is a real source of pride for Estonia, which has been a EU member since 2004 and converted to the euro last year.
“The importance given to e-government was a decisive factor in the decision to set up here,” acknowledges Krum Garkov, the Bulgarian executive director of the agency.
The resolutely high-tech profile of the little Baltic state is part of its heritage as a former Soviet bloc country. After the USSR imploded, Estonia – who had hardly ever been independent – had to rebuild itself from scratch. And this was a real opportunity say the country’s leaders.
“Being such a small country, after the Soviets left there were too few people to administer it effectively,” recalls Estonian President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves, who has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. “So we opted to make up for the lack of human resources through automatization.”
As the country’s leaders in the early 1990s tended to be young and high-tech aware, they decided to invest massively in new technologies, a public sector initiative that was rapidly imitated by the private sector. Banks and telecom operators also invested in building new technology infrastructure. “Being a ward of the Soviet Union for several decades made it possible for us to train a competent generation of engineers and mathematicians, which turned out to be very useful after independence,” says Minister of the Economy and Telecommunications Juhan Parts.
The government introduced computer and new technologies training in schools, starting in primary school, to better prepare Estonians for the new economy. In 1996, the Ministry of Education launched the Tiger Leap foundation to equip every school in the country with computers and get them connected to the Internet – a mission that was accomplished just a few years later. Today, the foundation promotes computer-programming training. At the Gustav Adolf School in Tallinn, for instance, children from six through high school age learn programming basics, which are taught as games.
“The training is crucial for this generation, who often know how to use a computer before they learn to read,” says Valdur Parasin, a French teacher at this school that counts the inventors of Skype among its former students.
“The training helps children with their math and logic as well,” adds Kristi Rahn, a computer science teacher. The private sector also plays a role in the education of young Estonians. After creating partnerships with companies like IBM and Microsoft, the Tiger Leap foundation is turning to the increasing numbers of Estonian high tech companies. The objective is for these companies to come to the schools to explain what they do to, awaken interest in a career in new technologies, and attract future talent.
You don’t need to go very far to find a good model. The success of Skype, sold to eBay in 2004 and then to Microsoft in 2012, has inspired a whole generation of students and young web entrepreneurs. Grabcad, which specializes in 3D printing, is one of the latest Estonian success stories. “The start-up ecosystem is booming in Tallinn,” says Enn Saar, who works for telecom firm Elion. “It’s great for the country. In the early 2000s, companies were afraid of a brain drain, of young high tech talent leaving for abroad. Today we’re seeing the opposite: Estonians wanting to develop their business here.” The country is drawing foreigners as well. The Swedish bank Swedbank recently set up a division charged with managing IT in the whole Baltic region.
Recruitment isn't easy
Several IT hubs have been created these past few years in the Estonian capital. Here too the Soviet past turned out to be a source of new opportunities. Many start-ups have elected to set up in the Ulemiste district, where during the Cold War the Dvigatel factory employed around 10,000 workers to make parts and munitions for the Red Army. The buildings, looking just as sinister as they did back then, are still standing – only now all you hear is the click-click of hundreds of blue-jean clad developers and webmasters typing on their keyboards.
The government is aware of the formidable potential of this new economy. In 2010, it created a cluster to help export Estonian know-how in new technologies and to expand the sector, which accounts for about 15% of GDP. In 12 years, research and development investment has gone from 0.9% to 2.3% – something that will help get the country’s economy back on track – it is expected to show growth of a little over 3% in 2013 after having plunged by 15% in 2009 during the crisis.
The main challenge for this country – with its population of almost 1.3 million – is to keep growing. Yet despite all the efforts in education and training, companies have a hard time finding the personnel they need to develop. Skype, which employs more than 500 people in Tallinn, finds it difficult to grow its local teams.
“It’s one of the limitations of our model,” notes Enn Saar. ”You couldn’t, say, hire 3,000 software developers in a year here.”
And this, says one computer industry representative, may be the limits of the place. “Estonia is a fantastic place to nurture ideas. Unfortunately, it remains difficult to grow a company and move to the next level.”
The small Baltic nation was caught between Soviet and Nazi ambitions, and Estonian members of SS units are remembered by some for staving off the Red Army. But others can't forget that some 1,000 Estonian Jews, 250 Roma and 7,000 Christians were
BERLIN - Though still vague on details, plans are once again afoot in Estonia to posthumously honor as "freedom fighters' those who served in Estonian units of the Waffen SS, an armed wing of the Schutzstaffel police squadrons.
Similar past initiatives, which nationalists say are meant to pay tribute to those who pushed back the Soviet army, have failed. But new draft legislation to honor the Estonian SS members is being drawn up, and is expected to be introduced into the Estonian Parliament in March.
In Germany, the project has been met with outrage. The Berlin Tageszeitung, a left-leaning paper, warns of "beatifying the SS," and reminds readers that the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the Baltic SS units as being part of the Nazi "structure of blood and death."
Despite such reflexes, it is worth taking a closer look at the Estonian initiative --for it is not an attempt to justify mass murder, but rather an understandable motion in the context of the small Baltic nation's history. After all, after 200 years as a Czarist colony, Estonia only won independence after the First World War. It then came under Russian – this time Soviet – influence again in 1939, was then occupied by the Germans from 1941 to 1944, and finally from 1944 to 1991 by the Soviet Union.
Estonia and the other two Baltic countries, Lithuania and Latvia, had been independent for about two decades when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed their Non-Aggression Pact in 1939. Secretly agreed on by Stalin and Hitler was the fact that the Soviet Union would get the Baltic states as long as it remained true to the pact, and Germany would get Western Europe.
Less than a year later the Red Army annexed the three countries and "sovietized" them brutally and immediately. Ten thousand Estonians were displaced, hundreds tortured and murdered. The national freedom movement in Estonia, which formed immediately after the Soviet annexation, was hardly in a position to do much to counter the powerful Russian army.
Then on June 22, 1941, the German army attacked what until then had been its partner in the pact, and within a few weeks German soldiers had chased the Russian army out of Estonia and occupied it. Initially, the Germans were greeted as liberators, until it became clear relatively quickly that the Baltic states would in no way be getting back their independence.
The new Reichskommissariat Ostland was formed to oversee the three countries, which had the right to limited self-government at the hands of Baltic functionaries who were loyal to the Nazis. In Estonia, this took the form of a "directorate" led by Hjalmar Mäe. However, significant decision-making power, primarily about inland security, remained in the hands of the Germans.
The Holocaust began in the Baltics at the same time as the occupation by German troops. As Estonia is the northern and easternmost of the three small nations, Jews here had the best chances of getting away. About three-fourths of the country's small number of Jews either got out with withdrawing Red Army soldiers or fled via Finland.
The thousand or so remaining people who, according to Nazi criteria, were considered Jews were murdered, mainly by Task Force 1a under the orders of Martin Sandberger, who until his death in March 2010 was the last former top SS functionary alive. At the 1942 Nazi Wannsee Conference, Estonia was pronounced "Jew-free" after the killing of 963 people.
The involvement of Estonian leaders and military and police units in Nazi crimes was thoroughly researched by the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity created in the 1990s by then Estonian President Lennart Meri. Despite the lack of sources, the knowledge accumulated is fairly substantial.
Along with some one thousand Estonian Jews, during the German occupation at least 250 Roma and six to seven thousand Estonian Christians were killed. The occupation regime also supported the killings of some 10,000 of other nationalities in the sense that work camps for Jews were established on Estonian soil, along with internment camps for Soviet prisoners of war.
The Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity tried to find out how Estonians had been involved in specific crimes, but discovered that the information in files from Soviet court cases after 1945 was far from reliable. What was established with certainty was that between 1,000 and 1,200 Estonians in the Omakaitse – "Home Guard" – took part in criminal activity.
Furthermore, several regular police units were deployed as security in Jewish ghettos in occupied Poland, and were involved in brutally clearing out those ghettoes as part of the objective of annihilating Jews in concentration camps.
Men in these units were also used as security personnel inside Estonia and other places outside it, for example Belarus. In the summer of 1942, the Estonian 36th Police Battalion took part in what was described as "fighting partisans," but was in actuality another German-style genocidal campaign.
In 1942-43, large numbers of those in Estonian police units were taken up first in the "Estonian Legion" and then in the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade. In early 1944, that unit was renamed the 20th Estonian SS Volunteer Division, which in turn, in May of the same year, became the 20th Armed SS Grenadier Division (Estonian Nr 1). They were deployed in the northern part of the Eastern Front to try to at least delay the forward march of the Red Army, and were mostly wiped out.
Reincarnated in October 1944, the unit belonged to the parts of the Waffen SS that defended East Prussia. It was dispatched to Silesia, managed to escape encirclement, but finally capitulated in Bohemia. Several hundred members fled to the West and after a while were able to go the United States as Displaced Persons.
Unfortunately all that remains of the records of this unit are three meager files in the German federal archives. There is a book about Estonians in the Armed SS, but it was written by an admirer of the military arm of the Himmler apparatus and published by a small, far-right-leaning publisher, so its contents should clearly be viewed with caution.
The argument underlying the initiative to honor SS members as freedom fighters, supported mainly by nationalist parties in Estonia, stems from their role in trying to hold the Red Army back in the first six months of 1944. The draft legislation should be put before parliament in Tallinn this March.
Read the original article in German
Photo - Eesti Filmiarhiiv
The Baltic republic has just become the euro zone's 17th member state, carrying low public debt and high hopes for its economy
Euros take over for Estonian crowns
BRUSSELS - On Jan. 1 Estonia officially abandoned its currency, the crown, to become the 17th European state -- and the first of the Baltic republics -- to adopt the euro.
It might look to some like a counterintuitive move, as the European currency zone is facing its worst crisis ever. But as other Eastern European countries have stalled and pushed back their membership, Estonia forged ahead. The country first tried to join the euro zone back in 2007, but had to postpone entry because its inflation was too high. For this small republic (1.3 million inhabitants), which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the obstacles the euro faced this past year don't seem to matter.
To start with, joining the euro is a political symbol. "The European currency will allow Estonians to erase a little more of the memory of the former Russian domination by joining the core of the EU," explained a high-ranking European official in Brussels.
But it also makes sense economically according to the Estonian Economy Minister Juhan Parts, who believes that switching to the euro is a logical step for a small economy opened to the world. "Eighty percent of our international trade is within the EU," said Parts. "The euro will help Estonian businessmen sell their products more easily and therefore create jobs."
For Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, joining the euro zone "will bring stability and an end to incompetent and even malicious speculation on devaluating the crown." Estonian citizens aren't overly excited about the transition but about half of the population favors the euro.
An open economy
The state of the country's economy, which quickly overcame the crisis, explains this relative serenity. Two percent growth for 2010 and 2.5% for 2011 are expected. In 2009, the GDP shrunk by 18%, but this deep crisis did not undo the "Baltic Tiger's' seven-year growth. Estonia managed to keep its exemplary financial situation: with a 1.3% budget deficit and a public debt under 10% of GDP this year, it fits perfectly within the Maastricht criteria and is effectively at the top the EU's rankings for economic health.
"Estonia is the opposite of Greece, with visceral aversion to public spending and civil service. They have made budgetary and financial discipline their trademark to inspire trust and attract foreign investments," says a Brussels official.
Since their independence, Estonians have tried to build an open and modern economy and tried to get rid of any Soviet heritage. For example, all teachers and professors are now under private contracts. They are also trying to build an e-democracy where cabinet meetings and press conferences are broadcast on the Internet.
Estonia is also ready to prove its solidarity. The country, which received an "A" rating from Standard and Poor's, will become a member the European Financial Stability Fund, created to help the weakest states. Indeed, it is one of the few countries that can boast a guarantee rate that is higher than its public debt!
Read the original article in French